A mark in time: Calligrapher Izzy Pludwinski turns Hebrew letters into art

The door to the world of artistic letter creation opened wider when Pludwinski became the custodian of a slew of trade publications.

(photo credit: MAYA HUBER)
An ancient Chinese proverb suggests that one should avoid writing a letter when one is angry. It is safe to say that Izzy Pludwinski avoids that emotional state of affairs when he sets quill, or pen, to paper or other suitable material.
Mind you, we are not really talking about the same ilk of “letter.” While the sagacious Chinese saying refers to the epistolary format, Pludwinski spends his working hours crafting all manner of aesthetically pleasing, and even thought-provoking, script characters.
The initial impression you get as you step into the New York-born longtime Jerusalem resident’s studio is of fruitful industry. The place was simply awash with objets d’art awaiting shipment to some client or other.
Pludwinski is a seasoned Hebrew calligrapher. He has been honing his skills for over three decades and was in the midst of a particularly personal project. “I am doing my daughter’s ketuba,” he says proudly. “She’s getting married in a couple of weeks.” The religious prenuptial document makes for an alluring eyeful, with a distinctly Torah-script look to it. “I started as a sofer stam [Torah scroll scribe],” he notes. “I was a chemistry teacher before that,” he adds without missing a beat.
The seismic career-path shift was sparked, naturally enough, in a synagogue. “I was hanging out at the back of a shul, probably bored with the davening [prayer service] – I was a student teacher in chemistry at the time,” recalls the boyish-looking 63-year-old former Brooklyner. “There was a warning poster on the wall. It had a large picture of the letter yod. It said that if an entire Sefer Torah was written correctly, but one yod was missing this little oketz [serif] on the bottom, this little protrusion, that disqualifies the whole Sefer Torah.” Yod is the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet, and the then-twentysomething New Yorker was duly impressed by the scale turnover. “I thought wow, there is a sort of mystical element to that. What secrets are there in that thing? Why is that so? It sort of drew my imagination, drew me religiously, and mystically, even though I didn’t have that mystical bent.” The discovery occurred at an opportune juncture in Pludwinski’s life. “It was time for a career change,” he says.
He had been toing and froing between New York and Israel, and had even studied at Bar-Ilan University. When he returned here he quickly signed up for some sofer stam tuition, albeit not an entirely satisfactory program. “I took this horrible course by the Religious Council in Bnei Brak, but it was enough,” he says. “Once I had the quill in my hand I knew I was not going to turn back.”
A fellow, far more famous New Yorker also helped to smooth Pludwinski’s way to new professional aesthetic vistas. “My decision was also affected by a Billy Joel song, called ‘James.’ He [Joel] was talking to this friend, James, who did everything he was supposed to. He pursued his education, and he asks James, ‘do you like your life, can you find release, when will you write your masterpiece?’” It certainly struck a chord with the young chemistry teacher. “I was sitting there in the teachers’ room, at the school, watching the [older] teachers and I thought, this is going to be me in 20 years or whatever. I knew chemistry was not going to be something I was going to express myself in.” The professional die was well and truly cast.
The initial Bnei Brak course was augmented by some quality private tuition in Mea She’arim following relocation to Jerusalem. Pludwinski had, actually, tried to get into the Hebrew calligraphy sphere back in the Big Apple, soon after the shul poster epiphanous moment. But he was deemed to be an undesirable. “I wanted to study sofrut stam [Torah scroll writing], but I had long hair and a motorcycle,” he recalls. “Basically, they didn’t want to teach me.”
That rejection helped to point the youngster in the direction of his eventual specific line of work. “The closest thing I got was a course at the YMHA, the 92nd Street Y in New York, in Hebrew calligraphy. That was my first connection with it. It was something.”
Pludwinski grew up in an observant family and hence had encountered the aesthetics of printed Hebrew lettering, and Torah script, all his life. A mind-set shift was still required. “I had no idea of calligraphy as an art form,” he says. “It was completely unknown to me.”
The letter-crafting learning continuum took an incremental step in the right direction when Pludwinski came across a veteran of the trade. At the time he was largely still a sofer stam. “I was introduced to this woman artist, Malla Carl. First of all, I was introduced to calligraphy as an art form, for the first time. She combined a lot of calligraphy with her artwork. I saw how she combined calligraphy, using letters a little more creatively.”
The door to the world of artistic letter creation opened wider when Pludwinski became the custodian of a slew of trade publications. This was back in the pre-Internet 1980s. “I was blown over, when I saw what was going on in the wider world of calligraphy. I said, this is what I want to do.”
Pludwinski is a soft-spoken character, but comes across as a deep thinker. That impression was borne out by his take on form and content, and the spiritual aspect of his craft. Following a study stint in London, he experienced a crisis of belief, and he began to questions the fundaments of Judaism. “I began to lose faith in texts – the ability of texts to really transform someone on a deep level.”
It was a talmudic passage that led him back to the fold. “You can study the Gemara, in the Ta’anit tractate, where it comes to the conclusion that: A person should be soft as a reed, and never as hard, or inflexible, as a cedar.” Pludwinski observes that it is an important lesson to learn, and not too easy to apply in the real world. “You can study that, and walk around thinking that, because you want to be that. And then you’re waiting in line, in the post office or bank, and someone cuts in and all of a sudden you get tough.”
A more empathetic and softer approach was clearly required. “All this learning of text is just from the neck up. It doesn’t really transform on a deep level.” That realization was enhanced by Pludwinski’s practice, at the time, of tai chi, which included a sort of sparring exercise that conveyed the idea that the more rigid your body became the easier it was to throw you off balance. Back to the reed tenderness idea.
Casting my eye around Pludwinski’s work space it was clear he had taken the go-with-the-flow ethos fully on board. The attractive artwork woven into his crafted lettering transmitted a sense of gently applied expertise. There were haggadot, humashim, ketubot and other works that clearly reflect a considered take to aesthetic and textual content. There was ne’er a dull inch of parchment of paper to be seen. Far Eastern influences were seamlessly incorporated in Hebrew lettering – Pludwinski spent some time in Japan immersing himself in their line of calligraphy, including the meditative aspect of the work – and there was plenty of inventive lettering improvisation on display around his studio. “It is the energy is that determines what is good calligraphy,” he observes. “In Zen calligraphy, for instance, it is much less a matter of aesthetics. It is a matter of how you prepare yourself, and that vitality, that’s on the mark.”
Judging by the wealth of Pludwinski’s output to date, his vitality and mindset are well up to the mark.
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