Zeva Oelbaum

Hand to Hand:
Photographs of Marks in Books

Hirschl & Adler Modern, March 22–April 21, 2007

As early as I can remember, I loved looking at the fragile volumes of crumbling Hebrew books relegated to the basement of my childhood home in Kansas City. Published in the 18th and 19th centuries, the books had translations in Latin, Russian, German, Polish, Aramaic, and Yiddish. One book in particular captured my imagination and attention; its endpapers were a jumble of scribbles. The fragments of text were exuberant and unselfconscious, even reminiscent of musical scores.

These ancient books connected me to a past that was never discussed. My father was born under Ottoman Rule, in Safed, the center of Jewish mysticism or Kabbalah, and came to the United States in the late 1920’s.

Paper was precious in the 18th and 19th centuries, and people used book endpapers as scratch pads.. People recorded the book’s purchase price, stamped their ownership marks, practiced spelling and calligraphy, unclogged their ink nibs and doodled in boredom. These books were frequently passed from hand to hand and packed for long journeys with their owners, so the endpapers became a kind of palimpsest of languages and writing styles. Both time and space were compressed upon a single page. Each mark altered the mark beneath it, and the pages themselves continued to evolve into something unexpected and new.

The traces of text, which inhabit the liminal space between the mundane and the sacred, continue to become transformed with the passage of time.

©Zeva Oelbaum, all rights reserved, may not be reproduced without permission
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