The making of paper cuts by Jews in Eastern Europe, which differed in style from those made by Jews elsewhere, flourished particularly in the nineteenth century and began to fade as an art in the 1920s. These developments coincided in time and place with paper cuts created by rural Poles and Ukrainians. Researchers nevertheless insist on the distinctiveness of Jewish paper cuts because they were closely related to religious practices, and maintain that the influence of their neighbors, both in techniques and artistic motifs, was limited.
Mizrekh. Haim Cohen Zilbiger. Oświęcim, Poland, 1891. Watercolor, paper. (Courtesy Olga Goldberg)
The most elaborate and popular type of paper cut was the mizrekh (denoting East) or shivisi (citing the verse, “I have set [the Lord always before me]”; Ps. 16:8). The pattern was attached to the wall and indicated the direction of Jerusalem, thus, of prayer. Other paper cuts were harbingers particularly of the holidays of Purim, Shavu‘ot, and Sukkot. Paper cuts for Shavu‘ot—the shavuosl, which was rectangular, or the royzele, a circular rosette—were placed on windowpanes. There were also calendars for the counting of the days (‘omer) between Passover and Shavu‘ot, or indicating the anniversaries of the deaths of family members (yortsaytn). Paper-cut amulets intended to protect a woman and her newborn child (kimpetbriv) were often placed on all four walls of a room. On Simḥat Torah, children sometimes carried Torah flags decorated with two-sided paper cuts made with colored paper.
Paper cuts are characterized by rich decoration and numerous texts incorporated into their design. The passage in Pirke Avot (5:20), “Be strong as a leopard, swift as an eagle, fleet as a gazelle, and brave as a lion,” is a common motif in mizrekhs and shivisis and is often accompanied by drawings of the animals. Other paper-cut motifs often were based on decorations found in synagogues, including the menorah, crown (of the Torah), the Star of David, the tablets of the Ten Commandments, and the tree of life.
Shavuosl. Artist unknown, Kock, Poland, 1908. Paper. (Professor Dov Noy, Hebrew University, Jerusalem)
Paper cuts were made of white paper, and the average dimension was 25 × 35 cm, but could be much larger or smaller. The pattern was drawn with pencil on the vertically folded paper, which was then affixed (gwoździkami) to a board and cut out with a knife. After being unfolded, it was sometimes painted with watercolors or colored with chalk and then mounted onto a sheet of paper of contrasting dark color. Yeshiva students or teachers often made paper cuts; there were also itinerant paper-cut artists. Sometimes the designs were signed in the lower margin.
Aleksander Błachowski, Polska wycinanka ludowa (Toruń, Pol., 1986), pp. 12–14; Giza Frankel, Migzerot neyar: Omanut yehudit ‘amamit (Tel Aviv, 1996); Joseph and Yehudit Shadur, Traditional Jewish Papercuts: An Inner World of Art and Symbol (Hanover, N.H., 2002).
Translated from Polish by Christina Manetti