By Michael E. Miller
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Sabrina Rodriguez
By Michael E. Miller
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Luther Campbell
By Kyle Munzenrieder
Yehudis Levitin had been flirting with the law for a while when she got into her car on a Friday afternoon this past January and headed west to Coral Gables.
This time, she had more than a close call. It was already dangerously near sundown, which signals the start of Shabbos, the day of rest, a 24-hour period during which strict Orthodox Jews cannot ride in cars, operate machinery, or turn on lights. But Levitin got into her silver Dodge and went over the Julia Tuttle Causeway to the expressway, en route to a friend's house, where she planned to spend the night and return when the sabbath was over. Near the airport she got stuck in traffic. She looked at the clock. Sundown was less than eighteen minutes away. The time allowed to stop all activity and assemble at home for the ceremonial lighting of the Shabbos candles had already passed. Levitin realized that she had broken the commandment "take care to keep holy the sabbath day." She had violated the Jewish law. It was a terrifying moment.
"I can't believe it, I'm in a terrible state," Levitin recalls thinking, shaking her head as she relates the events of that afternoon. "I don't know what to do. For the first time in my life I have to think to myself, 'The Shabbos has been broken. For the first time in my life, I'm just like everybody else. For the first time in my life, I am no longer God's chosen.'"
Levitin, a painter and graphic designer, is eating lunch in a coffee shop in Miami Springs near the Miami Art League, where she often spends the morning making life drawings from a nude model. An intense, attractive woman of 44 years, with piercing dark eyes and classic features, she is dressed in a short-sleeve T-shirt and pants -- the kind of unisex casual wear that until recently she had not worn since she was a child. Her short curly hair is thin on top, showing a slight balding in spots that is the likely result of wearing a wig over her hair every day for twenty years.
The waiter approaches and Levitin quizzes him at length about several items on the menu. She speaks with a trace of a Brooklyn accent, tinged with an interrogative Yiddish intonation that conjures up images of New York City's Lower East Side. "Do they cook the eggs with animal fat?" Levitin asks skeptically. Unaccustomed to ordering hot food in a nonkosher restaurant, she scans the menu one more time, shrugs, and finally requests a cheese omelet.
Raised in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, Levitin comes from a family of Lubavitcher Hasidim, followers of the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh Lubavitcher rebbe descended from a rabinnical dynasty. His followers revere Rebbe Schneerson as a tzaddik, a holy man. Many Lubavitchers proclaim him the Messiah.
"When you are part of a Hasidic community, you have direction," explains Levitin, who has broken with her community, divorced her husband, and created havoc within her family, all because she decided to search for an identity other than that imposed on her by her religion. "You are hooked up to a huge system; you are hooked up to a very powerful rebbe, not only a rebbe but generations and generations before him. We're going back to the beginning of time."
Hasidism, a spiritual reform movement, was founded in eighteenth-century Poland by Israel ben Eliezer, known as Ba'al Shem-Tov, or Besht for short. His message was that adherence to God could be gained not only through the fulfillment of the mitzvots (good deeds) and the study of the Torah and the Talmud (commentary on the Jewish oral law), but also through a good life. Hasidism preached the existence of the holy in the mundane, in all aspects of daily activities, and thus allowed everyone -- rich and poor -- to be close to God. (The Hebrew word Hasid translates as pious one). By the Nineteenth Century, the majority of Jews in Eastern Europe had turned to Hasidism. The Russian pogroms and the Holocaust annihilated millions of them. Many of those who survived settled in the United States; today there are about 250,000 Hasidim in this country, the majority in Brooklyn (an estimated 150,000).
The Hasidic lifestyle is highly ritualized, with mandated prayers and prescriptions for quotidian activities such as eating, drinking, studying, and sexual relations, which are all seen as spiritual acts. For example, all Lubavitcher men wear beards, in accordance with Leviticus, chapter 19, verse 27: "Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corner of thy beard." It is a life of scholarship and devotion, of mystical exploration and strict adherence to the laws of Moses. For men, that life revolves around the synagogue, religious study, and prayer. Only young men, not women, can study to become rabbis. For women, activity is centered on children and the home, although they often work --frequently as teachers, in the health professions, or family businesses -- helping to support their large families and allowing their husbands the necessary freedom to worship. With their own rich culture, political structures, and businesses, Hasidic communities have little need for the diversions of the contemporary world.
