The ProsenPeople

Shulem Deen's Top 10 Rules for Memoir Writing

Thursday, January 14, 2016 | Permalink

Jewish Book Council was honored to present Shulem Deen, the author of the 2015 National Jewish Book Awards winner of the Myra H. Kraft Memorial Award for Contemporary Jewish Life and Practice All Who Go Do Not Return, as the keynote speaker at the annual Jewish Writers' Seminar last month. "Lots of people mistake memoir writing for therapy; I mistook therapy for storytelling," he began his unforgettable address on recognizing the form of his writing as a craft, rather than an indulgence. For those who missed the speech in its entirely, Jewish Book Council is proud to publish its conclusion, a countdown of the most important rules for memoir writing, according to Shulem Deen:

10. You don't need to have had an “interesting life”; only the ability to see life in interesting ways.

9. Memoir isn’t autobiography; its unifying principle should be thematic, not just “My Life.”

8. Just because it happened doesn't mean it's interesting. Be selective with both scenes and details.

7. Don’t come dressed in a three-piece suit. If your memoir doesn’t embarrass you at least a little, you're not doing it right.

6. If you’ve been wronged: press charges, file a lawsuit, or hire a hitman. Never, ever, ever use memoir to get back at someone.

5. Write from your scars, not from your wounds. If you need to, do your therapy first.

4. Find your three-act narrative arc early on, and you’ll avoid having to trash hundreds of pages.

3. Sections and chapters must have a cumulative effect. If it doesn’t propel the narrative—by helping to build tension, or resolving it—it doesn't belong. Cut it.

2. Be truthful. This should be obvious.

1. Always remember: memoir might be about you, but it's not for you. It’s for your reader. Respect that.

Shulem Deen is a former Skverer Hasid and the author of the memoir All Who Go Do Not Return. His work has appeared in The Forward, Tablet, and Salon. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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30 Days, 30 Authors: Shulem Deen

Sunday, November 08, 2015 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! In honor of the 90th anniversary of Fanny Goldstein's tribute to Jewish books in the West End's branch of the Boston Public Library, Jewish Book Council invited 30 leading authors, one for each day of the month, to answer a few questions.


Shulem Deen is the author of All Who Go Do Not Return, a memoir about growing up in and then leaving the Hasidic Jewish world. He is also the founding editor of Unpious, an online journal for voices on the Hasidic fringe. His work has appeared in The New Republic, Salon, Tablet Magazine, The Jewish Daily Forward, and elsewhere. He serves as a board member at Footsteps, a New York City-based organization that offers assistance and support to those who have left the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.


Emerging Voices Interview: Shulem Deen

Thursday, April 23, 2015 | Permalink

Shulem Deen is the author of the recently published memoir All Who Go Do Not Return (Graywolf Press). 

JBC Staff: I think that sometimes the way in which people are put into this genre of OTD or ex-Hasidic memoir forecloses questions around the writer and the craft of what they’re doing. There’s a lot of attention on the content, but I think sometimes the stylistic elements and the craft that you’re engaging in as a writer falls by the wayside.

Shulem Deen: I’m very strongly of the opinion that if you’re going use an art form to tell your story be passionate about that art form as an art form, not just think, “Oh, I want to get my story out and therefore, okay, fine l’ll write it because it looks like an easy thing to do.”

I get a lot of people who say to me, “It’s so great that you wrote your story. I hope to publish mine too one day.” I try not to get too irritated and usually I just say, “Oh, that’s absolutely great. You should do it.”

But the truth is, what I really want to say is: “are you passionate about writing? Do you appreciate good writing? Do you write? You know you want to write a book, but have you written an essay? Have you done something short? Do you care about crafting sentences? Do you care about storytelling?”

In my case, I wanted to write a book. I had an aspiration to be a writer. As of the day my book was published, I am a writer. But I had an aspiration to be a writer, not to tell my story. This was a very difficult choice when I actually decided that my first book was going to be a memoir. I wanted to write a novel. But I kind of realized fairly quickly that my agent would be very willing to represent me for a memoir. For a novel, I would have to write it first. Then do all that work, learn how to write, make sure it’s really good, have it stand out, then try to shop for an agent who would then try to shop for a publisher. Add to that the fact that I’m a nobody. I don’t come from an MFA writing program where people develop certain connections. I came from nowhere.

