An Unorthodox Style

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

Of the many existing Hasidic groups, the Lubavitchers -- whose name comes from the Belorussian city of their ancestors -- are probably the best-known to the general population because they have more contact with the secular world than most other Hasidim. In Miami Beach, bearded men in black hats and heavy black coats walking to and from synagogue are a common sight, just another element of the diverse local population. (The Lubavitchers do not keep a census, but according to the Lubavitch Yeshiva Center in Miami Beach at least 217 families live in the Greater Miami area). Unlike most other Jews, the Lubavitcher Hasidim are proselytizers; they welcome those Jews who have lost their faith and even some gentile converts into their ranks. Their worldwide network of educational outreach centers, called Chabad houses, offers Jews everywhere a kosher meal and an immediate connection to the Lubavitcher community. Yeshiva students conduct vigorous street crusades, coaxing nonreligious Jews inside recreational vehicles called Mitzvah Tanks to say a prayer and talk with them about Judaism. One such mobile home can usually be found parked on Alton Road and Twelfth Street, across from the yeshiva.

The ranks of the Hasidim are growing at a rate of five percent a year. This is perhaps due to a contemporary crisis of faith that has prompted lapsed Jews to seek out a spiritual life in the Orthodox tradition, and to the fact that Hasidic couples commonly have up to ten children. But it also reflects the consistently low dropout rate among the Hasidim.

"In a community that is so closed it's not common for someone to leave the fold," says Rabbi Paul Steinberg, a dean at Hebrew Union College in Manhattan. "They have to really want out to do it. Especially for a woman. It's not usual for a woman to make a new life for herself. If she divorces her husband and decides to leave her family, where does she have to go?"

Levitin asked herself that question as she sat in her car on that fateful January day. It was a decisive moment in her painful but ultimately liberating journey into the secular world.

"When I broke Shabbos, all of a sudden it was as if someone had cut the cord and I was floating in a no man's land," Levitin relates, letting her omelet get cold on her plate as she recounts the enormity of the events on that Friday afternoon. "It was like all of a sudden I became part of the world. My entire concept -- everything that I was programmed for -- came to a screeching halt the day I found myself in a car ten minutes past the allotted time for Shabbos to begin."

On the door frame outside Levitin's studio at the Bakehouse Art Complex hangs a multicolored Lucite mezuzah, an oblong box holding a tiny paper scroll inscribed with passages from the Scriptures that is placed outside the door of most Jewish homes. Levitin is inside her small work space, pulling a large painting out of a wooden rack in the corner.

The canvas is covered with a busy collage of newspaper photographs coated with wax and a dark wash of paint. On the right side, the artist has pasted pictures of bearded rabbis and other important figures in the Hasidic community cut from a Yiddish newspaper. On the left are clippings from the secular press: "Six Shot While Waiting for the IRT" blares one headline from the New York Times. In the center is a realist image of a boy wearing a yarmulke, riding a tricycle. A younger little girl, maybe four years old, stands behind him on the cross bar between the back wheels, holding on. It's a portrait of the artist with her older brother Joseph Isaac (known as Yossie), one of her five siblings, of whom she is the second-born. A red sphere, like a bubble, is painted around the two children, protecting them from the grown-up world depicted in the newspaper photos. The work is called The Womb. Levitin explains that it symbolizes the innocence of childhood.

On closer inspection, there is something slightly sinister about the children in the painting. They have no eyes, just dark, vacant slits, as if their eyeballs have been poked out. They look not only innocent, but blind.

"The way I grew up, there was no exploration," the artist comments, staring at the painting. "You have a course that's charted for you. You can veer ten degrees from that, but you can't do anything that could be seen as bringing shame to your family."

Photographs of the neighborhood in which Yehudis Kazarnovsky grew up show what looks like the set for the movie A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The family lived in a modest brick building with casement windows. There was a small patio in back where Yehudis sunbathed on a lawn chair and once tried to plant a garden.

Libby her mother, was not raised Hasidic. She met her future husband Moshe at a Catskills resort. When they were first married and living in Brighton Beach, she didn't cover her hair with a wig. (The Hasidim view hair as a sensual part of the body that after marriage can be seen only by a woman's husband. Hasidic women also wear long skirts and sleeves past the elbow for the sake of modesty). Moshe shaved regularly when he was a young man. But his father was a powerful figure in the Lubavitcher community who worked closely with the rebbe, and his mother also came from a long line of observant Hasidim. After Yossie and Yehudis were born, the family moved to Crown Heights. There, living within the large Lubavitcher community, they became more devout. Moshe, who worked for Con Edison, grew a beard and Libby began wearing a wig or head scarf in public.

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