Archie Granot wields a scalpel with surgical precision. Each cut he makes is smooth and decisive, the scalpel glinting under the light from a small lamp clipped to the table. With a few strokes, life emerges. And millions of tiny paper scraps litter the floor at his feet.
Working out of a modest combination studio and gallery in Jerusalem, the 62-year-old has been paper-cutting since 1979. Born in London, with an educational background in Soviet studies and political science, he would seem an unlikely candidate as a phenomenon in translating traditional folkloric paper-cutting into contemporary art. But when his daughter came home from first grade in the 1970s with a paper-cut she had made in class, he attempted one of his own, and his parents liked it so much that they asked him to make another for them. An artist was born.
Only a few weeks before Pessah, Granot has reached a pinnacle of his career: After 10 years of work, he has crafted a paper-cut Haggada, the only one of its kind. The work is 55 pages long, with every word of Hebrew text hand cut; each page stands as both an independent work of art and a single piece of a beautiful, thematically unified whole.
Granot had dreamed of designing a Haggada since he had made paper-cut versions of his sons' Haftara portions for each of the bar mitzvas more than 20 years ago. He has a particular affinity for the written word, and has designed his own calligraphic font. Twelve years ago, a young girl visited his gallery; a few months later, she returned with her father, Max Thurm of New York, who struck up a rapport with Granot.
"I told him of my hope of doing a Haggada," recalls Granot, "and he basically said, 'Make me an offer.' I began working soon after that. It was that easy."
Since then, Thurm has come to visit Israel on a regular basis with his wife, Sandy, and the three have become friends. Granot insists that "without empathy, there could not have been a commission." Implicit in this friendship was a sense of trust. Though Granot would often discuss new page ideas with the Thurms, he truly had a free hand.
"Often, I wouldn't even begin to explain and they would receive a work out of the blue, to great satisfaction," Granot recounts. He sent each page to them after it was completed.
Unlike a traditional Haggada, Granot's version is an abstract series. Never intending to be bound, as pages average three kilograms in weight, each a unique work of art tied to the others through a unifying theme.
For the past century, most Haggadot have been illustrated, with the text in the center.
"That's not really my style," Granot says with a shrug. "I'm more interested in forms and shapes."
His immense undertaking of creating each page totally different from any other started out simple, but became increasingly difficult as he progressed. Living and working in Jerusalem inspired motifs of the Old City on the page of the Grace after Meals, but at other times necessitated a break during times of intense tension, such as the Second Lebanon War.
"My ideas came from everywhere and from nowhere," explains Granot. "Sometimes something will begin in the synagogue and end in the shower."
A fellow congregant at his synagogue wearing gray pants one day led to a page in black and gray tones; the symbolism of building pyramids elicited a woven background of another page which tells of the plight of the Jews while enslaved.
The complete Haggada, therefore, does not represent 10 years of continuous effort. At times, Granot would take a hiatus of as long as a few months, "waiting for an idea to come to fruition before it blossomed into a final product." He also drew on inherent inspiration from the text itself. The third page of Kadesh, for example, was inspired by the sanctification of the wedding ceremony. He designed this page as a ring repetitively using the word "kadesh" to create its shape, harking back to the symbolism of a ring for marriages.
Perhaps the most titanic of all the pages is V'nitzak (and we cried out). Granot explains this page, saying, "When does one cry out to the Lord? When one is in despair. The use of card was a breakthrough for me. I wanted to capture the very depths of despair, and using card I cut the edges and built 10 layers on the left side and seven layers on the right." These numbers are significant in Jewish thought: the Ten Commandments, 10 in a minyan, Yom Kippur falls on the 10th of Tishrei; seven represents the seven days of creation, seven matriarchs and patriarchs, and seven blessings for seven days after a wedding.
At its highest point, the card is 1.7 centimeters high decreasing to a low of 1.4 cm. He chose to place the text as the very bottom layer-almost in a pit. The word "V'nitzak" is in red like a drop of blood that once again indicates suffering. This page weighs more than two kilos.
Traditional paper-cut work is done by folding, though Granot strays from this technique. Without the help of any assistants, he sketches the idea and then traces the sketch to prepare for the paper-cutting. Granot has become a paper connoisseur over the years, using different acid-free papers. The Haggada is comprised of papers from France, Italy, Germany, Sweden, Japan, the US and Israel, each valuable for the color variation and weight that it brings to a page. "There is never a trip where I don't look for paper," Granot admits.
To preserve the works, each page has been framed "in an ecosystem, of sorts." The frames, especially made by an American framer, are climate-controlled so that the humidity does not affect the layers of paper. The Thurms had always planned to show the pages, and will have only a limited number on display at their home at any given time. Yeshiva University Museum in New York premiered the complete Haggada, beginning on March 5, and the exhibition will run through August 31.
For Granot, seeing the Haggada on display will be his first time seeing it as a complete opus. He also predicts that the moment will also be particularly special for the Thurms, as they have not seen the entire work together, and his wife, who has not seen most of the pages.
"I have quite a feeling of anticipation," he divulges. "I have not seen some of these pages in nine or 10 years!"
Not one to rest easily, Granot has already begun his next dynamic project - the Book of Esther in traditional megila form, but with each page different in its execution. Though he hopes it will eventually be shown here, he does not know when that will be. Driven by his passion for religion and dedication to art, Granot's ultimate goal is simple in nature: "I hope to be a lasting contribution to Jewish culture."