Jewish Folk Art

Visual arts are a beautiful way to express religious devotion.

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Though barely discernible, the Western Wall in the above example of micrography is made up of the words of Psalms. Image by Israeli artist David Yohanan and used with permission of JerusalemEverything.com.

Micrography spread from the scribes of the Near East to the Jewish communities of the Diaspora--to the Sephardic communities of Spain and Portugal, as well as to the Ashkenazic communities of Eastern Europe. It was an art form that was taught from one scribe to another, each scribe adding his own innovation and mark. By the 17th century, micrography was used to embellish all kinds of Judaica: ketubot, omer calendars (used to count the days between Passover and Shavuot, a period known as the omer), decorations for the Sukkah, and wall-hangings for the home. Later, as the Jewish world spread overseas--to North and South America and returning to the Land of Israel--scribes took the art of micrography with them and spread their work in the new lands.

As with paper-cutting, micrography's emphasis is on sacred words. The art of micrography is about playing with those words--beautifying those words, illuminating them, drawing the eye to them in a fresh way. Also like paper-cutting, it is an art form keeping the importance of Jewish sacred literature in tact. In fact, many scribes have used micrography as a kind of internal art--creating small samples of micrography within Bibles, ornamenting such scriptures as the Psalms. As the art of micrography continues to grow today throughout the Jewish world, it is still most often sacred words that are used to create the visual patterns or designs.

The Jewish folk arts provide a fascinating look at the values of Jews of yesteryear. While much of Jewish culture focused on the world of books, law, and worship, the existence of folk arts indicates that creativity and visual expression were also valued and appreciated. Though contained within a narrow framework of religious devotion, these art forms can nonetheless inspire both the observant and secular person today. That this art was created by untrained artists--who used simple tools to create works of deeply-felt expression and faith--is especially inspiring.

When many parts of a vibrant, thriving Jewish culture were decimated in Eastern Europe during the Holocaust, the tradition of Jewish folk art became part of that vast cultural loss. However, in recent years, there is a growing renewal of interest in Jewish folk arts, similar to the revived interest in Yiddish language and klezmer music. Israeli scholars Joseph and Yehudit Shadur have written two definitive guides about Jewish paper-cutting: Jewish Papercuts: A History and Guide and Traditional Jewish Papercuts: An Inner World of Art and Symbol. Their work inspires Judaic artists today, many of whom are reclaiming this lost art and incorporating it as part of their creative process in making ketubot and other sacred art.

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Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer

Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer is a freelance writer and educator based in Philadelphia. She is the author of two books of plays for children: The Magic Tanach and Other Short Plays and Extraordinary Jews: Staging Their Lives as well as The Creative Jewish Wedding Book.