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

Relat­ed Content:

Shulem Deen is a for­mer Skver­er Hasid and the found­ing edi­tor of Unpious. His work has appeared in The Jew­ish Dai­ly For­ward, Tablet, and Salon. He lives in Brook­lyn, NY.