Artist Michael Levin explores his Jewish heritage through artwork based on historical dress. See more of his work by visiting his website.
I’ve been closely following the goings-on of the Hasidic Jewish community here in New York for about five years now. I can’t describe exactly how I became interested in it, but it was almost like enchantment. There is no feeling (for me) quite like walking down a city street and encountering this uncannily regal, silk-robed, fur-crowned figure cross in front of you.
To say its like brushing up against history is too simplistic to really describe it. It feels like discovering an old photo of relatives you never knew you had—it’s an eerie, exciting, and awe-inspiring feeling. And just like discovering that old photo, what is captured in it somehow explains everything about you, and at the same time nothing at all. So as an artist, I’ve been exploring the tension between those two points.
I work almost entirely on paper, and usually with water-based media. My practice integrates traditional Indo-Persian miniature technique with Japanese and American illustrative styles to yield a visual statement that is borderless and cosmopolitan. In this, I am trying to reflect my own sense of displacement in history by juxtaposing it with certain traditional (and often negative) ideas about Jews, many of which color the way I see myself as the American descendant of Jewish immigrants.
Right now I’m working on an illustrated book, kind of a primer to Hasidic Jewish dress customs. This is a subject that many people are curious about in New York and elsewhere, so its a great opportunity for me to mix my research on this subject with my own reflections on the meaning of identity, heritage, and belonging.
My (Jewish) heritage seems to diminish with each passing generation, which is an experience I think is shared by many people around the world who are separated from their ancestral countries, languages, cultures – anything really, even if it is just the feeling of distance that comes with time.
This work is a way for me to relish in my tribal connection with this fascinating group of people, while at the same time trying to understand the foreignness of their culture to my own.
My hope is that many people will find personal meaning in this work, that it will be able to transcend the specifics of my circumstances and appeal to an audience that may know nothing about Jews, but can sense something of themselves in the images I create.