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True Happiness (Shemot – 01/06)

Rabbi Neil SchumanTrue Happiness

Over the snowstorm, I read an intriguing autobiography titled “All who go, do not return” by Shulem Deen.

Shulem was a Skverer Hasid, those who live in the private village of New Square in Monroe County, New York.

Hasidim, in general, are insular folk, speaking mainly Yiddish and dressing as though they’re in the 19th  century in Poland, but the Skverer Hasidim are the most insular of all them all. Not only are none of them taught English and math and the sciences, but also since newspapers in general spread heresy (according to them), then even Jewish Chassidic newspapers are not kosher.

Girls are raised only to be mothers and they never learn in school from a man. Their only contact with men is from their family. Once they get married at around age 18, their goal is to have children. The girls are then on a repetitive cycle of being groomed to be solely mothers one generation after the next.

The boys are taught only Torah. When they mature, if they don’t make it as a teacher of Torah, they have to learn a skill on their own. None of them complete schooling with even H.S. diplomas, so this puts them at a severe disadvantage.

With Chasidim, there’s not rationality, just faith. Faith in their traditions and their leader, called a rebbe. If you become one of them, you’re expected to conform 100%. There’s no, I do this and not this. One person from Boro Park moved to New Square, but wanted to have his son’s bris in Boro Park, where his father is a rabbi. The Skverer Hasidim slashed his tires and broke all the widows in his car for his insolence of breaking with the tradition of having the bris by the Rebbe in New Square.

Something was different about Shulem. He initially bought into the New Square ways, but his soul wanted more. He was curious about the outside world, science, and reasons for belief.

He bought a car and made clandestine visits to the local library. He discovered the internet and secretly bought a computer. His waywardness even led him to the greatest impurity of them all, the TV, which he hid under lock and key.

The more he learned, the more he yearned to shed his payos and shtreimel, and go out into the world and learn. But in New Square, everything that wasn’t their way was traif, impure, the way of Satan.

He just wanted to be able to be himself, without being judged. He started a blog called the Hasidic Rebel, eventually gaining thousands of followers.

He had met his wife for 7 minutes before they were engaged. Now, when he wants to change and live the life he dreams, he has to consider the fate of five beautiful children and a wife who’s clueless to his needs. All improper actions will impute not just him, but his whole family.

“I wanted to no more than a world in which I was not lying and hiding. I wanted the freedom to simply be who I was without fear or shame.”

Eventually, he made the leap. He divorced his wife, cut his payos, put on jeans and enrolled in community college. Yet, life was far from his envisioned dream, for he didn’t know how to socialize among women, among non-Jews, among anyone not Hasidic.

He gained his emotional, psychological and religious freedom, but he lost contact with his children and he cut himself off from all his friends and community. He found himself lonely and depressed.

“Months passed and I found myself with a loneliness I had not anticipated. For nearly fifteen years, my wife and children had been right beside me. I’d had scores of friends, hundreds of acquaintances and a community of thousands. Suddenly unmoored, I began to worry, how was I going to replace it all?”

The lack of friends and social connections nearly killed him. He entered a rehab for being close to suicide.

How ironic, to gain all that one desires and yearns for, and then to learn that without friends, without those to love and share, freedom means nothing.

Eventually, he found friendship through socializing with other Hasidim who went on similar paths to his.

I found this book very gripping and moving. In some ways, Shulem’s search for truth was similar to mine. But the most powerful lesson was that attaining one’s dreams doesn’t necessarily lead to happiness. Without family, friendship, caring and supportive circles, what good is truth and freedom?

In our day and age of divisive tweets and glaring issues such as war with Korea, climate change, women’s and LGBT rights, it’s important to take positions and strive for change. We need to be vocal and active to make this world a better place. But  we need to remember not to ostracize our loved ones, for without friends and family, all our efforts may not mean much.

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