Of the many existing Hasidic groups, the Lubavitchers -- whose name comes from the Belorussian city of their ancestors -- are probably the best-known to the general population because they have more contact with the secular world than most other Hasidim. In Miami Beach, bearded men in black hats and heavy black coats walking to and from synagogue are a common sight, just another element of the diverse local population. (The Lubavitchers do not keep a census, but according to the Lubavitch Yeshiva Center in Miami Beach at least 217 families live in the Greater Miami area). Unlike most other Jews, the Lubavitcher Hasidim are proselytizers; they welcome those Jews who have lost their faith and even some gentile converts into their ranks. Their worldwide network of educational outreach centers, called Chabad houses, offers Jews everywhere a kosher meal and an immediate connection to the Lubavitcher community. Yeshiva students conduct vigorous street crusades, coaxing nonreligious Jews inside recreational vehicles called Mitzvah Tanks to say a prayer and talk with them about Judaism. One such mobile home can usually be found parked on Alton Road and Twelfth Street, across from the yeshiva.
The ranks of the Hasidim are growing at a rate of five percent a year. This is perhaps due to a contemporary crisis of faith that has prompted lapsed Jews to seek out a spiritual life in the Orthodox tradition, and to the fact that Hasidic couples commonly have up to ten children. But it also reflects the consistently low dropout rate among the Hasidim.
"In a community that is so closed it's not common for someone to leave the fold," says Rabbi Paul Steinberg, a dean at Hebrew Union College in Manhattan. "They have to really want out to do it. Especially for a woman. It's not usual for a woman to make a new life for herself. If she divorces her husband and decides to leave her family, where does she have to go?"
Levitin asked herself that question as she sat in her car on that fateful January day. It was a decisive moment in her painful but ultimately liberating journey into the secular world.
"When I broke Shabbos, all of a sudden it was as if someone had cut the cord and I was floating in a no man's land," Levitin relates, letting her omelet get cold on her plate as she recounts the enormity of the events on that Friday afternoon. "It was like all of a sudden I became part of the world. My entire concept -- everything that I was programmed for -- came to a screeching halt the day I found myself in a car ten minutes past the allotted time for Shabbos to begin."
On the door frame outside Levitin's studio at the Bakehouse Art Complex hangs a multicolored Lucite mezuzah, an oblong box holding a tiny paper scroll inscribed with passages from the Scriptures that is placed outside the door of most Jewish homes. Levitin is inside her small work space, pulling a large painting out of a wooden rack in the corner.
The canvas is covered with a busy collage of newspaper photographs coated with wax and a dark wash of paint. On the right side, the artist has pasted pictures of bearded rabbis and other important figures in the Hasidic community cut from a Yiddish newspaper. On the left are clippings from the secular press: "Six Shot While Waiting for the IRT" blares one headline from the New York Times. In the center is a realist image of a boy wearing a yarmulke, riding a tricycle. A younger little girl, maybe four years old, stands behind him on the cross bar between the back wheels, holding on. It's a portrait of the artist with her older brother Joseph Isaac (known as Yossie), one of her five siblings, of whom she is the second-born. A red sphere, like a bubble, is painted around the two children, protecting them from the grown-up world depicted in the newspaper photos. The work is called The Womb. Levitin explains that it symbolizes the innocence of childhood.
On closer inspection, there is something slightly sinister about the children in the painting. They have no eyes, just dark, vacant slits, as if their eyeballs have been poked out. They look not only innocent, but blind.
"The way I grew up, there was no exploration," the artist comments, staring at the painting. "You have a course that's charted for you. You can veer ten degrees from that, but you can't do anything that could be seen as bringing shame to your family."
Photographs of the neighborhood in which Yehudis Kazarnovsky grew up show what looks like the set for the movie A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The family lived in a modest brick building with casement windows. There was a small patio in back where Yehudis sunbathed on a lawn chair and once tried to plant a garden.
Libby her mother, was not raised Hasidic. She met her future husband Moshe at a Catskills resort. When they were first married and living in Brighton Beach, she didn't cover her hair with a wig. (The Hasidim view hair as a sensual part of the body that after marriage can be seen only by a woman's husband. Hasidic women also wear long skirts and sleeves past the elbow for the sake of modesty). Moshe shaved regularly when he was a young man. But his father was a powerful figure in the Lubavitcher community who worked closely with the rebbe, and his mother also came from a long line of observant Hasidim. After Yossie and Yehudis were born, the family moved to Crown Heights. There, living within the large Lubavitcher community, they became more devout. Moshe, who worked for Con Edison, grew a beard and Libby began wearing a wig or head scarf in public.
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.
"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."
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.
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.
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.