So, now I’m delving into the text. There are traditional Hebrew texts I could use; for example, there’s a line that’s part of the daily morning blessing that translates to “Blessed is the One who frees the captive/imprisoned”. But even though I’ve never done a papercut with Yiddish before, somehow Yiddish feels very appropriate to this papercut. This Yiddish text is written in a language that many people spoke, it was, at the time, a living language of real people, many of whom were not rich and were not exalted and were looked down upon and oppressed by the people around them who were not like them (in Europe, in New York). The origins of this particular text intrigue me. It’s from a book of personal prayers printed in New York in 1916, just a few years after the unjust police action against a mostly Jewish community, in that same city, that Rothbaum talks about in his Ferguson/Fargesn d’var torah.
Today, so many American Jews are white and because we live in such a segregated society, our lives rarely overlap in any meaningful way with people who are targeted by the racist justice system, people most likely to be wrongfully imprisoned. This text, both because of the language it’s written in and the time it comes from, connects our very recent history with the current realities of many Americans today.
The triptych idea is not coming together in a way that feels right at this moment. I’m trying to take a step back from all of the detail, and think more broadly.
One of the things I appreciate about papercutting as an art form, at least in the way I tend to practice it, is that it limits my options. I don’t use lots of color – I’m limited to two colors most of the time. I am forced to create the designs in a way that links every piece of paper with every other piece of paper – I don’t use glue and I don’t allow my pieces to separate from each other. I think that my art benefits from these restrictions, and in some ways it reminds me to focus and distill.
I’ve suddenly come up with a new design idea, very different from all of the ideas I’ve been considering thus far. The original text I was considering, the Yiddish text from the shas tehineh, specifically reminds g!d and us to free captives and people who are imprisoned, and it makes the connection to Joseph and his imprisonments. He was thrown into a pit by his brothers, just like we throw Black men into prison, though they are our brothers. The pit and the jail are the same thing, a dark and unfair place of human and familial betrayal. I want to bring the text back as a larger feature than I’ve been thinking in other designs, not as a side-note. And I want to call attention to this parallel between “us” and “them,” Joseph our ancestor and the Black people of today who we are imprisoning unjustly.
This design idea involved a deep pit, a man, prison bars, and the Yiddish text. I’m working on sketches to see how this can work. And I have to study the Yiddish in more detail; it’s long and I have to extract the right part of the text (right words, right focus, right length).
If you want to see the text, use the online viewer on the Yiddish Book Center website to read Shas tehine rav peninim: mit fiele perushim un mesholim in Ivri Taytsh, and look for book page 181.
On a hike with a family member, I described my project and the challenges I’m facing in coming up with a design. He agreed with my current sense, which is that I’m just trying to do too many things in one papercut. It’s too much detail to try to convey that America’s justice system is injust in the way that it polices Black people and the way that it judges them and in the way that it imprisons them and in the way that it reduces their rights after prison and that Jews have a responsibility to fight mass incarceration and that most of us benefit from this oppressive racist system. That level of detailed messages is not my usual style and it’s noisy. Maybe I can say that many things that explicitly in a series of papercuts, or a triptych of 3-5 papercuts, or in an essay that accompanies a papercut.
Maybe I will make a triptych of three panels. They can have similar designs, and one of them can feature handcuffs or shackles with a text about freeing captives, one of them can feature a supreme court building with jail bars with a text about choosing righteous judges, and one of them can feature a tallit with a text about the obligation to pursue justice. The three can be connected by perhaps a chain of shackles, weaving through them all. I’ll consider this idea, do some sketches, and see what develops.
I asked a local artist to meet with me today and help me think through what I’m trying to do. It can help to get someone else’s eyes on the problem. I had been starting to feel like I have a mish-mash of symbols and am trying to squeeze them all into one papercut. They were happy to meet with me, and it gave me an opportunity to describe from the beginning what I was trying to do and what ideas I’d considered. Because the artist isn’t Jewish and doesn’t know much about Judaism, I also was forced to explain things that I might have otherwise simply been taken for granted. Even though the papercut I hope to create is aimed at a Jewish audience, this is still a valuable exercise in fully thinking through what I’m doing.
Ultimately, even though no immediate solutions came from this meeting, it was still an helpful experience. Some of the directions I’d considered are now fully gone, after having been more closely examined, and the other artist gave me some other directions to put into the hopper to consider, including: finding away to connect the stripes on a tallit with the stripes of prison bars and the stripes of the old prison uniform; putting the numbers from the back of a prison uniform onto the back of a tallit.
