Author Archives: Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer

Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer

About Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer

Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer is a freelance writer and educator based in Philadelphia. She is the author of two books of plays for children: The Magic Tanach and Other Short Plays and Extraordinary Jews: Staging Their Lives as well as The Creative Jewish Wedding Book.

Jewish Dance

In the Bible, the Israelites use dance as a form of religious expression. From images of Miriam leading the women across the Sea of Reeds to numerous references throughout the Psalms, it is clear that dance was an expression of joy, awe, and worship.

After the end of the biblical period and throughout most of the Middle Ages, one finds fewer examples of sacred, ritual dance in Judaism. However, because of the mitzvah (commandment) to celebrate a bride and groom, dancing at Jewish weddings was always encouraged. According to Fred Berk’s work on Jewish dance, Ha-Rikud, men and women danced separately at religious functions, but dance was nonetheless an important part of the celebrations.

Elaborate dances honoring the newly married couple have been created over the last several centuries, including the iconic ritual of lifting the bride and groom and dancing with them raised on chairs. Wedding dances continue to be an important part of Jewish cultural identity today; many Jewish American couples who consider themselves secular still feature traditional hora dancing as part of their wedding celebrations.

jewish ballet

Hasidism, which began to emerge in the 18th century, focused on praying with joy and passion and seeking connection to God through song and dance. As in biblical times, dance once again became a form for religious expression. The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, and his followers danced in circles, with increasing fervor, seeking a kind of ecstasy through their repeated movements. The dancers would sing a wordless melody (niggun) as they moved, and sometimes their rebbe would dance on his own before the group–creating new movements for the circle to pick up and integrate. This kind of circle dancing, still practiced in some Hasidic communities today, could last for hours.

theatre and dance quizIn the late 19th and early 20th centuries, another kind of Jewish dance emerged: Israeli folkdance. Pioneers who came to the land of Israel from across Europe brought with them their own native dances. Using this material they created Israeli folkdances, expressing their passion and desire to return to the Promised Land. Dancing barefoot, with fast movements like leaping and running, Israeli folkdances became an important form of expression for new immigrants. As the new state of Israel emerged, folk dancing became a national pastime. Gradually, Israeli dancing spread to Jewish communities all over the world, becoming an important way for Jews in the Diaspora to connect to the Jewish state. Israeli dance has also expanded its repertoire as Jews from different cultural backgrounds, including Yemen and Ethiopia, have contributed to the beauty and diversity of Israeli folk dance.

The Sheva Berakhot

Despite the wealth of traditions and rituals connected to Jewish weddings, the wedding ceremony itself, without embellishments, is relatively sparse. The opening section, called kiddushin (betrothal), is where all of the legal business takes place, including the formal betrothal blessing and the ring ceremony. Often couples include a reading of their ketubah (marriage contract) as a bridge between this first part of the ceremony and the next part, called nissuin (nuptials). Nissuin includes the chanting of the sheva berakhot (seven blessings), the breaking of a glass, and yihud, in which the bride and groom depart from under the huppah (marriage canopy) to take some time alone before joining guests for wedding festivities.

The Blessings

The sheva berakhot are the real heart of the Jewish wedding ceremony; it is in this liturgical moment of the ceremony that themes of joy and celebration and the ongoing power of love are expressed. Taken from the pages of the Talmud (Ketubot 8a), the blessings, from one to seven, begin with the kiddush over wine and increase in intensity in their imagery and metaphors. It is no accident that there are seven of these blessings, since the number seven brings to mind the seven days of creation. Poetic echoes of creation and paradise abound in the blessings, as does the age-old yearning for return to Jerusalem. Significantly, the final blessing culminates with imagery of the entire community singing and celebrating with the bride and groom, reminding all present that the couple standing under the huppah is a link in the chain of Jewish continuity.

The blessings are:

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, King of the Universe, Creator of the fruit of the vine.

Blessed are You, Adonai, our God, King of the universe, Who has created everything for your glory.

