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Making Book on Women’s Lives

“Thank you God for making me a woman who is an artist.” This statement appears in the center panel of a gold-painted tryptich. embellished with beads, minors, safety pins, and lace. It is Carol Hamoy’s reinterpretation of the traditional morning prayer intoned by Orthodox men, thanking God for not making them women.

Hamoy’s sentiment is shared by the 90 other Jewish women artists from around the world whose 135 artist books (a work of art in book form) were recently on display at the West Hills Jewish Community Center gallery near Los Angeles.

The remarkable collection of book works from Australia, Canada, Israel, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United States was undertaken by American curator Judith Hoffberg. an authority on artwork in book form. The “books” included here stretch beyond the standard two covers. Some are concertina, fold-out books, or scrolls. A dozen starched white handkerchiefs of artist Gayle Wimmer’s father carry quotes from her father and MRI brain images, bearing witness to his transition from life to death.

Subjects vary, including Jewish ritual and liturgy, the Holocaust, dreams, mysticism, and the role of women in Jewish society. No matter how varied, the pieces all assert frankly a Jewish woman’s identity answering the questions “Who are we? Where are we from? Where are we going?'” As a whole, the show records how Jewish cultural memory is transmitted through women.

Some works incorporate whimsy— like Dorothy Field’s megillah scroll anchored to a used melon bailer as the roller. Elena Siff’s “Rootless: On The Road With My Jewish Half” is a toy truck with a flatbed that carries the text of Siff’s religious and ethnic journey. As the daughter of an anomic Jewish father and his fourth (non-Jewish) wife, Siff used the creation of her art book as an opportunity to learn about her absent father and his family.

Others are sobering, like Beth Grossman’s “Mary of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,”” displaying a Madonna and Child and pages of yellow stars, all contained in a suitcase. Grossman explains that Mary is the daughter of the Jewish people and mother of the Christian people. The suitcase represents Mary’s flight to protect her son from the Romans who were killing young Jewish children. It also recalls how history repeats itself as Jews have been exiled throughout time.

“The role I see for the artist is similar to the role I see as a Jew,” noted Los Angeles artist Laurel Paley, who began as a Hebrew calligrapher and ketubah maker. “What a Jew does is to ‘sacrilize’ and elevate the everyday and make it holy. . . . An artist can take mundane materials, like goo and newspaper and trash and ink, and make it something spiritual and extraordinary that can create meaning in people’s lives.””

“Women of the Book” will travel throughout the United States and Europe in the next two years, picking up artists along the way “to increase its breadth, depth and spiritual context,” notes Hoffberg.