The indestructible spirit of Holocaust survivors

These photographs by Bill Aron are part of a project titled “Holocaust Survivors: The Indestructible Spirit.”

The project, sponsored by Chapman University, unites interviews and images of local Holocaust survivors, with each illuminating the other, telling their stories from the war and also showing them today as they have not only survived, but prospered.

The biographies here were condensed and excerpted by The Journal from interviews by students of professor Marilyn J. Harran, director of Chapman’s Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education. The interviews were conducted as part of Harran’s Holocaust history courses at Chapman, and are © 2007-2008, Chapman University.

“I was welcomed not only into their homes, but also into their hearts. They gave me a gift of openness and trust, which made possible one hundred truly memorable encounters. It was the essence of these encounters, a deep sense of connection, an exquisite intimacy, if you will, that I felt, and that I tried to put into the images. The extent that my photographs are successful is due to their openness and trust. . . .

The prophet Zechariah proclaims that the people of Israel will prevail “not by might, nor by power, but by spirit alone … will you survive.” Clearly, it was not by might, nor by power that they prevailed, but by the strength of their enduring spirit.

— Bill Aron, photographer

Jack Pariser was born in 1929 in Poland, south of Krakow. His father sold lumber and his mother sold fabric. When the Nazis began terrorizing Jews in 1939, Jack’s grandfather was beaten unconscious for refusing to walk on the Torah; he died soon after. In early August 1942, Jack’s mother learned that the Germans were planning to murder the town’s Jews the next day, and the family fled, hiding for months in the forest. They were rescued by a Christian man who had worked for Jack’s father and were hidden in a bunker under a woodshed floor. When they eventually moved to another hiding place, they were betrayed and arrested by Polish police. They escaped from jail by cutting through the wall with a penknife. They were again protected by non-Jews until the war ended in 1945.

The family moved to the United States in 1949, and Jack went on to become chief scientist at Hughes Aircraft, where he retired from in 1987.

Eva Brettler (nee Katz) was born in Romania in 1936. She was visiting her grandparents in Hungary in 1944 when the German soldiers took her grandmother and aunt as she hid. When she emerged, she sought out the town rabbi, who reconnected her to her parents. When her father was made to do forced labor, her mother tried to protect young Eva, at one point taking on a false identity as a non-Jew, for which she was later denounced and mother and child were arrested. In September 1944, the two were sent on a forced march to Germany with thousands of Jews; Eva’s mother was killed on the walk, and the young girl tried to understand why her mother didn’t come for her. Eventually, with the help of a fellow prisoner, she arrived at the Ravensbrück concentration camp, where she was encouraged and protected by women prisoners. With the advance of the Russian army, the Germans moved the prisoners to Bergen-Belsen by cattle car, and Eva survived — and helped others — by luck and ingenuity, squeezing through wire fence to steal scraps of potato peelings from a kitchen refuse area. After liberation, she reunited with her father and they returned to Hungary. In 1956, after the brutal suppression of the Hungarian Revolution, Eva fled her country, arriving in the United States in 1957, where she met and married fellow survivor Marten Brettler. In 1983, she earned a degree in psychology from UCLA and became a social worker.

Sally Roisman (nee Zielinski) was born in Sosnowiec, Poland, in 1930 to a devoutly religious family. When war broke out, the family had nowhere to flee to, so they survived by bartering jewelry for food. Young Sally was often sent to do the job. In 1942, her father was sent to Auschwitz, and the rest of the family was moved to the ghetto. Eventually her sisters, then Sally, were sent to Graeben, a sub-camp of Gross-Rosen. Sally, just 13, survived with the help of her sisters. In January 1945, as the Soviets approached, the Germans sent 250 prisoners on a death march to Germany; Sally was among the 150 to arrive at Bergen-Belsen, where she almost died of typhus. In April 1945, when the British liberated the camp, the sisters learned that their brother had also survived at a nearby camp and two other brothers were at Buchenwald. Their parents, three brothers and two sisters were murdered at Auschwitz.

The remaining six siblings eventually moved to Australia. On a vacation to New York, Sally met her future husband, Steve Roisman. The couple settled in Los Angeles, near Sally’s sister and brother. Today, Sally is an artist, making award-winning paintings of Jewish life before the Holocaust.

