Men of Letters: David Mazower on his passion for micrography, the Jewish folk art that turns Hebrew and Yiddish texts into pictures and portraits

Written by:
David Mazower
Summer 2011 / 5771
Part of issue number:
Micrographic portrait of Karl Marx, published as a print by the International Workers Order in 1937.

As I toured the Book Center this spring, I found much to admire: the kinder-vinkl (kids’ corner), the An-sky exhibit, and the handsome auditorium were all new since my last visit. Then, while chatting with bibliographer Catherine Madsen in her office, something caught my eye—a framed portrait of a man whose bright eyes, round cheeks, and bushy beard looked awfully familiar. “Strange,” I thought to myself. “Catherine doesn’t look like a follower of Lubavitch sage Rabbi Schneerson.”

I was right about Catherine but wrong about the portrait. The avuncular face turned out to belong to another guru with an equally faithful following: Karl Marx. And another surprise awaited me. When I looked closer, I saw that those finely drawn features were made up of thousands of tiny Hebrew letters, each one smaller than the head of a pin. A caption explained that the flowing lines of the beard, the starched collar, and the chubby cheeks were assembled from the Yiddish translation of Marx’s classic, The Communist Manifesto.

The Jewish art of micrography has fascinated me ever since I came across another intricate portrait, that of the self-styled “father of the Yiddish theater,” Avrom Goldfaden. Dated 1897, the poster-size image uses the Yiddish text from Goldfaden’s biblical operetta Shulamis to convey an almost photographic likeness of the playwright. The artist also offers homage to the writer’s art by adding a lyre, trumpet, and laurel wreath. The creator of this portrait, a Polish Jew by the name of Rotblat, even produced a micrographic portrait of Queen Victoria — or at least that’s what I was told by someone who saw it. Looking for micrographs can sometimes feel like searching for rare orchids. Elusive and precious, few originals have survived and even printed copies are scarce. You know they must be out there, but they’re hard to find.

This exquisite form of calligraphy is centuries old. From the Middle Ages onward, Jewish scribes turned Hebrew texts into virtuoso religious artworks, decorating amulets and wed- ding certificates with elaborate scenes and portraits. In the 19th century they branched out into portraits of eminent rabbis and Zionist notables like Theodor Herzl and Max Nordau. Images of Yiddish writers are among the rarest of all micrographs. In the 1930s amateur artists in Warsaw and Vilna reworked poems by An-sky, Avrom Reyzen, and Joseph Opatoshu into small likenesses, but few originals are extant today. For instance, there’s no trace of the portrait of the popular Yiddish writer Shomer that was mentioned in his daughter Miriam Shomer Zunser’s memoir. Hanging in the parlor of her childhood home in Pinsk in the 1880s, she recalled, was “a picture of my father made up of minute script in which the story of his life was told.”

Some of these micrographs will surely surface in time. On my recent visit to YIVO, archivist Leo Greenbaum unearthed a magnificent recently donated micrographic portrait of Yiddish playwright Yankev Gordin. I’ll wager that a portrait of Sholem Aleichem will turn up one day. It might emerge from an archive and, with a bit of luck, may even end up gracing the walls of the Yiddish Book Center.

David Mazower is a news program editor with BBC World Service radio in London. He has published numerous articles on Yiddish culture and his great-grandfather Sholem Asch.