Skip to main content

Papers of Jennings Yehudah Tofel (1891-1959)

Identifier: RG 487

Scope and Content Note

The Papers of Jennings Yehudah Tofel consist of materials relating to Tofel’s artistic and literary career, including manuscripts of Tofel’s written works, diaries, journals, and newsclippings on Tofel and his art. There is also correspondence with various artists and writers, as well as family correspondence and condolence letters written to Tofel’s wife upon his death. Manuscripts in Yiddish include “Essayen” (Essays), “Mentshn” (Men), “Vegn Kunst” (On Art), and “Homer's Iliad” in loose pages and bound composition books. There are also autobiographical works, poetry, dramatic works, essays relating to his artistic career, Tofel’s reflections on being an artist, and articles about art, the artist and creativity. Most of the writings are in English.

Autobiographical works include “Autobiography / My Childhood,” an account of his family life in Poland prior to emigration, “Once There Was a Young Man,” “A Painter’s Diary,” “The Life of a Lonely Man,” and various notes and fragments. Titles for folders that contain the same materials have been changed to reflect this fact. The correspondence details the personal relationships between Tofel and Yiddish writers R. Ben-Ari, B. J. Bialostotzky, L. Blumenfeld, Jacob Glatstein, Abraham Goldberg, David Ignatoff, H. Leivick, Abraham Liessin, Mani Leib, Zalman Reisen, Isaac Nachman Steinberg, and Ozer Warshawski, artist Benjamin Kopman and photographer Alfred Stieglitz. A letter from Stieglitz in folder 40 mentions the hardships artists face, giving Georgia O’Keefe and Arthur Dove as examples. The materials in this collection date from 1912-1960.


  • 1912-1960

Language of Materials

The collection is in English and Yiddish, with some French.

Access Restrictions

The collection is open to the public. Permission to publish part or parts of the collection must be obtained in writing from the YIVO Archives.

Use Restrictions

There may be some restrictions on the use of the collection. For more information, contact:

YIVO Archives, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, Center for Jewish History, 15 West 16th Street, New York, NY 10011


Biographical Note

Jennings Yehudah Tofel was born Yehudah Toflevitch on October 18, 1891 in Tomaszow Mazowiecki, Poland, where his father was a ladies’ tailor. The household included three older sisters and four younger brothers, as well as his paternal grandfather, with whom he was very close. At age seven Tofel fell down a ladder and broke his back, a situation that was not discovered until the bone had healed. He had a disfigured shoulder for the rest of his life. He studied in cheder and with private tutors in Poland until the death of his mother when he was eight. At that time, Tofel’s father, Joseph Toflevitch, decided to enroll Tofel in the Alexander School in Tomaszow in order to learn a trade. He entered in 1900 and remained there for three and a half years. Tofel’s father remarried and moved to London to set up a tailor shop and the three daughters joined him there. Tofel and those left behind in Tomaszow were quite poor and he needed to leave school. His father immigrated with the rest of the family to New York, where they were reunited with other relatives. Tofel joined his family in New York in 1905. His name was changed from Yehudah to Isadore upon emigration and later to Jennings when he was working as a bookkeeper who did not allow Jews, although he always signed his Yiddish writings as Yehudah. Tofel studied at the Townsend Harris Hall preparatory school from 1907-1910, where his artistic talent was recognized. He then entered the City College of New York for the fall term of 1910 where he began to paint. He also studied at the Beaux Arts School in New York.

In 1917 he was represented in a group exhibition at the Whitney Studio called “Introspective Art.” His first one-man exhibition came in 1919 at the Bourgeois Galleries. That same year, and for the next several years, he was represented in several group exhibitions at the Arts Club in Chicago and the Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton, MA, with artists such as Oscar Bluemner, Gaston Lachaise, and Joseph Stella.

In 1918, he met Sonia Auerbach, the cousin of his friend Benjamin Kopman. They fell in love, but her family disapproved of the match and they ultimately parted after four years together. In response to this, Tofel wrote Once There Was a Young Man, which examines his own character and which was published in Yiddish as Amol iz Geven a Mentsh in Paris in 1927. In 1921, Katherine Dreier of the Societe Anonyme (later the Museum of Modern Art) convinced Tofel to allow publication of his essay “Form in Painting” as a small pamphlet. The Societe Anonyme also published “Expression” in 1923.

In 1925, Alfred Steiglitz arranged the sale of several of Tofel’s paintings, allowing Tofel to go to Paris to further his art studies. He had his second one-man show in Paris in 1927, where he spent three years studying before returning to New York. In 1928, Steiglitz arranged two grants from Otto Kahn and a collector named Schulte, permitting Tofel to return to Europe and continue his studies in Paris. He had an exhibit at the Galerie Zak in fall 1928. In 1929, while visiting his native city of Tomaszow, he met Pearl Weissberg. They married after only a few days of courtship and then returned to Paris, where they lived for a year and a half. When they returned to New York in 1930 Pearl worked in the garment business and the couple never had a permanent address.