Wedding Rituals for Parents

Generations ago, Jewish parents were at the helm of organizing their children’s weddings, from the initial steps of arranging a match and establishing a dowry to hosting the wedding festivities and helping the couple set up their new home. In those days, the young hatan and kallah (groom and bride) may have barely known one another before their nuptials and needed to trust that their parents would create the best possible match for them. 

As customs and traditions began to change for much of the Jewish world, especially in America, young men and women started to reject arranged marriages and look for spouses on their own. Still, when it came to making arrangements for the wedding itself, much of the work continued to fall on the parents, in particular the bride’s mother. Since it was usual for the bride’s parents to pay for the wedding, they often took charge of planning the occasion according to their taste and budget. The young couple might be consulted for their opinions (certainly more the bride than the groom), but it was more often the parents who had the final word.

role of parents in weddingNot so with families today. Statistics show that Jewish people in the United States are marrying later than their non-Jewish counterparts. This means that engaged couples are often financially independent, having lived on their own and established both personal and professional communities (often located far away from parents) by the time they decide to tie the knot. With this independence may come the desire on the part of the couple to make their own choices about where and when to wed, how big a wedding to have, who will officiate, and how many guests to invite. Parents may be consulted and included in the planning, but it is no longer assumed that the bride’s family will pay for the affair. The couple may receive support from both sides or choose to pay for the wedding themselves. This break from traditional roles and parental expectations can leave many parents feeling lost and wondering what their role in their child’s big day is.

Midrashic Art

“Turn it, turn it, for everything is in it…” say our sages about the Torah. From rabbinic times forward, we have stories and commentaries that record the rabbis’ explorations of and reactions to sacred texts. Termed midrash (investigation, searching out), these teachings, a form of art in themselves, turn the text inside out, exploring all of its nuances and commenting on its meaning by answering unanswered questions found in the text.

Midrash is a literary genre that uses allegory and imaginative narrative to fill in those places in the text where the stories do not feel complete. In the last several decades, many artists, clergy, educators, and scholars have been creating what they refer to as “contemporary midrash.” Their work uses the process of investigating biblical and other scared texts to draw out meaning for people today; to re-animate biblical stories and characters and to add contemporary voices, visions, and concerns to the legacy of commentary.

Unlike classical midrash, which is a purely literary form, contemporary midrash takes many forms, including dance, drama, literature, theater, and the visual arts. Because the visual arts have not always been widely embraced by Jewish religious culture, contemporary fine artists working in this genre are often charting new territory in using visual images to comment on sacred texts.

Unique Artists, Unique Styles

Visual midrash can be found in a number of contemporary places: displayed in Jewish art galleries and museums, illustrating Jewish books, and sometimes as part of a lesson in a Jewish school or adult-education program. This movement to integrate visual imagery into a dialogue about our texts and our reactions to them is a deliberate attempt to recognize the power of art to combine our emotional, intellectual, and spiritual understandings of text.

An example is the work of artist Archie Rand. Rand’s expressive paintings depict biblical characters–such as Eve, Moses, and King David–in comic-book style frames, with Hebrew text written in cartoon balloons and boxes. He creates a new visual language that integrates pop-culture sensibility with serious investigation of biblical dilemmas, challenging the viewer to imagine how these ancient texts relate to our own moral and spiritual predicaments.

Biblical Art

Each year during the festival of Simchat Torah, Jews celebrate the end of the annual cycle of Torah readings by rolling the scroll back to its beginning and starting to read again. The message is clear: Each year, we can grow to understand the words of the Torah in new, and often deeper, ways. We are guided not only to listen to Torah, but to respond to it, to discuss it, and to wrestle with its images and stories.

jewish art quizThough the written word has been the primary vehicle for reacting to Hebrew scripture, Jewish culture offers another important–and frequently overlooked–modality for commenting on the Bible: visual art. Though many Jews and non-Jews alike mistakenly believe that visual images are prohibited by Jewish law, art has played a prominent part in transmitting biblical stories and making them meaningful for each new generation. By examining biblical images in Jewish art, we can grow to understand how generations past may have interpreted characters and stories that we still wrestle with today.

