This is a fascinating and well-written memoir of the author’s life within (and after leaving) an extreme sect of Hasidism. From other reviews, I see that there is a whole subgenre of ex-Hasidic memoirs, which is news to me; I can say that this one is accessible even for those who know little about Judaism, much less Hasidism.
Shulem Deen joined the Skverers as a teenager, having grown up in a somewhat less restrictive family in New York City. He reluctantly agreed to an arranged marriage, and soon had five children – and few options for supporting them, as Hasidic education tends to focus on religious studies and ancient Jewish law to the exclusion of all else (knowledge of ancient temple rites and the appropriate restitution when your neighbor’s ox falls into your pit won’t get you far in the modern world). As he grew older, he began to question the Hasidic way of life and the validity of religion. But his leaving the faith tore his family apart.
Deen is a good writer and excellent storyteller, and the book captured my attention from the beginning. His stories of Skverer life are fascinating; to a modern American, it is an alien world. Many people in the community won’t even say the world “television,” as that equipment is considered so profane, and the naiveté about sexual matters is such that on his wedding night, Deen had to call a religious instructor to ask what to do. Religion and custom impact every aspect of people’s lives; even taking public transportation is discouraged, though there are special Hasidic commuter buses with a curtain to separate men and women. It is astonishing that such a society – determined to behave as if it was still in the Ukraine of the 19th century – can exist in the 21st, within commuting distance of New York City.
But of course, the modern world can’t be ignored entirely, and Deen also writes about his loss of faith and journey into the wider world in a compelling way. And we see how hard it is to leave that tight-knit community; Deen has no one outside of it, his wife is committed to the Skverers, and this is a group that will force the children to choose between him, and everything and everyone else they know.
Despite the personal and emotional subject matter, though, Deen’s writing is evenhanded throughout, and never feels self-righteous. He freely acknowledges that other people in his life would tell the story of these events differently, and doesn’t turn anyone into a villain. And the material isn’t all heavy; moments like this one made me laugh out loud:
“At age eleven, two friends and I, overcome with curiosity, asked an Italian boy near our school to tell us ‘the meaning of F.’
‘The meaning of F?’ the boy asked.
‘Yes,’ we said. ‘You know. The F-word. What does it mean?’”
Ultimately, while I’m not over the moon about this book, I found it to be a gripping and well-told story, offering a window on a way of life I knew nothing about, as well as a candid account of the author’s difficult personal journey. It is thoughtful, nuanced, and tasteful, and its portrayal of people and relationships rings true. I enjoyed and would recommend it.