An Unorthodox Style

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

Levitin pulls another painting from the rack in the studio. It shows her parents shortly after they married -- she is wearing a smart beret, he is clean-shaven and wearing a fedora. They are smiling lovingly. In the bottom corners of the canvas are two different images of her parents. Her mother, who looks tired and impatient, scowls. Her father, now with a short beard, is a sketchily rendered, almost spectral image. When Yehudis was nine, her father had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized. While Yehudis was growing up, he made only periodic appearances. He now lives in the Jewish Home for the Aged in Cincinnati, where the other residents refer to him as "the rabbi."

"My father's father was a very forceful, powerful figure in the Hasidic community, and he was trying to live up to being the son of such a great man," Levitin reflects sadly. "One explanation for what happened is that he could not take the pressure of having to conform to the restraints of the Hasidic world." She pauses for a moment. "Maybe that's just the easiest explanation."

The family lived on her father's disability checks and received food stamps and charity; her mother struggled to pay household expenses and provide for the children's school tuition. Yehudis attended a girls' yeshiva (a Jewish parochial school) in Brooklyn, where she studied Hebrew, Yiddish, and religious subjects in the morning and the state-required secular subjects in the afternoon. Yehudis, who saw herself as a tomboy because she was more outgoing than other Lubavitcher girls, had always enjoyed drawing, and she frequently sketched her family and classmates. Although there was no art instruction at school, there was a drama program. In high school she started making scenery and doing makeup. Her classmates were impressed.

"One of the girls said to me, 'You know, Hudi, you can go to school for that and get training,'" Levitin recalls. "That was when I found out about art schools. I knew that I could not live the lifestyle of the typical Hasidic woman. I could not just be a teacher or a housewife and have babies. There had to be something more for me. So art was my way out."

In 1970 Yehudis began attending Hebrew teacher seminary in the morning. In the afternoon she worked at a boys' yeshiva, teaching kindergarten and preschool -- the only grades in which women are allowed to instruct male students. And in the evening she studied illustration at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). Her mother had given in to the liberal idea of secular studies, but she had drawn the line at the idea of her daughter taking painting classes in some bohemian art school. Yehudis picked FIT because there were Jewish students attending and it offered training in commercial art and design. Once there, she kept mostly to herself.

"It was like I was wearing blinders. I had nothing to do with anyone else," she recalls. "I went in, did my work, and went home. I did not socialize or talk to anybody. Eventually I found some other Jewish people there who I felt comfortable with, and we'd have coffee together."

One teacher took an interest in her and supported the young woman's dream of becoming a fashion illustrator. Encouraged, she cleaned out the family basement and turned it into a studio. She painted the walls white with blue trim. She had a radio tuned to a rock station. "It was my space," Levitin remembers. Then her smile turns into a sigh. "And then I got married. I held out as long as I could."

Yehudis was already 23, and most of the girls she knew had started families. A friend introduced her to Leima Levitin. For Yehudis, Leima represented the best of both worlds -- a modern Hasidic man. He was an ordained rabbi, but he wore a jaunty Panama hat and sport coats with elbow patches. Unconventionally, he went to the movies, he read non-Jewish literature, he even knew the songs in the Top 40. If she had to get married --and tradition said that she did -- he seemed like a good match. Yehudis had never dated before. They went out three times over a period of four months before they were married.

But the couple soon had problems. The bride did not become pregnant; the Levitins did not fulfill God's commandment to "be fruitful and multiply." In a culture in which a woman's sterility is grounds for divorce, it became the central issue in their marriage. Leima blamed Yehudis, suggesting she was not strict enough in her adherence to God's commandments. After two years of doctors' appointments and many consultations with the rabbi, Leima was found to have a physical problem, Yehudis says. They stopped trying and became an anomaly in the community.

"In the Hasidic movement children are so important that not having any made me an outsider in a sense," Levitin explains. "But it also gave me a certain freedom. I guess the real truth was that I probably never wanted kids."

While the couple lived in Brooklyn, Yehudis was able to finish her courses at FIT and began to work as a free-lance illustrator in Manhattan's garment industry. In 1977 they moved to Melbourne, Australia, to work at the Chabad Yeshiva -- Leima as the assistant principal, Yehudis as a kindergarten Hebrew teacher. They also traveled as Lubavitcher ambassadors, conducting outreach work among Jews in other cities in Australia. In Melbourne there was little commercial work in fashion to be found, so Levitin set up an easel and began to paint. Like other artists, she painted what she knew.

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