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Who is a Jew?

Former chasid, current nonbeliever, lifelong Jew Shulem Deen to talk at Beth Sholom

Shulem Deen
Shulem Deen

Shulem Deen walked away from his life as a Skverer chasid almost a decade ago. He’s written about that move, which his heart and soul compelled him to make but that caused him deep pain, including the wrenching separation from his five children, in “All Who Go Do Not Return,” the memoir he published last year.

This year, Mr. Deen will talk about that book, and about his life since he wrote it, at Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck. (See box.) He will also talk about Jewish identity, a fashionable subject in many Jewish circles, and one on which he has thought a great deal.

Before he could get to that subject in a recent conversation, though, with memories stirred by this year’s noxious presidential election, Mr. Deen recalled how elections were held in New Square, in upstate New York, where he once lived.

He prefaced his story with the important disclaimer that the chasidic world might seem like an unbroken mass of black hats, black coats, black pants, white shirts, and black, white, or black-and-white beards to us, but it’s far from a monochromatic world, and that each group is discrete and different. All of it is insular, but some of it is far more closed off than other parts; “People in Satmar can barely read a newspaper, but in Flatbush they take accounting courses and go on to law school. They read newspapers.”

Despite the refusal of many — although not all — chasidic groups to support the state of Israel, it is incorrect to think that chasidim do not value the Jewish state. “In fact, their myopic concern for Israel is everything,” Mr. Deen said. Whether or not they support the state, they support the Jews who live there, and that feeling for other Jews outweighs other, more transient politics.

Something else that outsiders should keep in mind, he added, is that “the ultra-Orthodox world sees the civil government as being separate from their own values. They accept most things about it. They don’t care, the really insular part of that world, if an elected official is gay, or if the official is a woman. They don’t care if he is anti-abortion or pro-choice, or if a particular politician has a position on school prayer. That doesn’t register for them. Their interests are so specific, and they take their instructions from their leaders.

“When Hillary ran for the Senate in 1999, a huge portion of the chasidic world voted for her, in the interest of New Square,” Mr. Dean continued. “The Skverers had a long, strong relationship with her, because her husband commuted the sentences of four chasidic men.”

That brought him to his own story. “In New Square, I was told how to vote, and we were told that it was a duty to vote,” Mr. Deen said. “The first time I went to vote, I signed my name in the book.” In New York State, until just a few years ago, voters would sign their names in huge books, on pages that held years and years of their signatures, one for each election, going back to their very first one; probably a handwriting analyst could learn a great deal about how people change over time and how age affects signatures from those books.

Then, once voters had signed in, they’d wait for their own turn at the voting booth. Then they’d be ushered inside the booth, made dim by the curtain they’d close with a big red handle, and they would be confronted with levers. Rows and rows of levers. The offices were listed on the left, going across, and the party was listed on top, going down. Voters would pull the lever next to their candidate, and an X would appear in the box next to the name.

That means that to vote a party line, a voter just would pull all the levers going down a column. No thinking necessary. (And to be fair, the thinking should have been done before getting into the voting booth. It was a slow process. Lines could be long.)

Then voters would push the big red lever, which would respond with a satisfying thunk, and the booth would be available for the next voter.

“I signed the book, and I pulled the curtain shut, and then the curtain opens a little bit, and a hand reaches in and pulls all the levers down,” Mr. Deen said. “I turned around, absolutely stunned, and a man says, ‘I was just making it easier for you. There is a big line behind you. And what difference does it make, who pulls the lever?’”

There are more cautions to that story, Mr. Deen added. This happened in the 1990s. “I wouldn’t infer that this still goes on, or that it was standard practice even then,” he said. “And it doesn’t mean that the New Square leaders gave a ruling on it, or asked for it. But it absolutely did happen, and I infer that it was not the only time. There is such a disregard for the norms of civil laws and procedures, and of course no idea that they were doing something illegal.”

He talked a bit more about the myth that chasidim are anti-Israel. “They are supremely pro-Israel,” he said. “Not to Zionism, but to Israel, as a land that has serious problems with its neighbors. A significant segment of the ultra-Orthodox world votes with Israel in mind. They recognize that Israelis are Jews, and their lives need to be protected.”

What about Neturei Karta, the virulently anti-Israel group that demonstrates at such events as the Celebrate Israel parade that marches up Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, that sent members to a Holocaust denial conference in Iran, and proclaimed Yasir Arafat a hero? “Neturei Karta is the fringe of the fringe of the fringe of the Satmar community,” Mr. Deen said. “Satmar is on the ultra-conservative side of the conservative world, and it is fiercely anti-Zionist, but even the Satmar disapprove of Neturei Karta. It takes its inspiration from Satmar ideology, but the Satmar insist that their ideology never went that far.

“It’s not a splinter from Satmar because it never was part of it,” he said.

Mr. Deen also talked about his own relationship to Jewishness, which is both strong and paradoxical.

“There are many aspects to being Jewish,” he said. “Broadly, there is identity, and there are belief and practice, which are closely related but not the same thing, and there is community, which is detached from the rest of it.

