Looking at Israeli art from the inside
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Looking at Israeli art from the inside

Artist Tobi Kahn, Tenafly JCC offer summer art tour of Israel

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Sky & Water was part of “Aligned: Paintings by Tobi Kahn,” on display at the University of Maryland in 2011.

Tobi Kahn doesn’t actually look like a force of nature.

He looks like a handsome, mild-mannered guy; you know, he’s in his early 60s but he’s genuinely boyish. He’s sweet, and it shows.

And then you meet him, and the force takes over.

Mr. Kahn is an artist – a painter and sculptor – whose work is found in museums and galleries around the world.

For about 30 years, he has taught students at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly how to look at art through an artist’s eye – not how to look at it through his eyes, but through the eyes of the artist who lives inside each of his students. He has taken his students – a core group of whom have stayed with him during the decades – on gallery tours in Manhattan, and exposed them to a range of artists and styles of art.

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Tobi Kahn

Mr. Kahn is also a deeply committed Jew. He he grew up in the Breuer community in Manhattan’s Washington Heights and is an active member of Manhattan’s Jewish Center and a frequent visitor to other shuls.

He is also smart, chatty, personable; a good listener, a very good talker, and an even better connection-maker.

Now, he is planning to take a group of students to Israel, and to introduce them to local artists there. He wants them to see the country through an artist’s eyes.

“I’ve been going to Israel at least once or twice a year for the last 10 years,” Mr. Kahn said. “I think it will be really exciting to take a small group – 10 to 20 people – to look at art, and to do it the way we do it in New York.

“We’ll go to museums, go to galleries, go to art studios, and meet some collectors,” he continued. “I don’t want to call it the art scene – it’s the arts community. We will take an insider’s look at it.”

Rather than focus on any theme, his trip will be a whirl of diversity. “There are two big arts communities in Israel, one in Jerusalem and one in Tel Aviv. I’ll show them younger artists – ceramicists, photographers, painters, sculptors. We’ll go to their studios.”

Will people be interested in going to Israel just to look at art? “People go to the Vienna Biennale and Art Basel” – two large, well-hyped European art exhibitions – “and this is much more intimate,” Mr. Kahn said. “It’s like being in a salon. I designed it so that the whole thing will be intimate – and no one will be bored.

“And Israel really holds its own as a real art center,” he continued. “It is so diverse. And per capita, it is as good as New York or London.”

Because the art he will show his students will showcase that, “I don’t expect everyone to like everything, but I expect everyone to learn something, and to find something that touches them,” he said.

Of all the artists whose work he plans to show to his students, he highlights three – Moroccan painter and sculptor Ofer Lalouche; another Moroccan, ceramicist Sara Shuracki, and Larry Abramson, “who is one of my best friends in the world and who I think is a genius,” he said.

“What they will get from me is one-on-one conversation,” Mr. Kahn said. “It will be like going behind the scenes in a play.”

“I was one of the original ladies who have been with Tobi for 30 years,” Janet Dardik of Tenafly said. “We knew him back from before he was married, before he had children.” (Mr. Kahn is married to the writer Nessa Rapoport, and they have one son and two daughters.) “We love him.

“Tobi is extremely knowledgeable,” she continued. “He is not a historian – there are other people who take groups around and give you art history. His forte is exposing us to everything that’s going on in the art world.

“He knows artists, he knows dealers, and we get the inside scoop, so the idea of going to Israel with him and seeing art there sounds absolutely amazing.”

She has expanded her visual horizons through the class, she said. “When I started with Tobi, the only art I really knew was the Impressionists – whom I still love – but there is so much more.

“We learn about color and form and what it takes to make art, but that’s not all we learn. When we started, we thought about art as just a picture on the wall, but there is so much more to it.

“Over the years, we have learned how to look at things with a more focused eye. That is something that makes you grow.”

Andrea Hershan of Cresskill has been one of Mr. Kahn’s students for 28 years. “It is an unbelievable way for me to be exposed to art,” she said. “And Tobi is one of the most beautiful souls to walk the earth.

“Spending time with him is glorious. He has a way of teaching about art that is non-threatening. He tells you stories about the artists as he teaches you about the art. He makes the art come alive for you.”

And he is charismatic. When the group goes into the city to visit galleries, “Every time we walk down the street, no matter what part of New York we’re in, he meets somebody, some artist, he knows,” she said. “He embraces the artist, and he says to us, ‘Oh my God, you don’t know who you’re meeting!’ He has such an intense love for artists.

“If I went into some of these galleries by myself, the woman at the front desk would give me a look that would say, ‘Oh, you really think you have enough money for this $30 million piece of art?’ But we can go in with him, and he makes it real.”

Esther Mazor, the director of adult services at the JCC, is enthusiastic both about Mr. Kahn’s JCC class and his Israel trip. The class is one of the center’s most popular, and the trip “is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she said. “If people go on their own, they can’t get into some of these galleries. But he has an unbelievable connection to it, and he can bring it to life.”

The Israel trip is expensive, Ms. Mazor said, but the JCC makes no money from it; instead, it is priced so that the center will break even. “There are departments at the JCC that raise money, and some that make money.” Some deliver social services, and those departments depend on the funds raised elsewhere in the building. Her department “does neither,” she said. “We offer wonderful quality programming, and we pay the costs that we incur.

“This trip is not to raise money,” she said. “It is getting what you pay for. It is top quality. It is an unbelievable opportunity to go to Israel with Tobi Kahn and learn about art.”

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