May 4, 2015

#23 Exit & Return, Part I

by Reply All

Background show artwork for Reply All

Shulem Deen was a 22-year old and ultra-religious, a Hasidic Jewish person, when he bought a computer and signed up for America Online in 1996. Until then he'd never had a real conversation with someone outside his community. Sruthi Pinnamaneni tells the story of how the internet ruined his life and how it might save it.

The Facts

Our theme song and closing music are by Breakmaster Cylinder. Our ad music is by Build Buildings.

Additional Reading

Shulem's memoir is called All Who Go Do Not Return.


ALEX GOLDMAN: From Gimlet, this is Reply All, a show about the internet. I'm Alex Goldman. This week we've got an amazing story from our producer Sruthi Pinnamaneni.


PJ VOGT and ALEX: Hey, Sruthi.

ALEX: It's, I don't want to oversell it, but. . .

SRUTHI: I would like for you to oversell it.

ALEX: Oh, done. This is a story of the internet destroying someone's life completely. And it's the story of the internet transforming someone's life for the better.

PJ: And, it's the same person. Sruthi, you want to take the story from here?

SRUTHI: Yeah, so in the part of Brooklyn where I live, this neighborhood called Williamsburg, there is the expected kind of Brooklyn-ness. There's hipsters on bikes. You know, vintage shops and tattoo parlors. And just a couple of blocks down from that there's this entire other thing happening. It's as if you stepped into the 1800's. The people here are all Hasidic. They're orthodox Jews and they all dress in this particular way. The men are wearing long black coats and hats. And they have these two sidelocks that fall just over the ear. The women wearing wigs or headscarves. And everybody is speaking in Yiddish.

PJ: I used to live near williamsburg and at night, like late at night, I would go running and I would run through the neighborhood I guess when services were happening and I felt like I was a ghost from the future and I was just passing through. Nobody reacted to me. Like, I didn’t exist.

SRUTHI: Yeah, and that's the kind of community I’m talking about here. And the story is about this man.

SHULEM DEEN: Cuz I'm not an early morning person.

SRUTHI: Drink lots of coffee, quickly.

SRUTHI: Shulem Deen. The day I met him it was a beautiful spring weather. He was standing outside his house eating eggs out of a styrofoam container. And he had short-cropped hair and was wearing a leather jacket.

ALEX: I mean, correct me if I'm wrong, but that is not the outfit of a, of a Hasidic Jew, right?

SRUTHI: Right, he's an ex-Hasid. But he comes from an ultra orthodox community, that’s even more orthodox than the one in where I live in Brooklyn. It’s called New Square and it's 30 miles north of New York City.He says the New Square hasidim actually see the Brooklyn Hasidim as too cosmopolitan.

SHULEM: They see New York City city buses. They engage with the surrounding culture to a much larger degree. Hasidim in New Square are, they're, they're just completely separate. There's something very, almost storybook-like about the place.

SRUTHI: Shulem told me it was literally built to recreate a shtetl from the old world. The guy who founded it, Rabbi Yakov Yosef Twersky, wanted it to be a complete oasis. Away from the decadence or temptation of the outside world. The yarmulkes here were bigger. Men and women walked on different sides of the street. The houses looked like cottages. And everyone here was Hasidic. Shulem loved it.

SHULEM: I was very attached to my religious studies. I would study for hours and hours. I would never miss a tisch.

SRUTHI: A tisch is a religious feast. Hundreds of men stand on bleachers, all around a dining table where the Rebbe, their spiritual leader, sits. They sing and eat, people drink kosher wine.

SHULEM: There's something about that, like, being part of this, you know, massive organism. We are, together, going to create this oneness.

SRUTHI: So that was his world. A shtetl from the 1880’s. Until one day in 1996, when Shulem bought a computer.

SHULEM: I was working with children at this school. I thought that I would use a computer to create worksheets, particularly to teach children who had difficulty with Talmud study.

SRUTHI: The Hasidic community does use technology. They’re not like the Amish. But they won’t use any technology that brings in the outside world. Radios are banned, so are TV’s, cars are frowned upon because you might drive somewhere you’re not supposed to.

Basically appliances are fine--washing machines, vacuum cleaners, photocopiers. And when computers first came out, they were treated like an appliance. So his new computer arrived and Shulem opened the box and dove into the instructions.

SHULEM: One of the things that came with the computer was a 3.5 floppy disc. Free AOL trial.

So I put in this floppy disc it says, you know, “Welcome! You've got mail!” And there's this whole world! There's news! There's shopping! There' chat rooms.

