Jewish Papercutting

Folk art even the poorest folk could create

Print this page Print this page

The Statistical Basis

Before launching into more detailed characterizations of this intensely parochial Jewish folk art, we must establish an important criterion for assessing Jewish papercuts: the statistical basis for drawing generalized conclusions. Or, in other words, how many old Jewish papercuts are known to exist today, or are at least recorded photographically.

Here we must define the term “classic” that we have adopted for our discussion: We distinguish “classic” Jewish papercuts and papercut compositions from simple--generally small cutouts such as were made by children to paste on windowpanes for Shavuot and for the Sukkah, and also from ketubot and megillat Esther with cut-out decorative borders. However, size is not a criterion, for “classic” Jewish papercuts can vary from very small to huge, from less than 10 centimeters to over one meter in height or width. All of these were intended to serve the purposes outlined above and reflect religious or apotropaic concepts representing extensive knowledge of Jewish lore. They bear appropriate inscriptions, many of decided esoteric purport, and show meticulous planning and painstaking execution.

Thus--not counting possibly several hundred smaller, plain, shavuosl/roisele-type of paper cut-outs, many of them made by young boys, or the relatively few ketubot and megillot Esther with cut-out decorative elements--we know of no more than about 250 or so “classic” Jewish papercuts--both existing ones and photographs of lost items--to give us a glimpse into the widespread Jewish papercutting tradition, from the earliest known ones of the mid-18th century to the 1950s.

Accounting for the Surviving Papercuts

Of these, more than 80 can be ascribed with fair certainty to Galicia and the adjacent Carpathian Mountains regions; some 30 to 40 to Poland proper and the Russian pale of settlement; at least as many to Central Europe, from Alsace in the west through Germany to western Poland, Bohemia-Moravia, and Germanic Austria-Hungary; 25 or so to the United States; and about 30 to 40 Sephardic papercuts, of which about one-third stem from Ottoman Turkey and two-thirds from the lands of the Maghreb in North Africa. A few come from north Italy, Palestine/Syria, and Baghdad. Others are of indeterminate, varied provenance.

Since works by most of the Jewish papercuts from the United States, and the few in England, were the work of Polish and German immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe carrying on their traditions, many of these show and match affinities with the Jewish work from German-speaking, Galician, and Polish/Russian regions.

Among the relatively small number of known and recorded Sephardic papercuts are several items made by the same persons, and their dating is also largely concentrated within a few decades around the end of the 19th and the turn of the 20th centuries….

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Joseph Shadur (d. 2006) directed the Jerusalem Field Studies Center of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. His published writing includes monographs on 19th-century history and exploration of the Middle East.