All Who Go Do Not Return: A Memoir by Shulem Deen
This book is a memoir written by a once pious yeshiva boy living in an insular Hasidic community turned Brooklyn hipster. The story of how that transformation happened, the spiritual and social struggle, is really fascinating.
As a Reform Jew, as far philosophically from the Hasidic form of Judaism as one can get and still remain Jewish, it was interesting to me to read about the rituals and prayers that were at once familiar and yet so differently presented and considered. As someone who lives a largely secular life, it was fascinating to see from the inside a group of people who shun radio and television and newspapers in order to devote themselves entirely to the spiritual.
But that wasn’t really what the book was about. The book was about Shulem the man, and his relationship to the community and God and the comfort he took in ritual and predictable expectations. Unfortunately for Shulem and his inquisitive mind, blind faith wasn’t possible for him, and he set about asking questions in a society which didn’t allow questions. Married at 18 to a bride he’d known for all of seven minutes prior to the ceremony, and the father of five lively children by his mid-twenties, any choice he makes and any question he asks affects the lives of his loved ones as much as him. His knowledge of Jewish law is great; his knowledge of English minimal; his job prospects virtually non-existent. He doesn’t know what to do until the decision is made for him, summarily.
Ultimately, this is a book about a spiritual quest, asking more questions than it answers. Shulem struggles to balance the comfort of an insular community with its known quantities with intellectual honesty and being comfortable in his own skin. He struggles with setting an example for his children and being with them, and what sort of role model he wants to be. He struggles to find ways to love the rituals without believing them divinely ordained.
Although this is a book about a Jewish community, and the spiritual struggles are within this context, there are larger themes about faith itself, ritual, education, and parenting that would appeal to anyone. He tries to reconcile his scientific understanding with his faith, which is something many of us have to do. With religious extremism in the news for so many reasons, this tender, honest, and critical portrait of a variation on that theme is enlightening. Plus, it is interesting to read about a society that is geographically amongst us and yet couldn’t be farther away from typical American life if it were based on Neptune. Passages like this are great food for thought: “Zeal compensates for fear. A soldier is whipped into a jingoistic frenzy before battle — because how else does one withstand the fear of death? The religious zealot who shouts, beats, and kills is perhaps not the one who is secure with his faith but the one who is so fearful of the challenges, so aware of the fickleness of conviction, that he has no choice but to strengthen it with the drumbeat of mindless fanaticism.” Think about that — I dare you not to!
This is one of those books I’m going to think about for a long time.
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Lori B. Duff is an award-winning author who practices law on the side. Her latest book, “If You Did What I Asked in the First Place” was a number one Amazon Hot New Release in the Fall of 2019. You can follow her on Twitter at @LoriBDuff and on Facebook. For more blogs written by Lori, click here. For more information about Lori in general, click here. If you want Lori to do your writing for you, click here.