‘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
National

At 91, Marvel creator Stan Lee continues to…

By Piya Sinha-RoyLOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Marvel Entertainment's chief emeritus Stan Lee may be in his ninth decade, but it hasn't stopped him from adding…

National

Islamic State says beheads U.S. journalist, holds another

Islamic State insurgents released a video purportedly showing the beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley, who had gone missing in Syria nearly two years ago.

Local

VIDEO: NYPD seeks shooter in East New York…

Cops are on the lookout for an unknown shooter who aimed and missed hitting a man on a bicycle, instead nearly striking a nearby officer in East New York.

Local

NYS state forces thrift shops comply with ban…

Nine New York City thrift shops were reprimanded by the state attorney general for selling children's clothes with drawstrings around the neck and waist.

Television

'Pretty Little Liars' recap: Season 5, Episode 11,…

Caleb's not a ghost. Spencer might still be an attempted murderer. And Hanna's going to die next week. In other words, we actually got some…

Movies

At 91, Marvel creator Stan Lee continues to…

Marvel Entertainment's Stan Lee is adding outposts to his creative empire to interest a new generation of children in super heroes of all shapes and sizes.

Television

Mira Sorvino explores immortality on 'Intruders'

Mira Sorvino's new show "Intruders" centers around a secret society that achieves immortality by taking over the bodies of other people.

Television

5 things you need to know about new…

"Doctor Who" returns Saturday with a new star, Peter Capaldi. Here's some things to know about him (mainly his turn as sweary spin doctor Malcolm Tucker).

MLB

Shane Greene travels unlikely road to Yankees stardom

Shane Greene was throwing a bullpen session on a quiet field at Daytona Beach Community College one day when the ball started moving.

NFL

2014 Fantasy Football: Rankings, list of top NFL…

2014 Fantasy Football: Rankings, list of top NFL tight ends (TE)

MLB

MLB Power Rankings: Angels supplant A's, Nationals climb

MLB Power Rankings: Angels supplant A's, Nationals climb

NFL

David Wilson returns to triple jump, sets sights…

Giants fans know David Wilson can jump. They are just more used to seeing him go for backflips, not distance.

Style

11 timeless gifts for registries or just because

Gifts to prove you're a style maven once and for all.

Parenting

How everyday moments can inspire kids' creativity

"The Artist's Way for Parents" author Julia Cameron gives advice on how parents and children can be creative together.

Tech

How to stay safe online

Stop worrying about keeping your online passwords safe, and start worrying about keeping your username a secret. Actually, worry about both. According to Shaun Murphy…

Tech

OpenTable now lets you pay your bill via…

The restaurant app OpenTable added the ability to pay your bill (and tip) with your phone, thus cutting back on a few dining annoyances.