The paradox of the rabbi's wife.
September 9, 2001
Text by Samantha M. Shapiro
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark

Deba Levin performs the most important ceremonial duty of her week: saying a prayer for the lighting of the Shabbat candles with her daughters. Downstairs in the synagogue, her sons are praying with their father, the rabbi.

A week can easily pass without Doba Levin stepping off the front porch of her squat two‑story Brooklyn home. There is little need to; the house, dense with the lives of her 14 children and any number of her neighborhood's large Russian immigrant population, constitutes, if not a world of its own, at least an ecosystem.

One of the two front doors to the Levins' house opens on to a small synagogue cluttered with Russian‑language prayer books and the offices where she and her husband, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Levin, work. The other leads upstairs to a living room with bright lavender walls and weary wood floors, a kitchen where the industrial‑size jug of vegetable oil and crate of soy milk never make it to the cupboard and a long hallway of bedrooms and bathrooms that creeps up to the attic.

With one of her four sons boarding at a yeshiva in Crown Heights and another in diapers, the house is overrun with daughters. They bloom from every cranny of the house. In the living room, Devorah Leah, 5, methodically shreds a box of Kleenex, while Nechamie, 6, bounces up and down on the leather couch screaming in a giddy singsong the prayer she recites at day camp: Modah, ani lefanecha melech hai vkayam shehazarta be neshmati. ("I thank you living and eternal King for you returned my soul within me.") Rivky, 13, calmly migrates through the house with her book, trying to stay one room ahead of the youngest cohort.

Rabbi Levin comes and goes relatively unnoticed, but when Estie, 4, catches sight of Mrs. Levin returning from a 90‑minute visit to a friend's birthday party, she brings her tricycle to a screeching halt at the top of the stairs. "Mom is on her way up!" she yells. All of the children, even the teenagers, stop what they are doing and clamber around their mother, jockeying for position. They follow her onto the couch and wait expectantly, al­most shyly, for her to deliver something: a story, a song, a gaze. Her older daughters are able to stand in for their mother in some ways ‑ they gently chastise Shana Brocha, 2 1/2, who is fond of throwing her legs over her head, with their mother's line "Shani, that's not sneyous" (which means "modest") but they cannot imitate her authority. "Mom," an exasperated Rohie, 15, calls, "Levy won't take his bottle from me. He needs, like, I don't know, the respect and honor of having you give it to him."

Doba Levin washing her daughters' hands, a purification ritual that begins each morning.

Brushing her daughter Estie's hair in the bedroom where five of her children sleep.

At work in her kitchen, where she cooks her children's meals in shifts.

And at work in her office, where she instructs Jews, mostly Russian immigrants, in Orthodox practice.

Levin and her husband are shlichim, or agents, of the late Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the most recent leader of the Lubavitcher movement, a Jewish Hasidic group that began in Russia in the 18th century. One tenet of the movement is that the Messiah (whom many Lubavitchers believe to be Schneerson himself) will arrive as soon as enough Jews adopt Orthodox religious practices. To hasten this end, under Schneerson's leadership the movement opened more than 2,000 centers in the last 50 years to reach out to secular Jews in places as far flung as Anchorage and Marrakesh. The Levin home is one such center.

During the five hours Levin spends in her office each day, a steady stream of Russian immigrants from all over Brooklyn wait in the synagogue or hallway to speak to her, seeking advice on the laws of family purity, on where to get a mezuza, on what their children should wear to Lubavitcher day camp. At her coaxing, many of her neighbors eventually navigate the transition from Citizen Secular to Ultra‑Orthodox Jew, circumcising their teenage sons, donning wigs and Yiddishizing their names. Levin offers attention and answers at all hours. "We are all like children to her," says Brocha Girshina, who attends the Levin synagogue. "We need her."

Doba Levin and her family. Back row, from left: Sara Levin, Doba Levin's mother‑in‑law; her son, Yehuda, 18; Rabbi Moshe Chaim Levin, her husband; Doba Levin; Shana Brocha, 2 1/2; Chanie, 19; Chaya, 17; Rohie, 15, Rivky, 13; Elky, 12. Front row, from left: Mendy, 10, and Zalmy, I 1, holding a portrait of Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson; Devorah Leah, 5; Estie, 4; Mushky, 9; Nechamie, 6; Levy Yitzhak, 1 1/2.

Levin finds rest, food and privacy in whatever intervals are available. She falls into a deep, still four‑minute sleep with a prayer book open, finger laid over a word, a child playing on her lap. As she clears four children's dinner dishes from the Formica kitchen table and sets it for another four, she collects a snack of half‑eaten meatloaf and kasha on to her own plate. On Shabbat night, well past midnight, when the guests have left and the younger children are asleep, the Levins above the age of 13 venture out for a "walk," really a stroll of 30 paces to the end of the street. The rabbi and his wife, who mostly speak to each other like the leaders of major nations ‑ aware of audience, short on time ‑ drift ahead of their daughters, alone for the first time that day, leaning toward each other without touching.

As Levin tells it, every aspect of her life is in service of Rebbe Schneerson, whose burning black eyes peer out from portraits in every room. He is the reason she left Israel, a country she loves, where most of her family lives, and the reason that although she is in her 40's, she is "happy and blessed to accept as many more children as he wants to give." Every Lubavitcher knows of the rebbe's statement that the Messiah will not come until all the children that need to be born arrive. ("It was very scary to know that," Levin says. "He said that right before I got married.")

Levin devotes her life to serving a system that excludes her and her 10 daughters from formal positions of authority or leadership, a system that will not allow her a title, count her in a prayer quorum or permit her to sing at her Shabbat table if men from outside the family are present. It is also, perhaps unexpectedly, a movement with a fairly extensive infrastructure for women, including national conferences and Torah study groups and a line of rhetoric about women's power well developed enough to be the topic of a full‑scale musical production by Rohie Levin's high school.

The heroine of the play, Rebecca, must choose between the demands of a Jewish homemaker and a band of feminists (dressed modestly despite their gangster accents) who want her to join a rally for women's power. Rebecca initially voices many of the criticisms a secular woman might level against the conscribed life of an ultra‑Orthodox woman. But she is ultimately won over by images of Jewish women keeping their faith through difficult times, bravely defying Pharaoh's decree to stop having children and, somewhat inexplicably, break‑dancing while dressed in Russian peasants' outfits. By the end, she decides to stay, literally, in the kitchen instead of attend the rally. In the finale, the feminists dance jubilantly with the Jewish heroines of the past; they are not enemies after all. Feminists aren't wrong to seek power, Rebecca learns. They are just looking in the wrong place. The power the secular world offers has little meaning compared with the power of faith, the ability to see light in darkness.

The paradox of the Lubavitcher message is that faith, an act of submission, is the ultimate creative action: it will bring about the redemption of the world. It is a message that exists for Doba Levin not only in her brochures but also in her physical being. She has been pregnant, giving birth or nursing virtually uninterrupted for the last 19 years. Each act divests her of more autonomy; each act expands the universe that depends on her for life.