Now that it’s the middle of December and I still don’t have a solid design idea, I’m feeling pretty stressed out about this art piece! And I’m about to leave for a two-week trip with family. Maybe I can think more about this on the trip. Plus, one family member is also an artist, one who often focuses on minimalism, or distilling ideas down to their most pure essence. Perhaps some discussion with him will also help
The topic that I’m drawn to for creating this piece is gigantic, huge, overwhelming and too much to put in a single papercut. I can’t call out racism and injustice in policing, arrests, bail, judges, sentencing, prison, post-prison and everything in between all in one papercut. I am trying to focus down. Maybe just big-picture on Injustice In the Justice System. Maybe just on ending mass incarceration. Maybe just on racism in the justice system in general.
But I also want to keep in mind the message I want to convey. I’m not making a papercut simply calling attention to these problems; I want to make a statement about Jewish responsibility for reforming the system. Like cutting the letters of Black Lives Matter out of a tallit.
Do I use prison bars? Tie them to a court building, maybe. Have a Jewish symbol – a tallit again, or a book – prying open the bars. Maybe I can use doves for the incarcerated, or doves as the Jewish symbol, or doves for both. I don’t want to try to represent the incarcerated by using human figures; that’s generally not my style, and it would be problematic if I then try to imply the race of the figures in their shape.
The Yiddish prayer mentions shackles. I like this idea because not only does it give me more artistic flexibility than prison bars, but shackles also evoke slavery, which in many ways the American justice system is an extension of our never-fully-eradicated slavery system.
Noam suggested I could have a torah in shackles, referencing something Heschel said about how if a Jew doesn’t work actively to live torah and improve the world, they can’t fully access torah in shul; torah is locked away from you if you aren’t doing justice in the world.
And I want this papercut to challenge the viewer. That’s difficult to fit in.
In my research for existing resources on Jewish approaches to fighting injustice in the justice system, I’ve found a wealth of items.
Some that struck me:
One thing I’m realizing is that I need to focus down a lot more. As the Tru’ah handbook points out, there are three large areas of criminal justice reform – policing/targeting/sentences (i.e. before prison), the experiences of people in prison, and the impact on people after prison. Aryeh Bernstein’s talk focuses on police brutality, on the importance of choosing just judges, and Michael Rothbaum’s d’var torah is about how we think about and talk about people in Black communities with regards to crime.
These issues are feeling too big for just one papercut, especially given my artistic tendency towards minimalism and simplicity and distillation. Feeling a bit overwhelmed.
Since David Harris commissioned me to make a new papercut focused on contemporary issues, I’ve been thinking about what I might want to focus on, but it really didn’t take long for me to narrow it down somewhat.
Over the past few years, I’ve been listening to a lot and reading a lot about the criminal justice system and have been becoming (belatedly, some could reasonably argue) increasingly angered by the injustice, racism and white supremacy upon which it all functions. All white people should feel a sense of obligation to improve this system; its not simply deeply flawed, but is actually constructed out of white supremacist bricks. (White Fragility) Jews of a particular responsibility to call out and fight these injustices. Particularly because not only have we been there and experienced this same thing at so many times over the centuries, but also our tradition tells us that it’s our responsibility.
I plan to start out by looking for texts that express this call to arms strongly and that tie these experiences to our own in the past and in text, so that people can’t make the excuse that it’s happening to other people who are unlike us, who don’t deserve our attention. Are we not obligated to protect and care for the stranger, because we were strangers in Egypt? Also we have experienced this same prejudice, racism, and injustice in this very country.
Noam pointed out a text to me, a yiddish tehineh, a women’s personal prayer book, with a prayer explicitly about freeing people from imprisonment, and it names Joseph, flung into the pit by his brothers. I have never used Yiddish in a papercut before, and I like the idea of doing so.
David Harris of Rimon has invited me to participate in an artist’s salon in February of next year! He’ll find an interlocutor – someone to have a live unscripted conversation with me in front of the audience. We’ll talk about my work, maybe show some slides. He has also commissioned me to create a new papercut. He’s leaving me free to decide what to do with this commission; he only suggested that it address contemporary issues of justice. He was particularly intrigued by the Black Lives Matter wrapper in a tallit papercut as a piece that uses a traditional Jewish art form, and Jewish symbols and text, but is about a current justice issue.
Starting to think….
The Words @ Work exhibit at the Sabes JCC has been a great success! In addition to attending the opening, I have gone a few additional times to discuss the artwork – twice with friends, and once to talk to an 8th grade class. It’s been wonderful! Some photos from the opening and of the artwork are below.
I still need to find time to add all of the new work to this website. In the meantime, (more…)
My piece Lo Alecha was featured in a JewSchool article:
Tu Bishvat & #TorahForTheResistance: Taking Our Trees With Us