When I write about books, they tend to be travel-related because — well — I’m a travel editor. But the richly depicted Chasidic world of Shulem Deen’s new “All Who Go Do Not Reurn” can seem so foreign — even to the granddaughter of shtetl-raised Yidden — the memoir feels as transporting as any travelogue.
The central journey, though internal, is set against a vivid backdrop: If you double the Old Tucson equation (“12 miles and a hundred years from town”), then switch out the cowboy hats for shtreimels (fur hats), you start to get a picture of New Square. Twenty-four miles — and at least a couple of centuries — from Manhattan, this stronghold of Skverer Chasidism is where Deen effectively came of age, and ultimately had the crisis of faith that begat his book.
The kind of town where the streets serve as mechitzas — men on one sidewalk, women on the other — “New Square was a place that even extremists thought too extreme,” he writes. “Satmars and Belzers and Lubavitchers, no strangers to fanaticism … shook their heads in dismay. This, they seemed to say, is taking it too far. This is just crazy.”
This, however, is also what drew Deen in: As a disaffected and sect-less Brooklyn Chasid who’d enrolled in a local Skverer yeshiva only because of the lax admission standards, he visited New Square for the first time at the age of 13 and found himself unexpectedly intrigued by the town’s patina of piety. The boys’ payos (sidelocks) were supersized. The men’s gartels — sashes typically reserved for prayer — stayed on as streetwear. “Even the women had a more pious appearance, kerchiefs bound over their wigs more tightly than in Brooklyn.”
“Inexplicably captivated,” he wound up moving to New Square, studying at the mother ship yeshiva, and, at 18, marrying a local girl, of whom he knew almost nothing — and with whom he’d spent almost no time — before the wedding. A shidduch brokered by the respective families and backed by the omnipotent rebbe, the pairing had seemed painfully off, but nonetheless unavoidable, to Deen.
He was right, alas. And an existential awakening that began soon after the wedding brought the couple’s differences into ever sharper relief over the course of 12 years and five children. An early source of marital discord — Deen’s furtive (and by Skverer standards, subversive) trips to a nearby library — gave rise to some of the most arresting lines in the memoir. Of encountering his first secular reference books, he writes: “And then I noticed … a twenty-volume set of World Book Encyclopedias. For the next three hours, I sat on a tiny orange chair at a long green-and-yellow table as the pile of volumes grew beside me. Alongside a little boy paging furiously through the Berenstain Bears, I read about Archimedes and Einstein, about Elvis Presley and Egyptian hieroglyphics … about the production of avocados in central Mexico.”
Inevitably, as his curiosity about the outside world grew and his faith diminished, he had to make some unfathomable choices. Indeed, against the backdrop of the upcoming seders, Deen’s odyssey seems almost a backward Magid: Seeking freedom from his own kind, he embarks on a harrowing journey not to receive the laws, but to respectfully hand them back. And as a reader, one feels privileged to be along for the heartbreakingly beautiful ride.
Abbie Kozolchyk, a Tucson native, lives in Manhattan where she is the beauty and travel director at Everyday with Rachael Ray magazine.