An artist’s journey from slavery to redemption
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An artist’s journey from slavery to redemption

Tobi Kahn’s abstract images illuminate the Reform movement’s new haggadah

Tobi Kahn
Tobi Kahn

This year, the Central Conference of American Rabbis Press has published a new haggadah, “Mishkan HaSeder,” edited by Rabbi Hara Person and Jessica Greenbaum.

It’s illustrated by Tobi Kahn, a well-known artist who lives in Manhattan, has exhibited and is represented by art in major museums around the world, and has taught for many years at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, where he is a well-known figure whose (pre-covid, of course) tours of NYC art galleries are immensely popular.

Although the story in the haggadah is detailed, specific, and highly dramatic, Mr. Kahn’s art is abstract.

This ancient Egyptian wall painting from the tomb of Nakht shows grapes being harvesting and crushed, and wine being bottled.

That’s on purpose.

When Rabbi Person first proposed the project to Mr. Kahn a few years ago, he was interested — “I remember when I was much younger using the Baskin haggadah,” he said — but he had a few conditions.

First of all, he clearly would not be reproducing the Baskin haggadah — that’s the 1974 work by the artist Leonard Baskin — although he loved it dearly. “That’s not who I am,” he said; Leonard Baskin was Leonard Baskin, and he’s Tobi Kahn, a man of a different time and place and set of sensibilities, working on the same text and from the same history.

This is the ancestor of all cultivated lettuce. It is a common weed throughout the world; this photo was taken in Teaneck. It is closer than cultivated lettuce to the original maror. (Barbara Greenberg)

Instead, he, Rabbi Person, and Ms. Greenbaum sat in his studio and looked through 30 years of images he’d made. “I have over 1,000 of them,” he said.

“I wanted to talk about what it means to be a child at the seder. What does it mean to break the matzah? To eat the karpas? To have a Hillel sandwich?”

The art should be about a journey that each Israelite took then, and that each of us takes now.

Tobi Kahn’s Kadeish – We Gather.

And it is abstract because he does not want to dictate meaning and directions. He thinks that each of us look at the art, and at ourselves, and at our world, and see what we see.

As he wrote in the haggadah’s introduction, “Memory is close to dreaming, to imagining. My work is not meant to portray what is remembered but to evoke it. All my art is an invitation, for you to bring yourself, your history, your brimming life — and, yes, your sorrows — to what you are looking at now.”

“Judaism always thinks so much about the written word,” he said. “I think that abstraction takes us on a different type of journey.”

Tobi Kahn’s golden omer counter brings light and hope as we move through the pandemic toward the giving of the Torah on Shavuot.

The art is not only abstract, however; it’s tied to the specific story of the Exodus of the Israelites from slavery to freedom. It starts with an image of sea and sky, and it ends with a golden omer counter, which will mark the days between the end of the second seder and Shavuot, when the Israelites paused in their desert trek, stood at the foot of the mountain, listened to the lightening, saw the thunder, and then stood in jaw-dropped awe as God gave them the Torah.

It’s not the first omer counter Mr. Kahn has made; it’s a form he is drawn to, and he’s made many. But this one is golden, and that’s because he made it during the pandemic.

“We are living through the hardest time, and I want people to feel that we all are golden,” he said. “We all are made b’tzelem Elohim” — in the image of God. We are each one of us special.

This piece by Tobi Kahn encapsulates the seder — it’s “From Slavery to Freedom.”

As an artist, Mr. Kahn concluded in his personal statement in the haggadah, “I think in images, and wanted these paintings to be a way of experiencing the seder in its underlying beauty and significance.” He thinks that at least some of the time, the rest of us can do that too.

“To think visually is a capacity not only for artists,” he wrote. “It is essential for everyone.”

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