How My Uncle, a Painter, Inspired My American Jewish Dream
I was 6 years old when my mother took my sister and me to our great Uncle Jennings’ studio by the ocean, where he drew a portrait of me. He said he saw something in my eyes that spoke of a deep soul. He died only a few years later, but I will never forget him.
Uncle Jennings was my Papa George’s brother, and I remember once asking my Nana Eva about him. She said he was “a Bohemian,” and the family didn’t really associate too much with him because they thought what he did was frivolous.
In my view, though, what Uncle Jennings did was anything but frivolous.
Jennings Tofel was born on October 18, 1891 in the town of Tomashev, in the province of Lodz, in central Poland. His father, Yosif Toflexicz was the town’s best ladies tailor. Jennings’ paternal grandfather, Reb Heshka, was the son of an eminent scholar, a dayan (judge of a rabbinic court) who, absorbed in his own scholarly pursuits, had neglected Heshka’s education. When Yehudah (Jennings’ Hebrew name) was born, his father imagined that his son would take up the mantel of a long family line of distinguished rabbis and men of learning.
But as a young boy of 7, Jennings had a terrible accident and broke his back. It was never set properly, and that fixed the course of his life – a life of pain and deformity. He moved to America when he was 14 years old, and in time, he entered college at the City College of New York. It was during that time that his artistic talent was recognized, and he started to paint. As a result, what originally appeared to be a curse was seen as a blessing, for the gift that emerged from his fingertips was truly extraordinary.
Jennings was an Expressionist painter. As Arthur Granick, a friend and avid collector of his works, once wrote,
“At one time Expressionism was considered, and often angrily dismissed, as ‘typically Teutonic’ or even ‘typically Jewish.’ But it is interesting to recall that the majority of immigrant artists either were full-fledged Expressionists or could, at least at some point in their career, be considered Expressionists.”
Jennings was influenced by the cry of anguish reflected in the works of Edvard Munch, a Norwegian artist of an earlier generation, who displayed the knowledge of the kinds of tortures invented by men for other men.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Jennings was a part of a group of talented men and women who formed an enclave within American art, a sort of equivalent to the Ecole Juive in Paris. These immigrants brought with them from the old country the Yiddish language, Jewish legend and lore, and art. Uncle Jennings was one of the best-known among this group of unknowns (the Whitney Museum of American Art purchased one of his pictures in 1932), and he became a protégé of American photographer Alfred Stieglitz.
Jennings’ essays “Form in Painting” and “Expression” for the Societe Anonyme were among the precursors to New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and he also wrote numerous essays on art in Yiddish for Jewish publications; his written collections are now housed at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. Today, his paintings are part of the Hirshhorn Collection, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, among others.
Uncle Jennings’ portrait of that little 6-year-old girl sits in my home study. A soulful child, she was inspired by a strange little man to follow her dreams and express her passion and connection to her people. I look at it often and find that it, and the other paintings of Jennings Tofel that hang in my home, continue to inspire me and connect me to my own family’s history and the history of the American Jewish Diaspora. More than that, it reminds me constantly of the ongoing journey of that 6-year-old and her role in the journey of her people.