Life & Culture

The beauty of Hebrew over three millennia of Jewish civilisation

Scribe and calligrapher Izzy Pludwinski has collated texts from the last 3,000 years to demonstrate the alphabet's artistry and mystical power


In 2005, Izzy Pludwinski was standing in front of a large panel of Japanese calligraphy at the National Museum in Tokyo. Beside him was an elderly Japanese man.

After admiring the panels for a while, the man began to gently trace the flow of strokes with his hands, humming as he did so.

In the preface to his new book, The Beauty of the Hebrew Letter: From Sacred Scrolls to Graffiti, Pludwinski recalls the scene, observing that “the vitality the calligrapher had put into the characters was now being embodied by this man”.

You could say the scribe and calligrapher Pludwinski is performing a similar service for the Hebrew letter. Collating texts from across continents and more than three millennia, he demonstrates not only the artistry of Hebrew calligraphy, the meaning and formation of the aleph-bet from biblical times to the present day, but also its mystical beauty.

He examines historical manuscripts and sacred scrolls, fine art and street art, the scripts found on sacred objects. He pores over traditional calligraphy and lettering, aleph-bets and individual letters, abstract and decorative calligraphy.

In the first section of the book, we get an overall picture of the migratory paths of the Jewish people showing how the basic structure of Hebrew remained constant while also absorbing stylistic flourishes of the Jews’ host cultures.

For example, the Florentine Rothschild Machzor from the 1490s features a lavish romantic Italian semi-cursive style that Pludwinski juxtaposes with the French Sefer Mitzvot Katan from a hundred years before. Here the script, stark and pointy, is rendered with the rigidity of gothic architecture.

The most remarkable example of this cultural diffusion comes in the cover of Yiddish poet Itzik Kipnis’s collection of poems, Oxen, designed by Mark Epshtein, in 1923.

The mechanical font assimilates a distinctly modernist aesthetic with Hebrew script. The result, jagged, angular and provocatively playful, evokes Kandinsky’s compositions or Dadaist Francis Picabia’s drawings of meaningless mechanical contraptions. Almost illegible, it’s a fascinating snapshot of cultural cross-fertilisation at a time of radical artistic change.

A few pages before, we see the Dead Sea Scrolls, the ancient Jewish manuscripts from the Second Temple period.

They are written in Paleo-Hebrew, the precursor to the modern Hebrew script we use today, which dates from around the 10th century BCE. The latter takes influence from Aramaic and gained traction after the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BCE.

But the aim of The Beauty of the Hebrew Letter is to liberate Hebrew from its context. Pludwinski rarely translates the texts on display. He doesn’t want us to see the lines of Hebrew letters as artefacts from the past tied to the function of the texts from which they have been extracted, but as art objects to be contemplated and experienced on their own terms.

Born in New York, and now living in Jerusalem, Pludwinski’s fascination with Hebrew stems from a poster that used to hang on the wall of his synagogue in the city.

“It said that if an entire Torah scroll, which consists of over 300,000 letters, was written correctly but one part of a yud, such as the thorn-like protrusion at the bottom left of the head of the letter, was missing, the entire Torah would be invalid,” he tells me.

In fact, towards the end of his book, he ponders on the immense technical proficiency required to be a sofer, annotating, by way of example, the letter “shin” with bumps and juts. It resembles a musical note. As he points out, it can take years of dedicated training and practice. It’s not just a case of having a steady hand.

As he well knows. Over the course of his career, Pludwinski has been hired by artists to inscribe their own Judaica.

Treating Hebrew as calligraphic art has made Pludwinski something of a pioneer. The calligraphic traditions of Japanese shodo and Arabic khatt are centuries old: Hebrew’s stretch back only a few years.

This is arguably because Hebrew’s square forms constrict the potential for personal expression, he says, but also because Jewish scribal art presents metaphysical problems.