SRUTHI: Shulem’s mind was blown. He’d never seen anything like it. He showed his wife. “Look, there are all these people, you can talk to them.” And his wife said, “So, it’s like a telephone, except you have to type?” And Shulem was like, “Well, you can speak to strangers!” And she said, “Why would you want to do that?”

So Shulem would go online with the only person in his family who shared his interest. His  3-year-old daughter.

SHULEM: She was also mesmerized by the fact that, you know, this is a computer and this is a printer. And she would keep saying that over and over again: “computer, printer, computer, printer.”

She was as mesmerized by AOL as I was.

SRUTHI: Shulum started his explorations as close to home as he could on this new thing called the internet, an AOL chat room called The Jewish Community.

SHULEM: Like I’m Jewish. I'm the good kind of Jew but here are other Jews. So, you know, let’s have a conversation. Let's, let's hear what they’re about. Cuz I had assumed that if you’re Jewish and you’re not observant it’s probably because you just don’t know. All we need to do is get somebody to teach you the laws and show you and then you'll be totally on board. And suddenly, like, here are people who, no, they knew all about it. They, they, you know, they, they were not ignorant at all. They, you know, and, no, he just, he has a different, different version of Judaism. It, it was a very, very, very new kind of thing for me to hear.

SRUTHI: Shulem discovered he liked hearing new kinds of things. And he wanted to hear more of them. Which meant he got into his car and drove it to a place he was never supposed to go; the one place that contained everything the people of New Square were trying to keep out.

SHULEM: I drove to the public library in Spring Valley. And I just sat there in, like, the children’s section, like, next to a kid, you know, paging furiously through Berenstain Bears. I was reading about you know, whatever the encyclopedia offered. And I, you know, was paging around and then realized, "Oh, it's alphabetical." So, yeah, so I went for the "J" book. In the "J" book there's, there's Jews and there’s Judaism. And I went for the "I" book to say what they say about Israel. It was like, "Wow, there's so much information about Jews. Look at how the goyim look at, like, they know about Jews, too." It was very fascinating to me to see how the writers of a secular encyclopedia perceive Jews and the Jewish religion. They were talking about Jews as if like Albert Einstein and, and Sigmund Freud were important Jews. And, to me, Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud weren't important Jews. Important Jews were like Rashi and the Chasam Sofer, the Baal Shem Tov. Like, why are they bringing these people, like, Theodor Herzl? An important Jew? Like, since when?  

SRUTHI: After Jews, Judaism and Israel, Shulem looked up "C" for computers. And then he looked at pop culture. The Beatles. Bruce Springsteen. And then countries. Botswana. Brazil.  

SHULEM: It wasn’t just acquiring information. It was experiencing exposure. Right? It was almost like I was traveling.

SRUTHI: If there was ever any doubt that the library was a dangerous place for the people of New Square, Shulem was Exhibit A. Just a couple of months after his first visit to the library, he got even deeper into the secular world.

He watched a movie for the first time. Beethoven, the one about a lovable St Bernard. And it didn’t stop there.

SHULEM: I would start going to Blockbuster to get movies. There was something about going into a new place that gave me anxiety. I wasn't sure, like, what do you do? Like, how do you behave? And so, yeah, when I first went to Blockbuster it was really weird because I looked like a Hasid in complete Hasidic garb and browsing the aisles of Blockbuster. And I was absolutely certain that the guy behind the counter had his eye on me.

SRUTHI: Were you worried that somebody would see you?

SHULEM: Oh, God, yes. There was a Babies 'R' Us right there. And many Hasidic women came to shop at Babies "R" Us, and I was always paranoid that there would be some, some mini-van somewhere was some Hasidic guy from Muncy dropping his wife off to Babies "R" Us and they would catch a glimpse of me going into Blockbuster.

SRUTHI: He bought  his own TV. Smuggled out of Costco in a black garbage bag and hidden in his home in a closet. Then, he started reading The New York Times in the back of his car. He was in deep. And constantly worried that someone would catch the stench of secularism on him.

SHULEM: I, I remember once getting out of my car and I had two Blockbuster boxes in my arm. And I would usually stick it into my coat under my arm so that you couldn't see. And, there was one time where I was just coming out of my car with those boxes and they feel on the floor just as two men were passing. And I was absolutely horrified. It's like being naked in public. And I quickly sort of, you know, grabbed them and picked them up and stuck them back under my arm. They didn't give it a second glance. They, they didn't know what the Blockbuster logo was.