The Art in Dura-Europos

In 1932, American archeologist Clark Hopkins unearthed one of the greatest archeological discoveries of the 20th century: a synagogue located in what was the desert city of Dura-Europos (now part of present-day Syria). This remarkably well-preserved synagogue contains walls painted with images of people and animals from the Hebrew Bible.

An Aramaic inscription helps to date the synagogue to 244 C.E., when a group of exiled Jews would have formed a community of worshippers in what was then a Roman trade city, settling there with a melting pot of Greeks, Byzantines, Persians, and Christians.

The large-scale art in the synagogue helps to dispel the myth that Judaism historically prohibited visual images. Indeed, the often-misunderstood second commandment–which prohibits “graven images”–refers specifically to the creation of idols, not to artistic pursuits in general. This commandment was interpreted differently in different times and circumstances–sometimes more literally and sometimes more loosely. The murals in the Dura-Europos synagogue lead us to believe that early rabbinic Judaism may have acknowledged and even celebrated visual art as a vehicle for honoring and transmitting sacred texts.

Planning Your Jewish Wedding

Mazel Tov! If you or someone close to you is planning a Jewish wedding, you are in the midst of an exciting–and at times stress-inducing–experience. Besides the many wedding details that all couples need to plan, Jewish brides and grooms have several other important factors connected to their ceremony to consider. Whether you are  Jewishly knowledgeable or relatively new to Judaism, you may want to review the following list before you make your plans to create a meaningful Jewish wedding: 

1. Choosing a Date

Jewish weddings are generally prohibited on Shabbat and festivals–including Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot–and the fast days Tisha B’Av, the 10th of Tevet, the 17th of Tammuz, the Fast of Gedaliah, and the Fast of Esther. Traditionally, Jewish weddings are not held during the counting of the omer between Passover and Shavuot, although customs differ as to whether that entire seven-week stretch or just part of it is a problem. Marrying during the three weeks between the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha B’Av is also prohibited in traditional Jewish practice. Because many of these dates fall during prime wedding season (sprihuppahng-summer), it’s important to check an accurate Jewish calendar (such as before you select a date.

And although Shabbat weddings are out, many couples choose to wed on Saturday at sundown, so that they can begin their ceremony with havdalah, marking both the end of Shabbat and the end of the time that came before their public commitment to one another. Some couples choose to wed on Tuesdays, believing it to be an especially blessed day, since in the Biblical story of creation, the phrase “God saw that it was good” appears twice on the third day.

2. Selecting a Rabbi

For some couples, this step is an easy one. They may be active members of a congregation or have a childhood or Hillel rabbi that they are still close to. But for many engaged couples who are not affiliated with a Jewish community in a formal way, finding a rabbi to lead their wedding ceremony is a daunting task. Parents may suggest using the rabbi from their congregation, whether or not the couple knows them.

Jewish Painters

In the 19th century, Jewish painters experienced opportunity unprecedented in Jewish history. The European Enlightenment and its subsequent societal reforms allowed Jews to leave the Jewish ghetto and join their gentile neighbors in the marketplace and the university. As Jewish people were granted equal citizenship under the law, Jews established themselves in a variety of new career paths, including the arts.

The First Jewish Painters

This shift in social and cultural structure impacted the life of Jewish painters in two important ways: (1) Jews were admitted to study at the best of Europe’s fine arts academies, and (2) as Jews became more assimilated into mainstream society they began commissioning paintings, just as their gentile neighbors did–thus creating work for Jewish painters. With such opportunity, Jews entered the field of painting, many gaining acclaim for their art.

Daniel Moritz Oppenheim (1799-1882) has been referred to by some as the “first Jewish painter.” A German Jew, Oppenheim’s critically-acclaimed work drew on his Jewish experience. His paintings portray a variety of scenes from ordinary domestic Jewish life during that era–wedding feasts, families gathered for Sabbath and other festival meals, scholars pouring over their books. Oppenheim, who studied in Rome, also painted a variety of work inspired by the Bible, both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Bible. The wealthy Rothschild family served as his patron for many years.

