Our Own Dr. Kanof

/ September 29, 2010
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.

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 notJewish. 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.

John Coffey
John Coffey, Jim and Betty Becher Curator of American and Modern Art emeritus, Curator of Judaic Art emeritus

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