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 and having 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, 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 a 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.

When I was in 11th grade, at 17, the administration in our Hasidic girls school organized a day for the organization Dor Yeshurim (which Elka Weiss linked to, they do genetic testing) to come down to school. We all had to bring some money, a release and we all stood in line to give a blood sample. We knew it was done to avoid birth defects. We’d heard of families here and there that had several disabled children because the couple wasn’t “compatible”. We didn’t understand the mechanics (we hadn’t had any sex-ed or understanding of how a baby is genetically connected to its father) but no one wanted to have an incompatible marriage.

Then, when at eighteen and three months my parents found me a match, I had not even met my future husband or seen any pictures of him when my parents called in our two Dor Yeshurim numbers. I remember waiting in knots for the office to open so they could give us an answer. Yes would mean I’d get engaged that night, a no would mean the match was off. At 9:15am they called to say that everything was okay. Less than twelve hours later, I was engaged.

One might say more care was taken to insure there were no inbreeding related health issues than that my groom and I were a good fit. Such is that world. Family life is everything.

As a tour guide in Hasidic Williamsburg, I’ve gotten used to being asked this question. The first time I explained how Hasidim are educated – with all emphasis on religious learning – and I got this question, I didn’t expect it. Having grown up Hasidic I wasn’t used to thinking of education in the strictly vocational way that secular people think of it.

Apparently in the secular world, and that is everywhere (we have tourists from all over the western world) education is thought of as purely work training. People think they go to school only so they could earn a living. Twelve grades plus four years college, plus a masters, in order to peddle this skill or that product. It is fascinating that people have forgotten that you could learn things on the job. People assume that if you don’t have a formal education in something, then surely you are handicapped forever. But the world wasn’t always that way, and humans can learn things quickly.

There was a time when people learned skills on the job, and schooling had nothing to do with those skills. If you were to become a carpenter, you’d apprentice for a few years. If you had gone to the local one room schoolhouse, your elementary training would have done nothing for your carpentry skills.

It makes me ask: is work really what education is for? Just a job? Are you learning all these subjects only to sit at a nine to five? Shouldn’t education be for a greater purpose?

And why can’t people learn things without being taught explicitly how to do it? What happened to osmosis or adaptive skills or autididactic learning?

Here is the thing. In the secular world, people believe you can’t do anything if you haven’t gone through some formal training, paid money and received a paper to assert your qualification for that work. Nevermind that to get said paper you just need money for tuition and to show up. You just. Must. List. Degrees. Colleges. Proof.

But Hasidim have a different system. I was hired right our of high school without even a valid high school diploma. I was trained to do whatever work in the insurance office needed to be done, and ultimately did large group renewals. Everyone in our company had less than a high-school diploma. We operated in a world in which you were given economic opportunities just because you had a good reputation.

Some men got work through family at early ages, maybe at nineteen and by the time they were 24 were experienced and out on their own, successfully. Almost no one among Hasidim has heaps of student loans or years whiled away getting a degree. That gives these people significant advantage in the competitive economic market. Nevermind the advantage they have in their built in network that the community is.