The first time DovBer Naiditch met Kai Althoff it was in a kosher pizza place in Crown Heights — a typical haunt for Naiditch, a Lubavitcher Chasid from Pittsburgh. It was a bit less standard for Althoff, a German multimedia, neo-expressionist artist whose work has been displayed in some of the world’s most prestigious museums.
The friendship that ensued from that first face-to-face introduction is as profound as it is unlikely, ultimately leading Naiditch, a writer who teaches at Pittsburgh’s Tzohar Seminary, to be a part of Althoff’s upcoming exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City.
The exhibit, “Kai Althoff: and then leave me to the common swifts (und dann überlasst mich den Mauerseglern),” will open Sept. 18 and run through Jan. 22.
Naiditch’s writing is featured prominently in the book that will accompany the exhibit — essays that capture his impressions of the artist as well as some of the individual pieces showcased.
“I’m shocked that a schlub like me is going to be anywhere near the MoMA,” Naiditch said. “I don’t think I’ve grasped the full nature of it yet.”
Naiditch, who has lived in Pittsburgh since he was a child, describes himself as “a lay person when it comes to art.” But that quality, he said, was appealing to Althoff.
“It was so interesting for me to explore how these things made me feel,” Naiditch said of the process involved in writing about Althoff’s work. “And Kai felt it was even better that I had nothing to do with the art world.”
The two had arranged to meet in the pizza shop about three years ago, not long after Althoff made an unanticipated donation to a crowd-funding campaign that Naiditch had launched with two other Chasidic professionals in Pittsburgh to try to get their video production company, Shmideo, off the ground. Althoff’s donation came just in time to enable Shmideo to meet its financial goal and get up and running.
But at that point in time, neither Naiditch nor either of his partners — animator Sruli Broocker and puppeteer Dovid Taub — had even heard of Althoff.
They hit the Internet trying to figure out who he was.
“We looked him up and saw there was a Kai Althoff who was a German neo-expressionist artist, and we said, ‘It can’t be that guy,’” Naiditch recalled.
But it was that guy.
The work of Shmideo, which often uses puppets to convey its spiritual messages, is mesmerizing, Althoff said in an email, adopting the largely Orthodox practice of hyphenating the divine name, “for it comes from people who are Chasidim. And I am engrossed in this beyond all to learn about G-d from their belief, which is reality to me too. As this is all G-d himself.”
After meeting Althoff, Naiditch immediately saw a “sweetness” in this non-Jewish German artist who was now living in Crown Heights.
“His art was starting to reflect a fascination with Chasidic culture to some extent,” Naiditch said. “And I think when he saw our video [on the crowd-funding website], he was fascinated that three Chasidic guys were doing art in their own way.”
Naiditch and his colleagues learned from Althoff that he had grown up in the 1960s in Germany, raised by parents who had lived there during the years of the Holocaust.
“He grew up not knowing a lot of Jews, obviously,” Naiditch said. “But he wanted to explore it more, so he went to New York and became more interested in Judaism. He went to the most stereotypically Jewish place [Crown Heights], and from there, we connected.”
Naiditch, who has an MFA in creative writing and has published several short stories, shared some of his work with Althoff. The artist was moved by Naiditch’s writing, with its nod to the spiritual, and decided that he wanted his new friend to be the one to create content for the book accompanying his MoMA exhibit.
Althoff has come to trust Naiditch even more than most “curators, art historians and artists who tell you why your work may be of relevance or what it is to them or what it may be to others,” the artist said. “I try to find those whose thoughts I truly care about, on my created things and on myself just the same. And right from the start, I felt that DovBer is whose opinion, be it positive or negative, really matters to me.
“I read some things he wrote, and I thought, ‘Yes if only he could write in this book I would be shielded from all that often pains me’ [in] books that a museum publishes on artists.”
The MoMA exhibit will include work stemming from Althoff’s early youth to the present.
“There is no theme,” Althoff said. “Or, the theme would be how I react when revisiting these things I made at times in my life which have gone by.”
Naiditch will be attending a special opening of the gallery at which Althoff has arranged to include kosher food.
“So now, my heart is filled to the brim with bliss that DovBer’s text opens the book, almost, and all the rest is this and that,” Althoff said. “I think he is a wisest man, and I hope that I can come to illustrate stories by him or a whole book of short stories. I believe DovBer knows of things I do not know, but I do know they are the things I need to know most.
“These are things that make me want to live,” he added. “Not so much a show at MoMA.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.