By Lisa Traiger
This year’s Chanukah stamp from the U.S. Postal Service is a papercut image of a nine-branched chanukiah placed in the subtle outline of a jug. The background is enlivened with flowing vines and flowers.
“The image was inspired by the first drawing of a menorah found in a cave,” explained Tamar Fishman, the stamp’s designer.
Creating the art for this year’s Chanukah stamp began nearly two years ago at a drafting table in Fishman’s Maryland home.
The postal service allowed her the freedom to create her own piece. She said she “played” with different iconic Chanukah symbols and made dozens of pencil sketches that included the chanukiah, the dreidel and ancient oil jugs, recalling the tale of the jug of oil in the ancient temple that lasted for eight days.
“I did so many versions … some went this way, some that way,” she said, indicating horizontal and vertical. Once a final sketch was approved, Fishman drew the piece on a poster-sized tag board and began the intricate process of cutting out the paper, which takes a steady hand, an eagle eye and intense concentration.
After Fishman and USPS stamp designer Ethel Kessler selected the background colors, a photographer shot the piece in order to print it.
One of the hardest parts of the project? Keeping it a secret until the final design was announced this past summer.
Traditional Jewish papercutting was popular in the Jewish shtetls, especially in Poland in the 19th century.
Fishman has raised the bar of this folk art with her eye for detail and her focus on contemporizing Jewish ideas, themes and forms. For more than 30 years she has designed and cut using a collection of finely pointed and steadily held artist’s knives. Her work, mostly commissions, adorns synagogues and homes, but also art galleries and government buildings.
In 1981, the State Department contacted Fishman to design and cut a work that would serve as a gift from President Ronald Reagan to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. It hung in Begin’s office while he was prime minister.
While the postal service has put out traditional Christmas stamps for more than 50 years, it issued its first Chanukah stamp in 1996. To mark that occasion, the post office partnered with Israel’s postal service for a joint issue.
This year, once again, both countries collaborated jointly issuing the same Chanukah stamp — the differences are in the currency and the name of the country. Israel Post stated that the duel nation Chanukah stamp marks 70 years of U.S.-Israel diplomatic relations. For Fishman, that both the eight-and-a-half shekel stamp and the U.S. Forever stamp carry her artwork is particularly meaningful; she herself is a duel citizen.
It’s actually not the first time the United States government commissioned the Israeli-born artist to create a one-of-a-kind original.
Fishman came to paper cutting by accident. In college in Jerusalem she studied botany, but before she finished she married a young American rabbi, Sam Fishman, and moved with him to the United States. She completed her master’s degree in botany at UCLA while her husband was the campus rabbi there.
Soon the couple resettled in the Washington, D.C., area and had four boys. Fishman recalled that for her oldest son’s Bar Mitzvah, which fell at Chanukah, she decorated the synagogue with cutout designs backed by colored cellophane. She spent months researching Judaic art, including chanukiot, in the encyclopedia and painstakingly cutting out her designs.
Hung on the windows, the colored papercuts brightened the shul and the congregants loved them — until the custodian took them down and threw them out. The rabbi asked her to redo them and eventually she did. Entirely self-taught, soon Fishman was filling requests for Judaic papercuts for friends and others. At first, she said, “it wasn’t really original art. I took old images and used them.” Later she began to create her own designs.
When Fishman researched what she was doing: “I found out that in the wooden synagogues of Poland they did things like that.” The commissions came and for decades Fishman was the region’s go-to artist for customized, original ketubot — Jewish marriage contracts — that were works of art. Though she doesn’t know how many ketubot she has designed and cut over the past 30-plus years, it must be hundreds.
“It’s not the quantity of it,” she said. “It’s just fun.” And she’s begun to receive second-generation requests as children of early customers are contacting her.
Not one to usually steal the spotlight, on Oct. 16, Fishman, her husband and their four sons traveled to Newport, R.I., where the 2018 Chanukah stamp — with her original artwork — was issued in a ceremony that included Israel Post’s philatelic service director Elhanan Shapira. The event, held at the 254-year-old Touro Synagogue, the country’s oldest, was the culmination of a singular career for Fishman as a creative Jewish artist.
She said: “You keep growing and just don’t stop. That’s the work of my hands.”
Lisa Traiger is an arts correspondent with Washington Jewish Week, an affiliated publication of the Jewish Exponent.