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Religion beat: Jewish books blend art, prayer

  • Article by: Rose French
  • Star Tribune
  • September 7, 2012 - 7:28 PM

Stacks of worn, musty Jewish prayer books surrounded Harold Smith in his Golden Valley home for years.

Over five decades, Smith traveled the world collecting the books, some dating to the 1700s. For Robyn Awend, director of visual arts for Sabes Jewish Community Center in Minneapolis, discovering the books during a visit to Smith's home was a revelation.

"I was thinking to myself, 'We really need to do something with these books,'" she said. "They need to be seen."

"I sat down with him, and ... he would open one up and the binding would fall apart and the pages were yellowed. The clasp was still ornate but very tarnished. And you could tell decades of history was inside each book. Each time it was opened, it was like you were releasing some of the history."

Some 15 of Smith's books will be on display at the JCC's gallery through Oct. 18 as part of the Parchment to Pages exhibit. Also included is work by Minnesota artist Susan Armington and Lynne Avadenka of Michigan. Both artists incorporate contemporary Jewish prayer books, texts and poetry into their work. On Sunday, Smith and Armington will be on hand for a public reception at the gallery, from 3 to 5 p.m.

"She [Armington] does incredible work using text. ... and creates what she calls 'map paintings,'" Awend said. Avadenka creates "intricate handmade artistic books, all of the ones in the show incorporate some sort of Hebrew text."

Smith collected the prayer books -- many of them used for Passover and other Jewish holidays -- during his travels because he's "very close to the Jewish tradition" and "wanted something he could take home with him, that reminded him of that place," Awend said.

"One of the interesting pieces about this ... is helping people see that books are an art form, even though the original intention may have been more geared toward education. I try to show each element of the book so people would not only marvel at its history, but also its beauty."

Rose French • 612-673-4352

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