Curt Lowens was born in 1925 in East Prussia (now Poland), to a home filled with music and laughter. His father, once a respected lawyer, lost all his clients with the rise of Hitler. The family moved to Berlin in 1936, hoping to find safety in the large Jewish community there, but eventually decided to immigrate to the United States. The day before they were to depart on the SS Veendam from Rotterdam, the Germans invaded Holland, preventing the departure. In June 1943, the family was sent to Westerbork, a transit camp, and then to Auschwitz. However, they were released and immediately went underground. Curt received a false identity and became an active and valiant member of the resistance, under the name “Ben Joosten.”

After the war, in 1947, Curt, his father and stepmother immigrated to the United States; he became an actor, and met Katherine Guilford at the famous Berhoff Studio. He is a respected character actor, working onstage on Broadway and in film and television.

7 Days in The Arts

Saturday, September 17

Jews of the LBC rejoice as they finally get a film fest all their own. The first Long Beach Jewish Film Festival will be held today and tomorrow, thanks to the support of the Alpert JCC and the Cal State Long Beach Jewish studies program. The lineup features “Gloomy Sunday,” about a love triangle set in 1930s Budapest; “Solomon and Gaenor,” a British love story set in 1911 Wales; “Time of Favor,” an Israeli tale about the clashes between Orthodox nationalists and the military; and “Bonjour Monsieur Shlomi,” a French comedy about a young boy with unique culinary talents.

$10 (each), $36 (festival pass). University Theater, CSULB campus, Long Beach. (562) 426-7601.


Sunday, September 18

This afternoon, it’s all about sabra women at the first Israel Women’s Festival. Actress Shirley Brener hosts the luncheon that features a fashion show by American-based Israeli designers, boutiques and live entertainment by Maya Haddi, Duende, and DJ Eyal. Proceeds benefit women’s organizations in Israel.

Noon. $65. Eretz-Siamak Cultural Center, 6170 Wilbur Ave., Tarzana. Tickets must be purchased in advance: (818) 980-9848, (818) 702-9272 or (323) 951-0111.

Monday, September 19

The Museum of the Holocaust challenges viewers to compare images of two genocides side-by-side in their new exhibition, “Encountering the Cambodian Genocide,” on display through Nov. 15. Pictures of Pol Pot’s killing fields and camps taken by Chantal Prunier-Grindon make up most of the display, however, a special collage of photographs depicting images from the Shoah and the Cambodian genocide is also hung, forcing the viewer to consider the similarities.

6435 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 303, Los Angeles. (323) 651-3704.

Tuesday, September 20

The Simon Wiesenthal’s film division, Moriah, premiers its latest documentary this evening. Titled “Ever Again,” the film examines the resurgence of violent anti-Semitism and terrorism, and is narrated by former baseball movie go-to-guy Kevin Costner.

7:30 p.m. Director’s Guild Theater, 7920 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 553-9036.

Wednesday, September 21

Nicknamed after the Ouija board, photojournalist Weegee literally made a name for himself in the Depression era, and in the process, became as famous as the mobsters and detectives he aimed his camera at. More than 60 make up the Getty’s latest exhibit, “Scene of the Crime: Photo by Weegee,” which runs through Jan. 22.

1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Thursday, September 22

The epic story of one Jewish family’s struggles through the last days of the Czarist Russian regime through the Holocaust became the subject of director-producer Dan Spigel’s indie film, “House of the Generals.” It premieres tonight at the Skirball, with a Q-and-A with Spigel to follow.

6 p.m. and 8 p.m. $8-$12. 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (877) 700-7133.

Friday, September 23

Snaps for the Skirball’s new exhibition, “Semina,” which features and takes its name from the Beat art and poetry of the underground magazine created by Wallace Berman. Contributors to the publication included William S. Burroughs, Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, John Alton and Charles Brittin. Its content reflected Berman’s varied interests, including visual and literary art, Jewish mysticism, pop culture and current events.

2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500.

Unspeakable Acts, Incredible Pictures

A large, striped blue-and-white flag bearing the phrase, “Liberation!” greets visitors at the Museum of Tolerance exhibit, “Liberation! Revealing the Unspeakable,” about the Allied soldiers and the starved, dying and dead Jews they discovered while liberating concentration camps.