Moses and the Law (1818), by Daniel Moritz Oppenheim

Many of the Jewish painters who followed Oppenheim focused less on Jewish life and content. For example, Camille Pissaro, the well-known Impressionist, was born in the West Indies to a Creole mother and French Jewish father. Pissaro’s impressionistic paintings captured scenes of urban life–a new sense of modernism. Pissaro captured a variety of different people from different ethnicities in his paintings.  This interest, perhaps inspired by Pissaro’s own mix of ethnic backgrounds, focuses more on ethnicity than religion. His subject matters are not specifically “Jewish” in nature.

Jewish Folk Art

Browse through any Judaica shop today and you’ll see evidence of an ever-growing trend: Judaic art has become more sophisticated, varied, and complex than ever before. Jewish artists are finding the medium of Judaic objects to be a wonderful canvas to infuse tradition with their original eye. Their creations include original ketubot (Jewish wedding contracts) integrating both sacred and secular symbolism and rituals objects for the home, like Shabbat candles and Kiddush cups created with a specifically feminist twist.

A Long Tradition

While many Judaica artists create cutting-edge work in both content and style, their work does not stand in a vacuum. It emerges from a long tradition of Jewish folk art.

Today, many of these artists are professionally trained and bring a fine arts sensibility to their Judaica work. This is a relatively new phenomenon. Only in the last few centuries have Jewish artists trained in the fine arts. For the greater part of Jewish history, most Judaica artists were untrained, and their art was not their life’s work, but was simply one form of devotion to God. Known today as “Jewish folk art,” the tradition of Jewish visual expression includes paper-cutting, creation of the mizrach and shivitti (two forms of decorative signs), and the art of micography (using words to create images). Looking with contemporary eyes at these primarily self-taught forms of expression offers inspiration and assurance that the visual arts hold a prominent place in Jewish civilization.

At first glance, any work of “folk art” may at first seem childish or naïve; what makes it great art is that at second glance, the art reveals depth and substance. Jewish paper cutting was, for centuries, more or less of a hobby of a primarily male, religious population. These men included rabbis, yeshiva teachers, and students, people who had time to use their hands even as they focused on study and discussion.


Paper-cutting was an inexpensive art–no fancy materials were needed, just a scrap of paper, a pencil, a knife. At the same time, some artists used more expensive materials, such as parchment, resulting in paper-cut art better able to be preserved. The tradition of Jewish paper-cutting was borrowed by the Jews of the Middle Ages’ Christian and Muslim neighbors. It can be traced as far back as the 14th century, and it continued to play a major cultural role in Jewish tradition through the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The craft takes a simple art–cutting paper to create a design (think of making a snowflake in grade school)–and transforms it into an expression of devotion. The artist would take a line of text, from Psalms, for instance, and would strive to bring the imagery of the text alive in the paper-cut.

This Shivviti plaque by Shneur Zalman Mendelowitz (late nineteenth century) includes depictions of the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Jerusalem’s Western Wall.

As time went on, paper-cutting became more esteemed, and soon paper-cut designs became connected with certain lifecycle events and holidays. Artists used paper-cutting to illustrate ketubot (marriage contracts), for example, and would create certain designs for the Jewish festivals of Sukkot and Shavuot. While Jewish literary tradition focused on the importance of words, the folk art tradition brought visual representations of words and ideas to life.

Using Art to Focus Attention

Artists often used paper-cutting to create a mizrach (which literally means “east”). The mizrach was a wall hanging for the most eastern wall of the Jewish home, reminding them which way to face while praying–toward Jerusalem–and directing the family’s thoughts to that holy city during prayer. In Eastern Europe, the mizrach was frequently an object not just of devotion, but also of beauty. Elaborate mizrachim (plural of mizrach), created by paper-cutting techniques adorned many Jewish homes. Though the intention of the mizrach was to serve a simple, religious function, the art of the mizrach shows the high regard that was paid to good craftsmanship and beautiful aesthetic sense.