Given the realities of how art and commerce intersect, these are important considerations—especially if you want to use your art not only as art, but also in some way to sustain yourself. You want to be able to make art. And in order to make art, it needs to give something in return and pay your rent. There are very few people who can make art purely just for making art and not care whether they will be making money from it.

We all know the cliché is the starving artist. It’s not practical to starve. Because if you starve, you won’t be able to do any more art.

Originally when I was writing, people would say to me, “What are you writing?” And I would say, “You know, I’m writing a memoir about my experience of growing up in the Hasidic world and then leaving it.” People would say, “Oh, that’s been done.”

It’s not really about the newness of this story, it’s about writing a really compelling narrative. And the art of it. And the craft of it.

JBC Staff: I have a vague memory of you telling me of another title for the memoir when you were earlier in the writing phase. Wasn’t it sup­posed to be entitled "Shaygetz"?

SD: Originally my agent and I had a discussion. The first discussion, we talked about submitting a proposal. And he said, “OK, we’re going to have to think of a title. Do you have any thoughts on it?” as I was leaving.

And I said, “Well, I don’t know. I’ve been kind of struggling. I’m not sure what to call this book.”

And he said, “But what kind of words come to mind?”

“I don’t know, maybe something with the word, ‘shaygetz,’ in it.”

And he said, “what’s it mean?”

Shaygetz means traditionally a non-Jewish person or even a Jewish person who’s not behaving the way they should behave.”

I love that word. I was thinking, “The Journeys of a Shaygetz.” “The Diaries of a Shaygetz.” I don’t know. Something like that. I wasn’t even thinking. It was just a word that had just popped into my head.

And he said, “I love it. And how about we do it on the cover, we write this word, and we have a little dictionary, a graphic element, that will explain it.”

SHAYGETZ: NOUN. Non-Jewish hoodlum. Definition number two? A lapsed Jewish person. And then definition number three? Vermin.

It would be kind of provocative and interesting. But also it sounded like he thought that it was a sensationalist thing. He liked the foreignness of it. He liked the fact that there was something unfamiliar, yet intriguing.

And this was also a way to avoid the kind of straightforward “title, colon, subtitle.” Right? Like Unorthodox: My Scandalous Journey Away From Whatever. I was trying to avoid something like that. I wanted to just have a title. Something with “scandalous” in it just sounded so grotesque to me—to put on your book. My personal aesthetic is one that says, “Let’s keep things a little bit more subtle.”

But the fact is that I was never comfortable with that. I never liked the name because shaygetz has a connotation among Yiddish speak­ers, especially in the Hasidic world, of being something sensational, something very crude, something very crass. It didn’t feel like it really represented me. People in the Hasidic world might call me a shaygetz. But the truth is that they are probably unlikely to. They’re more likely to use other names for me. Like shaygetz is, to some degree, mild compared to what they would call me. They would call me a Posha Yisroel or an Oicher Yisroel. A Posha Yisroel—that’s what they would say. Somebody who is so evil, a really wicked, wicked person.

JBC Staff: What are the conditions of possibility that allow for your father and mother to retain their anti-authoritarian ideology, that allowed your father to declare: “ich bin a chusid fun aybershten” [“I am a Hasid of God”]. I think you intimate it in the book, but never flesh it out explicitly. What is the relationship, in other words, between the decentralization of authority in the Hasidic world—namely, with the proliferation of multiple rebbes who claim themselves as legitimate heirs to a respective dynasty, a shift from fighting between Hasidic groups to fighting between Hasidic dynasties—and your parents’ abil­ity to enter the Hasidic world with their anti-authoritarianism?

SD: It has always been possible to be a Hasid without being a Hasid of a rebbe. It has always been a little known secret that you could be a Ha­sid, but you didn’t have to be a Hasid of a rebbe. In Boro Park, in Monsey, in other places, even in Williamsburg (although in Williamsburg less so), there are many, many, many people who consider themselves Hasidish, but consider themselves Hasidish “independent” or “neutral.” That certainly exists from people who don’t quite feel connected to a particular rebbe. They might have a particular community that they feel mostly connected to—just sort of slightly touching it, but not neces­sarily bound to it. This is a fairly commonplace stance to be Hasidish in Boro Park, but to not feel completely connected to something.

