From Cape May to The Palisades, New Jersey is home to diverse communities with traditional folk arts, shaped by the aesthetics and values of the cultures they represent. The State Arts Council is committed to supporting the artists at the heart of these communities, working to pass distinctive art forms from one generation to the next, and preserve their cultural legacy.
Each year the New Jersey State Council on the Arts awards Folk Arts Apprenticeship Grants to help Apprentice artists hone their skills under the guidance of a Master artist in the same craft. Here we shine a light on their work: from them, to us, to you, we are "Passing It On".

The Art of Jewish Papercuts
Inspired Creations of Religious Heritage
Traditional Mizrach papercut by Rachel Asarnow, 2nd year Apprentice - photographed on December 4, 2018

A visual, craft and textile artist, Rachel Asarnow is full of enthusiasm for her relatively new-found relationship with Jewish papercutting. You can feel the spirited energy vibrating all around her when recounting the process of her artwork - it's infectious and inspiring. In a second-year Folk Arts Apprenticeship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts Rachel's excitement for exploring this art form is complemented perfectly by her Master's years of experience. Together they are traversing an art form that connects them to the Jewish faith and its teachings, riding the waves of creative and spiritual expression. Whether the intricately cut designs are considered traditional or contemporary, they are rooted in a concept called, "Hiddur Mitzvah", or honoring God by creating objects of beauty. Each piece of work, overflowing with Jewish iconography, pulls the viewer in to examine every scalpel-cut detail displayed through the finely shaped positive and negative space. In Rachel's Mizrach (pictured above), the traditional design that acts as a directional cue so Jewish devotees can accurately face Jerusalem (East) while praying, we see the Lion, a symbol of Judah, the Eagle representing the power of God, the vine-like plants symbolic of the tree of life, and so much more. While viewing the piece with Rachel, she's more than happy to share the stories behind the images and recount her interpretations of them within the artwork itself.  

Like her Apprentice, Master papercutting artist, Deborah Ugoretz, had been a working artist when she was first introduced to this little known, but meaningful art form. Noting the personal significance of it, Deborah says, "Discovering this art was pivotal in my own life as a Jew and as an artist". Decades later she has made hundreds of papercut works for people of her community, such as Jewish Marriage contracts, or "Ketubot", and also continues exhibiting both her contemporary and traditional artworks today. 

Historically, Jewish papercutting goes back to the late 17th century and it's believed that Jewish merchants brought the concept of creating symbolic designs out of cut paper to Europe from their visits to China - where papercutting is thought to have originated. Since then, the Jewish form of the art has evolved to include Jews from various countries and cultures, resulting in a mix of styles and their own artistic interpretations of Judaism. Although there are traditional aesthetics and structures recognized in the designs, according to Deborah, "There are no codified rules to follow within the art form which allows for artists to respond to the stories of Judaism in their own ways". 

Thinking of Jewish papercutting as the coalescence of spiritual and artistic identities of the individual artist goes hand in hand with recognizing the artist's freedom to express those identities in whatever way resonates most with her. This expression may also integrate ideas that are part of religious and secular heritage, making the horizon of creativity even broader. For Rachel, this apprenticeship has not only been an opportunity to advance her knowledge regarding Jewish traditions, but also to enrich her passion for making art and connect more deeply with her community. 

Q & A with the Master & Apprentice

Deborah pointing out the candy wrapper detailing in an early papercut of hers; made as a study and example of a N. African papercut from 18th or 19th century. Typical of the Islamic style adopted by Jews living there.
What makes this art form a Folk Art? 

The fact that there were no 
"full time professional" papercut artists. They were created by untrained individuals for private or community use. As with most folk art, the tradition was passed down from one person to the next.
The exception might be those who created the elaborate Italian Jewish Marriage contracts. Even here, artisans learned their skills from masters.

Why is Jewish Papercutting a little-known artform - even within the Jewish community? And, when people learn of it, what is their response?

DEBORAH:  That's not so easy to answer. I think it was never widely known within the Jewish community. Most of these paper cuts were made for private use, by mostly untrained folk artists - as mementos for their families. Some of the cut paper work was done by young school boys as decoration for holidays - but those were not meant to be preserved. Most likely the more costly ones were done as marriage contract decoration in Italy during the 17th-19th centuries, for wealthy families. There are a few Jewish paper cut artists who made their way to America in the late 19th century, some of whom were incredibly talented, but this folk tradition remained personal. Pieces were also lost or damaged during World War II. It wasn't until the 1960's when there was a renewed interest in craft, ethnicity and hand made objects that there was a revival of this tradition. Even now, when Jewish people see this work, they are delighted, intrigued and surprised that there is a tradition that reaches back hundreds of years. They are surprised that we have a tradition of visual art that's  vibrant and connected deeply to our traditions and texts.

