September 22, 2017 Book review: ‘All Who Go Do Not Return’ by Shulem Deen
As someone who has left the Hasidic community and continues to be fascinated by how much nuance this insular community hides, I’m especially interested in literature that comes from insiders – and often, of course, they will have the bias of those who left. I read this book at about the time of its initial release but didn’t analyze it too closely. Now, after some time during which I heard many people base their knowledge of the Hasidic community on this book, I thought it’s time for a second, more critical look.
When I reread Deen’s book, All Who Go Do Not Return, I can still see the bright spots; especially in the scene describing his engagement. It’s warm, it’s funny, it’s real. Deen isn’t hiding any ghosts there – as far as I know – so he is able to portray an engagement that is original, humorous, human. There are several such isolated scenes that capture Hasidic life, and they speak to his potential. Deen isn’t an author of great insights but he is able to frame a sentence so that reading it is a pleasure, and small details effortlessly bring the scene to life.
But the book isn’t what it could have been, because, in addition to being a memoir about leaving Hasidism, it is also a dance around Deen’s demons. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Nigerian author of “Americana”, once described one memoir as “a well-written act of image-making”. Adichie sees through the memoirist whose slick honesty is there to disarm, whose self-criticism is calculated to deflect.
Deen also composes his story as an act of image-making. He is aware that society can idolize the stories of the coming of age, leaving insular communities genre, but that the adoration turns sour when children are left behind. Since Deen’s relationship with his five children deteriorates over the last part of the book, he writes to avoid being judged harshly by readers.
Deen’s wife Gitty is never humanized. If we can’t feel her presence, we can’t imagine that there is more to this than one man’s feelings. Gitty rarely speaks, and when she does, the lines she’s given are so all over the place, it creates a dismembered character. On one hand, we are told that there is nothing but clipped conversations between the couple — Gitty doesn’t even respond to a gift, and only offers a begrudging thank you after being asked for feedback — while on the other she is accused of taking over and being so overbearing, that Deen feels cast aside in her matriarchal tyranny. We assume that this is what Hasidic women are like; empty and dead inside, devoid of personalities, brainwashed. While I don’t know this woman, I’ve yet to meet a Hasidic woman who is like that. I found myself wondering what we are not told of Gitty. Either Deen really did not see her, or he thought it dangerous to tell the reader too much about her.
There are several other instances in which we are primed to see him a victim of impossible circumstances. He describes a Hasidic world of bleak poverty and no food to feed the many mouths. “Most of my friends from yeshiva were living the same way…. Either still studying in the kollel, or teaching at the chedar, and struggling, making do with whatever they could – yeshiva vouchers, food stamps, Section 8. They went from one poor moneymaking idea to the next…”
The subject of Hasidic economics is too complicated to go into here, but Deen does not even try; he turns to the stereotype of Hasidic men who are unemployed and uneducated and gently goads the reader into outrage at the Hasidic system of “welfare mooching.” The reader gasps “who could stay in such a world?”
We get only a superficial glimpse into Deen’s life during the crucial years after he lost faith and before he got divorced. In 2003, when he had already been writing for some time under the pseudonym Hasidic Rebel, I started my own journey with a blog. My impressions from reading the few regular bloggers (including Deen) and from my interactions with them (some now close friends) were that these men lived double lives that became more untenable as they adventured more in the secular world – bars, pot, travel, lovers, etc. But Deen writes as if he never as much heard of a party. He describes himself as a lone man spending night after night in Manhattan, venturing into bars alone, always alone. A man driven by longing. We are not reminded of Gitty whose world was unraveling while raising five children. How might this have played into the bitterness in the divorce?
In all, Deen’s story could raise an important question: is he culpable for his fall; the alienation from his family, the anguish that led to a breakdown? Should we all point fingers and say “I told you so” when the book ends with so much sadness? I wouldn’t say so. As often, responsibility can be split like fair-minded pirates doling out loot. I think the important question the book could have raised is of the conflict between self and family. But Deen carefully casts himself as the pitiful victim of society, paints over any moral ambiguity, and bangs the gavel, the verdict is out, he did all he could, the system wrought all his pain.
The book isn’t useless as a work on Hasidic life, but its depiction is flawed because it is contrived. As I saw it, it was written not to illuminate, but to absolve.