Calligraphy is a longstanding tradition in Jewish art. The Biblical injunction against “graven images” is usually interpreted to include any representational or figurative artwork, so Jewish artisans got creative with what they were allowed to use: letters and words.
Words and letters have filled my soul all my life. At age 5, I was writing stories. At 10, I learned to write sonnets—and also had my first calligraphy class. At 17, I fell in love with Judaism by way of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, and never looked back.
Text is my native mode of spiritual expression. And text has been Judaism’s primary spiritual mode ever since the act of prayer supplanted the act of temple sacrifice. Even our physical ritual actions must be offered gift-wrapped in snippets of ritual text: the brachot, blessings, that accompany them.
Today, I’m also a typographer at heart. I’ve been a graphic design professional since 1994, with an extensive print portfolio encompassing books, catalogs, invitations, logos, flyers, T-shirts, the works. I’ve been working in Adobe InDesign since it was Aldus PageMaker. But the longer I use typography software, the more inspired I get to play with its potential. It’s no longer just words on a page—it’s a way to make those words dance.
So how do I get inspired to create a new piece of Judaica? Some words catch my eye and fire my imagination. Most often, it’s either a Biblical text or a passage from the siddur, the Jewish prayerbook. (Frequently, it’s both at once, as much of the wording in our formal prayers is composed of Biblical quotations.)
I am inspired by the sounds and letters as much as by the meaning in a passage. My goal with my art is to bring alive all the dimensions of the Hebrew text: the meaning, the sound, and how the Hebrew correlates with the English. I frequently color-key specific words or phrases to create explicit visual connections between the Hebrew, English, and transliterated text.
By way of example, let me walk through two pieces… which, though unrelated, both ultimately took on a circular structure with “peace” at the core.
Elokai Ntzor (2007): This text is a “meditation” that comes after the Amidah in the prayer service. The rhythms in the text, especially, are what make it meditative for me. Having pondered them during davening for months on end, I came up with this mandala-style arrangement intertwining the Hebrew text with its transliteration. The outermost ring is the English translation of the full passage. After this piece was complete, I adapted the center detail into a smaller piece focusing just on the closing passage, the well-known Oseh Shalom: “The One who makes peace in the heavens will make peace for us and for all Israel.”
To Everything There Is A Season (2014): The primary motif I had in mind for this piece was a sine wave or helix structure, which evolved into winding the English around the Hebrew. The above-and-below undulation of the English phrases conveys the duality in each of the pairings. I chose to invert the Hebrew layer so that the text flow of both languages could run in the same clockwise direction, enhancing the “wheel of time” feeling of the passage. Ultimately, I arranged the text in four nesting circles, with “a time for peace” at the center—driving the whole composition, like Pete Seeger’s musical adaptation, toward an optimistic vision.
Erica Schultz Yakovetz is a graphic designer and Judaica artist, as well as a musician, wife to Aaron and mom to Aria. After almost 25 years in Boston and NYC, she moved back to her native Northwest Indiana in April 2014. Most of her artwork is available from her Etsy shop, Schultz Yakovetz Judaica, or her Zazzle store. She also does custom work, including invitations and ketubahs. She sporadically writes about her design projects and other ideas at blog.erica-schultz.com. Follow her on Twitter or Pinterest.
***The words and artwork shared by Erica Schultz Yakovetz on this site are her original work to which she retains all rights. Please do not copy, quote, or share without appropriate permission, credit, and/or compensation.***