SRUTHI: By 2002 though, they did know what the internet was. And they knew it was dangerous. People put up fliers in New Square, laying out a new rule: no computers.  And in Shulem’s community when a rule was passed, it was a big deal.

But the way those rules were actually enforced might surprise you. Enforcement was strict, but also informal. That’s because the people in charge of keeping you in line were usually your neighbors. Which was easy because New Square is very close knit. People actually build houses in each other's backyards. If someone found out you had a secret TV, a volunteer organization called The Modesty Committee might decide to break into your home and confiscate it.

And most people welcomed this. After all, the rules were in place to help them hold onto their faith. To keep them safe from the very thing that happened to Shulem. Just six years after he’d first bought the computer, he was still living like a Hasid, dressing like one. But he didn’t feel like one.

SHULEM: I was struggling with all these questions and was like, “This doesn't make sense, and that doesn't make sense, but maybe, maybe I could live with some sort of cognitive dissonance. And maybe I can just make my peace with that.”

And I remember, one morning, I sort of still have this image in my mind. I was getting ready for prayers. I was no longer praying at the synagogue, but I was like, “Yeah, I still have to pray,” because if I didn't pray my wife would get pissed. And so I'm in our dining room trying to just do my prayers and the tefillin straps, put them on really quickly, and I'm putting my prayer shawl on, and, and I had this thought like, “I'm, I'm not a believer. Like, I'm just not.”

And there was something both liberating about that. About, like, realizing that, okay, the struggle's over. Like, I, I just no longer believe. But at the same time it felt like there, there was this chasm opening up between me and everybody else. And that was getting wider and wider and that was strange and unsettling because I, I didn't want to be different. I really didn’t want to be different. I didn't want to see the world in ways that everybody around me saw the complete opposite.  

SRUTHI: And most scary of all there were people he loved on the other side of that chasm. His family. His five children. Even if he did want to leave, where would he go?

SULEM: I didn't have the concept of, like, "You know, I'm sort of tired of New York, maybe I'll go live in Boston.” Right? That, those things, like you don't think that way when you're in a Hasidic world. You need to be attached. I felt like I couldn't really communicate in English. Yiddish was still a lot more comfortable to me. I lacked just basic references. And now I was feeling imprisoned, and I was getting angrier and angrier and angrier by the day. I had nobody to speak to about it.

PJ: After the break, Shulem finds people to talk to. Lots of people, actually. And the 21ts century and the 19th century finally collide.




PJ: And now, back to the show.

ALEX: So, before the break, Shulem Deen had lost his faith. And he didn’t have anybody to talk to about it.

SRUTHI Except he did have somebody to talk to. The internet. He did what people do when they’re frustrated online.  He started a blog.

And then the first thing I did was, you know I posted a couple links of something that interested me in the news—it was un—nobody was reading. And then one day I got really angry about something that happened. And it happened in Williamsburg.

SRUTHI: Shulem being Shulem, the thing that made him mad was complicated and religious. It had to do with the laws of Sabbath. During Sabbath, there are things that orthodox Jews are not allowed to do outside their homes. No carrying objects, even something small like keys. No pushing prams.

But in some orthodox communities they put up what’s called an eruv. Literally, a long piece of string around a big section of the neighborhood to turn it into a private space, so you’re sort of inside your home. A lot orthodox communities do this. There’s an eruv in Jerusalem. But the eruv can be controversial, too. Some orthodox communities think it’s cheating.

SHULEM: So this group that they were going to put an eruv Williamsburg so that people can carry. And this other group decided they can’t. And there were these, you know, weekly scuffles. And people were just beating each other up and, and spitting at each other. People would be yelling at women who were pushing baby strollers.

SRUTHI: And then one Saturday, there was some intense fighting. People got arrested, The New York Times wrote about it.

SHULEM: And I was really, really, really angry. Like, you think you shouldn't have an eruv so don’t use it. And so I wrote about it, and I just said, like, "What the fuck is going on." Like, why is our society so dysfunctional, so messed up.

SRUTHI: The blog got a lot of attention from the outside world. Newspapers wrote about it. So, to protect himself, Shulem changed the blog’s title to a pseudonym: Hasidic Rebel. But even if people in his community didn’t know that he was blogging, they started to notice that there was something off about him.

Like, one day he was riding the hasidic bus, openly reading a scandalous book.

SRUTHI: What’s the book?

SHULEM: The book is called One People, Two Worlds: An Orthodox Rabbi and a Reformed Rabbi Discuss the Issues That Divide Them.

