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The Jewish Papercut

The papercut as art is believed to have originated in ancient China possibly at the time that paper was invented in the second century. As this art form spread from China to Turkey, North Africa, Persia and eastern and central Europe, it evolved in many directions. Cut paper, parchment and even leather was used for a variety of purposes such as to create the puppet figures used in shadow theater, as amulets to ward against evil spirits, as decorations in bookbinding and book decorations, as window decorations and to create silhouettes of people.

References to a Jewish papercut date from the 14th century when Rabbi Shem-Tov ben Yitzhak ben Ardutiel wrote "The War of the Pen Against the Scissors" in letters cut from paper because his ink froze on a cold winter night. Although there is some uncertainty regarding the history of the Jewish papercut, it is believed that Jews were familiar with the art for some time because of the travels of Jewish merchants and the close ties between Jews and the Ottoman sultans.

During the 17th and 18th centuries the papercut became an important folk art among both Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, especially in countries where this folk art was practiced by the general population. Requiring only simple and readily available tools---paper, pencil and knife---papercutting was available to all, even the poor. Few of the early papercuts survived, however, because their construction was fragile (acid-free materials did not exist) and their purpose was usually short-lived. Used to fulfill hiddur mitzvah (embellishing the commandments in an aesthetic way), a papercut would be hung on the walls of homes and synagogues and served a range of spiritual and ritual purposes in the Jewish calendar and life cycle. They were hung on eastern walls to indicate the direction of prayer (the Ashkenazi papercut often had the word mizrach at the center while the Sephardic papercut often had the word shiviti at the center); they were used as holiday decorations (ushpizin to decorate the succah, shavuoslekh for Shavuot, flags for Simchat Torah) and as amulets to ward off the evil eye (shir hamalosl, menorah); they were created to commemorate deaths in the family (yarzeit) and as calendars for counting the omer. They were also used to decorate Ketubahs.

A traditional Jewish papercut was made by folding a sheet of paper in half, drawing one half of the design starting at the fold and cutting with a sharp knife to produce a symmetrical design upon opening the folded sheet. These papercuts featured many traditional Jewish symbols including birds, lions, gazelles and other animals, menorahs, stars of David, tablets of the Law, columns to commemorate the Temple and floral decorations that can be found on other Jewish ceremonial and ritual objects. Furthermore, calligraphic inscriptions were often used to supplement the imagery. Unlike other papercuts that were common in the general population, a Jewish papercut did not feature human subjects or depict daily life.

Jewish papercutting continued to flourish in Nortrh Africa, Eastern Europe and Russia during the 19th century. Unfortunately, however, during the first half of the 20th century this tradition almost disappeared because its practitioners either emigrated or, tragically, perished in the Holocaust. Furthermore, many examples of this folk tradition were lost with the destruction of Jewish communities.

During the last fifty years, however, papercut art as a means of Jewish expression has been revived, both in the conventional form of folding paper to create a symmetrical work and by cutting freely. These papercuts often use traditional motifs that are frequently inspired by the artistic romanticism of the Bezalel school - founded in 1906 in Jerusalem.

Although Granot started in the traditional fashion, he decided early in his career to experiment, to go beyond traditional bounds and not to limit himself to the repetition of classic motifs and styles. His works are not symmetrical and often contain multiple layers of interlaced designs that create a three-dimensional relief in what is usually a two-dimensional medium. The resulting web of shape and color reaffirm the positive and negative spaces and create a sense of infinity. Yet the subjects are reminiscent of familiar Jewish imagery. As with any art form, inspiration can come from anywhere. Much of Granot's work is inspired by Jerusalem, the city where he lives. His imagery and texts are usually biblical, Talmudic or rabbinical and often reference or contain allusions to Jerusalem.


In the workshops that Granot teaches he encourages his students to let their imaginations run. To start at home one need only fold a piece of paper, draw a design from the fold (for example, half of a snowflake or half of a menorah, the center on the fold), cut with a pair of scissors (manicure make a fine cut) or a fine knife and open the folded paper. The result is a papercut! You can also photocopy a design, staple it to another piece of paper and cut around the design to create a papercut. The papercut can be painted and mounted on another piece of paper, on cardboard or even on glass. The possibilities are endless---you can play with the positive and the negative to create your papercut and derive much pleasure from this centuries old craft.

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