Ear­li­er this week, Wendy Less­er wrote about why she chose to write You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn. Wendy is guest blog­ging for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil all week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series here on The ProsenPeo­ple.

Louis Kahn’s Jew­ish par­ents, Beila-Rebeck­ah Mende­low­itsch and Leib Schmu­lowsky, were mar­ried in 1900 in Livo­nia, the Russ­ian-held province that before World War I encom­passed Latvia and south­ern Esto­nia. Less than year lat­er, in Feb­ru­ary of 1901, the future Amer­i­can archi­tect was born there, either on a Baltic island or on the main­land near­by, under the name Leis­er-Itze Schmu­lowsky. Accord­ing to the rab­bini­cal record, kept in both Russ­ian and Hebrew — as all Jews had to be reg­is­tered in that time and place — he was cir­cum­cised sev­en days after the birth. Upon his arrival five years lat­er in Philadel­phia, he was giv­en a new name, Louis Isadore Kahn. While the new name retained the Jew­ish asso­ci­a­tions of his orig­i­nal East­ern Euro­pean name, it made him sound classier and German-Jewish.

It is not clear whether his first name was intend­ed to be pro­nounced Lewis” or Louie”; from child­hood onward he was known sim­ply as Lou, and that was what every­one called him, includ­ing his col­leagues, his employ­ees, his rel­a­tives, and his lovers. 

Lou spent a total of one day in reli­gious school (his moth­er snatched him out, appar­ent­ly, after the teacher smacked him) and he was nev­er bar mitz­va­hed. When he grew up, he mar­ried a Jew­ish girl, Esther Israeli, from a high­ly assim­i­lat­ed Philadel­phia fam­i­ly. Their wed­ding was con­duct­ed by a rab­bi, though Esther always insist­ed this was done sole­ly for Kahn’s par­ents, since she would have pre­ferred a sec­u­lar wedding. 

Of Kahn’s three chil­dren, one was born to Esther and one each to two sep­a­rate non-Jew­ish women with whom he car­ried on long-term love affairs: the archi­tect Anne Tyng and the land­scape archi­tect Har­ri­et Pat­ti­son, both of whom worked with him. (All three women knew about one anoth­er, as did all three chil­dren. The fact that Kahn had three fam­i­lies was a wide­ly shared secret in the small-town Philadel­phia of his time.) An addi­tion­al sig­nif­i­cant love affair — though one that did not result in a preg­nan­cy — was with anoth­er archi­tect who worked for him, Marie Kuo; she was not Jew­ish, either.

Some of his male friends were Jew­ish (though many were not); his favorite client was Jonas Salk, who, like him, was the child of East­ern Euro­pean Jews. Kahn had what many peo­ple think of as a Jew­ish sense of humor: self-dep­re­cat­ing, iron­ic, inti­mate. Despite the severe scar­ring of his hands and face that result­ed from a child­hood acci­dent, he car­ried him­self con­fi­dent­ly, as if he were com­fort­able in his own skin, and peo­ple — espe­cial­ly women — found him attrac­tive. Some of this self-con­fi­dence can per­haps be attrib­uted to his moth­er (now renamed Bertha Kahn), who in typ­i­cal Jew­ish-moth­er fash­ion lav­ished a great deal of atten­tion on her bril­liant old­est son. Like many immi­grant moth­ers, she hus­band­ed the fam­i­ly’s lim­it­ed resources, but what she could spend, she spent on Lou. In some­what less typ­i­cal fash­ion, Bertha left him alone to find his own way through the pover­ty-strick­en world of Philadel­phi­a’s North­ern Lib­er­ties dis­trict. In lat­er life, Kahn cred­it­ed her with hav­ing absolute con­fi­dence” in him. 

Kahn worked on sev­er­al syn­a­gogue com­mis­sions in the course of his life, but his two great­est syn­a­gogue designs, Mikveh Israel in Philadel­phia and the Hur­va in Jerusalem, were nev­er built. Two of his most suc­cess­ful projects were a church (First Uni­tar­i­an in Rochester) and a mosque (part of the Nation­al Assem­bly Build­ing of Bangladesh). When he was hired to design the Memo­r­i­al to the Six Mil­lion Jew­ish Mar­tyrs in Bat­tery Park, he labeled its cen­tral glass pil­lar a chapel”; the memo­r­i­al was vot­ed down by a com­mit­tee of fifty promi­nent Jews. When work­ing on the Mikveh Israel com­mis­sion, Kahn wrote Kad­dish” and kid­dush” in the mar­gins of one of his plans to remind him­self of the dif­fer­ent Hebrew terms; again, the syn­a­gogue mem­ber­ship ulti­mate­ly reject­ed his plans. He appar­ent­ly viewed all reli­gions as essen­tial­ly one, and though he was fre­quent­ly described as a per­son of great spir­i­tu­al depth, he did not prac­tice any reli­gion him­self. He joined the Rabindranath Tagore Soci­ety in Philadel­phia before embark­ing on major work on the Indi­an sub­con­ti­nent, and he stud­ied Islam­ic archi­tec­ture before build­ing the gov­ern­ment cen­ter in Bangladesh.

As an adult, Kahn nev­er cel­e­brat­ed Jew­ish hol­i­days, but he and Esther donat­ed small sums, inter­mit­tent­ly, to var­i­ous Jew­ish caus­es; they also donat­ed $1,000 to the Uni­tar­i­ans in 1961, when he was work­ing on the church. His extend­ed fam­i­ly, includ­ed Esther’s sis­ters and cousins, cel­e­brat­ed Christ­mas every year at Kahn’s house.

When he died sud­den­ly in 1974, a rab­bi he had nev­er met was hired to con­duct his funer­al ser­vice — a deci­sion made with­out his own involve­ment. Since his par­ents had both been buried by rab­bis, peo­ple assumed he would have want­ed that, too. 

Wendy Less­er is a mem­ber of Amer­i­can Acad­e­my of Arts and Sci­ences and the found­ing edi­tor of The Three­pen­ny Review. She has received fel­low­ships from the Guggen­heim Foun­da­tion, Nation­al Endow­ment for the Human­i­ties, the Dedalus Foun­da­tion, and the New York Pub­lic Library’s Cull­man Cen­ter for Scholars.

Relat­ed Content:

  • John Ben­ditt: Was Proust Jewish?
  • Julia Dahl: Are You Jewish?”
  • David Albahri: On Being a Jew­ish Writer
  • Wendy Less­er is an Amer­i­can crit­ic, nov­el­ist, and edi­tor based in Berke­ley, Cal­i­for­nia. She is a mem­ber of the Amer­i­can Acad­e­my of Arts and Sci­ences and the found­ing edi­tor of The Three­pen­ny Review. Wendy has received fel­low­ships from the Guggen­heim Foun­da­tion, Nation­al Endow­ment for the Human­i­ties, the Dedalus Foun­da­tion, and the New York Pub­lic Library’s Cull­man Cen­ter for Schol­ars and Writers.