Shulem Deen, All Who Go Do Not Return

3486022When I wrote about The Pious Ones, I encoutered Shulem Deen. Joseph Berger had written about him in a NY Times article entitled ‘Outcast Mother’s Death…” and in another article in Tablet magazine which reveals a basic insight into Deen’s struggles to stay connected to his children after he left his Chassidic sect.

Deen was raised in the Skverer Chassidic sect; a closed and chaste community where questioning is not encouraged and thinking outside of the prescribed parameters are grounds for excommunication.

Having read about Deen’s journey in other books and having a connected to The Pious Ones, I was intrigued when I saw All Who Go Do Not Return on the bookshelf in a little shop in Newton Centre, Boston. I read Deen’s book as a captive audience on a plane, a long flight home. I was mesmerised from the first words:

“I wasn’t the first 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 formed their own prayer group, the young man rumoured to have studied 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.”

Allow me to preface this review with this fact: I have a deep fascination with Chassidic communities. On many levels, I am in awe of their unique characteristics, of their connectedness, their sense of community and the importance they place on family. On the flip side, I am fascinated by how whole communities can function like isolated microcosms inside a whole other world without engaging with that outside world or engaging only in limited terms. Consequently, this book filled a valuable space in my fascination – what happens when people don’t fit into the mould of a specific community? What happens when they are so much outside of that mould that it becomes untenable for them to stay within the community – what happens to the community and what happens to them?

Shulem Deen’s book is beautifully written, so beautifully written that I found myself wondering how a man who only had a primary school education in English could write like this as an adult … That aside, Deen’s pages are filled with magnificent prose and deep yearning and furious turmoil, taut and torn and challenging and above all, very very sad.

I am glad I read Deen’s book. I think it’s an important contribution to this genre of writing. For me, a book always leaves a particular taste in my mouth, and wtih this book, the taste was overwhelming sadness. I admire Deen for the tough decisions that he has had to make in his life and I respect the path that he has chosen but I can’t escape the enormous loss that he will carry with him always – not knowing his children, his grandchildren and extended family. It reads like a type of death.

So, while I loved this book and definitely feel its infinite value, it left me very raw and not just fleetingly. Rather, what I was left with was a dull ache for Shulem Deen, a clearly lovely and intelligent man, and his children who have lost more than they will probably ever realise and then for all the other people who don’t have Deen’s courage and live locked up in lives that slowly suffocate them.

This would be a wonderful book for a bookclub – there is so much to discuss! If you’ve read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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