My father also had some connection to Breslev. He had really studied a lot of Reb Nachman. And at times, had some formal attachments—he used to give shiurim [lectures] at the Breslev shul—in Boro Park when I was very little, when I was three or four.

We spent several summers in Israel. For a short period, my father put me into the Breslev seder [study session] in Jerusalem. In the end that didn’t work out. And he took me out of there and put me into the Neturei Karta seder. There was a problem with Breslev. There was a transportation issue with the bus. I’d been on the bus and they didn’t take me home. And the bus driver was driving around Jerusalem for hours because I didn’t speak Hebrew and they had no idea where to take me. And I was a five-year-old. Four and a half. And so in the end, my parents were like, “alright, let’s not do the Breslev thing. It’s too far and we have the transportation problem.” And they put me into the Neturei Karta seder.

My father had a lot of Neturei Karta sympathies, too. He was very, very anti-Zionist. He kind of romanticized the old Jerusalemite, Hanoyim, the fiercely zealously anti-Zionist.

My father had a flirtation with both of them. My father was friends with Moshe Hirsch. Moshe Hirsch was Yasser Arafat’s Minister of Jewish Affairs for many years. My father knew him well. He used to buy his esroygim from him.

JBC Staff: Also, despite his claims otherwise, wasn’t your father a bit of a shtikl rebbe [Yiddish: “a bit of a rebbe”] himself (to disciples like Shaul Magid, etc.)? Isn’t that the paradox of his legacy?

SD: He was a very complicated person. He commanded a kind of—I hesitate to use this word—but he commanded a kind of cult following. I’m so afraid of using the word “cult” because cult has such a negative connotation, but there was something that was very powerful about his persona that made people enthralled. I don’t think it’s anything that he consciously cultivated. But he was an eccentric. There was no question of that. His lifestyle was very eccentric.

What’s interesting is that in that Sun interview is that he mentions that Judaism is very suspicious, very weary, of the ascetic lifestyle. And yet he really led that ascetic lifestyle.

I don’t think he was so anti-authoritarian in principle. I just think that he hadn’t found some authority beyond texts that he felt he needed to attach to. It’s maybe a little bit unusual within the Hasidish world. But not entirely unusual. Primarily in the Hasidish world, they take upon their own kind of authority and gain a following. There’s just as much a tradition of that. Most rebbes who became rebbes, at least the ones who established courts. The first rebbes early on, established them­selves. Later came the history of the dynastic leadership model. In the very beginning, the Baal Shem Tov has no real yichus [pedigree] that we know of.

I think specifically people who join it tend to see counter-cultural aspects in the Hasidish world really magnified in ways that are not really true I think. I think this is true of my parents. I don’t really think they understood the Hasidish world when they joined it. And I don’t really think they really understood the Hasidish world throughout their living within it.

My mother never understood that sending me to seder wearing suspenders to hold up my pants in a world where everybody wears a belt is going to be such a strike against me in the social hierarchy of our cheder. But she had absolutely no concept of that. So I think my parents were very naïve. I think they thought Hasidim are something completely different than what Hasidim really are. And I think this is common among Baalei Teshuva [born-again Jews].


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Ask Big Questions: When Do You Say No?

Thursday, April 16, 2015 | Permalink

The Jewish Book Council is delighted to publish a continuing blog series in partnership with Ask Big Questions, an initiative out of Hillel International aimed at getting people to talk about issues of heart, soul and community. Each month, Ask Big Questions will feature a JBC author on their blog, shared here on the JBC ProsenPeople blog page, and in campus programming reaching over 10,000 college and graduate students.

Shulem Deen is the author of All Who Go Do Not Return, a memoir about growing up in and then leaving the Hasidic Jewish world. He is also the founding editor of Unpious, an online journal for voices on the Hasidic fringe. His work has appeared in Salon, The Brooklyn Rail, Tablet Magazine,The Jewish Daily Forward, and elsewhere. He serves as a board member at Footsteps, a New York City-based organization that offers assistance and support to those who have left the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

For the past three weeks, ever since the release of my book, All Who Go Do Not Return, I have been getting this question at least once a day: “Where is your anger?”

My book is a memoir of growing up in and then leaving the Hasidic world. From my current vantage point, I and many others see the society and community I grew up in as deeply problematic. From its education system to its economic structures to its social dynamics, the Hasidic community restricts its members’ freedom even when those members desperately wish to live differently. At present, the practices are such that by the time Hasidic men and women are mature enough to know themselves and their own aspirations, they are married with children, and highly dependent on the community and their social and familial connections in order to survive.

