Presentation to Congregation of Touro Synagogue, New Orleans
Artist in Residence Weekend, December 2014
All my life, I had always done some kind of art…pen-and-ink, pencil, charcoal…everything in black-and-white. And then I converted to Judaism. Overnight, literally, I began working in color…paints, watercolors, pastels. It was so odd to me. I had always been such a black-and-white kind of gal (ask my husband; he says I don’t see any shades of gray). Where did this come from? Why did I suddenly start seeing the world in color? The truth is that I have no idea. I only know that it happened.
And then I went to Israel. Jerusalem, actually, for the first time, for a month. You might think there’s not much color in Jerusalem. After all, it’s in the Judean desert. And all the buildings are made from this kind of sandstone that goes from a light blond in the morning to blazing white in the heat of the day, to a golden glow in the afternoon. But colors, not so much. Yet, I saw them.
One day, I ducked into a Judaica shop on King George Street, mainly to get out of the blistering heat. There I met a scribal artist who told me about another scribe out in the German Colony and said I should go see him. What? Just drop in? Sure, he won’t mind. So I did. His name is Izzy Pludwinski and he’s the most creative Hebrew scribe I know. As it turns out, I had already bought a piece from him on the internet that hangs in your rabbi’s office. He told me about a friend of his who had a studio around the corner from my hotel, a world-class papercut artist. Hm…I’ll have to check that out on my way back.
I visited Archie Granot’s studio and fell in love…with the art, I mean. Okay, a little bit with him, too, because he’s very charming and very Israeli in spite of having been born in England. He’s the living master at Jewish papercut art and has works on display in museums around the world. I went back every couple of days to study this form of art I’d never seen before, to study his technique and mastery, something I will never achieve myself.
After it became clear to Archie that he had a serious groupie on his hands, on about the fifth or sixth visit, he said, “Wait here. Let me show you something.” He went to his safe and brought out a book, about 8 inches thick, with an exquisite leather binding. “This is my son’s bar mitzvah book.” His son’s haftarah portion was divided into about 20 pages, each one a different design cut by hand from layers and layers of paper. I started to cry, it was so beautiful. So much love, so much honor to the tradition. It’s in the Library of Congress now, and I got to hold it in my hands.
From that moment onward, I determined to become a papercut artist and to use whatever skills I could acquire to help other Jews, and myself, to connect to sacred texts. And what a deep well of inspiration… bottomless, really. Torah and Talmud and Psalms and Kabbalah, Hebrew letters in styles from the very formal font used to write a Torah scroll, to flowing, arty typefaces. Endless subjects full of visual imagery…. “By the waters of Babylon we sat…” “Esai einai, I lift up my eyes to the hills…” “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem…” Thousands of years of Jewish scholarship and devotion and longing for a connection to God, for a return to the Promised Land of goodness and togetherness as Jews, a holy people, a light unto the nations. It’s never-ending, this wellspring of Judaism.
You see, there are lots of ways to tap into it. I chose art because that’s what I do. And the pursuit of art draws me deeper into the text. That’s how I learn, and a papercut becomes almost a meditation on the subject. Some people are great at praying, or visiting the sick, or cooking for the oneg, or teaching in the religious school. I cut paper. And I hope that, when a piece is done, someone will look at it and say to themselves, wow. That really touches me. Or, I should look into that a little more. I hope that it’s a bit of “hiddur mitzvah,” something that furthers the cause of doing the right thing in a beautiful way.
You may not think of yourself as creative—most people don’t. But you are. Maybe your talent is listening, sitting at the bedside of someone in need of healing. Or getting the flowers together for the bimah. Or diving in to the Saturday-morning Torah study group (little plug there) with a side of Rashi and Rambam to help you look at Torah with new eyes. There are lots of ways to be creative with Judaism; you just have to find the one that works for you. There are lots of doors you can open or that will be opened for you.
Be creative with your Judaism. Explore. Find your way deeper inside. Combine ancient ideas with new ways of expressing all the beauty that is in our tradition.
Ken y’hi ratzon…may it only be.
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Kim Phillips is a Jewish artist living in Nashville who works in the Jewish papercutting traditioin.