A German-Jewish architect with a passion for Japan amassed, lost and regained an art collection that spans Japanese history, and bequeathed it to the people of Israel.

A Jewish passion for Japan


The Great Wave at Kanagawa-a famous painting by the Japanese artist, Katsushika Hokusai. From the collection of the Tikotin Museum in Haifa

By Abigail Leichman

A crew from the Japan Broadcasting Corporation aka NHK, is heading to Israel, its cameras poised to focus not on conflict, but on the collection of 7,000 pieces in Haifa’s Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art. The only museum of its kind in the Middle East, Tikotin attracted the attention of Japan’s only public broadcaster during a recent visit to Israel by network executives and art specialists.

Established on the crest of Haifa’s historic Mount Carmel in 1960, the museum remains relatively obscure. Now, as part of a yearlong celebration of its jubilee, it is seeking a wider audience with a special exhibition through October 2, of remarkable objects from across the spectrum of Japanese history. Chief curator Dr. Ilana Singer culled what she calls "a little bit of everything" – ceramics, swords, paintings and prints – from the permanent collection for this anniversary show that debuted in May.

A Jewish passion for Japan

The Great Wave at Kanagawa – a famous painting by the Japanese artist, Katsushika Hokusai. From the collection of the Tikotin Museum in Haifa

Visitors will also find a display of new acquisitions, such as etchings, modern and ancient calligraphic works, paper dolls, ceramics and traditional garb. In addition, Singer, 48, mounted a new exhibition on the life of museum founder Felix Tikotin, who died in 1986 before she had the chance to meet him.

Meeting Japan through its art

Tikotin, a German Jewish architect with a passion for Japanese art, amassed a solid inventory of beloved objects prior to serving in World War I. Afterward, he set himself up as an art dealer in Germany, selling imported Japanese drawings, paintings, woodblock prints, illustrated books, ceramics, miniature sculptures, metal and lacquer works, antique Samurai swords and knives, fans and tea sets from the 17th to 20th centuries.

Relocating to the Netherlands as the situation worsened for Jews in Germany, Tikotin and his family, as well as his cherished artworks, went into hiding. Though he took up where he had left off when the Nazis were defeated, he did not recover his original collection until 1950, when Dutch police caught art thieves trying to smuggle it into Belgium. When the police called on him as an expert to examine the stolen goods, he was shocked to realize that it was his own missing collection. Four years later, he decided to make a permanent home for the pieces in Israel.

A Jewish passion for Japan

Statue of a lion-dog, from the late 18th century – one of the pieces in the collection of Haifa’s Tikotin Museum

"I think the museum serves as a place where people have a chance to meet this culture through its art," Singer says. Open daily and accessible to people with disabilities, Tikotin offers classes in Japanese language, music, cuisine, calligraphy, dance, origami, and flower arranging. It also hosts academic lectures and Japanese film screenings, as well as a children’s summer program that includes an introduction to Japanese martial arts.

Supported by grants and donations, particularly from the Haifa municipality, the Ministry of Education and the Japan Foundation via the Japanese Embassy in Israel, the museum caters to an increasing fascination among Israelis for Japanese culture, Singer relates.

Her personal interest in Japan was piqued as a child living on Kibbutz Heftziba. She made the acquaintance of a neighboring Japanese family there, and also met Japanese tourists who periodically came to Heftziba to learn Hebrew. Singer earned a doctorate at Haifa University in Japanese aesthetics and became an art teacher with a particular enthusiasm for all things Japanese. She has carried on Tikotin’s work with a passion of her own.

Clean and pure

Within the museum’s broad range of pieces dating from the Middle Ages to the present day, there is a particular concentration of art from the Edo period (from 1600 to 1868). Singer explains that those centuries signified a revolutionary period in Japanese society, and consequently for its art. As the middle class gained ascendancy through newfound wealth, new artistic forms, such as Kabuki theater, began to flourish.

"The subjects of Kabuki were better suited for the lower classes – it was more colorful, with a lot of activity," Singer describes. The popularity of Kabuki spilled into the visual arts of Japan.
"Woodblock prints depicted Kabuki actors, who were the celebrities of the time," she explains, "Traditional Japanese art uses specific subjects that were familiar at the time, like Kabuki actors, scenes of Japan or beautiful ladies who wandered the streets of Tokyo or Edo. "In contrast, in contemporary art there isn’t a common subject – like artists all over the world, Japanese artists look for their own impressions."

Nevertheless, notes Singer, one aspect has remained constant: The Japanese artist’s ability to create something perfectly complete and clean. "Their techniques and composition have a sense of purity, a sense you can find both in traditional art and in contemporary art. When you see it, you know it’s Japanese."

Though unique in the Middle East, the museum maintains correspondence with other museums in Japan, and the Japanese public is taking notice. Singer plans to emphasize to the Japan Broadcasting Corporation crew that her staff and programming consciously embrace the spirit of coexistence in the mixed-culture setting of the Galilee, offering guided tours in Arabic as well as in Hebrew and English.