When I left, seven years ago, I was 33, after having established a family and, along with my then-wife, was raising five children within the all-Hasidic village of New Square, New York. My book recounts the experience of first losing faith, then feeling trapped within a society whose beliefs I did not share and whose worldview I came to fundamentally reject. At first, I stayed, because I feared the consequences of leaving, until I realized that a fear-based life, lying and hiding every day—to my wife, to my children, to my friends and neighbors—was too psychically devastating, and too morally corrosive. And so I made the decision to leave. I suffered for it, and lost a great deal, but I made my way out and survived to tell of it.

Now, some of my friends who are still within, look to me and say, "Shulem, where's your outrage? Where's your condemnation of this society? Why aren't you working to change things for us?"

With this, I am being called on to tell more than just my story. I am being asked to take on the role of activist. Of the one who rails against the ills of a particular society, and seeks to change it. And such a role makes me deeply uncomfortable. And to that, I have had to say no.

To be sure, I have not rejected activism entirely. As a writer and author on the subject of leaving the Hasidic community, I have been deeply involved in efforts to build community among those who've left, to allow voices on the fringes of the Hasidic world to be heard; I also serve on the board of Footsteps, an organization that assists those who wish to leave the Hasidic world.

My activism, however, is limited to supporting those who wish to leave. I am here to help people transition, to offer them choices and enable a richly fulfilling life that is self-determined, not imposed, not lived by compulsion, out of fear, or due to social, familial, or economic pressures.

But I do not seek to fundamentally change the society and community I come from. To that, when called upon, I say no.

I would like to say yes. There are indeed systemic problems with the Hasidic world. They stem not from faith. Or from tradition. Or from false beliefs. But from the complexities of ordinary humanness. Good people doing bad things, because their societies haven't developed the frameworks to protect against them.

Children ripped from parents, when those parents leave the fold; men and women with unorthodox beliefs ostracized; violence committed against individuals who refuse to conform. These occurrences point to systemic problems in how Hasidic society is formed, and how its members trained and conditioned. And these things are worth fighting against.

But I have to say no. Someone else can take it up, but not I.

An activist spirit requires a degree of moral certitude that I do not have. To be an activist, to offer full-throated condemnations of systems and practices that others believe to be correct, requires not only the knowledge that one is right, but also passion and conviction—the kind of passion and conviction that often blinds one to the complexities of lived experiences. The activist cannot afford ambivalence. The activist, in order to remain tireless, to remain active despite the inevitable exhaustion that comes from working against powerful forces, must be clear in what he or she is fighting for. And to maintain such clarity requires giving up on seeing nuance and shades of complexity.

I would have liked to say yes. I have family and friends within the Hasidic world, and I want them to have better lives, greater opportunities, more fulfilling and enriched futures. I have children and siblings and many nieces and nephews within the Hasidic world, and I want a better world for them.

But I do not have that activist temperament, and this question—"Why are you not angry?"—gets to the heart of it. I am not angry because I know the Hasidic world too well; I know that most Hasidic parents want the best for their children. Most Hasidic teachers want the best for their students. I know this, because for a good part of my life I was a deeply devout Hasid like any other, and I wanted then the same things they want. It was not anger that led me away, but an accident of fate, encounters with certain books, and certain individuals, and certain ideas. I had no deep and true grievances against Hasidic society when I lost my faith, and so I lack the passion, the furious energy that would drive me to change a world I have deliberately chosen to dissociate from.

I am not an activist, because I am not angry enough.

However, I am troubled, and so I look to others who are angry, and hope that it will spur them to action.

“Why are you all so angry?” many in the Hasidic world often ask of those who leave. We hear this as a condemnation, as if our anger points to some character flaw, some failure on our part to retain our collective composure. And it's true, many of my friends who have left are indeed angry, traumatized by past abuses, enraged over the injustices that have led many of them away. It does not please me that they are angry, because anger is a difficult emotion to have. But it does give me hope. Because I do not see it as a character flaw. I see it as the essential motivating trait that will drive one or many to bring about change in a society that desperately needs it.

I am not angry enough, furious enough, and so when asked to step up as an activist for change, I say no.

