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When Your Judaism Demands More Than You Can Give

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Shortly after I finished reading Shulem Deen’s memoir All Who Go Do Not Return, about his life as a member of an insular Hassidic community, I gave it to a Shabbat guest to read. I went to take a Shabbat nap. When I woke up a few hours later, she had already read the first 260 pages.
 
It’s that good.
 
And that readable.
 
And so, so sad.
 
Shulem Deen lived as a Skverer Hasid. Married young and almost completely shielded from the outside world, Deen began to rebel in small ways. A few weeks into his marriage, he brought home a cassette player. His wife was horrified by the device because, in addition to the tape player, it also had a radio tuner. Listening to the radio introduces new, and forbidden, ideas into the home and was, therefore, off-limits in their world. Standard procedure in their community was to, “Krazy Glue the switch into the tape-playing position, paste a strip of masking tape over the station indicators, and put the antenna out with the next day’s trash.” (p. 120)
 
Instead, Deen sneaked into his own kitchen late one night, silently put in a set of earphones and turned the radio on. Until that moment, he had been so shielded from the outside world that radio commercials, traffic reports and talk shows felt alluring, like stepping into exotic, dangerous waters.
 
The next morning, Deen’s wife confronted him about his stolen radio moments. “You promised you’d disable it,” she said. “It starts with radio and the next thing you know, you’re eating trayf [non-kosher] and driving on Shabbos.” (p. 122)
 
To our modern, worldly ears, her assertion sounds absurd, but in fact, her words were prophetic. Forbidden by his community to have access to any part of the larger world, Deen is forced to leave. Cast out of the community, stumbling into the modern world, he might as well have been an alien from another planet. He had to learn nearly everything from scratch.
 
Many readers will take a measure of voyeuristic pleasure in reading about a society that is so sequestered that listening to commercial radio is considered a great sin. Hopefully, just as many readers will be moved by Deen’s obvious intelligence and his fluid prose, especially considering that Yiddish, not English, is his mother tongue.
 
In the end, one cannot help but sigh with the understanding that Deen was forced to give up absolutely everything he cherished in order to be true to his own beliefs. You'll likely want to both high-five him for his courage and hug him in consolation.
 
All Who Go Do Not Return is a shameful portrait about how a loving God and the Judaism that was meant to be life-affirming can be bled dry. It's also a haunting, beautiful, ultimately heartbreaking book about the price some people have to pay to live with authenticity.

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