Brooklyn, NY - A newly released book by a Brooklyn artist attempts to explore the nuances and subtleties of an unusual topic: the clothing worn by chasidic men.
Jews of Today, an 83 page book containing 45 illustrations and explanations penned by 28 year old Williamsburg artist Michael Levin, is a project that was several years in the making, and attempts to demystify both a mode of dress and a culture that appears foreign to the outsider.
Levin, the son of a Jewish father and an Italian mother who converted to Judaism before his birth, was raised in California and lived in South Chicago for four years before moving to Brooklyn.
“I grew up in Los Angeles, so apart from a few Lubavitchers, I had never really seen or come in contact with the kind of Jewish culture that exists in Williamsburg,” Levin, who was bowled over by the sartorial customs of his new neighbors, told VIN News.
“I’d simply never seen anything like it,” explained Levin. “What’s more, what I had seen of the chasidic culture was only in old pictures and some scenes from movies and TV shows. I had no idea of the magnitude and the reality of a chasid as a living breathing entity.”
Levin’s first interaction with a member of Williamsburg’s chasidic community came when he spoke with a chasidic landlord about renting an apartment and found himself mesmerized by the age old attire that he saw all around him.
“I started making a lot of artwork just relishing in the haunting beauty of the clothes,” recalled Levin. “The most fascinating element of the dress is its endless variety, a world of difference so slight as to go unnoticed by almost everyone outside of the community and often by some within it.”
Levin says he spent over four years researching his book and another year doing the actual writing and illustrating. Levin admits that he knew nothing about Orthodox Judaism or the chasidic culture before relocating to New York.
“There are already so many books on other aspects of the culture but, arguably, apart from the Israel Museum catalog from last year’s show, there is no book, at least not in English, that covers the clothing in any depth,” said Levin. “The clothing is the first sense any outsider gets about what it means to be chasidish and even in some sense what it means to be a Jew. I wanted this book to be a way for outsiders to get a glimpse of this world, how many layers of meaning it has.”