But I look to those who do have that rage, that fury, that truly righteous and holy indignation, and I am grateful, because it is they who will one day say yes.

Shulem Deen is the author of All Who Go Do Not Return, a memoir about growing up in and leaving the Hasidic Jewish world, out last month from Graywolf Press. Follow him on Twitter at @shdeen

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Making My Own MFA

Thursday, March 05, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Shulem Deen wrote about "New Happy And Worldly Hasidim." He is the author of All Who Go Do Not Return, a memoir about growing up in and then leaving the Hasidic Jewish world. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

I don’t remember precisely when it began, but at some point, about a decade ago, as a 30-year-old living among one of the U.S.’s most insular Hasidic sects, I had this fantasy: I wanted to go away to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and earn an MFA in creative writing.

How exactly did I learn about Iowa, or MFAs, or writing workshops? I can no longer recall. Just a few years earlier, at age 25, I barely knew the difference between a bachelor’s degree and a master’s, or even what a “major” was. The idea of getting a college degree seemed as remote as meeting the Pope on the Monsey Trails bus. But at some point I learned that the Iowa Writer’s Workshop was where people went to become writers. And I wanted to be a writer.

At age 33, I left the Hasidic world. I had learned a lot by then—I knew what a major was, and the difference between a bachelor’s and a master’s. But I never did get to Iowa, or any other creative writing program. Or even any old bachelor’s degree. Life got in the way, and I lost my romantic notions of American higher education. But when an opportunity came to write a book, I knew that it meant committing not only to writing but also to teaching myself how to write.

The Iowa Writer’s Workshop had been a dream because the program was legendary—one of the first such programs in the country—but when I began to lay out the first draft of my book, I realized why I really needed it, or something like it; I needed a basic understanding of literary craft, an immersive environment in which I could experiment with form and technique, and an opportunity to spend time with other students as well as with seasoned writers who had already produced bodies of work from whom to learn. But such an environment was not an option at that point—I’d committed to the book and had looming deadlines. I had no choice, I realized, but to create my own MFA writing program.

Read, read, read—this is every seasoned writer’s advice to novice writers.

I was poorly read. Secular books are scarce within most Hasidic communities, and formal education—aside from religious studies—is meager. I’d had only spotty exposure to English language books, and I’d never given myself to the task of reading anything of quality. As much reading as I had done over the years, I’d done none of the required reading of a high school or college student. And so I knew that I’d have to start my writing education by reading more widely.

Not knowing any better, I took to the classics, American authors in particular: Melville, Twain, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Salinger. Reading these was important, but they were not particularly instructive about writing. The reading often felt tedious, at least on the first read; I would never have picked these books out of a pile—and so it was hard for me to see what made them great. I had neither my own developed aesthetic nor anyone else’s measure for greatness. I had only one measure: Am I enjoying this? And the answer for much of it was: not really.

I broadened my selections, tried tackling some of the other greats—the Russians, the French—but my reading was haphazard, disorganized, with no natural progression that might’ve helped me learn anything. I slogged through Dostoyevsky with little appreciation for either the prose style or its themes, then took up Joyce and Faulkner and understood next to nothing at all.

As I was to learn, not all reading leads directly to better writing. Reading intelligently takes skill, and before such skill is cultivated, reading indiscriminately and without guidance can be frustrating and counter-productive and it can leave you trying to imitate writers you have no business imitating. It took a while for me to learn the difference between good books and books to learn writing from. The classics, I realized, as important as they are, are particularly clunky as elementary writing instruction—especially when you’re your own instructor.

I did eventually find my footing, both as a reader and a writer. I realized that a book has to resonate in a certain way before it can be instructive. You don’t necessarily have to like the book, but you have to get a feel for what it is attempting to do, both as a whole and in its parts.

It’s hard to say at what point and with which books I began to feel that necessary resonance, but at some point I began to notice things—a page that held me captive, a turn of phrase particularly elegant, a metaphor that did exactly what it was supposed to—and I would go back and see how it was done. I began to see more clearly when a work had something for me to learn from and when it was something only to marvel at, be inspired by, but to know that it was a different sort of writing from my own, and that some voices stand only to be admired—a do-not-try-this-at-home kind of writing, best left to seasoned literary stuntmen. (Henry Miller is for me the best example of this.)

