“The genius of the Satmar rebbe,” Williamsburg-based artist Michael Levin says of the late Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, the post-Holocaust leader of Williamsburg’s Satmar Hasidic community, “was to say that if you wear a shtreimel and long peyes, everyone will be freaked out and hate you and stay away from you. But in the end, they’ll also respect you.”
Whether or not the Satmars have gained the respect of the world is up for debate, but the Satmar Rebbe’s ideology of separatism has proven effective at preserving the Hasidic lifestyle. Hasidic garb, the subject of a new art exhibit by Levin called “Jews of Today,” as well as a book called “Jews of Today: A Primer on Hasidic Dress,” has perhaps been the most important factor of that ideology.
The exhibit, which opened July 20 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is at once an expression of the artist’s fascination with Hasidim as well as a recognition of his outsider status. His work, while deeply respectful — even reverent at times — includes imaginative interpretations of Hasidic life that would strike Hasidim themselves as alien.
Raised in Los Angeles, Calif., with what he calls “Hollywood-style” Reform Judaism, Levin, 28, moved to Brooklyn in 2007 and developed an interest in the Hasidic community. “I was jealous,” he says. While not religiously observant, Levin says that as a Jew he identifies with the Hasidim in a powerful way. “If there were a race war in this city, I’d run to the Hasidim.”