In a hallway there is a row of photographs of soldiers who became the saviors of survivors. Then, down a set of stairs to the main exhibit area, one gallery wall features a 1945 poem written by an unnamed survivor upon learning of Hitler’s death:

I have outlived the fiend
My lifelong wish fulfilled
What more need I achieve
My heart is full of joy

Such a bitter jubilation captures much of the exhibit’s poignancy; the photos show the relief of being rescued by American and British soldiers, and the agony of the just-ended genocide. There are photos of Japanese American soldiers helping camp survivors through the German snow, and of African American troops proudly standing near the artillery used to gain ground to, unknowingly, liberate camps. There is also a photo of four smiling U.S. rabbis at the bimah of a bombed-out German synagogue.

The exhibit includes a review from the late Susan Sontag’s 1977 book, “On Photography,” in which she wrote that “some limit had been reached, something went dead” in the Bergen-Belsen camp photos.

“The text is kept to a minimum; the photos speak for themselves,” said museum director Liebe Geft.

She said the museum’s many high school visitors learn more from photos than long text.

Most of the black-and-white photos are from military archives but some are soldiers’ snapshots: one group of shots has a photo of the Alps near Ebensee, Austria, followed next by shots of the Ebensee concentration camp.

The Museum of Tolerance is home to more than 50,000 artifacts, though less then 10 percent ever are on public display. The “Liberation!” exhibit opened May 8, V-E Day, and closes in late September.

“There are very few liberators and survivors that are amongst us,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Museum of Tolerance and the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “When we celebrate the next anniversary, let’s say the 70th anniversary 10 years from now, there were will be very, very few.”

Hier said the “Liberation” exhibit speaks to the ongoing war on terror because, like totalitarian fascists of decades before, today’s terrorists “prefer death over life. How do you reason with such evil men? You waste your time trying to talk to Al Qaeda out of its evil. There are tough choices that generations have to make. The choice is either to confront them or to give up civilization as we know it, and yet in a world of terrorism today there are some who have a sort of na?ve notion that you can sort of talk down the bad guys.”

Los Angeles has hosted other recent Holocaust and Shoah-related exhibits. In the third- floor hallway of the UCLA Hillel, there is a long row of photos of Danish Jews and their rescuers. The black-and-white shots show weathered faces of elderly Danish clergy, journalists, clergy resistance members and, above all, fishermen who during two weeks in September 1943 ferried virtually all of Denmark’s 8,000-member Jewish community to neutral Sweden. The exhibit, “Humanity in Action; Resistance and Rescue in Denmark,” are portraits taken mostly in the 1990s by photographer Judy Ellis Glickman.

At the University of Judaism’s Platt/Borstein Gallery, the white walls have been hosting the stark photo series, “Polish Jewry Before WWII: Warsaw, Cracow and New York.” The five-week exhibit closes July 17; the photos by Roman Vishniac, Jacob Riis and Arnold Eagle are unforgiving in their scenes of pre-Holocaust Eastern Europe’s Jewish poverty, such as peasants in the Ukraine or a tiny basement Polish apartment. But amid this shetl misery there are also smiles; a grinning yeshiva teacher in 1938 Russia and men chatting outside a synagogue court in 1938 Lithuania. In the gallery’s comment book, a Valley Village woman wrote, “Beautiful + sad.”

At the Museum of Tolerance, a security guard recounted how he recently escorted an elderly Jewish couple through the “Liberation!” photos. So distraught did the couple become that the guard quietly helped them leave the exhibit, and in doing this he found himself choked up, too.

“Liberation!” runs through Sept. 30 at the Museum of Tolerance, 9786 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. $7-$10. For more information, call (310) 553-8403 or visit

What It Takes to Create a Museum


The opening of a new museum by Yad Vashem is an event to be honored by the entire Jewish world whether in Israel or throughout the Diaspora.

For Jerusalem to maintain its primacy, its centrality, the brilliant creation of the 1950s, which was then far ahead of its time, had to be updated to the creative language of 21st-century museum-making. If a museum does not evolve to meet the task of its time, it withers. Witness the cruel fate that has overtaken the Museum of the Diaspora, which had been at the forefront of modern museum-making but which but barely escaped its own demise. A historical museum must be renewed or it dies; without renewal it can no longer speak to a new generation, or reach a contemporary audience.

Tom Segev has written of the competition between the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem; Avner Shalev, the distinguished director of Yad Vashem, has overseen its new reiteration has denied any such competition. Both miss some important points. First of all, competition is good; it improves both creations. Institutions learn from each other, they challenge each other. Harvard has become better because of Yale, and MIT by Cal Tech, and I dare say that the Hebrew University is better because of Tel Aviv University. Without that competition it might have become staid, complacent and arrogant.