In 1931 Tofel had a one-man exhibition at the SPR Gallery in New York and in 1932 the Whitney Museum of American Art purchased his work, “Hagar”. He joined the Artists Project of the Works Progress Administration in 1934. His work was exhibited in the Artists Gallery, starting in 1937, a connection he would maintain until his death. Tofel was also represented in prestigious exhibitions at the American Artists Congress, the Jewish Museum in New York, the Whitney Museum in New York, the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio, the Bonestall Gallery in New York, and the Jewish Community Center in Yonkers, New York. His work also appeared in the collections of the Helena Rubenstein Pavillion in Tel Aviv, the Bezalel Museum in Jerusalem and the George Krevsky Gallery in San Francisco, and the private collections of Joseph Hirshorn, Harry Abrams and Arthur Granick.

Tofel began keeping a journal in 1943 and continued to do so on and off until 1959. He called these journals either “A Painter’s Diary” or “A Painter’s Journal.” Also in 1943 Tofel began writing his autobiography, although he only finished “My Childhood." None of the autobiography was ever published.

Tofel founded the first Jewish Art Center in New York in 1926, along with Benjamin Kopman, and the Art Center at the Congress for Jewish Culture in 1948. He also contributed articles on art, language, philosophy, and other topics to several English and Yiddish periodicals, including the Freie Arbeiter Stimme, Zukunft, In Zikh, Oyfkum, Brikn, and Hemshekh. He also provided illustrations for other writers’ works and published several works of his own.

Tofel had art exhibits at the Artists’ Gallery in New York in 1950, 1952, 1954, 1956, and 1958, which was his last exhibit. In 1959 after suffering ill health for many years, including the loss of his eye to glaucoma in 1946, Tofel’s condition worsened and he died suddenly on Sept. 7, 1959. A retrospective exhibition was held at the Zabriskie Gallery in New York in 1964, and Tofel’s art was represented in the Art Dealers Association of America’s Second Annual Show at the Park Bernet Galleries. He was later represented in the 1975 exhibit “Jewish Experience in the Art of the 20th Century” at the Jewish Museum in New York. In 1976 Arthur Granick, a close personal friend and patron of Jennings Tofel, compiled a volume showcasing 63 colorplates and 129 black and white images of Tofel’s works.


3.5 Linear Feet


This collection contains correspondence between painter, poet, and essayist Jennings Yehudah Tofel and various artists and writers, as well as family correspondence, diaries, journals, manuscripts relating to Tofel’s artistic career, newspaper clippings on Tofel and his art, and manuscripts of Tofel’s essays, poems, dramas, and autobiographical works. The collection illustrates Tofel’s wide range of artistic and literary activities and his role in American modern art.


The correspondence is divided between English and Yiddish, both of which are arranged alphabetically. The Yiddish correspondence is arranged alphabetically according to the Hebrew alphabet and the names have also been transliterated according to YIVO standards. English correspondence that was originally in the miscellaneous correspondence folder at the end of the first series for which the correspondent can be identified has been put into individual folders by correspondent name. Yiddish correspondence that was originally in a miscellaneous folder within the Writings series has been put into individual folders by correspondent name within the Yiddish Correspondence series. The Writings series, which was previously unarranged, has been divided into subseries by topic and each subseries is arranged alphabetically. Several folders have been renamed so as to more accurately reflect their contents and these new folder titles have been integrated into the alphabetical order. A miscellaneous folder that originally contained Yiddish correspondence, autobiographical notes and a eulogy for Tofel has been divided and the materials were placed in separate folders. Three bound journals that were originally in one folder have been placed in three separate folders. The collection is arranged in three series, and Series III has been further divided into subseries.

Other Finding Aid

A concordance giving the old folder numbers and the new folder numbers is in the accession file in the YIVO Archives office.

Acquisition Information

Received from Pearl Tofel, Jennings Tofel’s widow, in November, 1964 and January, 1965.

Related Material

The YIVO Archives have several paintings by Jennings Tofel in RG 101, the Art and Artifacts Collection and the YIVO Library has a copy of Tofel’s book, Amol iz Geven a Mentsh (Once There Was a Young Man), as well as Tofel’s book about Benjamin Kopman and a book about Tofel by Arthur Granick. In addition, there are several books by other Yiddish authors in which Tofel’s illustrations appear. His correspondence is also found in a number of other collections, including B. J. Bialostotzky RG 479, David Ignatoff RG 1338 and Shea Tenenbaum RG 722. Tofel’s artwork is held by the Museum of Modern Art, the George Krevsky Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, among others.

Separated Material

There is no information about materials that are associated by provenance to the described materials that have been physically separated or removed.

Processing information

The papers were processed by Janet Blatter. Additional processing was completed in March 2011.

Guide to the Papers of Jennings Yehudah Tofel (1891-1959) 1912-1960 RG 487
Processed by Janet Blatter. Additional processing by Rachel S. Harrison as part of the Leon Levy Archival Processing Initiative, made possible by the Leon Levy Foundation.
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Description is in English.

Repository Details

Part of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research Repository

15 West 16th Street
New York NY 10011 United States