Jewish paper-cuts present an interesting branch of traditional folk art which fulfilled a specific part in the life of the community. The subjects of Jewish paper-cuts were connected with customs and ceremonies, and associated with holidays and family life. They were encountered widely among the Jews of Poland and Russia in the 19th century and the early years of the 20th century; Jewish paper-cuts were also known in Germany and probably in Holland; some Italian Jewish parchment *ketubbot (marriage contracts) of the late 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries were decorated with cut-outs as well as some elaborate *Scrolls of Esther. Paper-cuts are also to be found – with some characteristic style differences – in North Africa and the Middle East. But most information available concerns the East European cutouts.
The cut-out is basically a pattern cut out of paper, often tinted and mounted on a layer of different color. Sheets of paper were usually folded, with half a design drawn on one side. The folded sheet was then fastened with thin nails to a wooden board and the design cut out with a sharp knife. By unfolding the paper a symmetrical design was obtained. Circular or multilateral designs were folded several times and asymmetrical compositions were cut out separately.
Paper-cuts present a rich variety of forms and motifs with texts drawn from the Holy Scriptures.
In the center there is usually the seven-branched menorah, the Ten Commandments, or a Torah scroll; at the top they are decorated with a crown, Magen David, or an eagle. They are surrounded by motifs from the animal world and plant life, or geometrical forms. Among the animals the most frequent are lions, deer, eagles, and tigers, which have a symbolic connotation (Avot 5:23). Sometimes bears, camels, and a wide selection of birds are used; mythological figures such as winged gryphons, cherubs, and leviathans; or the old motif of the tree of life; the symbols of the 12 signs of the Zodiac are also frequently used.
mizraḤ and shivviti
The Mizraḥ ("East") was the most impressive and intricate form of Jewish paper-cuts hung up in homes and in synagogues on the eastern wall to indicate the direction of prayer (to Jerusalem). The Mizraḥ in the synagogue was generally called Shivviti according to the saying "Shivviti Adonai le-Negdi Tamid" ("I have set the Lord always before me"; Ps. 16:8) which appears mostly on these paper-cuts. Usually rectangular and framed under glass, they were made of white paper, almost always tinted with water colors and inscribed with biblical sayings. These paper-cuts presented artists with vast opportunities to exercise their skill, and are often admired for their delicacy and finesse.
"Shevuoslekh" and "Royselekh" represent another widely encountered type of paper-cuts, rectangular or circular, used to decorate the windows on Shavuot: "Shevuosl" from the name of the holiday; "Roysele" from rosette or flower. It was customary on this holiday to decorate the doors with greenery, while these paper-cuts were stuck onto the glass panes of the small windows of Jewish homes. Thus they were smaller than the Mizraḥ, made of white paper, seldom colored, and often displayed the short text "Ḥag ha-Shavuot ha-Zeh" ("this holiday of Shavuot"). While most of them show the usual motifs, some depict soldiers and cavalrymen, a subject which seems to have excited the imagination of the Talmud students poring over their books. Visible from the street, they must have been familiar to non-Jews as well. "Torah Flags," carried by children at the Simḥat Torah processions, were often decorated with these cuts. At the top of the flag stick, candles were fixed inside apples or potatoes. The motifs of the flags were symbols of the 12 tribes or contained inscriptions suitable for the festival of Simḥat Torah. They were two-sided and made of colored paper.
A "Kimpetbriv" or "Shir-Hamales" was a kind of amulet put up on the four walls of the birth room to protect the mother and her newborn child against the evil power of the witch *Lilith, who, according to ancient beliefs, snatched the infants away. Texts included "Let the witch perish," "God will destroy devils," etc. The center always featured a psalm beginning with the words "Shir ha-Ma'alot" ("A song of degrees"; cf. Ps. 120), from which the amulet took its name. The expression kimpet derives from the old Yiddish-German kind-bett ("childbed"), while brivl means "letter" or "note." Others were calendars, to count the days of the Omer; "Ushpizin" to hang up in the sukkah; "Mi-she-Nikhnas Adar," displayed on the walls of the synagogue during the month of Adar, etc. Paper lanterns whose sides were decorated with cut-outs were lit during open air weddings or on memorial days of great rabbis.
The beginning of the 20th century saw the disappearance of the Jewish paper-cuts and only old people remembered the art of their youth. Many of those preserved were destroyed during World War ii and relatively few remain in public or private collections. In the late 20th century Jewish paper-cuts became a popular art form.
The paper-cuts from North Africa and the Middle East were called Menorah, because the menorah, one or more, always appeared as the central motif. They included many inscriptions, mostly on the arms of the candelabras. The underlayer of these cut-outs was made from thin, colored metal sheets. Two groups stand out. The first group is a counterpart of the Mizraḥ and the second includes smaller paper-cuts used as charms. The motifs are the same as in European paper-cuts but they have a specific Oriental style. Very often the ḥamsa ("the five-finger hand"), unknown in Europe, appears on these paper-cuts.
It would be difficult to determine when the first Jewish paper-cuts originated. Information dating from as far back as the 17th and 18th centuries points to the fact that the European Jews of this time were acquainted with this type of art. The fact, however, that Jewish paper-cuts can be traced to Syria, Iraq, and North Africa, and that there is a similarity in the cutting techniques (with a knife) between those of East European Jews, and those of the Chinese, in their ancient folk craft, may indicate that the origin goes back even further.
B.W. Segel, in: Globus, 61 (1892), 235; R. Lilienthal, ṡwięta żydowskie (1909), 249; J. Reizes, in: Das Zelt, 1 (1924), pt. 2; G. Frankel, in: Lud, 8 (Pol., 1929); idem, in: Haifa, Museum of Ethnology and Folklore, Catalog (Heb. and Eng., 1959); idem, in: jc (Dec. 11, 1964); idem, in: Polska Sztuka Ludowa, 3 (1965); idem, in: Jewish Heritage (Fall, 1967); M. Narkis, in: Ofakim, 2 (1944); F. Landesberger, in: huca, 26 (1955), 516; Mayer, Art, index.