Temple B’Nai Israel, a small Reform Jewish Temple in Kokomo, owns and displays some of Harris “Misch” Kohn’s earliest work. Born Harris Kohn on March 26, 1916, he was a painter and printmaker. He believed that prints could be as beautiful and elegant as paintings. His daughter, Tamara, said he started drawing at the age of five. When he was nine, he began taking art lessons. A local doctor’s wife taught him oil painting. He could often be found painting in local parks. Despite limited educational opportunities, his early work in Howard County helped him get his start. “On the basis of what he produced in Kokomo, he was able to secure a scholarship to the Herron Art Institute” in Indianapolis, said Jo Farb Hernández, director/curator of the Thompson Gallery and professor at San Jose State University. “For him to be able to do that, at that period in time, was remarkable.” Tamara also attributes Kohn’s birthplace as playing a large role in her father’s 60-year career: “He was only able to accomplish his vision because he never lost his grounded, Midwestern sensibility.”
Misch was from a large family – he was one of ten children, seven of whom survived to adulthood. His parents, Jacob and Anna, were Russian-Jewish immigrants who were non-practicing people of Jewish faith. Living in a predominantly Protestant Christian community, many people didn’t know a lot about the Jewish faith. Family lore tells of a story when members of the Klu Klux Klan came to Jacob’s shoe repair shop to see if the well-liked businessman wanted to join their club. Jacob reportedly threw them out of his shop.
The Jewish community in Kokomo was so small during Misch Kohn’s childhood there that there was not even a synagogue in the town. Temple B’Nai Israel was established in 1942. It has been at the center of Jewish life in Kokomo ever since.