I’ve been struggling this week with a very practical problem in this design, which is the dageshes and kamatzes. Somehow, all of my patachs ended up in places where I could connect them, but I was left with three dageshes (two in BEYSes and one in a TOF) and one kamatz (under the final ALEF) that I could not find an elegant way to connect to anything. I was starting to despair.
Then I started to hope that maybe they weren’t even necessary. The original text is Yiddish but marked up for a Hebrew reader, with all of the Hebrew vowels (nikud?) that actually wouldn’t be there in proper Yiddish. I’d already tried to discard everything I could, but I was left with a few that one non-professional consultant thought should stay. This week I asked a professional Yiddish person about this problem, but got no answer. More despair!
Finally I did some online research and determined that the dageshes weren’t needed in the BEYSes; since they aren’t in words of Semitic origin they are pronounced “bee” even without a dagesh (ref1 & ref2). And I found that according to at least one online dictionary, the correct spelling of tefisah (prison) is with a TES and not a TOF. Even though this isn’t true to the original spelling, I’m taking artistic license and changing it because that TOF and its dagesh were driving me crazy. Now all three of my dageshes are gone!
During my research I also found a patach that had to be removed from freiheit and I learned that most of my FAYs might probably need a line above them (what’s that called?) but there’s a non-YIVO alternative that allows for a FAY without the line, so I’m taking artistic license on that one as well.
Then I turned to final kamatz. I considered bringing up the prison bars to connect to it, but I think the gap between the pile of words and the prison is important. The overall effect of his design is of the words tumbling and straining down to read the prisoner, and we’re in this moment where there’s still a gap that has to be breached. No element of the words can be touching the prison bars; they haven’t accomplished arrival yet, they’re still straining and trying to get there. So I just attached the kamtz to its ALEF. It’s not too artistically offensive. In fact, I kinda like it.
These last few days I’ve been getting ready to begin laying the Yiddish text into the pit, where I already placed a person and prison bars at the bottom. My original intention was to use the whole Yiddish text, but as I started working with it, I realized that it’s too long to use all of it. If I were to use the entire text, the balance and impact of the piece would be diminished, I think.
So I’ve been delving into the details of the text, debating with myself as I try, again, to focus in on the parts of the tehineh that are most relevant to the spirit of this papercut. Ultimately, I decided that I have to let go of the middle section. That’s the part which essentially says to “please elevate our luck so that we aren’t falsely accused and sit forever in prison.” That’s relevant to some of the larger issues of racism and mass incarceration – Black people are more likely to be falsely convicted and more likely to wallow in prison for longer periods of time … but for the purposes of this piece of art, I am going to only focus on imprisonment itself and releasing people from that imprisonment, which all of the text that I’m keeping is about. And keeping Joseph is essential. Maybe I can use some of the left-behind text in a future piece.
So once I have the text chosen, I get it into a text layer in Photoshop at approximately the font size I want. Then I rasterize that text layer, turning it into pixels. Then I cut each individual letter out into its own layer, grouping letter-layers together into words. I’ve included a picture of part of my layer organization (click to enlarge). Then I place individual letters into the design, making sure that no letter or letter-part (I’m looking at you, yuds and hays!) or vowel is floating, unattached. Yiddish presents more of a challenge here than Hebrew, because I have to worry about the occasional dagesh (dot that floats inside a letter) and the vowels under alephs, which aren’t present in Hebrew.
As I’m putting letters into place, I have to constantly ask myself: Is everything kind of in order? Is it theoretically legible? Are there some interesting but still readable shapes being created by both the positive and negative space? I’m also making larger those words that I am more interested in; for example “imprisoned” is larger than “and you should.”
And I want to add that I am not fluent in Yiddish, so I’m leaning on some supportive sources to check that I’m understanding the text correctly.
While I was working on this today, I was listening to the most recent episodes of the podcast “16 Shots,” about the fatal police shooting of Laquan McDonald.
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….
Yesterday, in the second of two classes, I learned how to add grout to my mosaic. Never being one to do things simple, I decided that the fish and the background needed two different colors of grout. It was a bit frustrating to get all of the grout to behave (and involved miles of masking tape) but I admit to being pleased with the result.
The fish is being held hostage by the JCC for the time being, since they plan to display all 10 mosaics produced in the class. When it’s returned to me, I’ll take a proper non-cellphone photo.
Yesterday I attended the first of two classes at the JCC taught by Connie, a mosaics artist. There was actually very little “class” to the class – she spent less than ten minutes showing us the four or five tools (glass cutters and nippers) and then set us to work drawing our designs on pieces of wood, cutting glass and glueing it. We had just under four hours to complete our cutting and glueing because next week, class 2 of 2, we will have to grout, and the glue has to be dry for that. I stayed a little late finishing my piece (“you’re a fish!”), but I’m quite pleased with out it came out. Connie didn’t bring as many different colors as I wanted, but I was able to get quite a range out of one piece of marbled orangey-yellow glass.