Jewish Folk Art Gets Contemporary Cut

Feathery palm trees, swaying dancers, and butting rams are untraditional focal points in the contemporary Jewish papercuts of artist Deborah Heyman.

In reinterpreting this nearly lost, venerable Jewish folk art tradition, Heyman, of Irvine, finds inspiration and content for her own creations in the personal upheavals and simple pleasures of a modern life.

"They tell my stories," said Heyman, 50, a single mom who worked in a fabric showroom and took up papercutting 13 years ago. Families, tough decisions and dreams are among the subjects depicted symbolically in her work.

One of her designs is the featured cover of the Orange County Jewish Community’s Foundation 2003 annual report, which was published last month. More of her papercuts, including a large-scale tree of life that took a year to complete, is displayed in the administration building of Tarbut V’Torah Community Day School in Irvine, where her husband, Ed, serves as president.

Heyman discovered the tradition of devotional papercuts at a week-long retreat in 1990. Jerry Novorr, of Los Angeles, a retired graphic artist and docent at the Skirball Cultural Center taught the workshop. His teaching evolved from a demonstration he was asked to provide to coincide with a touring papercut exhibit from New York’s Jewish Museum in 1977.

"I had never heard of the media before," said Novorr, now 85, who is self-taught and still fulfills papercutting-commissions for friends.

Almost every culture that uses paper has a papercutting tradition. "The Jewish tradition is based on the written word," said Yehudit Shadur, an authority on the subject who, with her husband, Joseph, is author of "Traditional Jewish Papercuts: An Inner World of Art and Symbol," published in 2002.

"One way to express love of tradition is to beautify the written word," she said from her home in Amhurst, Mass. "Most papercuts include text and understood symbols that are visualizations of abstract ideas."

Papercuts use simple materials and are fashioned using a technique similar to one familiar to children clipping snowflakes from folded paper. Heyman uses acid-free, rag paper for her final works, which are mounted on a heavy, colored board. Many of her designs are asymmetrical and cut using an Exacto knife. First, though, they take shape on paper, drawn and redrawn in pencil. Final designs are worked out on tracing paper.

By comparison, most Jewish ceremonial art is symmetrical in design and often incorporates priestly blessings and Jewish iconography. Some are also painted.

The Holocaust nearly wiped out its practitioners. Where papercutting thrived in Eastern Europe and North Africa during the 1800s and the first half of the 1900s, the craft was an integral part of the customs and rituals of Jewish holidays, according to Tal Gozani, a Skirball associate curator. She curated a 2001 exhibit by one of the best-known modern papercutters, Marta Golab, a non-Jewish Polish artist who learned the art form at a Jewish cultural festival in 1989.

"She was drawn to the topic," said Gozani, of the Polish artist, who immersed herself in Jewish text and now creates papercuts with Hebrew script as masterfully as any scribe. "As a Pole, she wanted to bridge that gap, to reach out to the Jewish community, to breathe life into the legacy of Polish Jews."

Traditionally, the most popular papercut is the mizrach, meaning east; it’s a plaque hung on the eastern wall of homes directing Jews to pray toward Jerusalem, Gozani said. Other traditional subjects are decorative marriage contracts, or ketubot; depictions of holiday events, such as a Purim scene; or amulets to protect mother and child.

Heyman’s home displays several of her works, including the couple’s ketubot and a large chamsah, symbolic of the hand of God or divine protection.

"I haven’t made much effort to sell them," said Heyman, who nonetheless has sold smaller pieces for $180 to $300. Like art prints produced in small quantities to support their value, she would make no more than 50 of each design.

At a New Year cardmaking workshop last month at the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., Shadur shared her secrets. "It’s a very simple craft. We don’t fear wasting the materials," she said. "It’s a form of creative play."

She is credited with helping reawaken interest in the languishing art form because of her participation 25 years ago in a Haifa exhibit that featured historical and contemporary works.

Her own interest was sparked by after fashioning a papercut for a sukkah in 1966. She was an art instructor at a college in Israel when recruited to help decorate the booth for a party for David Ben-Gurion, the former Israeli prime minister.

Heyman’s work may start from a traditional idea, like the eternal knot, a commonly used Jewish symbol that is central to the piece used by the Community Foundation. But she also incorporates untraditional motifs, such as its corner nautilus shells.

"I’ll have a seed of an idea and play with it and see how it turns out," she said. "I kind of went off in my own direction. None of them are typically traditional."

Neither is the Torah cover she completed last September for Tustin’s Congregation B’nai Israel, where she met her husband of five years. At the time, Ed was in the final months of a long vigil at the bedside of his first wife, Barbara, who died of brain cancer. The synagogue was as central to the social life of the first couple as it is to the second.

As the second spouse, art helped Heyman carve her own distinct identity.

"That’s another reason art has been important to me," Heyman said. "It gives me my corner."

On the Torah cover, she used a sewing technique called inverse appliqué. Its effect is much like a papercut on cloth. The cover features a white chamsah on a royal blue field that is decorated with spirals, beads and fringes that are representative of prayer shawls.

Textiles are a common thread in Heyman’s life. Growing up sewing, weaving and quilt-making, she later pursued a college degree in textile design and a career in wholesale fabric showrooms. Now, Heyman studies oil painting, which she describes as "an absolute struggle." Her patience for detail in one medium proves a poor virtue in the current one.

"When painting is too difficult then quilting is my escape," she said.