Polish Papercutting


Madalyn Joyce

Wycinanki and the Jewish Papercut

It is not surprising that you can recognize the similarity between traditional Polish Wycinanki and the Jewish papercut, since the folk art of papercutting was practiced by Polish people of many different backgrounds As the traditional Polish Wycinanki was mainly Easter oriented, Jewish papercuts honored motifs of Judea. Jewish papercuts were traditionally displayed during Shavuoth and other religious occasions. The symbols used are ancient and can include peacocks, lyres, deer, griffins, menorahs, lions, crowns, vines, architectural details, and motifs from early Hebraic embroideries. The "Mizrah" papercut (fig.****) is designed to be placed on the eastern wall which, like Jewish prayers, is directed toward Jerusalem.

When I began giving lectures on papercutting, I suspected that there was a distinctively Jewish papercut, since several times I was asked if I could cut a Wycinanki using Jewish motifs. I did try but had no authentic point of reference (I tried combining the Star of David with the Jewish candelabra). The Librarian in Temple Shalom, Salem, Massachusetts, gave me a catalogue of commercial items for source designs, but something was missing. The door opened the day I received an article from a friend in Detroit, from the Hadassah Magazine (May 19??) on the Mizrah papercuts being made by Israeli artists today, to revive this wonderful folk art.

There are several possible sources of inspiration for making Jewish papercuts. Designs using themes of Jewish home and religious life are one possibility. You may wish to look for ideas in the Encyclopedia Judaica2, which has many illustrations of Jewish artifacts, as well as reproductions of existing Jewish papercuts. Pictured (fig. ****) is my own rendition of the circular papercut used at Shavuoth for window decorations. The original was made in Poland in the 19th century.

The Mizrah papercut was generally made from white paper, was symmetrical in design, and sometimes was accented with tints of watercolor. Rectangular in shape, these were mounted on a contrasting color, covered with glass, and often displayed in Jewish homes and synagogues.

Other rectangular papercuts were the Shevuoslekh (fig.****) and the circular type Royselekh (rosette), which was smaller in size. These were used as holiday decoration and stuck to glass windowpanes in Jewish homes. These were seldom accented with color and frequently included a short text.

Amulets of cut paper were placed on four walls of the room used for confinements, "birth rooms" These, called Kimpetbriv, were to protect the mother and her new-born child. Some of these were cut of parchment.

In my early designs, I concentrated on subjects such as lions and the seven-branch candelabra. Soon I was ready to create the pictured papercut (fig. ****) after composing it as I do my story-telling thematic papercuts.

These motifs were used in silhouette, and arranged many times for composition. Next I Xeroxed my final choices, and refined the overall design on tracing velum with a fairly fine nylon pen. After adding the necessary bridges to hold the design together, I was on my way.

I made several copies of the final design for future use. The tracing velum pattern was cut through the center, and I secured it to the center fold with clips. Cutting two designs at once of white typing paper, I began with the center-most details. Using fairly small scissors and an ice pick to help start small openings, together with a one blade razor, I took about an hour to complete the design (fig.****. I also used an Exacto knife for long straight areas needed to enclose the composition.

In deciding on the dimension to use, I selected the sizes illustrated in the Encyclopedia Judaica. The largest three were 23" x 3O" (vertical) and l7 1/2" x 15" and ll" x l4" (horizontal).

To proceed on your own version of the Jewish papercut, obtain some light weight black paper (such as the inserts in plastic loose leaf folders). Cut out four to six each of peacocks, candleabrum with seven branches, lions, griffins, deer, lyres, crowns, and cocks. Because the paper is black on both sides you can try many combinations and arrangements. Xerox many variations until you find several you like, and then either proceed as I did with a pattern, or try freehand cutting. Color overlays and accents may be added as desired.

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Edited by Sheldon Brown and Arlene Eskilson

updated Monday, November 10, 1997
URL: https://www.sheldonbrown.com/org/joyce/wyc-jewish.html
Copyright © 1997, 2008 Sheldon Brown and Arlene Eskilson