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HomeLands: Building a Brooklyn Nest

Image by Martyna Starosta

William Levin, 43, and his wife Malya Kurzweil Levin, 31, have lived together for five years in their beloved and rent stabilized apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn. William is a creative tech consultant and cartoonist. Malya is a lawyer and currently works as a staff attorney at an elder abuse shelter, the at the Hebrew Home at Riverdale, New York.

FORWARD: How did you two meet and come to live together?

WILLIAM: I first saw Malya at the Bangitout Tu B’av [Jewish Valentine’s Day] party on [Manhattan’s] Upper West Side, and asked a mutual friend to set us up. Malya moved in with me when we got married in Israel exactly one year later.

MALYA: Shortly after the 2009 Tu B’av party, an acquaintance told me that a guy who was at the party wanted to meet me. He directed me to the guy’s Facebook page, where I learned from his photos that he was a) very handsome and b) often shirtless in public. Being a staunch shirt-wearer myself, I figured we were incompatible, and declined the date. Luckily, our acquaintance/matchmaking angel persisted, and William and I finally met about two months later. Six months after that, we announced that we would be getting married.

How did you find your home?

WILLIAM: I got lucky. I came to New York City for my first job, in 1996. A few friends suggested I try living in [Brooklyn’s] Park Slope because it was more affordable than Manhattan. Unfamiliar with this then up-and-coming neighborhood, I took the F train to Seventh Ave. in the middle of a blizzard and picked a random real estate office. An agent showed me the place, and I’ve been renting this same apartment ever since. There was so much snow that it actually took me several months to realize I lived just two blocks away from Prospect Park. (There was no Google Maps back then.)

MALYA: I found William, and a rent-stabilized apartment on the best block in the world was a nice side perk.

Who takes out the garbage?

WILLIAM: We don’t have a trash can; it takes up too much space. Instead we just put trash in plastic grocery bags and bring them down whenever one of us leaves the apartment. So whoever leaves first brings it down. I was also composting all our greens in a bin I kept outside on our fourth-floor window ledge, but now our building has been approved for organics collection.

MALYA: William’s much more vigilant about the garbage than I am, probably because his “office” (read: computer desk) is about 2 feet from the kitchen, whereas mine is a distant 8 or 10 feet away.

Image by Martyna Starosta

How are household chores divided among you?

WILLIAM: I vacuum and clean once a week; Malya does most of the cooking. We share doing dishes, and we do grocery shopping and laundry together. We always do laundry after Havdalah. It’s our “date night.”

MALYA: It’s very romantic when he remembers to pull my bras out of the washer to hang dry. Swoon.

Who makes breakfast?

WILLIAM: Malya usually gets up 20 minutes earlier than I, and is kind enough to prepare an extra “breakfast bowl” for me —shredded wheat and bran, or oatmeal, flaxseed, nuts and fruit — which we’ve come to refer to as a “B-Bowl.” We abbreviate most things: A sweet potato is a “sweepo,” quinoa is “keen,” kosher frozen yogurt is “kofroyo”; you get the idea.

MALYA: The real answer is, the Breakfast Elf prepares food for both of us. That’s our name for the mythical creature who somehow always makes sure there’s a “B-Bowl” in the fridge for William after I’ve left for work.

Describe your typical week.

WILLIAM: I work for myself, so my schedule is pretty flexible and I do a lot of work from home. I usually visit clients in Manhattan once or twice a week. Recently I’ve been learning parsha [the Torah portion] weekly with my friend Menashe, a young new Chabad rabbi in Park Slope. And this year I’ve been working with the New York City Department of Education, teaching animation software to students and teachers in District 75 schools, so I visit a new school in all five boroughs once a week. Whenever I have free time, I try to work on my own animation projects, hoping one will sell. I usually don’t work on Fridays, and instead spend the day helping Malya prepare for Shabbat. We try to go to the gym or go for a walk in the park on the weekends.

