‘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

Federal mediator joins Met Opera labor talks as…

Unions representing the orchestra and chorus of the Met Opera agreed to have a federal mediator join labor talks on Thursday as a threatened lockout loomed.

Local

Winning $7 million New York lottery ticket sold…

The only $7 million winning New York Lottery ticket for Monday's Cash4Life drawing was sold at a Queens 7-Eleven, officials said on Tuesday.

Local

Brooklyn man charged in roommate's stabbing death

A Brooklyn man accused of violently stabbing his roommate to death on Monday is in police custody and faces murder charges.

International

Dinosaurs could have survived asteroid strike

It turns out there is a good and a bad time for the planet to be hit by a meteor, and dinosaurs were just unlucky.…

Movies

Review: 'Guardians of the Galaxy' is a refreshingly…

Marvel is sitting so high on a cash mountain that it's now thrown $170 million at the relatively obscure and very silly title "Guardians of the Galaxy."

Movies

Review: 'Get on Up' is a war between…

James Brown finally gets his own boring biopic with "Get on Up," but the Godfather of Soul puts up a good fight against the usual cliches.

Movies

Review: 'Child of God' finds director James Franco…

James Franco's 11th directed feature is a noble but sloppy adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's "Child of God," about a feral mountain man (Scott Haze).

Movies

Review: Alex Gibney's Fela Kuti doc 'Finding Fela'…

Prolific documentarian Alex Gibney takes on Afrobeat god Fela Kuti in "Finding Fela," but fails to capture his unique essence.

MLB

Yankees land Stephen Drew, Martin Prado at trade…

Yankees land Stephen Drew, Martin Prado at trade deadline

College

Playing the Field: Valentine's Day coupling edition

  It’s Valentine’s Day, a day created by Hallmark to make couples spend loads and loads of money on candy, flowers and gourmet dinners. Or…

MLB

Angelo Cataldi: Ryan Howard deserves better from Phillies

Just last week, Ryan Howard endured the embarrassment of a benching that was inevitable, and yet still shocking.

NFL

Larry Donnell has inside track in Giants tight…

Little-known Larry Donnell of Grambling State currently has the inside track, as the second-year player has received the bulk of the first-team reps.

Career

What do you wear to a career fair?…

Getting that gig starts with presenting the most polished and memorable version of yourself, so refer to our expert fashion advice.

Style

Editors pick: Margiela's finger armor ring

These cool rings from Maison Martin Margiela are designed to overlap over the finger, covering each joint like armor.

Style

Givenchy champions diversity

Riccardo Tisci's uses a variety of ethnically diverse ladies for his spring campaign including Erykah Badu.

Wellbeing

Don't settle for the hotel fitness center with…

Travelers who want to skip the hotel fitness center in favor of local gyms that may offer better equipment, classes and amenities can turn to…