Reviving the Lost Art of Jewish Papercuts
Few people know today that the walls of many Jewish houses used to be coated with complexes cut papers. Overflowing with detailed ornamentation and religious symbolism, these works of art have decorated Jewish homes in Eastern Europe, North Africa and West Asia for centuries. Although some houses today have a paper-cut marriage certificate or ketubah, the tradition has largely evaporated. Much of the fragile paper archive was lost in the Holocaust fires or disintegrated over time. Anna Kronick is one of the few Judaica paper cutters practicing today, with highly contemporary work that breathes new life into the sacred tradition.
After graduating as a sculptor from the New York Academy of Art in the 90s, Kronick was working as a conservator when she came across a lavishly illustrated book, Traditional Jewish Papercuts by Joseph and Yehudit Shadur. “When you come across cut paper, it’s usually Chinese Where Polish. So when I came across Shadur’s book, I was amazed that Jews did it too,” she told Hyperallergic. “I was already working on bringing back old stuff, so it was just the right time. I like the idea of reviving something old, but also bringing something very different. Some 25 years of practice later, Kronick has carved out a place for himself as a master craftsman who not only perpetuates this little-known craft, but brings a new approach. which allows the tradition to continue and evolve.
Traditional judaica paper cutouts are made by cutting a folded piece of paper, which is then unfolded to reveal a perfectly symmetrical design. While Kronick fell in love with their complexity, she found this strict symmetry too constricting. Instead, his pieces are defined by movement: his compositions bend as if blown by the wind. Surprisingly, she rarely sketches her designs. Kronick often draws with the knife itself, letting her visions guide her as she cuts thin screen-printed paper. “At first, I drew more,” she says. “But the more I cut, the less I drew.”
Some of his paper cut-outs bring old Yiddish songs to life. A navy paper rendition of “Belz, mayn shtetele Belz” (Belz, my shtetl belz) lovingly portrays a group of klezmer musicians – appropriate for a song about a desire to return to a life of Jewish community. But while her Yiddish illustrations often contain English letters, she prefers the graceful lines of Hebrew. “I don’t really do a lot of text in English, because it’s eye-catching. It prevents movement,” she says. “But the Hebrew just flows.”
Hebrew letters are woven into his visions of Bible passages, like the story of Joseph (you know, the one with a coat of many colors?). This room is dense with lush palms, curving grain piles, and puffy patterned textiles. Look closely and you’ll find tiny cattle, brick walls and a vast array of plants swirling together in a dazzling vortex of religious symbolism.
The earliest record of Jewish paper cutting comes from a fanciful 1345 treatise titled The war of the pen against the scissors. Spanish Rabbi Shem-Tov ben Yitzhak Ardutie describes how he resorted to cutting letters from his parchment when his ink froze on a cold winter night. Since the paper is so delicate, there is little physical evidence to trace the history of paper cuts, so it is still somewhat of a mystery how this art form evolved and became so popular around the world. Jewish, picking up aesthetic influences from neighboring non-Jewish cultures along the route. way. Expert Joseph Shadour wrote that “the more we learn about Jewish paper-cuts in one form or another, the more reason we have to believe that they were once extremely common”.
While ritual art like spice boxes and Torah crowns were made from expensive materials, paper was cheap and plentiful in many Jewish homes. Anyone could take a small blade and develop their own masterpieces at home for very little money, fulfilling the Jewish principle of creating beautiful spiritual art known as hidur mitzvah. Paper-cuts were hung on walls and windows as decorations for holidays like Sukkot and Shavuot, as calendars, and even as protective amulets to ward off the evil eye. We often imagine life in the shtetl as cold, gray and dull. On the contrary, it was bursting with color and life. “Of all Jewish folk rituals and arts, the paper-cuts… lent themselves to the freest expression of the religious spirit,” Shadur wrote.
“I think in pictures. When I listen to a Yiddish song, I just see it,” Kronick said. “Maybe that’s why I don’t need a drawing – I just cut it.” But that’s nothing compared to his way of looking at passages from the Torah: “For me, the [Yiddish songs] doesn’t flow as much, even if it’s music. When she reads the texts, “it just moves differently. I can see the letters intertwined with the pattern. In work that keeps beautiful craftsmanship from being forgotten, the results are deeply spiritual pieces, where we can witness Jewish joy and ancestral memories with our own eyes.