Thursday, April 2, 2015

Pre-view of Shulem Deen's All Who Go Do Not Return

“I wasn’t the first one to be expelled from our village, though I’d never known any of the others. I’d only heard talk of them, hushed reminiscences of ancient episodes in the history of our half-century-old village, tales of various subversives who sought to destroy our fragile unity. The group of Belzers who tried to form their own prayer group, the young man rumored to have studies the books of the Breslovers, even the rebbe’s own brother-in-law, accused of fomenting sedition against the rebbe.
          But I was the first to be expelled for heresy.”
-  Shulem Deen, All Who Go Do Not Return, Chapter one

I cannot think of any better paragraph that one could have used when starting to write, and read, a book about this community. It captures in depth the essence of the Hasidic life style today as a whole, and even more specifically the one of New Square. It shows what they value, and it shows where their heads are. While I do not know if Shulem chose these three examples (Belz, Breslov, Rebbe’s brother in law) direct, it is interesting that two of them are people that without them there would have been no New Square.[1] Yet, the second generation has no problem expelling them. This view of ‘we have a goal (in this case - ensuring the kingdom of Duvid Twersky, AKA the Rebbe) and everything, regardless of morals and ethics is okay in order to get there,’ is something that speaks a lot about 20th century Hasidic society. After that, they struggle with something they cannot grasp - Heresy. The irony is amusing.
I refused, until today, to pick up this book, knowing that I will not be able to put it down, and you know, School. Now, for the traditional Jewish celebration of freedom, I am starting to read it. I know that I will not acquire any freedom in my mind while reading it, and reliving my own experience. From what I understand, knowing bits and pieces of Shulem’s story and from what I read in reviews, All Who Go Do Not Return is, thus far, doing the best - written - job in reassembling my own life experiences. There is something exceptional about reading a memoir and relate to it in so many ways, it takes you over. Henceforth, I believe that it helps reflect on one’s own experience, and get a purer image of the past, and through that, a greater vision on the future.
            I am not from New Square, but I did live for three years in the Village of Kaser. I was not part of the Skver’er sect, but I was part of a scat that is strikingly similar - Vizhnitz. From this standpoint, Shulem’s experience in the cult(ure) of New Square is one that I strongly relate to. Even more, Skver is/was part of my identity; it is in my blood - literally, something that I will never be able to run away from, my family heritage is, and should be un-exchangeable. In addition, I was raised with an extremely romanticize view of New Square and his late founder, my uncle “The Skverer Fether” with whom my paternal grandfather has an excessive fascination. So, I feel closely related to this place - which at the current point in my life, I strongly abject. Yet, I cannot run away from the deep two fold - emotional and intellectual - interest to read a firsthand experience, written by such an amazing fellow.
             Shulem’s writings were among the first so called “OTD (- Off The Derech) Blogs” that I read when I was on my way out. I have a tremendous respect for his intellect, and even more the work that he is doing for our community.[2] When I first met him, it felt like meeting a celebrity, but I quickly realized that he as down to earth and ready to help a new comer, as much as possible and beyond. Shulem was the first person, with whom I discussed Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion, it was an amazingly informative conversation, and some of it guides me until today. In addition, I only realized after that how amazing he was at listening to my fresh perspectives, at a time that most of my reflections were narrow minded, and even foolish. He was talking to me as if I am equivalent to him in the subject; this is a skill that I admire most.
            All of the above are my overall reflections that I encounter when I am ascending on the journey of reading, and re-experiencing this book. This whole post might sound weird to some people, but I felt the need to express them, so to get the most out of it. I contentedly think that every article, and obviously so much more, book, that is being written on these insular communities, and the experience of these leaving it, is another crack in the iron curtain. This is not just a memoir that tells an inspiring story, but it is another step towards making the Jewish world, and the whole world, a better and freer space. Take my post not as a review, but rather a pre-view of All Who Go Do Not Return, what I personally hope to get out of it, and hope it will effectively help others.
            Now I can go read, feel, experience and reflect, And maybe write a re-view on my pre-view.  

[1]. The Belz’e Hasidim in America clinked with the late Skver’a Rebbe being that his wife was one of the only three grandkids of the previous Belz’a Rebbe that survived the holocaust. After the war (and in some sense already after world war I) there were only a handful of original Skver Hasidim that survived, and most people that identified with the late Skver’a Rebbe were new comers, with a big percent of them being Belz Hasidim. When New Square was founded many of the Belz Hasidim helped out, and where among the very first residence.
The Rebbe’s brother in law is the Rabbi Chai Yitzchak Twersky of Rachmastrivka, son in law of the late Rebbe. He was his father in law right hand and go to person when he founded New Square, and he was the one who helped the current Rebbe take power after his father passed away.
[2]. First with his sites, like his blog, and later on by founding Unpious - Voice of the Hasidic Fringe, that gave a voice to the unheard and sometimes silenced voices. As well as his numerous articles in several online magazine that raised awareness to issues unique to our OTD community.
In addition to that he joined the board of the our amazing lifesaving organization “Footsteps,” which helps so many individual make a health and safe self-determined transition from into the world. 

Just as a note: this post was written as an assignment for a class at Columbia University.