How did you meet Deborah and why did you want to study with her?

RACHEL: I met Deborah at a conference some years ago, briefly. I had taken her workshop. There aren't many opportunities to study Jewish papercutting in depth, and Deborah is an accomplished artist and teacher of this art form. I appreciate that she works in a traditional art form but is also a contemporary artist. She finds ways to blend them.  

Above: Rachel Asarnow in Deborah Ugoretz's studio showing her traditional Mizrach inspired by a South Jersey Jewish Farm, Dec. 2018
How does creating papercuts connect you to your heritage? What does that mean to you? 

RACHEL: Making art is important to me. I love craftsmanship and working with my hands. I appreciate being able to do that in service to the Jewish community. I have taken on the practice of this art form during an era in which people print out papercut art using laser machines, but I like the little imperfections inherent in working from hand, and the meditative practice and dedication involved in creating individual pieces of art by hand. 
I think that it adds something to it. Jewish papercut art was at one time very popular, but much of the earlier work was lost before the folk art was revived in the 60's. So I am helping to preserve what was a dying tradition.
Is there a specific symbol (or set of symbols) that you have found particular interest or fascination in? Why do you think that is? 
RACHEL: I have enjoyed learning about all of the meanings of different plant materials and creatures within Jewish papercut art. Through that I have learned about Jewish sources and teachings that were new to me. I have also very much enjoyed learning about the mystical creatures that inhabit the original papercuts and some of their meanings. Learning about the mystical, supernatural side of the Jewish tradition is fascinating. Also, I grew up reading lots of sci-fi and fantasy books. I appreciate the creativity involved, and the way it can get you thinking about important issues in the actual world. I love all the patterning in Jewish papercut art. It holds pieces together and is decorative, but it also often holds a spiritual meaning, and it connects to the cultures papercut pieces are influenced by. There are different variations of Jewish papercut art within Europe, and there is also a different North African style. I also have an interest in textile arts, and that is definitely some of the reason that this appeals to me. 

Left: Apprentice, Rachel Asarnow; Right: Master, Deborah Ugoretz; Red Hook, Brooklyn Studio
Being an artist of many interests and skills, how will you remain connected to this particular art form? Any projects in the works? 

RACHEL:  I'm looking forward to learning Hebrew calligraphy. That will be so useful to me as an artist. Currently, I am working on getting a papercut banner done of a drawing I made this fall, for TuBishvat, and drawing a Yartzeit piece in memory of my grandfather. Then I will be moving on to another couple pieces I have ideas for but haven't made yet! I plan to continue making papercuts and hope they end up hung on the walls of people's homes and in public places, including synagogues.

Rachel Also Creates Public & Community Art. You Can View More of Her Work on flickr & Follow Her on Instagram! 

View my photos on flickr View on Instagram
From the Author 
Having the opportunity to meet, interview, and promote NJ's Folk/Traditional Artists is quite simply an honor. The artists featured in every issue of this publication are renowned in their communities, playing a vital role in keeping their cultural identities alive through the art forms they practice and master. Because they merit being experienced and celebrated, it is the Council's hope to bring these distinctive cultural traditions into focus and to share them with all New Jerseyans. I am more than happy to oblige that pursuit. In writing these issues, it is my hope that I can convey a bit of the marvel of the artists' work to you, so that you might better understand and take pride in the richness of our state's splendid diversity.  Please, feel free to "pass it on"! 
-Stephanie Nerbak-
The title for this publication was inspired by Rita Moonsammy's book entitled,
Passing it On, Folk Artists and Education in Cumberland County, New Jersey, published in 1992.
Click HERE for additional information about the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, their Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program and other Grant Opportunities for New Jersey's Artists. 
The New Jersey State Council on the Arts, created in 1966, is a division of the NJ Department of State. The Council was established to encourage and foster public interest in the arts; enlarge public and private resources devoted to the arts; promote freedom of expression in the arts; and facilitate the inclusion of art in every public building in New Jersey. The Council receives direct appropriations from the State of New Jersey through a dedicated, renewable Hotel/Motel Occupancy fee, as well as competitive grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. Please visit