Maybe you’ve seen Elke Reva Sudin, 24, walking around Williamsburg’s Northside? She’s petite and pretty, and, up until recently, had a full head of dreadlocks tucked into a headscarf, and was probably wearing a long skirt. Sudin also walked around the Southside dressed much the same way, but chances are you didn’t notice her there. She “passed” just as easily on that side of the neighborhood, taken by residents for another young, religious girl—albeit one carrying a sketchbook and a cadre of felt-tip pens. Sudin talked to everyone she met, found out their “stories,” and drew them (later making paintings of them in acrylic). All this was in service of a series she was creating as part of her senior bfa thesis at Pratt, its title: “Hipsters and Hassids.”
Today Sudin has become something of a human bridge between the worlds of contemporary art and Judaism. Along with her filmmaker husband Saul, 28, Sudin runs Jewish Art Now, a website that’s a clearinghouse and news organ for all things dealing with contemporary art and underground Jewish culture. She curates shows (Industry City in Sunset Park; Gallery Bar on the Lower East Side) and produces ambitious live-music/dj events that are helping to galvanize an already strong scene of young, Jewish-identifying artists. By winter, Jewish Art Now will also launch as a print publication. I sat Elke down during the high-holiday break to ask how the neighborhood helped forge her inner, cool-meets-Jew comfort zone.
SS—Tell us about your art education, and how you started figuring out the early forms of what you’re doing now.? ERS— I was at Pratt—like a lot of people who end up in Brooklyn—and it was an exciting time; in school you get to delve into your art and explore all these things that are pretty private. My professors really took me to a place where I could find myself—even if they personally couldn’t relate at all. Professor Sayler [portrayed in the film Art School Confidential], he was into transformationalism, using art, drawing, as a way to explain how you experience the world. I started hearing Judasim in a new way that was Kabbalistic, seeing how it really connected to my art.
Who helped you with your senior project? My illustration professor, Veronica Lawler, encouraged me with “Hipsters and Hassids.” My idea was to make a book where I would walk around Williamsburg drawing people on the street, as well as in interior locations, but it would be about paying a lot more attention to how people really react to one another. Originally I thought I was going to explore only the Hassidic women of Williamsburg. I was really fascinated by the women; even though I was Jewish I didn’t know what their customs were. Eventually I ended up doing the men, too, on both sides.
How did you manage to “pass”? Getting people to trust you is so important. I was definitely able to weave between both sides. Sometimes I’d wear an outfit that was more “for” one side or another, but basically I had a long skirt, and a long, vintage coat I bought from Beacon’s Closet, from “hipster Williamsburg,” that would always make the [religious women] feel comfortable with me—in particular in the daytime when they’d be pushing their baby carriages, looking for social interaction. On the Northside, I’d just wear what I normally wear, but maybe I’d pick a skirt that was a little bit trendier. I was also using a sketchbook, not a camera, so that’s much less invasive. You really just want to blend in—not be “noticed.” I clocked in a lot of experience on the streets of Williamsburg and ended up seeing a Brooklyn you don’t normally see.
Maybe you can break down the scene on the Southside for us a bit more. What are the main sects and where’s their cultural center? Williamsburg is predominantly Satmar, with Hassidic Jews coming from Hungary and Romania. The fact that many of them died in World War II has provoked an extra-passionate lifestyle. Hassidic life is guided by the Rebbe, and the center of the community, where it all happens, is really the home. That’s where important values are instilled, and there’s lots of kids and family—so much family. You’re in your home or in a cousin’s home, and you have SO many cousins. It’s the mother who takes care of the home, and the father is learning all day, or working, and there are all sorts of avocations.
Sounds like the strangers you met on the religious side of W’burg really opened up to you. I found a lot of people were eager to talk, and find out more about the “hippies.” One bearded guy I met who was a young father, he was driving a van. He spoke in broken English and asked, “I wonder why they [the hipsters] all dress the same?” [Laughs] That was amazing. Then he said, “maybe they want boyfriends and girlfriends.” It was really sweet. He could picture that other groups have their own customs, and their own world, too.
It’s interesting that, in terms of your own religious observance, you opt to wear a head scarf. What “kind” of Jew—as obnoxious as that question may sound—do you think you are now? I generally don’t like to classify Jews. But I also understand that stereotypes help other people understand where you come from. That said, I would say that I’m kind of obviously observant—I observe Sabbath, I keep strictly kosher even though I’m vegetarian. But I’m also a very creative Jew and a Jew who asks a lot of questions. Now I cover my hair. There’s a tradition of Jewish married women—I got married while I was at Pratt—covering their hair. Wearing a head scarf is almost like gang symbols in a way. It’s like a secret code in observant culture that says, “Hey, I’m married, so guys: back off.” Some people might say that I’m “Modern Orthodox” but I hate those terms.
Tell us about your projects since Pratt and how they led up to Jewish Art Now. I started a blog later in 2009 called Hipsters and Hassids because it still seemed so relevant after I graduated. Later I was encouraged to do canvas paintings and not just illustrations, and so I’d show mirrored compositions: one hipster, and one, Hassid, to make this correlation of hey, they do the same things: look! Then the whole “Hipsters and Hassids” article came out in New York magazine and they showed all these conflicts, when I was trying to find common needs and interests.
Your career took a real DIY turn. Why? Basically, I saw that there was no venue for me; there was no gallery that “got” what I was doing. Just having anything “Jewish”—people get really turned off. So I kind of created my own scene. My launch was a one-night gallery opening in an untraditional space with a whole concert lineup. It was a Saturday night in February, and it went from 8pm until 2 in the morning and it was really rad. It was packed. I did all the PR, which I had to learn really quickly.
What sort of people came? There were Hassidim from Williamsburg and there were hipsters, and there were non-hipster types who lived in Williamsburg—500 people! It really showed that you can have all these different walks of life together, and that we can all come and hang out together over art.
Sounds like you were filling a need. Then I curated an art show in July of that year at Gallery Bar on the Lower East Side. I worked on that with a Jewish hip-hop music label, Shemspeed, and a Jewish ethnic and racial diversity organization called Be’Chol Lashon. And there were other events. And then we started the website. And now, the book. I started becoming involved with the Jewish Art Salon; they opened me up to other Jewish artists—they hold bi-monthly sessions and I could see all these Jewish artists coming together. I mean, every other ethnic cultural identity has an appreciation for their art work; they don’t say “oh, that culture is tacky, we’re not interested.” They have pride. But Jewish subject matter is never cool in the artworld. Now I see all these cool people and they’re doing cool stuff, so I figure, “Let’s make it legit.”
Can you tell people about some of the neat, “new” takes on observance that are going into the book—like the “Sketch Chumash” that lets you take notes, art-school style, next to the traditional Hebrew text of Genesis; and the custom kosher wine labels? Artists are interested in finding new Jewish symbols, not just the Star of David. They want to give us new ritual objects. Ken Goldman is one; every day he comes up with a new wacky way of relating tradition. (He also went to Pratt.) For instance, he came up with a memorial candle that’s a usb-powered electric light.
So I could use it the next time I have to commemorate a yahrtzeit [annual memorial] for my parents? And I would just plug it into my computer? Yeah. Halachically [legally] it may not be kosher, but the concept is there. And it might be acceptable if candles aren’t allowed for some reason where you are.
Cool. I’ll ask my rabbi. I actually find Judaism is quite lenient about things like that.
It’s a weekly gathering of Jews and hipsters of all stripes, and it lasts all night long.