When he is writing the holy text for tefillin or mezuzot, the sofer is commanded to go above and beyond the requirements of merely fulfilling a mitzvah, to make his script as beautiful as possible, explains Pludwinski.

Why, he wonders out loud, is this a commandment when his holy text will never be seen, rolled, as it is, into a doorpost or tucked into a little black box? Can, in fact, the finished product even be said to be beautiful if there is nobody there to experience it?

“Judaism has a concept of L’shem Shemayim, of doing things not for any personal or material gain, for their own sake,” is his answer. “I think that is what is special about Jewish scribal art.”

Its beauty resides in the act of writing, an act that becomes a test of one’s integrity as a writer, an artist and a human being.

“I can get away with keeping it kosher and being sloppy. But what does that do to me? What does that say about me? Judaism is a bit suspicious of beauty if it’s detached from content.

"The rabbis don’t like separating form and content. I think this is one reason Hebrew calligraphy has not historically been an art form in its own right.”

In the book, Pludwinski also argues that the Hebrew letter retains a degree of transcendence regardless of whether it is found in Maimonides’s Guide for the Perplexed or some Israeli graffiti scrawled on the wall of a railway station. He is no Kabbalist, he says, but he does have what he describes as a spiritual connection to Hebrew script.

“The concepts don’t do anything for me, if you like, but you can’t entirely divorce the letters from a Kabbalistic worldview, which would contend that the Hebrew alphabet existed before the creation of the world.

"When I write the holy letters for a mezuzah or a tefillin, I respect the meaning of the letters.”

Mystic symbolism, he points out, veils each stroke of each letter. “Look at the Aleph, its three constituent parts, an upper arm, lower arm, and diagonal stroke intersecting the two, symbolise the unity of the spiritual world and the material world.

“The concept of unity also manifests itself in the letter’s gematrical value: one.”

However, Pludwinski’s own calligraphic art breaks from the constraints of these rabbinic accounts of beauty.

He wants us to see Hebrew letters in a new way, to consider the themselves and more on the fusion of different styles, colours, and traditions.

The most striking example of this is his 2017 work Chesed, which is presented in Paleo-Hebrew script.

Here it is rendered firmly in line with Japanese traditional methods with the addition of red ink and the use of a thick brush as opposed to a quill. Jewish content in a Japanese form: a conversation between cultures made possible by thousands of years of ritual.

Pludwinski’s more artistically freestyle work injects Hebrew letters with the energy of jazz improvisation, a twist or variation on the given melody that comes to take a life of its own.

His multicoloured Draw Me After You and We Will Run, a quote taken from the celebratory Song of Songs, looks as if it is dancing off the page.

“It’s important to me to bring the musicality of the text into my work,” Pludwinski tells me.

“Calligraphers are doing things more in the spirit, in the rhythm, in the energy of what they’re doing rather than in the simple function of it.”
Sometimes the tone is more solemn. Itamar Heifetz’s 2021 Aleph stands wrinkled and scared as if it has been weathered by endless storms.

One of the arms is accented with a blot of red ink. It feels less of a reference to Japanese tradition and more suggestive of violence.

Edna Miro-Wapner’s works also echo violence. Her Dialogues series consists of hand rubbings of paleo-Hebrew stone fragments from the Meshe Stele, one of the earliest examples of Hebrew writing, overlaid with thick black brushstrokes.

The images have a dynamic propulsion. It feels like a clash between past and present.

This scribe’s main reason for the writing the book is to showcase Hebrew calligraphy. “There’s a ton of works and artworks that involve Latin calligraphy, Arabic calligraphy and Far Eastern Japanese. And yet there’s relatively few in Hebrew.”

But Pludwinski also wants his fellow Jews to be proud of their language, to connect with their heritage and he hopes he can help the process.

“I’m not much of a talker. Calligraphy is the way I communicate and express who I am. This is the way I speak to people.”

The Beauty of the Hebrew Letter: From Sacred Scrolls to Graffitti is published by Profile Editions

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