In the end, it wasn’t the classics that taught me most, but contemporaries. Frank Conroy and Tobias Wolff taught me about setting up scenes, and making good use of dialogue. Mary Carr and Rick Bragg were inspiring for their exhilarating language, even if I could never hope to mimic such fluidly exquisite prose. James Baldwin's beautifully winding narrative essays, with its vivid descriptions of grit and racial despair rendered in language so effortlessly mesmerizing, put me on the lookout for artifice in my own writing, forced me to more strenuously weed out clunk, and to let my paragraphs flow with a more natural rhythm.

I also read books on writing, and some of them would prove indispensable. John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction remains an invaluable manual on essential narrative techniques. Stephen King’s On Writing, with its unique blend of guide and memoir, is both instructive and inspiring. Sometimes, all I needed to get me going was the image of a writer at work, or a master’s thoughts on writing, and for those, the many long form interviews in The Paris Review were both a treat and an impetus for getting to work.

Most importantly, after reading many dozens of works—novels, memoirs, short story collections, and essays—I learned that to write compelling prose I'd have to empty my mind and find my own voice, which would be markedly different from any author I’ve read—and that this is what makes writing good, not the other way around.

I had many crises of confidence while writing. There were times when I thought the whole undertaking to have been folly. I’d berate myself for thinking that an ex-Hasid with little formal education could teach himself, while nearing middle age, what others pay exorbitant sums of money to learn. If only I’d gotten that MFA, I would think, I’d know how to set this scene, perfect that awkward transition, replace a clunky metaphor with a stream of effortlessly breathtaking prose.

A crisis of confidence does nothing to make a deadline go away, though, and I had no choice but to go on. My book took four years to write, and the dual task of teaching myself as I went made much of the process tormenting. By the time I submitted that final draft to my publisher in February 2014 I had very nearly exhausted myself. But it also remains the most exhilarating work I’ve done in my 40 years of life. I would gladly do it all over again.

Shulem Deen is the founding editor of Unpious, an online journal for voices on the Hasidic fringe. His work has appeared in Salon, The Brooklyn Rail, Tablet MagazineThe Jewish Daily Forward, and elsewhere. He serves as a board member at Footsteps, a New York City-based organization that offers assistance and support to those who have left the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Hasidim

Monday, March 02, 2015 | Permalink

Shulem Deen is the author of All Who Go Do Not Return, a memoir about growing up in and then leaving the Hasidic Jewish world. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

I was raised within New York’s Hasidic community, where I spent the first 33 years of my life before rejecting the Hasidic worldview and leaving it for a mainstream secular life. Over recent years, however, I have been discovering that the world contains other types of Hasidim, completely different from the Hasid I had been. I call them the New Happy And Worldly Hasidim. (Or “NHAW Hasidim,” for short.)

Hasidic, for most of my life, meant something very specific and defined.

Hasidic meant speaking Yiddish. And shunning secular education. And men wearing shtreimels and sidecurls and speaking really bad English. And women keeping their heads shorn under their wigs and kerchiefs, and speaking slightly better English.

Hasidic meant arranged marriages, and meeting your future spouse for only half an hour before getting engaged, and knowing nothing about sex, or birth control.

Hasidic meant not only that you don't watch TV or movies, but you barely know those things exist.

Hasidic also meant not only a certain kind of practice but a certain mindset, a determined detachment from the broader world, shunning all secular influences, and studiously avoiding engagement with outsiders.

Of course, Hasidim, the people, are different from Hasidism, the movement and the teachings that gave this society its name. The former are a group of people who form a particular culture. The latter is a set of ideas, which are accessible to anyone who can read the books. But it’s the people and how they live, rather than the ideas in the abstract, that, to me, give meaning to the term: Hasidic.

I remember first hearing about Matisyahu, the “Hasidic reggae superstar.” I was intrigued, but also baffled: why does he call himself “Hasidic” if he’s a “reggae superstar”? How was that even possible?


Matisyahu and Roots Tonic, 2007

Several years ago, a woman named Chaya wrote a widely-shared article on the website xoJane in which she claimed to be a Hasidic woman, and also, in her words, "a media professional with a degree in Women's Studies from a large, very liberal university."

In recent years, we’ve been hearing about an "all-female Hasidic rock band,” which has been playing to sold-out crowds at New York City clubs.

