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The strangest books you’ve never read: Israeli bookbinder''s esoteric work hits San Francisco

The strangest books you’ve never read: Israeli bookbinder''s esoteric work hits San Francisco

by joe eskenazi, staff writer 24/1/2008

All these years, it turns out, we've been misinformed. Actually, you can judge a book by its cover. 

Ido Agassi's books, however, don't exactly feature cover art. Because the entire book is a work of art. The Israeli bookbinder's tomes come equipped with leather slings, embroidered arrows and even miniature keyboards.

Indeed, the term "book" doesn't begin to describe some of his work — like the pint-sized piano with a poem emblazoned upon its ivories. 

The 31-year-old Agassi is a compactly built man who speaks slowly and methodically — as you would expect of someone whose livelihood involves countless hours of stitching pages together by hand or embossing thousands of characters onto the cover of a book.

In the Agassi household, Ido and his father, Uzi, never worked on conventional father-son projects in their Ra'anana garage. They didn't slap together birdhouses or bookshelves, tinker with a '65 Ford Falcon or anything like that. Fourteen years ago, Uzi Agassi, a former gallery curator at Tel Aviv University, summoned Ido to help him with a book. 

The elder Agassi decided to cash in his extensive connections in Israel's art world. His idea was to collaborate with the Jewish handmade limited-edition books (and by "limited edition" we mean the entire print run could fit comfortably in the trunk of that 1965 Ford Falcon). 

A sampling of some of the more than 40 titles released by the Agassi family press, Even Hoshen Publishers, is on display until Feb. 28 at the Bureau of Jewish Education's Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. While Agassi's work has shown across Europe and as far off as South Korea, this is his first exhibit in the United States. 

For free, visitors can walk in and touch the books (white gloves are required and provided) that collectors have spent thousands of dollars to own — and Agassi spent thousands of hours to create.

Before I can wipe the ink stains from my hands, Agassi has plopped a hefty book into my gloveless palms.

The rich smell of the leather cover overwhelms me; I'm reminded of sticking my face into my baseball mitt and inhaling deeply. Fittingly enough for a book emanating a baseball-like odor, this edition is "The Book of Ruth." 

Agassi — who was in the Bay Area recently for a series of lectures and to kick off his BJE library exhibit — sewed all the pages into place and pounded out that leather cover. "The Book of Ruth" focuses largely on harvest days, so Agassi even crafted an object resembling a stalk of wheat and inserted it under the leather cover, creating a raised relief image on the front cover.

"Books as fine art objects have become a real growth industry," said Steve Woodall, artistic director for the San Francisco Center for the Book, an organization devoted to the art of handmade tomes. 

Libraries and collectors are snapping up handcrafted books like Agassi's, even if not quite at Harry Potter pace.

Woodall estimated that a couple thousand artists worldwide share Agassi's profession and placed the young Israeli in "an elite mainstream of fine book-making." 

Barbara Mortkowitz of San Mateo, who is involved in book arts and first met Agassi at last

year's Berkeley Book Fair, then visited him in Israel, was so keen on his work that she asked the BJE to exhibit it. The answer was "yes," provided she curate the show.

"His books are just stunningly beautiful," she said, adding that she wanted to display "the positive side of Israel to the world."

A few meters away from "The Book of Ruth" is the oddest shaped book I've ever seen (until five minutes later).

It is a wallet-sized square attached to a long, thin rectangle, that resembles a banjo when Agassi lifts it up. He opens it, revealing a hollow, yellow interior and a leather strap with a biblical verse from Samuel 17:49 embossed on it in Hebrew and English:

And David put his hand into his bag and took from it a stone and slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead. And the stone sank into his forehead, so that he fell on his face to the ground.

This book is titled "David and Goliath." And, notes Agassi with a smile, "it is armed." He lifts the fat end of the sling to reveal a smooth, flat stone — which he picked up at the Ha'Ela Valley, where the battle between David and Goliath purportedly took place.

In a case behind the sling stands "Genealogy," which has a bushy green tree adorning its cover. Upon closer inspection, the foliage turns out to be the amalgamation of tens of thousands of Hebrew characters in five-point type (as a point of comparison, the text you are now reading is 10 point).

Agassi spent two weeks hammering those characters into the outside cover; the text is actually 1,450 Jewish names. "Eskenazi is surely in here," he tells me. "Seriously."

One mistake would have ruined the book and rendered his weeks of work for naught. When asked how he avoided such a misstep, Agassi smiled subtly and, in a massive understatement, assures me he was "careful."

Finally, Agassi pulls the pi
ce de résistance out of a rectangular box the size of a small laptop computer. The "book" within is a tiny blue grand piano. It cannot play, but is equipped with a keyboard cover and a top that opens to reveal taut strings. On its removable paper "keys," Agassi has printed in Hebrew and German a poem by the German writer Else Lasker-Schler titled, "Mein Blaues Klavier" ("My Blue Piano").

As with "David and Goliah," he chose to make "Mein Blaues Klavier" a limited edition of 30.

"I was 30 years old. And I decided I will make 30 copies. When I am 31, I would make 31 copies. So I will be busy when I get old," he says with the hint of a smile.

"For future projects, though, I will reconsider. At the age of 80, I don't want to ..." his voice trails off.

Again, he flashes his quirky, endearing smile.

"Yeah, I am a bit mad. I know."

If there's a blackout in Agassi's hometown, Moshav Herut, it won't affect his work one bit. He uses a hand-cranked printing press. The guillotine he uses to slice the Israeli-made paper in Even Hoshen editions is manually operated as well. Agassi hates traffic, so he walks to his studio, 100 yards from his front door.

"The thing about Ido that impresses me is that he's still a pretty young guy and completely self-taught. He is really practicing these crafts, both bookbinding and printing, at a very high level," says Woodall of the S.F. Center for the Book.

"That's unusual. We don't see that much."

If not every day, then on many days Agassi's two children run in and interrupt his labor-intensive work. It doesn't bother him, though. Like his own father, he puts the kids to work (his eight-months pregnant wife and their children even hand-stitched the programs for Agassi's BJE library show).

"When I was in the army, I'd come home every two weeks for a weekend or so. And I'd sew a little book on Friday and sew a little book on Shabbat and then go back to the army. And I decided that when I am released from the army, whatever I do, I'll do something I love," he says.

"And I love making books. I have the patience

for it.

"And I don't have a boss," he added. "When I am sewing, my mind goes to other ideas for new books. I really feel I am doing something the way they made it centuries ago. I can do it by candlelight or go outside if it's daytime."

He stares for a moment, into space, a serious expression on his face. And then he grins. "So, I am just sewing books. It is great."

"Even Hoshen Press: Fine Books from Israel"runs through Feb. 28 at the BJE library, 1835 Ellis St., S.F. The exhibit is made possible through the generosity of Barbara Mortkowitz and co-sponsored by the Israel Center of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and the Consulate General of Israel in San Francisco.





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