Jewish Folk Art

Visual arts are a beautiful way to express religious devotion.

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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.

Micrography

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.

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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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