MALYA: I’m pretty busy lawyering Monday through Thursday. Two days a week I travel to my office at the Hebrew Home in Riverdale, and the other two I work remotely, often from home. Fridays I generally learn parsha with my father on the phone and then prep for Shabbat. It’s the one time of the week that I get creative in the kitchen. On Shabbat we’ll generally go to shul and often host friends for a meal or get invited out. Sundays I’m generally reading or doing yoga, punctuated by some errand running. Basically, William and I spend a good portion of the week within 10 feet of each other.

What’s the most unusual thing we’d see on your household budget?

WILLIAM: We actually pay for cable television just so we can watch “Jeopardy” and “Mad Men.”

MALYA: I think the most surprising things are what you wouldn’t see. We try to live in a simple and environmentally conscious way, and we mostly eat at home, so our bills don’t contain the dining and shopping purchases that I think you’d see on a lot of other New York City budgets.

WILLIAM: Except for Malya’s shoes.

What do you love the most about the space you live in?

WILLIAM: I love working from home on a rainy day. There is a large tree right outside our fourth-floor window. It feels like we’re in a tree house under a forest canopy. Hearing the sound of raindrops falling on the leaves from the comfort of our warm apartment is soothing and inspires me to be creative.

MALYA: I love the huge windows in our living room and the amazing light that streams through them. Lately, William has discovered a latent green thumb, so the window now holds beautiful hanging plants. The light filtering through the green, coupled with the idyllic sounds of birds chirping and children playing in the street, makes me feel like I’m living in the Platonic ideal of a home and neighborhood.

What’s the one story that gets told and retold in your home?

WILLIAM: Everyone asks about the baby raccoon incident. You may have seen us on CBS News. In short, a mother raccoon got into our kitchen soffit and had babies. Our landlord didn’t do much to help the situation. One late night we heard one of the baby raccoons had fallen and was crying from inside the wall behind our stove. It was too late to call for help, and no one had been particularly helpful in the past, so we took matters into our own hands. I moved the oven, hammered a hole in the wall and pulled out the baby raccoon myself. Malya videoed the whole thing on her iPhone.

MALYA: Of course, William was shirtless when he pulled out the raccoon, so my video has actually helped share his shirtless image with an even broader public. An appropriately ironic footnote to our initial meeting.

If you have children, who starts/started to get up first when a child started crying?

WILLIAM: We don’t have any children yet, but we’re expecting one in October. No one knows yet. Well, they do now.

What would you serve at your ideal Sunday brunch?

WILLIAM: Shakshuka, smoked fish, whole grain bread, labne, coffee —basically every breakfast buffet at an Israeli hotel.

MALYA: The same as my ideal weekday breakfast: a huge bowl of oatmeal with all the fruit, nut and seed fixings. And coffee.

Do you have an ideal Sabbath dinner?

WILLIAM: Malya is an excellent cook, and I look forward to every Shabbat meal she prepares. It is the main reason I married her.

MALYA: Most Fridays of late find me literally barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen. An ideal Shabbat meal is William’s famous roast chicken — Wadi chicken to its fans — and plenty of fresh veggie sides. Soup is a must as well.

Who’s your favorite Jewish comedian?

WILLIAM: The King of All Media, Howard Stern. I’ve been listening to his show for almost 30 years, and somehow it keeps getting funnier and Jewish-er!

MALYA: It’s a tie between Woody Allen and Larry David. Who, come to think of it, may actually be the same person.

Have you ever experienced anti-Semitism?

WILLIAM: A few years ago I received death threats concerning a comic strip series I used to produce about a rabbi and a Jewish robot named Shabot. I reported the incident to the police here in Brooklyn, but they just laughed at me.

MALYA: When I was a little kid living in Kensington, Brooklyn, a kid threw an egg at me on mischief night and my mom’s car windows were smashed a couple of times. Thankfully there hasn’t been any overt anti-Semitism in my adult life.

Which room in your home is your favorite?

WILLIAM: The bathroom? I come up with my best ideas in the shower.

MALYA: The bedroom, because I love to sleep. Seriously.