SRUTHI: The man next to him, someone he knew, asked about the book.

SHULEM: And so his first question was, “This is interesting for you this.” I was like, "Yeah, I'm kind of curious to see. You know, it's fascinating discussion, back and forth." He's not letting it go. And he keeps saying, "But, but how can you read this. But it's heresy." He starts screaming at me. "Kefira. Heresy. This [unintelligible]" And he was not red in the face. And then he sort of, like, lunged at me and tried to grab the book out of my hand and we sort of had like a tug-of-war, like, back and was pushing him and he's pushing me. I just like elbowed him in the chest and got the book back and grabbed my briefcase and then just went to the back of the bus.

SRUTHI: Shulem’s behavior continued to deteriorate. It was like he was becoming New Square’s version of Lindsay Lohan. He stopped attending synagogue and during prayers he would hang out in an empty classroom where a couple other young Hasidic men, also doubters, started to turn up. People in his community were whispering that he was Hasidic Rebel.

And then one Sunday evening in 2005, Shulem was having dinner with his family, when he got a phone call. A man asked if he could come to the village council that night.

SHULEM: I thought they want to have a chat with me. There were rumors. They wanted to get to the bottom of it. I was anxious. I knew this would not be pleasant.

SRUTHI: In the room there’s a table of seven men. Rabbis and village elders.

SHULEM: So the first thing they said is, "We hear rumors that you’re a nonbeliever." They said I need to leave. Not just like give up your synagogue membership but they ordered me to move, sell my house, get out, get out of town. And, I didn’t see that coming.

SRUTHI: Shulem tried to reason with them, to buy himself more time.

SHULEM: And I said I’d have to go home and talk to my wife and see how she feels about it. They were expecting this.

One of the rabbis sort of nodded or signalled to another one. And the other one took a, a document out of his pocket and said, "Read this." And it was a document that, like, an open letter to the orthodox Jewish community saying that this person Shulem Deen has been found to hold heretical views and an agitator and an instigator, which is a traditional term, a Talmudic term for people who try to turn others away, for people who try to corrupt others and therefore just stay away from him. And don't employ him. Don't let him into your homes. Don't let him into your schools. Don't let him into your synagogues. Like, don't let your kids be friends with his kids. At that point I realized, okay, they’re not messing around. They want me out of here.

SRUTHI: So Shulem left. He moved with his family to another Hasidic town nearby. But his wife couldn’t get comfortable there. His kids didn’t have any friends and they missed their old home. And his wife, understandably, resented Shulem for all this. For dragging her along on his shameful journey into secularism. So after a few years, Shulem and his wife agreed to divorce. The kids would visit on weekends. Shulem was an atheist at this point, but he played the part of a good Hasidic father when he kids visited.

SHULEM: I would wear my shtreimel. I would wear, you know, the long coat. The sort of faux silk kind of thing that you wear on the Sabbath. And I would take them to shul. We would have the Shabbos meals and we would sing songs and I would tell them when they're doing something that is a violation of the laws of the Sabbath.

SRUTHI: He didn’t tell them about the world. But at times he was tempted. Like when his eldest daughter, then 12, told him she was practicing for a dance recital at her yeshiva.

SHULEM: It seemed to me, like, you know these kids are, are like they've never really seen real dance and I wish I could show them the dance sequence in Fiddler on the Roof. I really wanted my daughter to see West Side Story.

SRUTHI: Why? Like what did you think would happen if she saw it? Like, what do you think would happen in her?

SHULEM: It, she would be delighted and I wanted her to be delighted. But I, I could never show them those things. Like, that, that I couldn't do.

SRUTHI: But it didn’t matter that Shulem tried to shield his kids from outside influences. He’d become one of those outside influences. Nobody trusted him anymore and slowly, one by one, his kids said they didn’t want to visit. So Shulem ended up going to family court to force his ex-wife to send them.

SHULEM: The court ordered them to come. And they came and they simply would not engage. They would not look at me. They would not speak to me. They would not eat any of my food. They had become very suspicious of me. I love my children like, like, I mean, you have children. Anyone who has children and they're attached to them, you love them, right? They wouldn’t look at me. They wouldn't speak to me.

I asked, "Do you really never want to see me again? Like is that actually what you want?" That, that's, that was my question to them and they said, "Yes." That's what they said.

And so I made this decision to say to them, "I'm not going to force you." In hindsight, I, I still don't know if that was the right thing to do. Maybe, and sometimes I think like maybe I shouldn’t' have given it. Maybe I should have been like, "No!" You know "Court ordered you to be here and I don't care if this kills you. You will spend two hours in my home every single week for the rest of your childhood life." Right.