Not long ago, a friend recommended that I read the books of a self-described “Hasid” who writes about his love for the band R.E.M. This writer’s blog, I happened to notice, features a nifty drawing of a naked human butt drawn by one Pablo Picasso—something that could easily get you kicked out of every Hasidic shul I’ve attended.

In the Hasidic community that I have known, secular-influenced music is expressly forbidden. I’d never heard of Elvis Presley or the Beatles until well into my 20s. In my book—All Who Go Do Not Return—I describe how I had to sneak behind my then-wife's back to listen to the radio in secret. And here was a “Hasidic reggae superstar.” And a “Hasid” writing about his love for R.E.M. And an all-female “Hasidic rock band” playing music that is clearly secular in its aesthetic, if not in its message.

In the Hasidic community I am from, attending college is anathema, let alone studying concepts like feminism. And here was a “Hasidic” woman with a degree in Women's Studies.

And so, my first reaction to hearing about all these people was a kind of unease. Calling themselves “Hasidic” seemed dishonest. It also suggested a kind of smugness, as if denying the experiences of so many Hasidim—the vast majority, perhaps—who are raised with a rejectionist ideology: rejection of modernity, rejection of freedom, rejection of science and art and any passion that isn’t for God or the Torah; a rejection of our physical bodies, of any spiritual focus not rooted in our own traditions; a rejection of the rest of the world’s intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and creative contributions.

But the New Happy And Worldly Hasidim rejected none of those things.

So what made them Hasidim?

“We follow Hasidic teachings,” they say. I know they say this because I’ve had conversations with some of them. “We follow the Baal Shem Tov!” they tell me. “And there’s nothing in the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings about rejecting modernity.”

They have a point. Hasidism is a philosophy without strict markers, a movement that split into different streams and sects and was further subject to ideological waves engulfing some segments due to various historical processes, but not others.

It might be helpful to get straight this point of socio-historical arcana: there is little about the majority of Hasidic communities today that reflects the teachings of the early Hasidic movement. This cannot be said more plainly: the people we generally refer to as Hasidic, its insular core—the Satmars, the Belzers, the Svkerers, the Vizhnitzers, and others—are shaped as much by the nineteenth century anti-Maskilic opposition to religious innovation than by the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hasidic movement.

Hasidism, in its earliest incarnation, was not only spiritually and philosophically innovative but encouraged a rejection of conformism. There are tales of early Hasidim who danced naked in the streets and performed somersaults in the public square as a form of self-abnegation and a rejection of the ego. Some of these tales are probably apocryphal, but it’s fair to say they reflect a world in which “Hasidic” meant something entirely different from what it means today. No one’s doing naked somersaults on the streets of Borough Park.

There are historical explanations for the movement’s shift, but ignoring this fact seems like an attempt to sugarcoat some of the uglier realities of the present-day Hasidic world. And there’s something glib about those who choose an identifier while behaving in ways that are anathema to the mainstream known by it—or, at best, only permitted on the fringes.

The truth is, though, I like these New Happy And Worldly Hasidim, and I wish there were more like them. I love that there are people who can envision a “Hasidic” society that is open to the world, embraces creativity and a more expansive form of spirituality and a more progressive worldview. I wish that they—the New Happy And Worldly Hasidim—were the Hasidim who mattered in most Hasidic communities today. But they don’t; as things are now, the Hasidic world—its insular core—is deeply problematic. Right now, in Borough Park and Williamsburg and Monsey and New Square and Kiryas Joel—the largest Hasidic communities in the United States—there are few of these New Happy And Wordly Hasidim; and those who choose to be like them are bound to suffer real consequences.

I am not an identity purist, and I am happy to call anyone a “Hasid” if he or she self-identifies as such. But I also think that language matters, and we need to be specific about terms we use. I love the NHAW Hasidim who seem to be doing wonderful things in their own way. But they’ll have to forgive me if I choose to qualify the term “Hasid” before applying it to them. And New, Happy, and Worldly are good qualifiers to have, I think.

Shulem Deen is the founding editor of Unpious, an online journal for voices on the Hasidic fringe. His work has appeared in Salon, The Brooklyn Rail, Tablet MagazineThe Jewish Daily Forward, and elsewhere. He serves as a board member at Footsteps, a New York City-based organization that offers assistance and support to those who have left the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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