When we contemplated creating the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, we looked to Yad Vashem as a model of an integrated institution; a museum that tells the story of the Holocaust, a research institution and archive that is at the forefront of preserving the memory and transmitting it, and an educational institution that teaches teachers and students the history of the Holocaust and by implication its meaning and application to the new generation. And we certainly tried to do better.

We benefited because we had the model of Yad Vashem before us, but our task was different. And over the dozen years since Washington opened, the competition and cooperation with Yad Vashem has improved and empowered both institutions. Yad Vashem would not have been able to garner the support it has to create so magnificent a building and a campus without the presence of Washington and the important need of renewal.

“By the waters of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion,” the Psalmist proclaimed.

The place from which you remember an event shapes the way in which the event is remembered.

Every historical museum is a dialogue between the historical event and the audience that walks through its portals. So the story of the Shoah is told differently in Jerusalem than the Holocaust is told in Washington or New York or the Final Solution is described in Berlin or Budapest. Event, perspective and audience all subtly influence the story that is told.

A word about audience: In earlier generations, those who entered Yad Vashem knew the story; they had lived the events described. Thus, they could visit the memorial without seeing the exhibition and thus the exhibition merely had to allude to the events; that was sufficient. The artifacts of the perpetrators would have been inappropriate to introduce to the mountains of Jerusalem and to the Jews who sought refuge in Israel from their tormentors. But a new generation has arisen; conceived in freedom, unacquainted with exile, and to them the events must be portrayed, directly and graphically, far more graphically than was appropriate or even possible a generation ago.

A generation ago, Israelis could be confident that they knew the story, but after the misuse of symbols of the Holocaust — not only by Europeans and Arabs suggesting that Israel is the new Nazism but by Israelis accusing their own government of being Nazi-like and wearing Jewish stars to protest the Gaza withdrawal — our confidence should be shaken.

How is one to view a museum, to judge its success?

The modern historical museum tells a story with a beginning, middle and an end, with points of emphasis and moments of intensity, with a narrative that carries one through the entire museum. Visitors are entitled to ask what that narrative is and is it adequate to describe the event and appropriate to reach the new generation.

Like a symphony, a museum must be organic; themes must be presented and developed. The institution — any institution — is experienced whole by its visitors even if, as is clearly the case with Yad Vashem, it was not created whole but evolved over decades. How successfully will the creators be able to weave all the elements of Yad Vashem — its sculptural gardens, the Avenue of the Righteous, the Children’s Memorial, the Art Museum, the Valley of Communities and the Ohel Yizkor (Hall of Remembrance) with its magnificent simplicity — into one complete experience, which is the way the visitors will go through the site. I did not envy them the challenge. It is more than considerable.

When I saw the site during its creation I was concerned about the nature of the interrelationship between three primary actors in the events of the Holocaust — the perpetrators, the victims and the bystanders. In Washington, we devoted considerable attention to the bystanders, which is, after all, the American story. The sites of destruction in Poland and Germany show the nature of the crime. For many years, they had little interest in the victims of the crime and only the most reserved interest in the perpetrators but they were fascinated by the nature of the crime, its mechanisms and means, the instrumentalities of destruction.

Yad Vashem is rightfully determined to present the Jewish perspective as was New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage, but it must all present — and I use these words with the greatest of precision — the human story of the killers. Their inhumanity was human. For the most part the killers were not demonic, even though they committed the most demonic of deeds, and all students of the Holocaust must confront their experience not to understand or excuse, but to comprehend what happened.

Omar Bar Tov once wrote that the German historians so dehumanized the Jews that they believed that nothing that happened inside the ghettos or inside the death and concentration camps impacted on the “Final Solution.” Jews run the risk of the opposite. So convinced are we that the killers were inhumane that we fail to confront the ultimate scandal: they were human and the deeds they performed, horrific as they were, were human deeds, committed by “cultured men and women, the product of western civilization.

Will a visitor to the new Yad Vashem understand the role of ideology and conformity; the desire not to lose face before one’s comrades and the struggle to silence whatever semblance of conscience remained that was the lot of the killers. Will they see the killers as part of our world — and thus a threat to our world — or apart from the world and thus bearing no relevance to our world?

