‘What is yiddishkeit?’: Brooklyn artist explains ‘Jews of Today’

"Hungarian Dress," one of the Michael Levin drawings that will be on view at 7 Dunham in Williamsburg from July 20 to July 31.  Credit: Michael Levin
“Hungarian Dress,” one of the Michael Levin drawings that will be on view at 7 Dunham in Williamsburg from July 20 to July 31.
Credit: Michael Levin

Many New Yorkers have walked through Williamsburg and wondered what dictates the distinctive dress of the Hasidic Jewish community there.

Williamsburg-based artist Michael Levin is one of those New Yorkers: he first moved to Williamsburg in 2007; his fascination with the Hasidim there soon prompted him to move further from so-called hipster Williamsburg and deeper into the area populated predominantly by Hasidim.

“I kind of sought this neighborhood out after a while,” Levin explained. “At first I think seeing Hasidic Jews was very exciting to me, and then it became this consuming thing like I needed to be around them more, see them more.”

But he said finding information was like gathering tiny puzzle pieces: a lot of questions and internet research turned up only isolated snippets here and there, no full picture.

“You can’t really go to a book, at least not one in English, that will cover everything,” he explained.

That is no longer the case: Levin’s book is the culmination of all of that research, including information gleaned from developing relationships with “a decent number of Hasidic Jews and ex-Hasidic Jews.”

Jews of Today an art book about Hasidic dress
“Ger Dress” by Michael Levin.

“Part of the process was moving to a Hasidic part of Williamsburg and just kind of going fly-on-the-wall,” he said. “Ultimately it was very tricky because honestly, it still is a learning experience. It’s very difficult to ask people person questions about how they live their lives and have them not get cagey and offended.”

The risk of offense is particularly acute with this very insular community, Levin noted.

“I think I got lucky a couple of times, that kind of just happened by chance,” he said. “And you know, like any network, it kind of built itself after a while.”

Levin’s mother converted to Orthodox Judaism before he was born, so he is undeniably Jewish in accordance with Jewish custom, religion being inherited from the mother. But he said the fact that she was not actually born Jewish has incurred dismissive responses from others in the Jewish community.

“I definitely grew up with almost all my Jewish friends being like, you’re definitely not as Jewish because your mom and dad weren’t both born Jewish,” he recalled. “And even myself, feeling like I’m not as Jewish.” 

“My relationship with my own ethnicity was… always harder to pin down because my mother converted, so I’ve always grown up with a dual identity.”

He said the unity he saw in the Hasidim was a big part of what drew him.

“I think I was a little bit jealous and a little bit kind of awestruck,” he said. “Jews who put their group identity before everything else in a way I couldn’t imagine doing. Wouldn’t it be so cool to have a tribe that you never questioned?”

“Jews of Today” is Levin’s first book. A reception for its release at 7 Dunham in Williamsburg on Saturday, June 20 is also the opening night of a ten-day gallery show featuring drawings from this series.

The book will not be the end of his exploration into this community: Levin said there are many more facets and questions he aims to explore.

“The women’s side of the equation is something I want to deal with in the future,” Levin said, but emphasized the personal self-reflective nature of this book, saying he never wanted to approach it “with the responsibility an ethnographer would have about being even-handed.”

Williamsburg Brooklyn artist on Hasidic Jewish dress
“Royal Teitelbaums” by Michael Levin.

“Definitely my heart is with the men because I see myself in them,” he said. The book not a documentary, but rather an artist’s memoir of “my time in the community and what I’m able to learn here.”

 

If you go

Michael Levin: Jews of Today

7 – 10 pm

Saturday, July 20

7 Dunham, South Williamsburg

 

Follow Danielle Tcholakian on Twitter @danielleiat



News
Entertainment
Sports
Lifestyle
Local

MAP: New York City Street Closures August 22,…

The Percy Sutton Harlem 5K and NYC Family Health Walk-a-thon and Pakistan Day Parade and Fair will cause traffic delays and street closures in New York City this weekend. Plan…

International

U.N. nuclear inquiry on Iran seen making slow…

The U.N. nuclear watchdog appears to have made only limited progress so far in getting Iran to answer questions about its suspected atomic bomb research, diplomatic sources said on Friday,…

National

Violence-weary Missouri town sees second night of calm

By Nick Carey and Carey GillamFERGUSON Mo. (Reuters) - The violence-weary town of Ferguson, Missouri, saw a second straight evening of relative calm on Thursday…

National

Journalist James Foley's parents, after call with pope,…

The parents of James Foley, the American journalist killed by Islamic State militants in Iraq, on Friday called for prayer and support to free the remaining captives held by Islamic…

Television

Recap: 'The Knick,' Season 1, Episode 3, 'The…

The third episode of Steven Soderbergh's "The Knick" finds Dr. Thackery (Clive Owen) meeting an old flame and other characters embracing self-destruction.

Music

Webcast: Watch Polyphonic Spree live on Sunday Aug.…

Polyphonic Spree singer Tim DeLaughter sits with Metro Music Editor Pat Healy for a chat and then the big band performs live. It begins on Sunday at 9:30 pm

Movies

Matthew Weiner on directing 'Are You Here' and…

"Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner discusses his movie "Are You Here," his history writing comedy and the tiny movie he directed in 1996 you can't see.

Movies

Michael Chiklis on his football past and 'When…

Michael Chiklis remembers playing football in high school and how that prepped him to play a coach in "When the Game Stands Tall."

NFL

3 things we learned about the Giants in…

The Giants claimed the Snoopy trophy in a battle of MetLife Stadium tenants Friday night. But more importantly, the offense finally showed some life in…

NFL

3 things we learned about the Jets in…

The Jets lost the Snoopy Bowl, 35-24, to the Giants, losing the trophy and local bragging rights.

NFL

Fantasy football draft guide: How to draft your…

Many are wondering if we’re entering a new age in fantasy football drafting — one where running backs take a backseat.

NFL

Jets vs. Giants: 3 Giants storylines to watch

The Giants have plenty to work on as they reach the dress rehearsal preseason game Friday night against the rival Jets.

Wellbeing

Asics is giving away free gear around NYC…

Asics wants to see you on the court - and in the stands for the U.S. Open, which begins Monday - by giving away free…

Sex

Big weddings may lead to long-term happiness

Dreaming of a big wedding? A new study indicates that the longer your guest list, the happier you’ll be in the long run. l A…

Sex

Online dating for every generation

Frank Jackson and his mother Maggie are like lots of modern families: They have dinner together regularly, keep each other updated on their lives —…

Wellbeing

Going green could be the key to getting…

If we could just pursue the things that would actually make us happy, we could help the environment too, according to a New York researcher.…