Jewish Papercutting

Folk art even the poorest folk could create

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Reprinted with permission from Traditional Jewish Papercuts: An Inner World of Art and Symbol (University Press of New England).

There is no better example of a popular art form that took its inspiration from these hallowed sources [the Torah and Talmud] than Jewish papercuts, all of them serving some religious, ritual, or mystic purpose. Many of the objects that we revere and treasure today as traditional Jewish folk art were made of expensive materials according to accepted patterns and styles of the day and region by skilled by craftsmen--often non-Jews commissioned by private individuals or congregations.

But even the poorest Jew had access to the humble materials and tools--paper, pencil, penknife, water colors and colored crayons--with which he could express his own form of hiddur mitzvah [beautification of the commandments and rituals] by making a papercut. Of all Jewish ritual and folk art, papercuts (and also some calligraphic sheets) lent themselves to the freest expression of religious spirit. Unlike metal, wood, or textiles, paper was so cheap and so easily replaceable that the artist-craftsman was never afraid of spoiling it. He could be bold and inventive within the simplest of technical means. And indeed, he took full advantage of the medium and let his imagination run to fanciful extremes.

History of Jewish Papercuts

The earliest known reference to a Jew who created cut paper work dates to 1345, when Rabbi Shem-Tov ben Yitzhak ben Ardutiel composed a witty treatise in Hebrew entitled The War of the Pen Against the Scissors. He relates that when the ink in his inkwell froze on a coJewish papercutsld winter’s evening, he resorted to cutting the letters out of the paper--apparently in keeping with a conceit fashionable at the time (and later) in Spain. To students of Christian Spanish literary history, Rabbi Shem-Tov is better known as Santob de Carrion de los Condes (1290-1369), the courtly Castilian troubadour who composed the Proverbios morales for Pedro the Cruel.

Individual Jews (including an apostate) proficient at making papercut images are mentioned here and there in Dutch and German writings of the 17th and 18th centuries. Later, a notice of 1853 tells of Jews in Amsterdam selling cut out pictures of Catholic prelates hanging from a rope, as part of Protestant opposition to the reestablishment of a Catholic hierarchy in the Netherlands. At most, such incidental bits of information indicate that some Jews also engaged in papercutting--not an unusual practice at the time. It provides no meaningful clues as to how the making of devotional papercuts started and spread through the Jewish world.

From around the mid-18th to the mid-19th centuries we have Italian--or at least, Italianate-- ketubot (marriage contracts) and megillot Esther (scrolls of the Book of Esther read during the Purim festival), in which the parchment or paper of the border design or of the illustrative vignettes was cut out in three parts But here, too, we cannot conclude that these inspired the Jewish folk tradition of papercutting that was practiced concurrently.

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Joseph Shadur (d. 2006) directed the Jerusalem Field Studies Center of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. His published writing includes monographs on 19th-century history and exploration of the Middle East.