An Unorthodox Style

For Yehudis Levitin, painting was the path to freedom from the strict Hasidic world

Yehudis Levitin had been flirting with the law for a while when she got into her car on a Friday afternoon this past January and headed west to Coral Gables.

This time, she had more than a close call. It was already dangerously near sundown, which signals the start of Shabbos, the day of rest, a 24-hour period during which strict Orthodox Jews cannot ride in cars, operate machinery, or turn on lights. But Levitin got into her silver Dodge and went over the Julia Tuttle Causeway to the expressway, en route to a friend's house, where she planned to spend the night and return when the sabbath was over. Near the airport she got stuck in traffic. She looked at the clock. Sundown was less than eighteen minutes away. The time allowed to stop all activity and assemble at home for the ceremonial lighting of the Shabbos candles had already passed. Levitin realized that she had broken the commandment "take care to keep holy the sabbath day." She had violated the Jewish law. It was a terrifying moment.

"I can't believe it, I'm in a terrible state," Levitin recalls thinking, shaking her head as she relates the events of that afternoon. "I don't know what to do. For the first time in my life I have to think to myself, 'The Shabbos has been broken. For the first time in my life, I'm just like everybody else. For the first time in my life, I am no longer God's chosen.'"

Levitin, a painter and graphic designer, is eating lunch in a coffee shop in Miami Springs near the Miami Art League, where she often spends the morning making life drawings from a nude model. An intense, attractive woman of 44 years, with piercing dark eyes and classic features, she is dressed in a short-sleeve T-shirt and pants -- the kind of unisex casual wear that until recently she had not worn since she was a child. Her short curly hair is thin on top, showing a slight balding in spots that is the likely result of wearing a wig over her hair every day for twenty years.

The waiter approaches and Levitin quizzes him at length about several items on the menu. She speaks with a trace of a Brooklyn accent, tinged with an interrogative Yiddish intonation that conjures up images of New York City's Lower East Side. "Do they cook the eggs with animal fat?" Levitin asks skeptically. Unaccustomed to ordering hot food in a nonkosher restaurant, she scans the menu one more time, shrugs, and finally requests a cheese omelet.

Raised in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, Levitin comes from a family of Lubavitcher Hasidim, followers of the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh Lubavitcher rebbe descended from a rabinnical dynasty. His followers revere Rebbe Schneerson as a tzaddik, a holy man. Many Lubavitchers proclaim him the Messiah.

"When you are part of a Hasidic community, you have direction," explains Levitin, who has broken with her community, divorced her husband, and created havoc within her family, all because she decided to search for an identity other than that imposed on her by her religion. "You are hooked up to a huge system; you are hooked up to a very powerful rebbe, not only a rebbe but generations and generations before him. We're going back to the beginning of time."

Hasidism, a spiritual reform movement, was founded in eighteenth-century Poland by Israel ben Eliezer, known as Ba'al Shem-Tov, or Besht for short. His message was that adherence to God could be gained not only through the fulfillment of the mitzvots (good deeds) and the study of the Torah and the Talmud (commentary on the Jewish oral law), but also through a good life. Hasidism preached the existence of the holy in the mundane, in all aspects of daily activities, and thus allowed everyone -- rich and poor -- to be close to God. (The Hebrew word Hasid translates as pious one). By the Nineteenth Century, the majority of Jews in Eastern Europe had turned to Hasidism. The Russian pogroms and the Holocaust annihilated millions of them. Many of those who survived settled in the United States; today there are about 250,000 Hasidim in this country, the majority in Brooklyn (an estimated 150,000).

The Hasidic lifestyle is highly ritualized, with mandated prayers and prescriptions for quotidian activities such as eating, drinking, studying, and sexual relations, which are all seen as spiritual acts. For example, all Lubavitcher men wear beards, in accordance with Leviticus, chapter 19, verse 27: "Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corner of thy beard." It is a life of scholarship and devotion, of mystical exploration and strict adherence to the laws of Moses. For men, that life revolves around the synagogue, religious study, and prayer. Only young men, not women, can study to become rabbis. For women, activity is centered on children and the home, although they often work --frequently as teachers, in the health professions, or family businesses -- helping to support their large families and allowing their husbands the necessary freedom to worship. With their own rich culture, political structures, and businesses, Hasidic communities have little need for the diversions of the contemporary world.

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