“I think that there is a set of values within Jewish tradition that is not religious per se that I value.

“I think that one of the things I have always noticed as the starkest differences between the world I came from and the world I entered into was that the world I came from really contained exemplars of humanity, of human kindness, of generosity, and of hospitality,” he said. He talked about a friend. “If you say to him, ‘I have a problem. I have to move tomorrow,’ he says, ‘What’s the problem? Take my car!’ And if you say, ‘Don’t you need it?’ he says, ‘Of course I don’t need it if you need it!’

“Of course, these attitudes are only toward your own, but the willingness to give can easily be for someone you don’t know. If there is someone in the hospital, no matter if they’re Skverer or Satmar, you will visit them. And every morning in shul, you daven through the whole service, which takes about 30 minutes, and often every five minutes or so there are people going through the aisles collecting money. It may be for a good cause, it may be for not such a good cause, it may be for themselves, but people just routinely take out dollar bills and hand them out.

“Everyone has a limit. Maybe it’s one dollar, maybe it’s ten. But there is a feeling that if someone comes to you for money, you give it, because if they are asking for money, clearly they need it.

“It was baffling for me, moving into the outside urban world. The degree of apathy toward people all around us — you can’t walk down the street in Manhattan without seeing something, and the degree to which we don’t seem to care at all is extremely striking to me.

“There is a Jewish value in philanthropy. There can be incredible philanthropy in the Jewish world. But the idea that your resources are a blessing, and there to be shared with people who have less, is a Jewish value that I see a lack of in the larger Jewish community.”

That, he added, is just one example of Jewish values. “I can go through ‘Pirke Avot’” — the Ethics of the Fathers — “and find a bunch of things that are very valuable and come out of a long Jewish tradition,” Mr. Deen added. “These are intense values.”

So what about Jewish identity? It is a subject that touches Mr. Deen deeply. He is entirely Jewish, he said, but he grew up in a community where religious faith is everything, and now he has none. Where does that leave him?

“Identity is a funny thing,” he said. “There is a feeling of kinship in it. I don’t quite know what it is, but I know that it is there. I feel a kinship with my siblings that I can’t define or even articulate. It’s a closeness that you feel. Kinship with other Jews is like that for me. Not only is it undeniable, but it also feels like a desirable thing.”

But that “gets tricky,” he continued. “If you start thinking of identity as a value, what about intermarriage? Part of me thinks, ‘Why does it bother me? If people who intermarry don’t care about it, why should I? If they don’t care if their grandchildren won’t be Jewish, why should I?’”

It’s not a question that’s likely to touch him personally, he added. His children cut their ties with him because they all remained chasidic. “Given the world they live in, the likelihood of them marrying anyone who is not Jewish is very slim,” he said.

“And look at me! I’m dating a Jewish woman.”

(That’s Dr. Ariela Noy, a research oncologist who grew up in Bergen County, brought her own children up there, and is a member of Beth Sholom.)

He is pessimistic about the future of the Jewish community, which he sees as growing increasingly splintered, with some Jews not accepting others as Jewish, and other members not even defining themselves as Jewish in the first place. The feeling of ethnicity that binds so many Jews to the community and each other is dissipating, Mr. Deen believes.

And the paradox, the maddeningly irrational but strong feeling that evokes, is that “yes, it bothers me,” he said.

Mr. Deen told a story about a gig as scholar in residence at a Conservative shul on Long Island. “I didn’t know this, but they have a rule that during the service, if you speak from the bimah, you have to wear a kippah and a tallis,” he said. He had no problem covering his head — it’s a sign of respect — but he did not wear a tallis. “It felt farcical to me,” he said. “It was too much of a ritualistic garment. I couldn’t wear it. It felt wrong.” So he didn’t; instead, he began his talk by explaining why. “And afterward, at kiddush, a gentleman comes over to me, with an Israeli accent, in a very grave voice, and he told me that I had been very disrespectful.

“I said thank you, and I thought, how Jewish. Part of me wanted to say FU, and another part of me thought, ‘This is how we Jews are. We go over to you and say directly what it is that we don’t like about you. Total bluntness.

“On the one hand, I was a little pissed off, and on the other hand, I found it a little endearing.”


Who: Shulem Deen, author of the memoir, “All Who Go Do Not Return”

What: Will talk about growing up in the chasidic world, leaving it, and what he learned both inside and outside that world; Sandee Brawarsky will moderate the discussion.

Where: At Congregation Beth Sholom, 354 Maitland Ave. in Teaneck

When: On Sunday, November 20, at 8 p.m.

How much: $15 per person pre-paid for Beth Sholom members, $18 for pre-paid non-members, and $20 at the door; $36 per person for a dessert reception with Mr. Deen before the talk, at 7. Make checks payable to CBS and mail them to 354 Maitland Avenue, Teaneck, NJ 07666

Why: Proceeds to benefit children’s programming.

For more information or tickets: Go to www.cbsteaneck.org or call (201) 833-2620.

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