Our Own Dr. Kanof

Last night I attended a dinner at the Raleigh Civic Center in honor of this year’s inductees into the Raleigh Hall of Fame. Among the 11 individuals honored was Dr. Abram Kanof—our own Dr. Kanof. The citation on the Hall of Fame Web site reads:

Through tireless volunteerism, generous and wise philanthropy, and the warmth of his personality, this respected physician, scholar, and educator made a singular contribution to Raleigh’s cultural landscape and to interfaith understanding throughout the state through the establishment of the Judaic Art Gallery at the North Carolina Museum of Art.

All very true, but too short by a thousand words. Ten thousand words. After all, the man lived 95 years. He witnessed and participated in the whole of the twentieth century. He deserves a biographer. However, until one arrives I offer the following remarks written several years ago and only slightly edited:

This morning I was making a final check of the Judaic Art Gallery. I halted in front of the Chinese Torah Case, its surface embellished with delicately wrought flowers—an allusion to the beauty of life and perhaps also to the first Garden when all was yet right with the world. And I thought of Abe Kanof and how he would have delighted in seeing this case here in Raleigh, half a world from its origin.

First-time visitors to the North Carolina Museum of Art are invariably surprised to find a gallery devoted to Jewish ceremonial art. How it came about is directly attributable to the vision and bullish tenacity of Abe Kanof.

Like the Chinese Torah Case, Abram Kanof’s life began far from Raleigh in a backwater town of the Tsar’s empire. He was born in 1903 in the same month as the Wright brothers’ flight at Kitty Hawk. Rampaging cossacks forced his family to flee to America, where they settled in New York and began to climb rung-by-rung the immigrant’s ladder.

Fast forward 60 years.

In the late 1960s, Dr. Kanof retired from a successful medical and teaching career in New York and moved to Raleigh. Thirty more years lay ahead of him. Retirement freed Abe to pursue his bliss, including the scholarly study of Jewish art and symbolism. He wrote books. He traveled. He involved himself in the affairs of the Triangle’s small Jewish community. And he joined the North Carolina Museum of Art. In 1974 he convinced Director Moussa Domit to let him organize an exhibition of “Ceremonial Art in the Judaic Tradition.” The unexpected success of that show inspired Abe with the grander dream of a permanent collection of Judaica at the Museum. Domit and the Museum didn’t say no, but it was made clear that Abe would have to raise the funds and assemble the collection himself. Abe welcomed the challenge. (“It was my crusade,” he told me, laughing when I winced at the joke.) For years he traveled the state, lecturing to civic and religious groups, all the while wheedling, coaxing, and cajoling potential donors. Abe and his wife also donated many objects from their own collection. By 1983 when the Museum opened on Blue Ridge Road, one of the most remarkable galleries featured not Old Master paintings but glittering Torah crowns, Hanukkah lamps, and Sabbath candlesticks.

From the beginning the Judaic Art Gallery expressed Abe Kanof’s ecumenical vision. He knew that his audience was predominantly not Jewish. What he hoped to create was a place accessible to all where the spiritual and cultural life of the Jewish people could be both celebrated and shared through memorable works of art. Believing that the vitality of Judaism was best reflected in ceremonial art of contemporary design, he also insisted that equal attention be given to objects in modernist styles.

Until his death in 1999, Abe Kanof was the Judaic Art Gallery. He never tired of giving tours to visitors and was always in demand. He once confessed to me that Baptists were his favorite group: they knew their Bible! A natural teacher with a driven need to share his life, he enjoyed performing before a group, whether five or 50. I see him in his well-worn jacket of green corduroy, his hand resting lightly on the shoulder of a young boy as the two of them count the number of lights on a Hanukkah lamp. I see him at the center of a visiting church group holding forth on the heroism of the Maccabees or the symbolism of the foods served at Passover Seder. His gestures were slow and professorial, the pauses between thoughts like deep breaths. When he was past 90 he and I led a small museum tour to Israel. We were visiting the archaeological site at Kfar Nahum (Capernaum) on the Sea of Galilee. Abe had been sleeping on the bus but sprang to life as we arrived. Walking behind, I watched as he entered the precinct of the ruined synagogue, the square of sun-white sand enclosed within broken walls and columns. He’d been there before but was still moved to silence. After a few moments he walked over to a toppled stone from the sanctuary doors. His finger slowly traced the eroded image of the Menorah. Then, turning toward us, he commenced to teach.

From the NCMA video archives, here’s a 1992 video of Dr. Kanof guiding us through the Judaic collection:


From the NCMA video archives, here’s a 1992 video of Dr. Kanof guiding us through the Judaic collection:

A Tour of the Judaic Gallery with Dr. Abram Kanof from The North Carolina Museum of Art on Vimeo.


  1. liz kanof levine
    Posted September 29, 2010 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

    I can never thank you enough for all you did for him when alive and what you continue to do effectively and with such devotion liz

  2. Posted September 30, 2010 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    How wonderful it is to see our “Uncle K”
    doing what he loved to do….talk. He had
    three distinct careers: Pediatrician, Professor,
    and Jewish Art Scholar. He mastered all of
    so very well. Films such as this one help
    those who did not know him see into his wisdom
    and dry sense of humor. For members of his family,
    they help us remember what a unique man he was.
    We all miss him very much.

  3. Posted October 1, 2010 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    I will never forget the years of working with Dr. Kanof on the original installation of the Judaica Collection in the then NEW NCMA building in the 1980′s. What a joy to work side by side, talking and learning and exploring the work he was so passionate about!

  4. Posted October 4, 2010 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    Thanks for your stirring words of tribute to Dr. Kanof. Reading your comments and seeing the film, I feel as though I’ve had a nice visit with him.
    I learned so very much about Judaic art from Dr. K, but also so much about life. He was a true inspiration to me, and a joy to know!
    Rebecca Nagy

  5. Posted December 3, 2010 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    thank you SO much for sharing this wonderful info about this very important man. EVERY time i visit the NC Museum of Art, i MUST vist the Jewish collection. it is an amazing testament to the devotion of spiritually-minded people toward the continuation and support of their worship. the energy placed into the creation of all these tools of worship is so intense and immense that no one can stand in this room without being positively affected and placed in awe of it all.

  6. Al Gerstein
    Posted July 25, 2012 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    I still remember going to Dr Kanof’s office on Linden Blvd in Brooklyn.
    He had no tolerance for kids, but he had lots of toys in the office.

  7. Jackie (Horowitz) Posner
    Posted March 28, 2013 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    Yesterday I toured the Judaica collection with a wonderful docent. She mentioned Dr Kanoff and it struck a memory cord of over 60 years ago in Brooklyn. I emailed my older siblings and alas,he was our beloved pediatrician. Our family memories of his care are still vibrant. He was very close to our family way back in the 40′s, 50′s & 60′s. What a wonderful coincidence.

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