The Living Traditions of Hebrew Calligraphy

The Living Traditions of Hebrew Calligraphy
The Living Traditions of Hebrew Calligraphy

“A beautiful Hebrew letter, as I understand it, needs to have not only surface beauty but also an expansive quality, whether that expansion is a physical manifestation, a spiritual one, or an expression of consciousness,” writes Izzy Pludwinski in the introduction of The Beauty of the Hebrew Letter (2023, Brandeis University Press).

The weight that Pludwinski confers upon Hebrew letters is a reflection of their veneration within Jewish life — both secular and nonsecular. Jews have a longstanding connection with language beyond its sound or meaning, into the very letters and their form.

Pludwinski is a trained Hebrew scribe (Sofer SeTaM), teacher, and freelance calligrapher with 30 years of experience in the field. His book first walks us through historical manuscripts and the evolution of Paleo-Hebrew script to Square Hebrew upon which present-day Hebrew is based. From the first century on, square script became simultaneously more formal and more stylized, as scribes adopted their own flourishes in hand transcriptions of sacred texts. Hebraic text sometimes showed the influence of Arabic, as in an Egyptian or Persian Torah portion from 1106–1107 CE that features very long necks for the character of “Lamed”, also found in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

“Commentary on Habakkuk,” Qumran (1st century BCE) Shrine of The Book, the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. This is an example of Paleo-Hebrew. (© the Israel Museum, Jerusalem; photo by Ardon Bar-Huma, courtesy the Israel Museum, Jerusalem)
David Goldstein, “Hebrew Aleph-Bet” (2020) (image courtesy David Goldstein)

The next section moves into calligraphy and lettering, a particular passion of the author, who movingly describes a life-altering experience with a series of Japanese scrolls on display in the National Museum in Tokyo. This chapter, the book’s longest, showcases a stunning array of approaches to Hebrew letter design and presentation.

Another chapter titled Aleph-bets & Letters spotlights the full set of the Hebrew alphabet, variously interpreted by different generations of artists, including the author. Especially illuminating is a page of nine alephs that demonstrate the wide variety of ways a single letter might be designed. Pludwinski also considers contemporary takes on Hebrew calligraphy, with the fourth chapter showing letters stretched to their breaking point of legibility, sometimes pushing the form to the point of shape-play, risking the loss of message. The book also highlights street art and painting, showing Hebrew letters deployed in graffiti and as subjects within abstract canvases.

Malla Carl, detail from “If I Forget Thee O Jerusalem” (late 20th century) (image courtesy Brandeis University Press)
Izzy Pludwinski, “A Column from a Scroll of Esther” (2019). This features the contemporary “square script” Hebrew, which has been subsequently stylized in thousands of ways over the centuries. (image courtesy Izzy Pludwinski)
David Goldstein, with text by Yehuda Amichai, “Through Two Points” (2019) (image courtesy David Goldstein)
Fred Pauker, “Traveler’s Prayer” (1975) (image courtesy Evelyn Pauker)

Ultimately, this is a book for font enthusiasts, lovers of Judaica, and those passionate about the minutiae and range of the written form. Though it focuses on Hebrew, the final sections demonstrate the power of linguistic shapes as building blocks for artistic expression. Pludwinski closes the book with a short section on sacred writing — a form of Hebrew obviously foundational to its purpose and bounded by extremely strict rules. The acronym STaM, which stands for Sefer Torah, Tefillin, and Mezuzot, refers to three Jewish religious objects that must be handwritten as beautifully as possible. While these principles might be the fundament from which Hebrew lettering flourishes, The Beauty of the Hebrew Letter demonstrates how prolifically they can be multiplied and meaningfully interpreted in the hands of artists throughout the centuries.

Alephs from left to right: Guy Tamam, Izzy Pludwinski, Ben Natan; middle: Fred Pauker, Sagi Carmi, Aleph-lamed ligature (1670), from the Amsterdam Mahzor; bottom: Ben Natan, Izzy Pludwinski, Moshik Nadav (images all courtesy the artists)

The Beauty of the Hebrew Letter (2023) by Izzy Pludwinski is published by Brandeis University Press and is available online and in bookstores.