What must it mean when a loss of faith exacts a terrible price the loss of one’s children
Shulem Deen knows all too well how high this price is. He is the author of an astonishingly painful memoir, All Who Go Do Not Return, about his former life as a member of a strictly Orthodox Jewish sect, the Skverer Chasidim. A handsome, compactly built and lightly bearded man, he looks like a college lecturer rather than the black-hatted and side-curled person he once was.
Deen, 43, was expelled for heresy from New Square, the upstate New York village that is home to the Skverer community, in 2005. Although for a time he and his wife and five children tried living in a slightly less restrictive Orthodox community, eventually the strain became too much.
He and his wife divorced but – in what he now admits is touching naivety – it did not occur to Deen that he would lose his children.
But he did. By degrees, even the restricted access that he was granted – four visits a year – diminished, as one by one the children said they no longer wanted to see him.
Initially, he says, “they grew withdrawn in my presence, eating dinner in silence and refusing the books and games I bought them.
My boisterous bunch of three girls and two boys, aged six to 14, who had previously seemed always to be crawling all over me at all times, began to speak to one another in hushed tones, their attitudes subdued, looking to each other awkwardly, and to me barely at all.
They began to inspect the labels on food products, then picked at their dinners reluctantly. When I asked what was wrong, they turned away, looked at the clock, anxious to leave. Finally, my little son looked me in the eye. ‘Mommy says you want to turn us into goyim [non Jews].’”
As his ex-wife became aware of the extent to which Deen had abandoned Orthodox Judaism, her rejection of her “heretic” former husband filtered down to their children. One by one, the children refused to speak to him and, finally, refused to visit him.
He says: “I was seeing my two boys for a while, but my youngest stopped coming [in 2014].
The two would come together, but when the older one turned 13, he stopped, and then the youngest didn’t want to come any more. He was 11, and he would get into the car and just burst into tears.
I would spend 20, 30 minutes trying to calm him down. After a year of doing this, I thought, do I want to do this to him? So I said, ‘I’m not going to force you.’ But he called me a week before the next visit was supposed to happen and left a message saying he didn’t want to come any more.”
Deen did not lose in court. But “I lost my children’s hearts and with them, very nearly, my sanity. For 14 years, fatherhood had defined me most. I no longer knew who I was.”
After months of harrowing court appearances, during which, by court order, a judge limited contact with his children until the issue could go to trial, Deen ended up in hospital, “depressed and suicidal and angry at the world and myself. I could not understand how it had all happened.
I could not understand how I had lost my children before the fight had even begun”.
Today, his three daughters are aged 22, 21, and 19, while his sons are 17 and 15. The two eldest girls are married, while the other three still live with their mother in New Square, where she has remarried.
He was not invited to his daughters’ weddings, but last year, after eight years of silence, he heard that his second eldest was marrying and he determined to see her on the day. He arranged with one of his brothers to go to New Square, where the wedding was taking place.
He was for the first time able to see and briefly speak to his daughters, but what started out very relaxed soon became unpleasant when some in the community made it clear he was not welcome. “At one point, the groom heard I was there, as did my older son-in-law – neither of whom I’d ever met – and they came out to greet me, with big smiles, and thanked me for coming.
“Other men came out, shook my hand, asked me to come inside – [but] all the while others were telling me that if I didn’t leave, I was ruining my daughter’s wedding, and that they were going to call the cops. It was truly a surreal experience.
“I wondered if my children perhaps didn’t want me there, and that the commotion was unsettling to many of the attendees. Soon after, however, my older son-in-law came to me and said: ‘Tziri [Deen’s eldest child] wants to see you.’ She would meet me outside. It took me a moment to recognise her, but no longer than a moment – of course, it was her.
“What do you say to a beloved child you haven’t seen and spoken to in eight years, whose entire adolescence you were barred from, whose wedding you missed? What do you say when there are so many questions, so many things to say, all of them urgent, but your mind is dizzy with the suddenness of it all?
“What came out of my mouth was, ‘I’ve missed you.’ I felt my insides crack. Last time we spoke she was 13, angry and sullen. Now she was 21, beautiful and grown and smiling, yet still very much the same person. We barely had a few seconds. My brother snapped a couple of photos with his phone, which wouldn’t do the moment justice.
I did not get to see her again.”
Later, despite protests from Deen’s ex-wife, the bride came out to see her father. “I told her how radiant she looked, what a terrific guy her groom looked to be, and how happy I was for her. Also, how much I think of her every single day.”
He left “feeling at once uplifted, sad, angry, joyful, and anxious – the kind of mixed emotions that keep your adrenaline going and leave you awake in bed for hours afterwards. Joyful for the good. Sad that it had to be this way. Angry at those who sought, out of pure malice, to inflict unnecessary pain.
about where this will all lead … anxious about doing what’s right not only for me, but for them, for everyone.”
