In a way, it seems kind of strange that picture books haven’t really adopted the photographic image. Picture books are, after all, to a large degree instructional: why, then, doesn’t the book world show a preference for realistic images, for true visual copies of the subject?
Perhaps it’s because there’s something to learn from illustrations, even beyond acquiring an appreciation for artwork, that technically accurate depictions cannot quite convey. There’s a sense of narrative captured in drawings, etchings, and paintings, that the most carefully planned photograph could never transmit: the picture would fall flat, somehow, solidly two-dimensional.
It’s rare that we think of illustrated books for adults as illuminative, rather than as mere novelties or, at best, interpretive. Yet Michael Levin’s thoughtfully crafted Jews of Today is a true picture book for adults, in the sense that its illustrations communicate, educate, as much as the text. And here, too, his visually sparse sketches depict their subjects more thoroughly than photographs ever could.
Jews of Today is, most basically, a guide to the garb of Hasidic men. Levin identifies the different styles found within this deceptively diverse world, tracing their sources back to distinct communities, customs, and influences — taking care to note that Hasidim are just as likely to avoid overt affiliation with their particular sects as they are to embrace it, for any of a multitude of reasons.
But the key to understanding Hasidic dress lies in realizing the unseen, which demonstrates the advantage of art over the conventional image. Michael Levin deftly illustrates how little the outside observer perceives of the subject by presenting bewildering drawings — men with multiple bearded heads; bodies without torsos or arms — that slowly come to make sense the further one ventures into the book, learning the customs and obscure sources behind the clothes fantastically depicted by Levin’s artwork.
Read Michael Levin’s Posts for the Visiting Scribe
Dynamic and Polyglot: Judaism’s (Hasidic) Revival Movement
Encountering the Hasidic Enclave
Nat Bernstein is the former Manager of Digital Content & Media, JBC Network Coordinator, and Contributing Editor at the Jewish Book Council and a graduate of Hampshire College.