Hebrew Calligraphy

© 2012 by Izzy Pludwinski
2nd edition 2015
The Toby Press LLC
POB 8531
New Milford, CT 06776-8531
POB 4044
Jerusalem 91040, Israel
ISBN 978 159 264 3417 (hardcover)

Around 40 years ago, Jay Greenspan published a book entitled Hebrew Calligraphy: A Step-by-Step Guide.

“Jay Greenspan (b. Chicago, 1947) received his B.A. from the University of Illinois in 1969, his M.A. in Hebrew literature was from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1972. In 1970…he became interested in Hebrew calligraphy. He has participated in many exhibitions and has taught Hebrew calligraphy at the 92nd Street YM-YWHA in New York [and is himself a professional “sofer/scribe”]. His book Hebrew Calligraphy, a Step by Step Guide is well known to aspiring and amateur Hebrew calligraphers.” [1]

At first, I dismissed it as a book about writing Hebrew like a “sofer” or scribe, with a title borrowed from the ’60’ interest in “calligraphy.” I didn’t understand at all what it had to offer until much later. Some of it had appeared in “The Jewish Catalog” — a book of “do-it-yourself” Judaism based on “The Whole Earth Catalog” which had been a ’60’s staple.

“At a time when New Age hippies were deploring the intellectual world of arid abstractions, Whole Earth pushed science, intellectual endeavor, and new technology as well as old.” [2]

It wasn’t until I discovered that I could do some graphic illustrating on the computer that I tried to create my own “skeletal Hebrew font” (for lack of a better word). It served my purposes. A couple of years later, I attended a 2-hour calligraphy workshop. I learned some important basics, which I tried to carry over into writing Hebrew — or “drawing” it, as would be a more apt description of what calligraphy is and does.

I then went looking for Jay Greenspan’s book — but by then, it was out-of-print (it’s currently available on Amazon.com)! I was, however, able to purchase The Handbook of Hebrew Calligraphy by Cara Goldberg Marks. It served my purpose and owed more than a little to Jay Greenspan’s work — which I appreciated far more than I had at first.

At a recent rabbinic retreat, I came across a copy of Izzy Pludwinski’s Mastering Hebrew Calligraphy. Looking through it, I was deeply struck by the creativity and variety that he brought to the subject.

A selection of his work can be seen at: http://www.impwriter.com. You can also google his name and find other examples.

If I say it is in one way a “coffee table” book, I mean that in the most positive way.  Just leafing through the book itself, even if you have no interest in doing Hebrew calligraphy of any sort, is a wonderful experience. You will be surprised and enthralled by what the author/artist has created with the Hebrew aleph-bet that you thought you knew so well.  

The artist/author is well-versed in many (perhaps all) forms of traditional lettering; he is a scholar as well as an artist. What’s more, as can be seen in his book and on his website, he is a writer, too; well able to describe his ideas, influences and creative process. 

His introduction makes an interesting point about calligraphy today. Where the invention of the printing press is generally offered as the single most important factor in the end of the medieval “Latin” calligraphy of Christian monks (until resurrected in the 19th century), Mr. Pludwinski points out that the same phenomenon also freed the calligrapher from the limits of compliance with specified forms.

“…the concern for legibility was the supreme factor and the calligrapher’s own personality was to be transparent [or, “impersonal,” perhaps]…[Today] the modern calligrapher can use letters in forms that range from the formal and clearly legible to the wildly expressive and abstract. The sky has become the limit for the calligrapher.” [3]

His own work is a prime example of this. But note, too, how well he is able to articulate his thoughts. Many artists feel that they express themselves best through their art. Mr. Pludwinski is a visual artist and a word-artist, as well. Good news for us.

His brief introduction is a good overview of Hebrew writing, with plenty of illustrations. I was surprised to find that even in the Middle Ages, there were differences between Ashkenazic and Sephardic writing styles. In Jewish education — Hebrew school, for example — we’re typically taught the basic aleph-bet that we’ll need for reading and writing. The finer points of creating the letters is explored for artistic purposes barely, if at all. What a fertile area this might be for encouraging Jewish participation, whether by children or adults!

The author/artist starts us off with a “skeletal” Hebrew alphabet, which introduces the essential forms of the letters. He encourages creativity but eschews losing the “integrity” of the letter. We need not agree with him to appreciate his concerns. They should be our considerations when doing our own calligraphy (if we do), too. He follows this with several interesting chapters on technical matters. Yet, he makes them so interesting — both by his writing and his illustrations — that “technical” seems a poorly-chosen word. His love for and immense knowledge and experience of the subject come through to us clearly. This is the manual of a master.

He follows this with several chapters on the finer points of creating various Hebrew scripts — the Sephardic and Ashkenazic, for example. I found this of great interest.  The author takes what could otherwise be cold and pedantic “technical writing,” and transforms it into something innately inspiring. To me, it’s a bit like reading the “Kitzur Shulchan Aruch,” for example. It’s laws and details, yes, but there’s something glowing from within it. It’s a spiritual experience.  

It is at this point, too, that the illustrations — including those in color — begin to proliferate. Simply looking at them, even without reference to the text, is like visiting a gallery or museum. 

It would be very appropriate to post some of the author’s work in this piece. But in the interests of brevity, I leave it for you to visit his website or better, to purchase his book. It has value for artists, educators and the general public — especially those who enjoy both Hebrew and art. 

It would certainly make a wonderful gift.

It would even make interesting reading on a Shabbat or holiday.

It will fill you with a love of Hebrew and the inspired creative work that can be done with it.


[1] http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/modern-hebrew-calligraphy
(This is an excellent article overall on the history of modern Hebrew calligraphy)

[2] http://www.wholeearth.com/histor-whole-earth-catalog/php

[3] p. 3