Sick of Dancing Hasidim Playing Violins? Meet the New Baal Teshuvah Artists of Brooklyn.
Orthodox Jews new to insular traditions try to integrate the two worlds of strict religion and artistic self-expression
“When a Jewish artist has their head in the right place, the art is a reflection of that,” explained Rivka. While studying Chabad mysticism she discovered how a person’s thoughts affect their emotions and then their actions. “I started to understand art through this perspective. Art will automatically be different, you don’t have to draw the Beit Hamikdash (Jerusalem Temple) for it to be powerful; art will come from that place.”
The artist Noah Lubin, who became religiously observant at age 24, said during an interview at Lamplighters a month ago that he and his wife of two years are a “mish mash” of various Orthodox leanings. He became elusive when defining himself as Hasidic or an artist. “I, in some ways, remain unresolved because I’m always growing and I’m not sure what labels mean,” said Lubin. “Some mornings I wonder whether G-d exists on my way to shul.”
Growing up in a creative home in Chicago and inspired by his mother, an artist, and his father, a poet who also produced reggae music, Lubin began painting five years ago and shyly admits to his international success, calling himself “lucky and privileged.” (His artwork is publicly displayed in Jerusalem’s Old City.) He’s also a “bluesy” Jewish musician who has performed with Matisyahu, produced albums, and appeared at music festivals. “All humans have creativity, and we use it in different ways,” explained Lubin. “We’re creative partners with G-d, it’s part of our inheritance, creativity is a gravitational pull in the world.”
Lubin’s abstract art is mostly concerned with the life he’s familiar with as a baal teshuvah who moved into a traditional, yet modern world. What emerges in visual terms, according to the artist, is urban Judaica, not folklore. “Not everyone is dancing with beards and streimels [Hasidic fur hats],” continued Lubin. Like Robin, Lubin said he’s influenced by a contemporary scene and his secular background. “By painting [reality], I’m not glorifying per se the secular influences but simply communicating them. I want to show what Jewish life looks like today. If you live in Brooklyn, there’s gangs, graffiti, people from all walks of life. It’s not the shtetl in Europe. I’ve never seen Hasidim dancing in fields with violins.”
Thirty-four-year-old Hasidic writer (and contributor to Tablet magazine’s predecessor, Nextbook) Matthue Roth, whose book My First Kafka: Runaways, Rodents, and Giant Bugs was released last week, was at the Lamplighters event since his daughter is a student there. Sporting long, curly sideburns, Roth, who became Orthodox 15 years ago and lives in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, said during an interview at the close of the evening’s shows that he began performing slam poetry at bars in San Francisco “while keeping Shabbat in a bubble.” He came to New York for Def Poetry Jams on Broadway while hoping to combine both of his identities and landed “by accident,” he said, at the Crown Heights jams 10 years ago. It was the first place where his religion and art overlapped before discovering a baal teshuvah scene in Berkeley, Calif.
“I felt I can do what G-d wants me to do but my other gifts, weird gifts that don’t fit in anywhere, that no one else can do, G-d gave me them for a reason, G-d wants me to do them too,” Roth shared. He said his latest book, which is geared for children, “is a retelling of Kafka’s stories; they’re parables that connect with Hasidic wisdom and Jewish stories.” Another inspiration is one of Kafka’s close friends, Jiri Langer, the Hebrew poet and scholar from Prague who also became a baal teshuvah.
As a working poet, Roth compares his own practice of Orthodox Judaism to writing a sonnet. “A sonnet is very rigid but within those syllables can be anything,” he noted. “Jewish law is strict, what you can and can’t do, but then beyond that our lives can be whatever we want. What rhymes are left to us.”
You can help support Tablet’s unique brand of Jewish journalism. Click here to donate today.
The Tattler: TV chef Nigella Lawson, tabloid fodder after a public dust-up with art-mogul ad-man hubby Charles Saatchi, is not alone