An Unorthodox Style

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

After three years Levitin left Pantera and her group -- she found that she had begun to follow the workshop director's words as unquestioningly as she had once looked to the rebbe's instructions. She is still trying to deal with the culture shock of leaving her insular community, to come to terms with her feelings of anger at her restrictive upbringing coupled with the fear of starting over again. She has felt ashamed to walk outside in pants, and is still afraid to turn on the TV on Shabbos lest her neighbors see the light shining through the curtains, proof that she is not adhering to the law.

Now that she has emerged from the protective bubble of Hasidic ritual, she has to face the realities of contemporary society on a daily basis.

"I'm learning about bigotry," Levitin asserts. "I never felt I had to defend my people before. For the first time, it's like here I am in the world. Before I didn't hear the anti-Semitism -- I felt the looks, but I didn't really acknowledge them. Now people are more open when they say things about Jews because they can't immediately see who I am."

Levitin's insights about the outside world have led her to re-evaluate her life in the Hasidic community as well. She acknowledges that she grew up with a superior attitude toward gentiles. But she also sees that the strict traditions of the Hasidim have allowed the community to survive within an increasingly homogeneous and often hateful world. Sometimes, on the days when she is feeling particularly disoriented in her new life, she yearns for the consistency of her Hasidic past. On Shabbos those feelings are particularly acute.

"Shabbos was a time when I had boundaries," she recalls wistfully. "I could turn off the material world and just sit within myself. When I stopped observing it, I really missed it. There was a part of me that was really crying for it. So I had to find a way of creating a Shabbos that I could do and define my boundaries without the rebbe or the Bible telling me how to define them."

She has found that it helps to cook. On this Friday afternoon, a couple of weeks after her visit to the synagogue, she is preparing a turkey for a birthday dinner she has organized for one her friends from the group.

Levitin puts the bird in the oven and changes from shorts and sneakers into a long-sleeve T-shirt and ankle-length cotton dress. She gets in the car and goes to Kosher World on 41st Street. It has been a long time since she has made this sabbath pilgrimage. Inside the store, she browses among the pastries, the frozen knishes, the California kosher wines, the meat cut for brisket, and the prepared foods made by Jewish hands. She picks up a can of beans and nostalgically remembers her mother-in-law's cholent -- a hearty bean-based stew that is prepared before Shabbos and left on the stove all day Saturday, when cooking is forbidden. She buys two white candles, wishes the cashier "Shabbot Shalom" (Good Sabbath), and leaves. It is almost sundown, and the store is closing.

"Look, they're already going to shul," Levitin says, pointing to three young men in white shirts and tuxedo pants walking down the street. Then she realizes that they are waiters, probably on their way to work in a South Beach restaurant.

She laughs and shakes her head. "If you're brought up this way you never leave it. I'll be a Jew until the day I die. I don't know how to live any other way.

"When it comes down to it, I don't think that anyone ever leaves," she says softly, getting into the car. "I still believe that I'm part of God and that everything is part of God. I still follow in essence what the rebbe stands for. But for me, operating in the system, I would have been fighting for a secular voice in the Hasidic world. For me, it was not healthy to do it that way; maybe for other people it is. But I couldn't believe that God can be so mean and so vengeful that He would want us to sacrifice so much for His glory. You can't quantify religion by all of these confinements. I feel that I'm going back to the original way of connecting with the essence, with the infinite source.

"A lot of people think that if you leave your religion you leave spirituality, and that's not true," she asserts as she continues her shopping at a South Beach health food store. "Part of me has said screw it all, I'll leave the whole thing and live like a gentile. But I couldn't do that. I couldn't. It's so ingrained in me it would be like amputating a part of my body. Like losing my arms and legs.

"Before, I did not know how to be a spiritual person in a secular world," she explains. "Now I'm finding out I don't have to 'pass.'"

Dusk has begun to settle around the house as Levitin arrives home with her packages. As she opens the door, the dog comes running out to greet her. "For the first time, I'm learning to be a Jew without the uniform.

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