Today Jewish papercutting is almost synonymous with the art of the ketubah. In the past few decades the art form has seen a veritable renaissance in Israel, with artists really pushing the medium to its thematic and technical limits. What does it mean for papercutting to be “Jewish,” though?
Papercut artwork has been a part of Jewish culture since at least the middle ages. We know that Rabbi Shem Tov ben Isaac ben Ardutiel, who lived in the 1400s wrote a document called The Fight of the Pen and the Scissors. In it he described how his inkwell froze solid due to the winter cold and, undaunted, he continued his manuscript by cutting the letters out of the paper with a knife. By the 17th and 18th centuries, papercutting had become a thoroughly Jewish art form in Europe. In Italy, starting in the 1600s papercut ketubot were already being made, and the tradition remained. Italy has historically been the home of some of the most beautiful ketubot ever made.
Papercutting wasn’t invented by Jewish artists, though. In fact, it had been practiced as an art form in China for almost 1,000 years before Rabbi Shem Tov wrote his treatise — at least since the year 500 c.e. It makes sense: paper was a chinese invention and it stands to reason that over hundreds of years with a headstart, Chinese artists would have stumbled on papercutting as an art form. The art is still practiced in China today, and Chinese papercutting is the only form of the art that’s listed as part of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
Jewish papercutting owes a lot to the traditional Chinese form of the art. It is probably no accident that Jews as far west as Europe practiced this art, as it would have traveled over Asia, through the Middle East and into Africa and Europe through networks of Jewish communities and trade routes. Whether or not the connection is real or an example of convergent independent invention doesn’t matter. By the Middle Ages, papercutting was as Jewish as it was Chinese.
Traditionally, Jewish papercutting can be neatly divided into two schools: the Ashkenazi and the Mizrahi. Within these two styles there are a few specific motifs that can be found almost exclusively (unless one includes modern Israeli papercutting, which is so eclectic as to be undefinable). The main motifs were the mizrach, often found in Jewish homes to point toward Jerusalem; decorations for holidays made by schoolchildren; ketubahs and hamsas. The main differences between papercuts made in European as opposed to Middle East communities are stylistic. European artists preferred more ornate designs that didn’t leave any large empty spaces, while Middle Eastern artists preferred simpler symmetrical designs that included elements such as menorahs, columns and arabesques.
It is unfortunate, however, that most Jewish papercut art did not survive past WWII. The decline in Jewish art started before the war with cultural assimilation that eschewed traditional artwork, and was almost completed when remaining works were destroyed during the holocaust. Luckily approximately 250 beautiful works from the classical period of Jewish Papercutting did survive, so we do have a record, if incomplete, of what Jewish papercutting looked like.
Today papercutting as a Jewish art form has been reborn, and it is mostly thanks to a woman named Giza Frankel, an anthropologist from Poland who brought this traditional art back to life. The practice took root in Israel and in Jewish communities in the United States. With access to better paper, better blades and new materials, such as Tyvek, the art form is seeing an explosion of creative output. Today there are Jewish papercutting artists working all over the world.
Its popularity can be partly attributed to the reemergence of the decorated ketubah. To decorate such an important document is considered Hiddur Mitzvah — the act of making a ritual object beautiful. This ancient practice has been with us since the time of the bible, when Bezalel the artisan was appointed to designe the Ark of the Covenant and make it not just functional, but beautiful in order to express the beauty of what it contained within.
Today, Jewish items that are decorated by means of papercutting span from decorative Hamsas, to blessings for the home. Some families like the look of it for a Mizrach, and others will embellish their zecher l’Churban — the unfinished square in a new home — with a papercut design. The range of creative applications of this art form are unlimited, and all of them are deeply rooted in Jewish tradition.
Although it is common to have a ketubah made that is painted or printed, it is never as perfectly and traditionally beautiful as when it is cut out of paper. The care required to create a papercut is almost synonymous with the care with which a marriage has to be treated with. It is both delicate and structurally solid. With proper care it will last forever, but handled carelessly, a papercut ketubah can fall apart and even though it can be repaird, the scars will always remain visible. A papercut is physical and takes space in three dimensions. And as such, it is a physical manifestation of the spirit of marriage itself. It holds a tactile appeal that cannot be replicated in any other way.
Further information about why papercutting is such a traditionally Jewish artwork can be found in this wonderful article at My Jewish Learning. It discusses both the history I touched upon here, as well as some of the more esoteric aspects of the practice.