The crime against the Jews will be central and must be central, but the new museum must see the crimes of the Jews in context. Concentration camps were first developed to incarcerate German opponents of the regime; only much later did Jews constitute a majority of those imprisoned. Gassing was first used to kill German non-Jews — mentally handicapped, physically handicapped and emotionally distraught Germans who were an embarrassment to the myth of the master race. It was there that the role of bureaucratic, desk killer was first honed; there that the leadership and staff of Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka received their first training. Jehovah’s Witnesses were martyrs. Had they signed a simple document, they could have been released from the camps. They died for their faith. Jews were victims; they died for the faith of their grandparents. Will Jewish memory be large enough to be both Judeocentric and inclusive?

Will the new museum, with all of its power — and the building is quite powerful, creating its own rhythms and its own logic that must be integrated onto the history — reach the multiple audiences that visit the museum? These Jews and non-Jews, Israelis and non-Israelis, Europeans and Americans, Israeli soldiers who must understand the raison d’etre of the state and of Jewish power and who stand accused — falsely accused, viciously accused — by some in the West and in the Arab and Muslim world of being the new Nazis of our generation. Will they understand — as American West Point Cadets and Naval Midshipmen are taught in Washington — the importance of military ethics of recognizing the humanity of the enemy even while undertaking action against them? Will policemen learn a commitment to human rights and civil liberties by seeing the consequences of its violations by men in the same profession? Great museums address multiple audiences of diverse sensibilities and contain enough to reach different visitors and touch their souls in diverse ways.

A generation ago, it might have been sufficient to learn from the Shoah that the whole world is against us, that powerlessness invites victimization and, thus, the Jewish people must rely upon themselves and only themselves and assume adequate power to preserve themselves in the contemporary world. Those lessons are still valid, still necessary — but they are not sufficient.

A generation or two ago, one could speak of Shoah v’gevurah in one breath as if the two were equally descriptive of the events of the Holocaust and as if gevurah meant only armed resistance. We have learned more; we now know more.

The challenges are many, the difficulties are great, the pitfalls obvious. It takes the endurance of a marathon runner to plan for years and bring it all together for a moment. It takes courage to open a museum, courage, wisdom and vision. I wish my colleagues well. I so look forward to seeing their creation.

Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust and a professor at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. He was project director of the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.


Gerda Straus Mathan

Gerda Straus Mathan, a well-respected, Berkeley-based photographer of Jewish and other subjects who studied with Ansel Adams and lived for a time in Southern California, died Aug. 10 following a long illness. She was 83.

A photojournalist with degrees in biology, zoology and art, she brought an individual and humanistic perspective to her work, which was almost exclusively in black and white, with occasional hand-colored details.

Mathan traveled extensively in the United States, Mexico, the Middle East, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Central and South America, as well to the homes and gatherings of her family, friends and community, always with camera in hand. She gave the same attention to detail, whether shooting ancient Torah scrolls in Cairo, a rabbi in Safed or the willow tree in her carefully tended backyard.

Mathan’s work has been exhibited in numerous galleries throughout the Bay Area, Southern California, New York and Washington, D.C. In the Southland, she had shows at the University of Judaism, Santa Monica College and in Pasadena, where she lived with her family for several years in the 1960s.

Mathan’s "Valentina’s Uncle: Portrait of an Old Man," a book that documents in pictures and text the final years of a Russian immigrant, Vadim Shepkin, was published by Macmillan Publishing Co.’s Collier Books division in 1981 and later excerpted by Reader’s Digest. Many of the photos show Shepkin flanked by young grandnieces and grandnephews, a striking portrait of youth and old age. 

Fascinated with natural light, Mathan experimented with infrared film when photographing ancient cities and synagogues in Spain, Turkey and Czechoslovakia, and created a remarkable series of photos using old Brownie cameras that rendered her subjects in a dreamy, diffuse light.

"My medium is black-and-white photography because in this way light seems to appear in its essence, and reality is abstracted to its more basic elements," Mathan said in a 1997 interview preceding her wide-ranging Santa Monica College exhibit. "For me, photography’s wonder lies in its ability to capture the fleeting light, the passing mood, the unplanned gesture and the unexpected encounter."

In addition to Adams, Mathan studied with Imogen Cunningham and Ruth Bernhard. She also taught photography, befriending and inspiring her students at Bay Area Jewish community centers, community colleges and senior centers.

A member of Yeldei HaShoah, a group of child survivors and refugees from the Holocaust, and of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, Mathan was born in Karlsruhe, Germany, on Jan. 31, 1921. She was the fourth of five children of a strongly Jewish family that traced its German roots back to the 16th century.

