The Art of Dreidels

By Jeri Zeder

Published December 11, 2008, issue of December 19, 2008.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Someone less skilled with an X-ACTO knife might find Melanie Dankowicz’s drawings to be positively diabolical. But her husband, Harry, relishes the challenge. Steadily, he traces her tight curlicues and webby threads with a blade, bringing her vision to life. He lifts the paper to reveal a ketubah — worthy border, rich in detail and symbolism. It’s like filigree, but of paper. Melanie has yet to draw a design he can’t handle.

The Dankowiczs live with their three children in Champaign, Ill. There, the artists create intricate, detail-rich Judaica from fine, archival-quality paper in their home-based workshop. Melanie, 38, conceives and draws the designs, and Harry, 40, does the paper cutting. Their work includes hand-cut ketubahs, mezuzot, baby-naming certificates and, uniquely, three-dimensional laser-cut dreidels encased in clear glass domes. These come in three styles: dancing children, white and painted lace, and a wedding dreidel. They’re assembled by hand and sold through the couple’s Web site, www.dankowicz.com, and through selected stores and catalogs.

“For me, it’s more than an elegant papercut,” Melanie said, reflecting on the couple’s work. “It’s a dance of symbols and designs, filled with Jewish meaning.”

She lifts one of their paper dreidels. From the top, grapevines cascade down the corners to form a huppah, which frames a bride and groom in silhouette, holding hands with a handkerchief. Along the bottom are henna flowers, a symbol from the Song of Songs. The four letters from the traditional dreidel are elegantly hidden at the bottom. The paper cuts let you see right through the piece, causing your eyes to jump from surface to surface, resting only briefly on each detail. Shifts in light alter the dreidel’s appearance, creating the impression that there’s always something new to discover in its design. The dreidels range in price from $72 to $80.

Surprisingly, given their virtuosity, neither Harry nor Melanie ever formally studied art. Harry, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is from Sweden, the son of Jewish immigrants who survived World War II. Melanie is from the Washington, D.C., area. Both grew up attending Jewish day schools, and later met at Cornell University. They discovered their talents 14 years ago with their first project: their own ketubah. Melanie drew, cut and painted an elaborate paper border featuring gazelles and bursts of flowers. In his self-taught calligraphy, Harry wrote the text in Hebrew, English and Swedish.

Harry discovered his talent for paper cutting in 1995, when the couple was living in Sweden. Melanie prepared Rosh Hashanah cards to send to family and friends back home in the States, but then suffered a wrist injury. Harry took up the cutting — there were 24 cards in all — and found he enjoyed it.

From there, they started making gifts for friends, or pieces just for themselves. About five years ago, people they didn’t know began commissioning their artwork. What began as a hobby developed into a small business. Along the way, Harry encouraged Melanie to up the level of difficulty. “I used to worry about drawing designs that would be too complicated for Harry to cut, but it’s been years since I even thought about that,” she said. Harry says he finds surprising symmetries in Melanie’s designs, but the light/dark contrasts she intends become apparent to him only as the cut paper falls away. “When I’m cutting, I don’t really see that myself until it’s started to appear. It’s just a very satisfying, a very incredible experience,” he said.

Jeri Zeder is a freelance writer in the Boston area.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.