Visu­al Arts

Jews of Today: A Primer on Hasidic Dress

  • Review
By – October 14, 2013

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

Some Thoughts on the Pew Sur­vey of Jew­ish America

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.

Discussion Questions