But I didn't think this would be final. I, I absolutely - I could, I could not have imagined it.

SRUTHI: When I met Shulem last month, it had been seven years since he’s since his kids. He does still keep tabs on them though. There are a couple guys in New Square that he does favors for. And in return for those favors, these guys secretly photograph his kids when they see them in public. Shulem gets the photos on his phone.

SHULEM: And so, yeah, so he just sent me this.

SRUTHI: Oh, wow. He looks like you.

SHULEM: Does he?

SRUTHI: He does.

Pictures of one son at the grocery store, almost ready for his bar mitzvah. Pictures of his other son, his youngest, biking down the street. And of his eldest daughter, the one that sat in his lap when he surfed AOL chat rooms, he watched her getting married.

SRUTHI: Where were you during the wedding?

SHULEM: In that room crying?

SRUTHI: Shulem spent the evening in front of his computer. He had his spies, two on the girl’s side and two on the boy’s side, emailing him photos as the wedding was happening.

SHULEM: I don't know how to describe that feeling of getting those first photos of like, oh my God, this is actually her like getting married. Like I hadn't seen here. She was a little, sullen angry teenager and now, like, she's a bride. It was insane to me and I was sitting there and, and like, and then I get more photos. And I had, all I could do was just sit there and look at the photos and cry.

SRUTHI: Do you think it was like the finality of the situation? Or, what, what's the thing that was most distressing?

SHULEM: It was, it was my kids, my family having a celebration without me. Just give me a sec. And here is my daughter and, and I saw photos of my other daughters and my sons and they're happy  even though I'm not there. Like how could she be so happy. It felt selfish. Like, I shouldn’t be thinking that.

And, you know, the weird thing is I don't know if other people have this with their oldest ones. There was something about when she was born that was that had lifted me out of a, a pretty dark place about getting married to someone that I didn't really want to get married to.

One of the things that happened when I saw those photos was that until then I had missed my daughter in a way that I thought, like I loved her so much that I thought that somewhere underneath there must be some magic way to sort of, you know, get that spark rekindled. Right? Like, somewhere she still remembers me as a father. And I Saw those photos and I was like, you know what, maybe she doesn’t care. And so there was, like, there was something that was over.

SRUTHI: I asked Shulem, given everything that happened, if he ever wished he hadn’t put that AOL floppy disk in his computer..

SHULEM: Look, God knows I lost so much. I, I don’t speak about what I went through in the three, four, five years I was quasi-homeless for a while. I was living in a place where  had to use industrial-strength poison to get rid of the mice and when they left I got rats literally. But you need to take the journeys that you need to take and, and I think that staying. . .No, no, you do not want to stay ignorant. You do not want to stay in a world where, where you have no information.

SRUTHI: But, like, if you knew today that you would never get your children back, that there will never be a point in time for the rest of your life that one of them will would call you or reach out to you, would you still feel that way?

SHULEM: Well, when I put in the AOL disc, I wasn't miserable. At that point, I was, I was pretty OK within the community and if I really knew that slipping in that disc, if it meant giving up my children, if it meant losing those seven years, no I would not have chosen it, because I would have been too weak to do that.

If you ask me, "Was this the right step for you. Of course it was. Of course it was. And that's where it is meaningful to say your children will come back."

SRUTHI: Shulem and his kids are now firmly on opposite sides of the chasm. They’re both trapped there by the things they now believe. Shulem can’t go back to believing what he used to. So instead, he’s traded one kind of faith for another.  He now has to believe that one day, his kids, some of them anyway, will join him on his side.

PJ: Sruthi Pinnamaneni is a producer for our show. Next week, we're actually going to continue Shulem's story. We'll find out how the very internet that took him away from his family and tore him from his community, how that internet might actually bring him back. And we’ll hear the other side of this. How stories like this one look to the Hasidic community. That’s right, we’re doing our first two parter.

Reply All is hosted by me, PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman. We were produced this week by Tim Howard, Sruthi Pinnamaneni and edited by Alex Blumberg.

We were mixed by David Herman. Shulem's written a book about his experience. It's called All Who Go Do Not Return. You can find a link to buy it on website if you're interested.

Special thanks to Sylvie Douglis, Emma Jacobs, James Helmsworth and Nellie Gilis. Matt Lieber's a window in a room where you didn't think there was one.

Our theme music is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder and our ad music is by Build Buildings.

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