Jewish Women Take Another Look at Identity as 'People of the Book.' (over 100 Bookworks by More Than 90 Jewish Artists; Finegood Gallery, Los Angeles, CA)

By Ekstrom, Linda | National Catholic Reporter, February 6, 1998 | Go to article overview

Jewish Women Take Another Look at Identity as 'People of the Book.' (over 100 Bookworks by More Than 90 Jewish Artists; Finegood Gallery, Los Angeles, CA)


Ekstrom, Linda, National Catholic Reporter


Christians seeking to deepen their understanding and appreciation of Judaism would find a treasure in the exhibit "Women of the Book," now at the Finegood Gallery near Los Angeles. This traveling exhibit brings together over 100 bookworks (works of art that are books or inventively linked to the book's structure) by more than 90 Jewish women artists from Australia. Canada, England, Israel. Italy, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States.

Curated by Judith Hoffberg, the exhibit is one of extraordinary richness and presents a comprehensive, artistic study of issues of Jewish identity. Categories and themes include sacred texts, the Holocaust and history, family and ritual, and personal narrative. To experience this stunning display is to be confronted by a congregation, a people.

By choosing the book to explore what it means to be a Jewish woman, the artists honor the supreme place it holds within Jewish tradition. They also utilize the book's potential to challenge that tradition in order to equalize their position within Judaism.

Though many of the bookworks hold to the traditional scroll and codex, most are iconographic and symbolic variations. In "Eve's Meditation" it is primarily the sculptural design of the book that expresses the familiar story. Miriam Schaer extends and stretches the book's spine to create a lengthy structure that twists into a snakelike book, adorned along the 24 inch spine with glittery jewels and beads. An apple tunnel is die-cut through the pages, further enticing associations with Eden.

The exhibit's title makes reference to the notion of Jews being a "People of the Book." The British critical theorist George Steiner notes that following the destruction of the temple, the reading of Torah became the instrument of exilic survival for the Jews -- the literal, spiritual locus of identification. He says the text became the homeland, rooted in wanderers and nomads, that cannot be destroyed.

Aspects of the diaspora are conveyed in many of the works. The phrase, "I am going home," is nibber-stamped in English and Hebrew across the center spread of Robbyn Sassens altered South African identity document. Her "Identity Text" reveals the document as a passport to nowhere that never forgets the author's identity.

Barbara Magnus folds the individual pages of her grandfather's German-English dictionary to the inside center of each page to create what she describes as "the ultimate dog-eared book." Her "Bible for a New World" honors the book, much used by her grandfather as he left one language behind for the next, to assimilate in a new land.

Describing her lack of Jewish identity, Elena Siff flaunts the nomadic. "Rootless; On the Road with my Jewish Half," is the result of her personal journey to trace her father's lineage. Siff embellished a toy truck with Jewish stars, stamps and letterheads from the many hotels her father stayed in when he was traveling. Described as a man who "ignored his Jewish identity for all of my life with him," the flatbed of the truck holds the story of his lineage. Her Jewish identity on wheels is a symbol of hope that hauls around her roots and carries her family into the future.

Beth Grossman effectively brings together one of the distinctions between Christians and Jews. For Christians the Word became Flesh; the Incarnation naturally inspired representational forms of God and the Sacred. Jews, on the other hand, are committed to abstractions where God is concerned. God is rooted in the Word.

"Mary of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob" is a suitcase turned book in which Grossman has painted a non-Europeanized Mary and baby Jesus on the suitcase divider. Inside are yellow cloth stars with words on them. One side of the suitcase has words of reverence to the Jewish Mary. The other half has derogatory ones like those used to persecute Jews. Grossman's work astutely makes reference to the difficult history between Christians and Jews. …

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