An Unorthodox Style

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

"When you're a fine artist and no longer a commercial artist, you have to start looking at yourself and your own pictures," she contends. "That's what I began to do. And I felt that, belonging to the Hasidic movement, I had to document some of the life in the community. God gave me talent and I had to give it back to God."

Many of Levitin's large representational paintings depict groups of men praying or animatedly discussing religious texts. The artist's expressive placement of figures and forms and use of primary colors recalls the work of Marc Chagall, the best-known painter of Jewish themes, who created fanciful depictions of his childhood in Russia and scenes from Yiddish folktales.

With titles like The Pious Ones, Rejoice, or The Review, Levitin's paintings frequently include fragments from prayers, written in Hebrew on the canvas. Levitin often made portraits of the Rebbe Schneerson, an extremely charismatic man who encouraged his followers to adapt to contemporary times while adhering to the laws of the Torah. One particularly emotional canvas captures the rebbe, who died in 1994, with his tallis, a striped prayer shawl, over his head, wisely looking out over his congregation.

These images capture the piousness and spiritual fervor of Hasidism, whose expressive joyfulness is often compared to that of Pentecostal worshipers in the American South. Levitin's portrayal of the community's women and children, however, conveys an entirely different message.

Levitin depicts a row of women sitting in the balcony -- the women's section -- of the synagogue. Women and men do not sit together in the temple for fear of sexual temptation. Women are never called up to the podium to read from the Torah, as are the men. In Levitin's painting all of the women wear identical hats and collared dresses. While the rebbe stands majestically below, they gossip among themselves or stare into space, alienated from the men's fervent religious activity.

"I didn't identify with the women," Levitin says, explaining her depictions of the female Lubavitchers. "My role models were not feminine. I was outspoken, and I couldn't stand that I wasn't heard by the males. I was trying to compete with the male world. I did not want to accept the route that women were given."

After three years in Australia, Levitin and her husband went back to Brooklyn. In 1981 they moved to Miami Beach, when Leima became principal of the Miami Beach yeshiva, a job that lasted one year. The couple subsequently founded their own company marketing personalized calendars and other advertising specialty items for businesses. Levitin continued painting, and rented the Bakehouse studio in 1987.

"She was always very mysterious," says Sofia Taylor, an artist who had the studio next to Levitin's. "She always wore a hat; she was quite a private person. She painted traditional old rabbinical-type paintings. There was nothing very special about them. Religious rabbis with top hats."

While her works may not have appealed to her Bakehouse neighbor, Levitin thought that she could easily sell them to synagogues and people in her community. She had shows at the Miami Jewish Home for the Aged and the Boca Raton Jewish Community Center, but her paintings were not as popular among the Jewish community as she had hoped.

In her studio, Levitin looks over her paintings and shrugs. "Typical Hasidic work describes the life in a favorable way," she says. "My works had an edge to them. They were saying something. I tried to show the good side, but if you look closely you can see how I really feel ... the women are not paying attention and they all look alike. The children have no faces because they have to march to the tune of the patriarchy. In the Hasidic religion, everyone has to know their place in the hierarchy."

Leima Levitin saw the paintings as an early manifestation of the inner conflicts that would later cause his ex-wife to leave the Lubavitcher community. "People used to say to me, 'Where would I hang this?'" he recounts in a telephone call from Crown Heights, where he returned after the couple divorced last year. "Yehudis has a tremendous amount of anguish and pain in her paintings," asserts her ex-husband. "Her name should be Yehudis Lev."

The artist hero of Chaim Potok's acclaimed 1972 novel My Name Is Asher Lev struggled to reconcile the strictures of his Hasidic community with his creative calling. At the end of the book, he is banished by the rebbe after he paints a crucifix in one of his works.

It was art that also lead Levitin to drastically change her life. One day in 1993 Taylor called her and told her about a workshop for "creative empowerment" that was forming in Miami. Levitin decided to attend.

When Levitin got involved with "the group," as she calls it, she suddenly found herself in the midst of newly out lesbians, would-be screenwriters, and others looking to alter their careers or personal lives. Over a three-year period, she gradually began to leave her Hasidic traditions behind.

"From day one I knew that she wanted to change," says Alina Pantera, who frequently conducts such workshops, which she says are designed to release blocked creativity and "turn what you thought was your burden into goals. [But] I don't take any credit for any of it. She's an astonishing, courageous woman. Very few people would have the spiritual courage to look inside themselves and follow through on what they see."

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