An Unorthodox Style

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

Over there, the celebration that commenced outside has continued. The men take turns reading and singing, then begin to dance in a circle around the room, carrying their sons on their shoulders. Some of the littlest clutch small velvet-covered replicas of the Torah scrolls. Several baby girls are passed over the wall by their mothers to dance in their fathers' arms. Two boys are throwing spitballs at each other from opposite sides of the room as the men, who have had their share of drink, laugh and banter with each other in Yiddish.

The women are not invited to partake in the men's merriment. They do not get up to dance. They are, at least in theory, neither seen nor heard by the men. "Women have no voice in this community," says Levitin, who has brazenly pulled one corner of the curtain aside and is leaning on the wall, watching the dancers with a wan smile. "Without a man, a woman has no voice. The Hasidic world is totally a man's world."

To outsiders, the Hasidic culture can appear cruelly chauvinistic. Women sit apart in the synagogue and must keep their extremities covered. They must strictly adhere to the niddah -- the laws of menstruation, which govern the times of the month when a couple may have sex. After the end of each monthly period, women must go to the mikvah -- the ritual bath -- and have their bodies inspected by an attendant before submerging in a pool of water.

Because women bear and rear the children, they are not required to adhere to a time schedule outside of the home -- meaning they do not attend synagogue as often as men do. Generally, Hasidic women see themselves as being exempt, not excluded from, certain activities. They say this separation is a distribution of responsibilities, not a hierarchy.

"In the Jewish religion, men and women have different duties. It's not that one is higher or lower," explains Judy Mayberg, a Miami Beach Lubavitcher who has her own wig-making business and who once took Bible classes from Levitin. "In any walk of life, each person has their own domain. Within the realm of what you are able to do, you can still accomplish what you want. The sky's the limit."

"Sitting separately in the synagogue doesn't reflect the fact that women are of lesser importance," emphasizes another Miami Beach Lubavitcher, who asked that her name not be published. "Prayer is a very personal communication between man and God, and people should pray in an environment that is conducive to what the purpose of the synagogue is about. Women pray as diligently as the men. They are totally aware of what's going on.

"I'm comfortable where I'm at," says the woman, who works in real estate. "I've never felt that I was in shackles. I've always been treated as an equal. I feel very much part of the general community. I don't feel restricted at all."

But for Levitin it was different. Encouraged by her activities with the workshop, she started to examine her role as a woman in her religion. She discovered the frustration and rage that festered inside her. Once she acknowledged her feelings, she became uncomfortable with what she describes as the rabbi's strident messages about the seductive evils of the secular world.

She stopped going to synagogue.
"The majority of people I grew up with go along and don't ask questions," Levitin contends. "You're doing a lot of things that you don't want to be doing, but you're doing them because you think it's your responsibility because God wants you to. You think it's God's word and you have to do it, but there's still a voice inside of you saying,'I don't wanna.' And you have to suppress that voice and say, 'Stop being bad. You're bad, You're bad.'

"Every woman has her fight," she continues, anger in her voice. "We're living in a patriarchal society in a Western world that is built on the Bible, which is male-dominated. Look at the Bible. How many times did God talk to a woman?

"Before, I was trying to tell a story with my painting, but a part of me was negating the whole story. I was negating my femininity. I guess that in leaving my religion, what I'm really fighting for is freedom of expression."

Levitin opens the door to her house and her black spaniel Shadow runs outside. To the Hasidic neighbors in her mid-Beach neighborhood, the dog is another sign, like wearing pants and going bareheaded, that she has chosen to break with Lubavitcher tradition. While having a dog is not unheard of, Hasidic Jews usually have only low maintenance pets like birds and fish, whose care will not interfere with their owners' daily duties in obedience to the law.

The house is bright and airy. Since Leima's departure, Levitin has replaced the dark wood furniture they brought from Brooklyn with futons and other trappings of a single woman starting out on her own. She has set up a painting studio in the living room, and several of her colorful drawings of defiant nudes hang on the walls. More of her prolific output of drawings is piled on her work table in high stacks. Some of the built-in bookshelves are packed with religious volumes in Hebrew and English. Other shelves hold books that attest to Levitin's current search for spirituality in the pages of self-help guides. New-age titles on meditation, creative movement, and dream interpretation are everywhere around the house.

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