What is your favorite piece of art or photograph in your home?

WILLIAM: Our ketubah [marriage contract ] is special. It was designed by a local artist and [our] friend Elke Reva Sudin. It shows the bridge connecting my Brooklyn and Malya’s Upper West Side worlds.

MALYA: We received three Israeli artist-made hamsas [hand-shaped amulets] as wedding gifts, and they’re now hanging in each of three panes that make up our big living room window. Basically, I’m obsessed with our windows.

What is your happiest and/or saddest memory in your home?

WILLIAM: I was pretty thrilled when, just two years ago, I realized I had enough space to compost and grow my own tomato plants and herbs outside on my window ledge.

MALYA: Opening a very long-awaited email and learning that I had passed the New York State bar exam. I spent countless hours studying on our couch, so sitting there when I learned it had all paid off felt appropriate. And awesome.

WILLIAM: Learning Malya was pregnant after a year and a half of us trying with no luck comes in a close second.

Describe your home life in three words.

WILLIAM: Content, borderline codependent.

MALYA: Cozy, very verbal.

If you could change one thing about where you live, what would it be?

WILLIAM: If we could build a loft or a system of shelves or something to accommodate a growing family in this small one-bedroom, rent-stabilized apartment, we could probably stay here forever.

MALYA: An extra bedroom, I guess, but only because — please, God — there will soon be more than two of us, and hopefully one day more than three. But right now, I wouldn’t change a thing.

If you could change one thing about your Jewish practice, what would it be?

WILLIAM: I’d learn more often.

MALYA: Ditto. Hey, why aren’t we learning more together?

Is there an active Jewish community near you? If not, how do you create your own?

WILLIAM: We are active members of the Altshul community, an independent minyan in Park Slope. You may have read about our involvement in another recent Forward article.

MALYA: I’m on the Altshul Leadership Team, which is the group of volunteers who organize services and other events. Specifically, I run the social committee, so I spend a bunch of time planning events in that capacity. That being said, there are so many great Jewish communities and subcommunities in brownstone Brooklyn, and we love hopping around and tasting them all. We also sometimes enjoy a Shabbat morning at the Synagogue of Sleeping In.

What’s one Jewish thing you do that defines your Jewish identity?

WILLIAM: A lot of my creative work is Jewish themed and educational. Writing, animating and composing Jewish content has allowed me to explore my own Jewish identity and has been a spiritually rewarding experience.

MALYA: I became a lawyer to help educate and empower vulnerable populations, and that motivation stems from my Jewish values. I see my job as a part of the small role I have to play in fixing and perfecting the world. That mindset and intentionality is core to what being Jewish means for me.

Does being Jewish distinguish you from others around you? If so, how?

WILLIAM: I grew a beard to explore another facet of Judaism, but now I just look like any other hipster in Brooklyn. So it is my responsibility to conscientiously distinguish myself as a Jew. That mostly means I experience guilt when I’m lazing around on a weekday instead of working.

MALYA: At work I’m often explaining my dietary restrictions and the reasons behind my need to take vacation for what seems like half the month of September. Knowing I’ll need to do this pushes me to get clear on the reasons behind these activities and my own personal motivations in prioritizing them.

What one moment stands out in your mind that shows when you felt your Jewishness the most?

WILLIAM: I wrote and animated a short musical cartoon about bread, called “Roll Call,” that aired on “Sesame Street.“ “Challah” is mentioned in the song. The producers were concerned that challah is not a healthy bread and asked that I replace it with something more nutritious. I agreed to other changes but refused to lose the challah. We finally reached a compromise: I redrew the challah to appear more whole grain. As far as I know, it is the only mention of challah on “Sesame Street” to this day. I have fulfilled my mission as a Jew.

MALYA: Standing under the chuppah on the beach in Israel as our friends and family recited the blessings that formalized our commitment to each other as a married couple. I kept thinking about the countless generations that came before both of us who had completed the same ceremony, and how all of that ritual had led to this moment and the future that would stem from it.

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