Art Exhibit in Brooklyn Examines Hasidic Dress and Culture

July 12, 2013 8:37 am 6 comments

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There are two ways people typically explore Hasidic subjects through art. It is either a sensitive portrayal of a tradition they are a part of, or an outsider’s perspective on a strange and unique culture. Brooklyn based artist Michael Levin has done both, and quite successfully at that.

In his new series “Jews of Today” opening July 20th at the 109 Gallery in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Levin explores the nuances and contradictions of Hasidic ritual dress through a series of elegant drawings and explanations, delving into larger issues of Jewishness and cultural identity in the process.

Originally from Los Angeles, Levin received his BA in Classics at the University of Chicago in 2006, and this fall he will begin his MFA in Printmaking at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.

Levin became obsessed with Hasidic culture and dress after becoming neighbors with many Hasidim in the ever gentrifying Williamsburg, and looking for a way to relate to them.

As he noted in an email interview, “I’m looking for a way to relate to Jewishness that is based on knowledge and creativity, rather than ritual or even family. Jewish culture is something I want to be a part of, and I suppose painting Hasidim is a way for me to challenge the boundaries of Hasidic culture (i.e., Do you have to be a Hasid to contribute to Hasidic culture?).

“It’s a fun and challenging question in a neighborhood like Williamsburg, where as you know the boundaries between the ‘artist’ community and the Hasidic community are stark and rarely questioned. This boundary intrigues and motivates me, and I am aiming a lot of my art at undermining it in a way that also preserves it, so as not to taint or destroy what is beautiful about the separateness of these two communities, but to cherish this deeply bizarre confluence of cultures in which we live.”

109 Gallery owner Ryan Krause sees Levin as wanting to embrace a culture on his own terms, yet not being allowed. “He would like to belong to this thing, but he can’t. He is held back.”

Krause said that the gallery was interested in hosting this exhibition because they are situated very close to the Hasidic community, but that people who are not Hasidic do not really understand the details of the culture or go beyond generalizing the one look that they see. “We are showing differentiations between what they are wearing” Krause noted. “On the simplest level,” he said the goal is “to educate [people] about their neighbors, and tackling broader issues of identity and heritage. [This is for] anyone who has a desire to belong to a group and situate yourself in a larger position of meaning.”

The event invitation explains, “It is the inescapability of Levin’s own Jewishness that plagues and pleasures him, and forces the reader to consider their own relationship to faith, religion and identity in the 21st century.”

In addition to the art, Levin has also authored a book. “The book is quite funny too,” Krause noted.

My favorite quote from the artist’s site:

“Master of the Universe, please remove from upon us the plague of the artists, so that we shall not drown in evil waters, and so that they shall not come to our residence to ruin in.” — Prayer for the Protection of Our City Williamsburg from the Plague of the Artists, Zalman Leib Fulop, Satmar Dayyan

Jews of Today, works on paper and new book by Michael Levin. Opening Reception: Saturday July 20, 2013, 7-10pm (or later for the Shomer Shabbat crowd). Curated by 109, 7 Dunham, South Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY, 1oh9.com.

A Mikvah Sumi Ink on Arches Hot Press Paper. 12.125″x16.125″

“The Hem of His Garment.” 10″x12″. This last one is a memory-based piece, recalling the first time I saw the different kind of sleeve “rebbish” hasidim wear (rebbish, you may know, means coming from an honored rabbinical family). I was struck by the beauty of the garment, and especially by its subtle difference from the standard western dress shirt. I wanted to paint it as something with an almost magical power, reflecting I suppose the (controversial) sense of of authority that hasidic clothing bestows on its wearers.

“Royal Teitelbaums.” 10″x12″. This miniature is a dual portrait of the two rebbes of Satmar. Again, part of it relates to a larger concept of portraying internal hasidic struggles as “holy” balances, something akin to how yin depends on yang for its meaning. Another function of this piece is to catalog the leaders of different hasidic sects almost as kings would be cataloged in diplomatic records from earlier periods, with careful attention payed to their appearance, including their wardrobe.

6 Comments

  • all these exterior differences,their clothes, their language does not make them more jews, or better jews, as they think they are.
    It is true for all these different jewish trends, like the haredim and others.They behave as if they are superior to the regular religious jew, not to mention a “hiloni” (not religious) who is just as proud a jew and God respecting as they are

    • Hi, Shoshana,
      I am a Hasidic jew and I think you are totally wrong in your assumption. Did you have an actual experience or are you just assuming based on typical media bias?
      Our community respects all jews and never have I heard anyone claim that they think they are better. we don’t believe that everyone should be Hasidic at all. We believe that everyone should serve g-d based on their roots and heritage in their own way. We welcome non affiliated jews into our home for Shabbat meals etc. I am sorry that you feel this way but if you really are interested in getting to know us more you have to look no further than Shabbat.com-a jewish social network where you can be invited to someone for Shabbat.
      all the best,
      Rachel

    • You probably believe and practice freedom of speech and religion, care about the poor, etc. Do you see yourself as better than other people in other countries who don’t beleive and practice these basic values? probably! so why do you condemn those who see great value in very careful adherence to the talmud, that they see as gods word – and yes consider themselves better than those or ignore or reject it.

  • Hasidim not to be confused with Orthodox: No change of clothing from Eastern Europe, No change of language, No change of language (Yiddish for everyday and Hebrew for prayer) and No change of name (first or family name).

    Q. Why?
    A. The Hasidic community believes that historically, Jews have changed their clothing, language and names to accommodate their host countries to assimilate and avoid persecution. In spite of the making the changes they were still persecuted. So, they drew a line in the sand, so to speak. If they came from a region that wore a white shtreimel or white socks or a black shtreimel and black socks or some other combo of clothing, they maintain the same dress.

  • Phil Kipnis

    Fantast work of art, completely compelling. How can those of still on the west coast see your treasure?

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