Jewish Folk Art

Visual arts are a beautiful way to express religious devotion.

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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 ketubotá (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 na´ve; 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.

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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.

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