‘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


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