Anna Kronick, “Dancing Rabbis,” cut silkscreen paper

Few today know that the walls of many Jewish homes used to be covered with intricate papercuts. Bursting with detailed ornamentation and religious symbolism, these artworks decorated Jewish homes in Eastern Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia for centuries. While some homes today may have a paper-cut marriage certificate or ketubah, the tradition has mostly evaporated. Much of the fragile paper archive was lost to the fires of the Holocaust, or has disintegrated over time. Anna Kronick is one of very few Judaic paper cutters practicing today, with a highly contemporary body of work that breathes new life into the sacred tradition. 

After graduating from the New York Academy of Art as a sculptor in the ’90s, Kronick was working as a conservator when she came across a richly illustrated book, Traditional Jewish Papercuts by Joseph and Yehudit Shadur. “When you come across paper cutting, it’s usually Chinese or Polish. So when I came across Shadur’s book, I was amazed to find that Jews had been doing it too,” she told Hyperallergic. “I was already working with bringing old things back, so it was just the right moment. I love the idea of reviving something ancient, but bringing something very different too.” Some 25 years of practice later, Kronick has earned a place as a master artisan who not only continues this little-known craft but brings a fresh approach that allows the tradition to live on and evolve. 

Annak Kronick, cover for “Guide to Jewish Living” in Western Massachusetts, cut silkscreen paper

Traditional Judaic papercuts are made by slicing through a folded piece of paper, which is then unfolded to reveal a perfectly symmetrical design. While Kronick fell in love with their intricacy, she found this strict symmetry too confining. Instead, her pieces are defined by movement: Her compositions curve as if being blown by the wind. Stunningly, she rarely sketches out her designs. Kronick often draws with the knife itself, allowing her visions to guide her as she cuts through thin silkscreen paper. “In the beginning, I drew more,” she said. “But the more I cut the less I drew.” 

Anna Kronick, papercut based on Yiddish song, “Belz main shtetele Belz” (Belz my shtetle belz), cut silkscreen paper

Some of her papercuts bring life to old Yiddish songs. A navy blue paper rendition of “Belz, mayn shtetele Belz” (Belz, my shtetl belz) lovingly depicts a group of Klezmer musicians — appropriate for a song about longing to return to a life of Jewish community. But while her Yiddish illustrations often contain English lettering, she prefers the graceful lines of Hebrew. “I don’t really do a lot of English text, because it stops the eye. It prevents movement,” she says. “But Hebrew just flows.” 

Hebrew lettering is woven into her visions of passages from the Bible, like the story of Joseph (you know, the one with a coat of many colors?). This piece is dense with lush palm trees, bending piles of grain, and billowing patterned textiles. Look closely and you can find tiny cattle, brick walls, and a vast array of plant life swirling together in a dazzling vortex of religious symbolism. 

The earliest recording of Jewish paper cutting comes from a whimsical 1345 treatise titled The War of the Pen Against the Scissors. The Spanish Rabbi Shem-Tov ben Yitzhak Ardutie describes how he resorted to cutting letters out of his parchment when his ink froze on a cold winter night. Since paper is so delicate, there is little physical evidence to trace the history of papercuts, so it is still somewhat mysterious how the art form evolved and became so popular in the Jewish world, picking up aesthetic influences from neighboring non-Jewish cultures along the way. Expert Joseph Shadur has written that the “more we learn about Jewish papercuts in one form or another, the more reason we have to believe that they were once exceedingly common.” 

Anna Kronick, “Bublichki,” cut silkscreen paper
Anna Kronick, “Joseph,” cut silkscreen paper

While ritual art like spice boxes and Torah crowns were made out of expensive materials, paper was cheap and plentiful in many Jewish homes. Anyone could take up a small blade and develop their own masterpieces at home for very little money, thus fulfilling the Jewish principle of creating beautiful spiritual art known as hiddur mitzvah. Papercuts were hung from walls and windows as decorations for holidays like Sukkot and Shavuot, as calendars, and even as protective amulets to ward off the evil eye. We often imagine life in the shtetl as cold, gray, and dull. Rather, it was bursting with color and life. “Of all Jewish ritual and folk art, papercuts … lent themselves to the freest expression of religious spirit,” Shadur wrote. 

“I think in pictures. When I listen to a Yiddish song, I just see it,” said Kronick. “Maybe that’s why I don’t need drawing — I just cut it.” But it’s nothing compared with how she sees passages from the Torah: “For me, the [Yiddish songs] don’t flow as much, even though it’s music.” When she reads the texts, “it just moves differently. I can see the letters interwoven with the pattern.” In work that keeps a beautiful craft from being forgotten, the results are deeply spiritual pieces, where we can witness Jewish joy and ancestral memories with our own eyes.

Annak Kronick, “Rebecca,” cut silkscreen paper from a series of papercuts based on women from the Bible

Isabella Segalovich is a Philadelphia-based artist, designer, writer, and TikTokker. Her work focuses on anti-authoritarian art history, on topics such as cultural appropriation and erasure, the racism...

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