Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Q&A with Shulem Deen

Shulem Deen is the author of the new memoir All Who Go Do Not Return, which recounts his departure from the Hasidic Jewish community in which he had lived for many years. He is the founding editor of the online journal Unpious, and his writing has appeared in the Jewish Daily Forward, Tablet, and Salon. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Q: Why did you decide to write a book about your experiences?

A: I've always wanted to write, period--more than I wanted to write about my experiences. I had actually started writing a novel, entirely unrelated to my own story, but in 2010, when I met my agent, a memoir was really the only thing I felt I could seriously get published at that time.

I don't know that a good novel would've been harder to write, but it certainly would've been harder for me to sell--and the fact is, I knew very little about writing, memoir or fiction. And I felt like too much of a nobody to ever get noticed for a fiction work. But I did have a memoir in me, which I knew I could write, and that it was a compelling enough story to be able to sell it on the concept.

Once I settled on memoir, I wrote the story as one that simply needed to be told, not because I needed to get my story out, but because I felt an urgency with this story, like I had in my hands a fully formed narrative, which was just waiting to be told. 

I have to say, though, this wasn't easy or comfortable in the least. While I've been mining personal life experiences for my writing work for over a decade, the memoir forced me to include much that I would've much preferred to keep private. But if the story was to be told as fully as possible, I knew I'd have to expose myself more than I'd ever done before, and I had to come to terms with that.

Q: What do you think are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about the Hasidic world, and what do you hope readers take away from your book?

A: I think Hasidic society is sometimes seen as concerned primarily with matters of piety and religious devotion, and that is what sustains it, but the truth is that its cohesiveness is not a function of piety but of social and familial bonds; it isn't primarily faith, or spiritual values that keeps people within but a dependence on a culture and a lifestyle that keeps them bound to it in various ways; young marriages, high birthrates, inadequate secular education all contribute to that dependency.

Another misconception is that Hasidic society is dysfunctional due to an insidious leadership, as if the leaders conspire against the masses, who follow their directives like sheep.

In reality, both the leaders and the followers are raised and formed within the same system, and the masses influence the leadership as much as the other way around.

There is a tremendous amount of ignorance--a lack of understanding of the essential facts of the world, whether it’s about science, or economics, or contemporary Western values, or just an awareness of different worldviews.

And this ignorance exists among the leaders as much as among the masses--if not more, since many of the leaders, especially the top-tier religious figures, are often extremely sheltered, with little access to media or reliable sources of information. 

Those who break away are not heroes, or particularly courageous--although they are not its opposites either. They are for the most part individuals for whom the burdens of the Hasidic lifestyle had become greater than its benefits. 

The fact that I broke away was not because I was better, more reflective, more courageous, but because of accidental events--a chance encounter with certain individuals, which led me to certain books, and certain ideas--and so I gained a more expansive worldview almost in spite of myself. And then there were events that sort of forced me out halfway. Without those chance events, I would've stayed. 

Q: You write about some very difficult and painful times in your life. Do you feel you’ve gained some distance from those years, and how hard was it to write about them?

A: This is a great question. For most of the book's content I felt enough time had passed--I'd come a long way from the events of my childhood, from my early years of marriage, from the early process of thinking and discovering the outside world.

However, the last few chapters were indeed difficult: I was actually going through some of the experiences as I was already working on the book, and for the later chapters I had very little distance at all.

So to be completely honest: I could've used more time. But I was writing the book now, not in five years, so I had no choice but to try my best from the emotional place I was in.

Q: How did you come up with the book’s title?

A: The title is slightly modified from a Biblical verse in Proverbs -- all who come to her do not return -- which refers to a seductress, a temptress who ensnares men to sin in such a powerful way that they can't escape her.

The Talmud interprets the passage as an allegory for heresy--the great seductive trap from which one cannot escape. Hasidim, furthermore, apply it to knowledge gained from secular sources--a particularly modern trap. And it all felt really apt, given the book's subject matter as well as the journey I describe.

There's also a particular incident in the book where the phrase comes up in a very key way and which serves as an important hinge in the timeline.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Mostly, I am currently still breathing deeply after the four-year process of writing this book. But I've begun to take a bit of a look around at other possible projects.

In particular, I've been taking another look at the novel I'd started writing, I've also been considering a number of non-fiction projects, both of a personal nature--a possible sequel of sorts to this memoir--as well as more journalistic topics.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: What makes this book different from several similar ones is its male perspective, which I believe is an important one. There's been a lot of focus of how rigid gender roles among the ultra-Orthodox affect women, which is an important discussion, but there isn't much about how it affects boys and men. And I feel passionately that this is a subject very much in need of attention. 

Boys are given very meager secular instruction, basically just an hour or two in English and math at the end of each day, all of which ends abruptly after age 12; they spend brutally long hours in yeshivas studying nothing but Talmud and Jewish law--and plenty of males have neither the interest nor the aptitude for it.

They reach adulthood with no marketable skills, and are expected to marry before the age of 20 and begin producing children while maintaining their studies for several years. 

In addition, boys are often subject to routine and often vicious corporal punishment, which leaves them emotionally stunted for life. They undergo immense shaming for the slightest sign of sexual deviancy. Many boys suffer sexual abuse of various degrees--a subject I chose not to cover in the book, but which is another way in which boys are led to a lifetime of dysfunction.

They know nothing about sex or reproductive processes or birth control, and are pressured to marry early, have as many children as possible, so that by the time they begin to consider their situation and their choices, they are far too preoccupied with having to provide for their large families.

I believe these experiences are incredibly damaging to boys and men, and they deserve a great deal more attention by observers of Hasidic society, and my hope is that this book will nudge some of the discussion in that direction.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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