An Unorthodox Style

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

Pantera urged the artist to get her feelings out in her work. During the classes Levitin started making works on paper with bright gouache paint and pastels. They expressed her frustration and anger at her prescribed role.

One picture is a portrait of a prim-looking woman with bobbed hair wearing a modest blouse, her eyes focused submissively downward. The words She closes her eyes and sleeps away her life/making believe she does not exist/but can she fake herself into a living death are scrawled on the figure's torso in pencil.

As the workshop went on, Pantera suggested that the reserved Hasidic artist draw "whores of Babylon" as symbols of sexually liberated women in control of their own bodies. For Levitin, the notion of finding joy in her naked body was a new one. She had never seen her family members or friends when they were not completely clothed and was not even used to looking at herself naked. The resulting celebratory, expressionist sketches bear no resemblance to the staid realist pictures of women in her religious paintings. A furiously rendered drawing with a bright yellow background shows a big-bottomed naked woman seen from the back, saucily swinging her hips. Her voluptuous flesh seems to fly all over the page.

Across the bottom of the paper Levitin has written, "She did not know she had a choice."

On a rainy Friday night in October, a dozen baby strollers are parked in the garage of the Bais Menachem synagogue, a modest white building that was once a private home, across from the 40th Street post office in Miami Beach. Towering platters of cold cuts, potato salad, and fried chicken and bottles of kosher wine, vodka, and mixers sit on long folding tables that have been set up under an awning made from bamboo and palm branches. The structure, a sukkah, has been erected for the seven-day autumn holiday sukkos, which celebrates the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and the 40 years during which they lived in temporary dwellings in the desert under God's protection. Tonight the synagogue's congregation is observing Shemini Azeret, the night before Simchat Torah, which signals the end of Sukkot, a jubilant holiday punctuated by singing and dancing -- the most joyous celebration of the year.

The area under the sukkah is packed with men, male teenagers, and young boys, all dressed in black suits. Some of the men have magnificent long beards, others more modest goatees, and a few, like the boys, wear yarmulkes kept in place with a bobby pin. But most sport versions of the familiar black fedoras. Speaking in Yiddish and English, they eat and drink voraciously, repeatedly reloading their paper plates.

"Ay, yay, yi, yi, yay, yay, yay," they chant as they suddenly start to dance in a kind of conga line, holding the shoulder of the man in front of them as they shuffle around in a circle.

On the other side of the yard, a group of slim, elegantly dressed women quietly stands around a table that holds several two-liter bottles of soda, but no food. They all wear expensive-looking long dresses or skirts with sleeves that reach below the elbow. Their hair is impeccably styled and looks like their own, thanks to the artistry of handmade human-hair wigs that can cost thousands of dollars. Beautiful little girls, wearing even fancier dresses than their mothers, run at their feet with little boys who have shoulder-length curls.

It starts to rain hard and everyone goes inside. The wives sit on folding chairs in the women's section of the shul (synagogue). Really no more than a corridor, it is divided from the men's section by a beige pressboard wall, topped with a curtain. If the women stand up and lean against the wall they can pull the curtain aside and peek into the men's section, a large room containing many more chairs, some tables, and a podium from which the rabbi will conduct the service.

Levitin has not been to her old synagogue in more than a year, but tonight she is making an appearance and has brought several new friends from outside the Hasidic community with her. She is wearing a long jumper over a long-sleeve T-shirt, but for the first time she is going against tradition by entering the temple bareheaded -- even divorced women are expected to wear wigs. Levitin greets a woman as she walks in. The woman doesn't answer her. She stares straight ahead as if no one were there and keeps on walking. Levitin has known the woman for fifteen years. While several women react this way to Levitin's presence, and even some children refuse to acknowledge her, others greet her as if they had seen her just yesterday. This cordial attitude is more typical of the Lubavitcher philosophy, which welcomes dropouts back into the synagogue, encouraging them to become ba'al teshuvah, as returnees to the fold are called.

An assistant to the rabbi -- the only man who enters the women's section -- sets up a table and brings in the remains of the men's feast; the women eat chicken or feed their younger children. Some sit meditatively on chairs against the wall. A group of teenage girls sits together on one side, looking somehow hopeful. Occasionally they get up and lift the curtain, peeking over at the other side. Some of the wives pull aside the curtain and smile, pointing out their husbands for their children, calling, "Look at Daddy." But most seem oblivious to the sounds of exuberant rejoicing coming from the other side of the room.

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