The level of estrangement doesn’t only apply to Shulem Deen. His mother lives in Jerusalem and is religiously observant, as are his siblings. But, he says: “Neither my mother nor my siblings have contact with my children – my ex doesn’t allow it.
To me, this always showed that my ex’s supposed ideological reasons were only a mask for personal animus, which extended to my family, even though they remained frum [Orthodox].”
Deen was brought up in a strictly Orthodox home in New York but, unlike almost all his peers, his parents did not come from a religious background. Instead, he says, “My parents had spent their youths not in the ultra-religious world of the Chasidim, but in secular environments.
The truth was that my mother was probably barely observant and my father was very far from Orthodox – he grew up in Baltimore with very little connection to practising Judaism.
He was an idealistic hippie type, but also a very strange and brilliant person. But they kept this information from me.” His parents had fallen in love with the community warmth offered by the Chasidic world, never experiencing the hurts and insults meted out to the children, the narrowness of education, the separation of the sexes.
Deen’s family was clearly different from his classmates’. He and his siblings spoke to each other in Yiddish, but English to their parents. The difference, observes Deen, was not just because of their religious background, but because – unlike his classmates – his parents were American-born, as were his grandparents, who had died before he was born. Deen’s peers were mostly the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors from Hungary.
“My father died when I was 14. When I was in my 20s, I had started going to the library and reading about music, art, literature and technology for the first time. I went to the library and found some cassettes of Beatles music and brought them home.
I said to my mother, ‘Have you ever heard of the Beatles?’ and she said, ‘Yeah. I was at the airport when they came in 1964 to be on the Ed Sullivan Show.’ So she was one of those screaming girls in the Beatlemania era.”
So much emphasis is put on family lineage within the Chasidic world that it certainly affected, Deen believes, the choice awaiting for him when it came to his marriage, aged just 18. He says: “I do believe that my parents’ background harmed my shidduch [arranged marriage] prospects very much (as well as those of my siblings).
“No one ever suggested my parents were to blame, but indirectly, because of their backgrounds, my shidduch was what it was, and the marriage ultimately got so strained that it weighed everything else down with it. It’s likely that if I’d been more happily married, things might have ended up quite differently.
Even if the community life felt oppressive, a fulfilling home life could have made up for it considerably. As it was, though, I was unhappy in both – community and marriage.”
To read Deen’s account of his split from the Chasidic world is to learn of a man bursting with frustration at the multiple restrictions by which he had to lead his life. No outside influences were allowed into New Square, which meant that when – forced by financial circumstances – he tried to get a job (instead of learning Torah as most of the men did), he found himself hampered by lack of educational qualifications.
He writes about trying for a job in New York with a fellow Chasid who eventually gave up because his English was so poor. Today, Deen’s own sons neither read nor write English, and barely speak it.
For Deen, there came a point when he realised that no matter how warm the community, how loving the family, or how familiar the rituals, he no longer believed in God. Now he describes himself as completely secular.
“Sometimes, on Friday nights, I would be extremely lonely and I would just drive into Manhattan and walk around and look at what other people were doing.
I was just looking for human connection, while having absolutely no idea where to find it. I would stop and speak with homeless people. I found a place that had AA meetings every Friday night and I would just go there and listen to people’s stories about getting over alcoholism, because I needed some place to go.”
He doesn’t think of himself as damaged, he says. “However, I do think of myself as different, and in many ways alien to broader society.
Leaving Orthodoxy has not rendered me whole, because being Orthodox did not keep me broken. It was not the Orthodoxy per se that was problematic to me, but the social structures put in place that harm those who wish to leave.”
In an article he wrote last summer, Deen speaks of how his faith left him. He said: “I do not believe in God today, but my non-belief did not come easy. Once, God had been my guide, my solace, even my love, but then, in my mid to late 20s, my faith fell apart.
It happened over years, in stages, as I read, studied, searched, and discovered a world of knowledge that I hadn’t known existed. As I questioned all that I had been taught, I dug deep into the pile of beliefs, held up everything, like a hoarder forced to determine what to keep and what to discard.
“I held up God. Keep or discard? I could not keep God.”
Deen says he has missed out on so much of his children’s lives “that the damage will always remain irreparable. A decade of birthdays, graduations, barmitzvahs, weddings – you don’t get those back. But children grow up, grow independent and mature, and begin to think in new ways.
I do believe it will take a long while – years, or decades, perhaps – but I have grown (and healed) and learned to have patience. It is not in my control, and I am content to be here and wait.
“In the meantime, I live my life with purpose and meaning as best I can; I surround myself with love and friendship; and in time, I am sure, I will be enriched further by a rebuilt relationship with my children.”