Jewish Papercutting

Folk art even the poorest folk could create

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Among the earliest known or recorded Jewish papercuts as such, very few can be dated with certainty to the latter part of the 18th century. Most of the items known today range from the early 19th century to the first decades of the 20th and were made in Central or Eastern Europe-- Alsace, Germany, Bohemia, Austria-Hungary, Galicia, Poland, Lithuania, White Russia, the Ukraine, Volhynia, Podolia, Rumania; in Turkey and parts of the Ottoman empire, French North Africa, Syria, Baghdad, and Palestine; and also migrants to North America and Western Europe.

Since the earliest, datable, surviving Jewish papercuts of the late 18th century already reflect a distinct folk-art genre, they attest an older tradition. That so few items remain is not really surprising considering the extreme fragility of their construction and the vulnerability of the material. Some of the simpler designs were made for special occasions, and because of their ephemeral character were little valued and discarded after being used only once or twice. The Holocaust marked the disappearance of much Jewish ceremonial and folk art; the more so of such frail items as papercuts.

Why Jews Cut Paper

Among a highly literate people like the Jews, paper was always on hand, even among the poor, and especially after the introduction of cheap wood-pulp paper in the mid-19th century. The more we learn about Jewish papercuts in one form or another, the more reason we have to believe that they

were once exceedingly common, at least in Ashkenazic-Jewish homes. They served daily religious and other ritual needs, such as indicating the direction of prayer (mizrach, shivitti, menorah), decorating the home for holidays (omer calendars, shavuosl/roisele, ushpizin, etc.), warding off the evil eve (shir hamalos/kimpethrivl, menorah), remembering family deaths (yahrzeit) and the like.

These papercuts feature most of the traditional symbols and inscriptions found in Jewish ceremonial objects and amulets--many of them kabbalistic [mystical]--characteristic of the various Diaspora communities. The real or fantastic animals and birds, vegetation, utensils, urns, columns, the menorah, tablets of the Law, stars of David, the signs of the 12 tribes and of the zodiac, yadayim/hamsas (an upside down hand), eternal lights / lamps-in-niches, and the like, which appear and reappear in the compositions, had almost all meanings that were wide; if not universally understood in the community.

They were supplemented with calligraphic inscriptions in Hebrew (and sometimes in other languages), mainly passages from the Bible, the interpretive and homiletic texts, the prayerbook, cryptograms, acronyms, wise sayings, and magic formulas and incantations. Personal dedicatory and memorial inscriptions commemorating special family events were sometimes included as well. And occasionally--to the delight of those of us who crave to know more about them--the name of the maker of the papercutter, the date and place, and the name of the owner are indicated.

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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.