Friedrich, known as Fritz, was a partner in the well-known Karlsruhe bank, Straus & Company, which was sold when the family fled to the United States in 1938 to escape Hitler.

They settled in Berkeley, where Mathan raised three children. They survive her, along with three grandchildren, a sister, a brother and many nieces and nephews.

Ruth Stroud, a Manhattan Beach-based freelance writer, is Gerda Mathan’s niece.

The Art of Memory

Artist Tobi Kahn is obsessed with memories of the Holocaust. His abstract landscapes depict recollections of a haunted time and place he never experienced. Simple shapes conjure rivers and roads that snake through still valleys, serene at first glance, disturbing upon reflection. Mountain peaks thrust from brooding waters, in a palette of muted browns, golds and blues. Almost always, the paintings are devoid of people. “Sky and water always stay the same,” Kahn says, “no matter how well- or ill-behaved we are.”

The memories that preoccupy Kahn are of horrors that took place before he was born.

“I grew up in Washington Heights, N.Y., a neighborhood in which everyone’s grandparents were either killed by the Nazis or got out,” says Kahn, whose retrospective, “Metamorphoses,” opened last weekend at the Skirball Cultural Center. And memories are all that are left of his own family’s 400-year history in Germany. While Kahn’s parents and grandparents escaped the Holocaust, two of his father’s siblings perished. The artist is named for an uncle, a medical student and anti-Hitler activist who was one of the first Jews murdered in 1933.

A second conflict in Kahn’s life emerged when he was a budding artist growing up in an observant Jewish community that valued language over the visual. Jews, after all, are the People of the Book; words, not images, are believed to provide the path to the Divine. But even as a child, Kahn thought that “the visual can be a benediction.” Entering his Orthodox synagogue on Yom Kippur, when the sanctuary was covered with white fabric, “was like going to heaven,” Kahn, now 47, says. At the age of 10, the young artist tried to create a replica of the Holy of Holies, the chamber the high priest entered only on Yom Kippur, described in Leviticus.

“Very early on,” Kahn says, “I learned that the visual is how I ‘breathe.'”

His first artistic medium was the camera, which Kahn took with him during three years of yeshiva study in Israel. Upon his return, he enrolled at Hunter College and began photographing sections of demolished South Bronx apartment buildings, with their burned-out walls and exposed, colorful bathrooms. He began painting on the “ruins” to enhance them, courtesy of his budding preoccupation with memory. “I tried to turn these places where people had once lived into something spiritual,” he says.

When a professor suggested that the painterly photographer try painting, Kahn enrolled at the Pratt Institute and studied with George McNeil, a founder of the American Abstract Artists Group. He began creating white-on-white images and his first landscapes, based on his travels, ranging from Norway to the Negev. Kahn’s big break came when he was one of a handful of artists selected to participate in the Guggenheim’s landmark “New Horizons in American Art” show in 1985; he has since had more than 25 solo exhibitions.

Since the early 1990s, Kahn’s timeless, transcendent landscapes have been increasingly influenced by cell formations and fractal geometry — the notion that shapes repeat themselves over and over again in nature. Fingerlike shapes may convey tides sweeping around land masses or cells under a microscope. For the Orthodox artist, the concept is a manifestation of the Divine.

Other Kahn landscapes are influenced by the legend of the Golem, especially those in which giant heads seem to loom from sheer rock and silhouettes lurk in gray waters.

Kahn, who in earlier years thought that he had to play down his Jewishness to be taken seriously in the art world, has also created Jewish ritual objects and a series of “shrines” based on his lifelong fascination with the Holy of Holies. Each shrine is a small box that houses a sacred object in its dark, innermost chamber: In “Lifanah,” a bronze angelic figure resides inside a red-and-black space that’s reminiscent of a Greek temple; “Ziba II” is a tall, narrow structure housing a humanoid “relic.”

The shrines, like all of Kahn’s work, have names that are invented by the artist, names that are secret. “Once, I revealed what a title meant, and it ruined the painting for me for six years,” Kahn says. “I couldn’t look at the piece in the same way. It just didn’t have the same mystery anymore.”

“Tobi Kahn: Metamorphoses” is showing at the Skirball Cultural Center. Curator of fine arts Barbara Gilbert will discuss the exhibit on July 8, 8 p.m.; July 11, 2 p.m.; and Aug. 5, 6 p.m. For more information, call (310) 440-4500.