Another example of Jewish folk art, dating back to the Middle Ages, was the creation of the shivviti (meaning “awareness.”). Similar to the mizrach in that its function was to focus attention, the shivviti would hang in the synagogue. Inspired by a line from Psalms, “Shivitti Adonai Lanegdi Tamid”– I am ever aware of the Eternal One’s presence”–the shivviti employed the Hebrew letters “yud, hay, vav, hay” which together symbolize God’s name. It is interesting to note that while it was forbidden to try to utter the name of God, the shivviti used these letters in an artistic design to represent God’s presence. The shivviti might include other Biblical phrases or lines from Psalms, but the focus of its design was always the letters “yud, hay, vav, hay.” The shivviti, like the mizrach, was often created by paper-cutting, although examples of shivviti created by embroidery, drawing, and other media do exist.


Hebrew micrography takes the scribal art of calligraphy–used by scribes to write Torah scrolls and other sacred books–and creates images and symbols made up of words. Dating back to the ninth century, micrography uses a minute form of writing to create abstract patterns or form shapes, such as ritual objects or animals. Scribes in ancient Israel and Egypt were trained to write in very small letters–especially to create the scrolls that go inside a mezuzah or to write notes of commentary in the margins of Hebrew Bibles–and so used their specialized ability to create an original art form.

Though barely discernible, the Western Wall in the above example of micrography is made up of the words of Psalms. Image by Israeli artist David Yohanan and used with permission of

Micrography spread from the scribes of the Near East to the Jewish communities of the Diaspora–to the Sephardic communities of Spain and Portugal, as well as to the Ashkenazic communities of Eastern Europe. It was an art form that was taught from one scribe to another, each scribe adding his own innovation and mark. By the 17th century, micrography was used to embellish all kinds of Judaica: ketubot, omer calendars (used to count the days between Passover and Shavuot, a period known as the omer), decorations for the Sukkah, and wall-hangings for the home. Later, as the Jewish world spread overseas–to North and South America and returning to the Land of Israel–scribes took the art of micrography with them and spread their work in the new lands.

As with paper-cutting, micrography’s emphasis is on sacred words. The art of micrography is about playing with those words–beautifying those words, illuminating them, drawing the eye to them in a fresh way. Also like paper-cutting, it is an art form keeping the importance of Jewish sacred literature in tact. In fact, many scribes have used micrography as a kind of internal art–creating small samples of micrography within Bibles, ornamenting such scriptures as the Psalms. As the art of micrography continues to grow today throughout the Jewish world, it is still most often sacred words that are used to create the visual patterns or designs.

The Jewish folk arts provide a fascinating look at the values of Jews of yesteryear. While much of Jewish culture focused on the world of books, law, and worship, the existence of folk arts indicates that creativity and visual expression were also valued and appreciated. Though contained within a narrow framework of religious devotion, these art forms can nonetheless inspire both the observant and secular person today. That this art was created by untrained artists–who used simple tools to create works of deeply-felt expression and faith–is especially inspiring.

When many parts of a vibrant, thriving Jewish culture were decimated in Eastern Europe during the Holocaust, the tradition of Jewish folk art became part of that vast cultural loss. However, in recent years, there is a growing renewal of interest in Jewish folk arts, similar to the revived interest in Yiddish language and klezmer music. Israeli scholars Joseph and Yehudit Shadur have written two definitive guides about Jewish paper-cutting: Jewish Papercuts: A History and Guide and Traditional Jewish Papercuts: An Inner World of Art and Symbol. Their work inspires Judaic artists today, many of whom are reclaiming this lost art and incorporating it as part of their creative process in making ketubot and other sacred art.

Likewise, the art of making mizrachim and shivviti are also experiencing a renaissance as a form of artistic expression. Artists are exploring these forms with mosaic, fiber art, collage, and other techniques. Micrography is also a thriving art, with calligraphers using this form of word-art in fresh and surprising ways.

No longer seen as “outsider” or “simple” art, these forms of Jewish folk art are respected and regarded as part of a long-held Jewish aesthetic tradition. These art forms now live on with a new generation of Jewish visual artists world-wide, evolving with each new artist who works with them.