“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.”
His work is not that of an ethnographer, Levin is quick to point out, but a subjective exploration of his own perceptions. As such, he acknowledges that his work may not reflect the world of Hasidim in the ways they experience it themselves, but he still compares it to other attempts he sees as misguided, such as the Israeli exhibit last year at the Israel Museum called “A World Apart Next Door: Glimpses into the Life of Hasidic Jews.”
“Too often,” Levin says, “we see Hasidim as mascots, there just for you to look at. But this is a community that is still living and changing and experiencing itself from within. It is more than just a museum-piece.”
Levin’s drawings are exquisite. With an unusual eye for detail he captures many of the almost intangible distinctions — in posture, in the thrust of their chests or in the way they tuck their hands inside their gartels or in the folds of their caftans — between the Hungarian Satmars and the Polish Gerers and the Romanian Vizhnitzers. It’s in the sartorial nuances, however, that Levin has picked up so much of what goes unobserved by outsiders but carries great significance to those in the know.
“There seems to be this will to perpetuate the subtle differences between each hasidus [Hasidic sect],” Levin says. “How to wear the bow of their hat, or whether to wear their payes long or twisted into ‘bullets.’ As if it’s their one possession that is strictly theirs, that keeps them distinct from one another.”
Levin’s work also goes beyond garb. In several panels, there are drawings recalling some of the more sordid, even macabre, chapters in Hasidic history. One image has the Satmars throwing punches at the rebbe of the Monsey faction of Vizhnitz, Rabbi Mordechai Hager, recalling, albeit figuratively, a particularly contentious period in the mid-‘90s between the two groups. Another shows the 1924 assassination of Yaakov Yisrael de Haan, a Dutch Jewish journalist who, after aligning himself with the anti-Zionist Haredi factions in Jerusalem, was assassinated by members of the Haganah, an event that figures prominently in Satmar’s anti-Zionist lore.
A third panel in this category depicts the 19th-century rebbe of Tolne and his Hasidim in a frenzied march to attack their nemeses the Breslovers, a composite of several events in 1860s Ukraine, based on recent research by historian David Assaf. The Tolners, who, as part of the Chernobyl dynasty were closely related to the Skverers and Rachmestrivkers, were powerful and polarizing in their time, “occupying” town after town across the Ukraine, and bringing them under their rebbe’s “sovereignty.” Today, the Tolners no longer exist, but the tales about them provide a fascinating historical backdrop to the sectarian rivalries of Hasidim today.
Themes of power and influence exist in other aspects of Levin’s work, most notably in a series of archetypal images of a Satmar, Vizhnitzer and Skverer man. The Skverer stands with his head bowed, suggesting devoutness, but also meekness and timidity. The Satmar stands tall with his hands on his belly in smug satisfaction, while the Vizhnitzer has his arms spread and raised as if in an effeminate dance.
“The Satmars have real power,” Levin says, “while the Vizhnitzers, with their illustrious marriage arrangements, receive their power in an almost feminine way.” Levin refers to the late rebbe of the Israeli Vizhnitz faction, Rabbi Moses Hager, whose daughters married some of the most powerful leaders of the Hasidic world, including the rebbes of Satmar, Belz and Skver.
Levin points out that as a personal exploration, his images are only about men, not women, as it is the male world to which he sees his strongest personal connection. Additionally, Levin says, unlike with men, Hasidic women’s dress raises bigger issues that exist in other communities as well, such as the hijab among Muslim women, and so would not fit well with the themes of his portraits.
Those themes are primarily the world of Hasidic rebbes and their male followers, and Levin’s inexplicable attraction to their counter-cultural ethos even amidst their conservatism.
“Reb Yoelish,” Levin says, referring to Teitelbaum, the first rebbe of Satmar, “was a radical and a genius. He did something that was crazy and beautiful and really different. You just have to respect that.”
Shulem Deen is a former Skverer Hasid, and the author of “All Who Go Do Not Return” a memoir about growing up in and then leaving the Hasidic Jewish world. His work has appeared in the New Republic, Salon, Haaretz, Tablet, and elsewhere. He serves as a board member at Footsteps, a New York City-based organization that offers assistance and support to those who have left the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. He lives in Brooklyn.
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