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].

Relat­ed Content: