Despite the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE and the dispersion of most Jews, the Land of Israel has remained a primary focus of Jewish identity. A commonly felt, deeply rooted bond to the Land of Israel and the hope of all Jews to return eventually to it have been important unifying factors. One expression of this intense bond is found in the practice of facing toward Jerusalem during prayer. For Jews in the West, this direction is east, and the custom developed of placing a decorative plaque on the eastern walls of homes and synagogues to indicate the direction of worship. Such a sign came to be known as a mizrah, Hebrew for "east." Mizrah is also an acronym composed of the initial letters for the Hebrew phrase "from this side the spirit of life." This inscription appears in the four corners of the central panel of this papercut, indicating that it functions as a mizrah.
In Eastern Europe, mizrah plaques were often made out of cut paper, resembling the carved wood Torah arks of Polish synagogues in the intricacy of their design. As is common in many other extant examples, the composition in this papercut is symmetrical, designed on one half of a sheet of paper, folded vertically, and cut out through both halves, thus creating a mirror image revealed upon unfolding the sheet. Papercuts were usually mounted on a plain or colored paper background to provide a contrasting effect, as seen here. Although architectural features such as columns and arcades often balance the composition of papercuts, the use of an imposing building as the central element, as seen in this example, is rare. Whether the building was based on an existing or imaginary one, Israel Dov Rosenbaum, the creator of this extraordinary papercut, made sure to include a clock at its dome, possibly a hint at his profession as clockmaker to the local count in the small town of Podkamen, Ukraine. A Jewish community existed in Podkamen at least since the seventeenth century, and by the late nineteenth century, the town was home to more than a thousand Jews.
The elaborate design and the repeated use of thin connecting lines make this mizrah an exquisite example of its kind. The creatures, both mythical and real, as well as the vegetal motifs and horror vacuii of this composition, are typical of Eastern European art. Included here are lions, deer, eagles, and what appears to be a pair of small leopards atop the dome of the central building. These four animals usually appear in Jewish papercuts to illustrate the saying "Be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer, and strong as a lion, to do the will of your Father who is in Heaven" (Ethics of the Fathers 5:23). The doubled-headed eagle is often interpreted as a political symbol associated with the Russian Empire. Several Eastern European artifacts in The Jewish Museum collection feature the double-headed eagle, including Torah shields and Hanukkah lamp; as well as a mold for pastries baked for the holiday of Purim.
Among the mythical beasts featured in this papercut are the leviathan (portrayed as a curled fish) and the wild ox-the legendary food of the righteous in the world to come (Leviticus Rabbah 13:3, 22:10)-depicted in the lower register, and the unicorn, seen in the outer frame. The interiors of wooden synagogues were often filled with elaborate animal and plant designs, many having symbolic meaning. Animals are also found in carved Jewish tombstones in Eastern Europe. Likely more portable or readily available sources were printed books such as Hebrew primers featuring a depiction of an animal for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet or illustrated copies of the Meshal ha-Kadmoni, a collection of animal fables written in 1281 by the Spanish Hebrew author Isaac ibn Sahula. First printed in Brescia, about 1491, the work soon gained popularity and was reprinted many times, including nine known Yiddish editions. Many of the extant copies are embellished with illustrations, mostly portraying the disputing animals, who "converse" in biblical Hebrew and are all well versed in Jewish learning: the rooster is a Bible scholar, and the deer an expert in the Talmud. Two pairs of roosters appear on the upper margin of the mizrah, flanked by a pair of birds. In one of the illustrations for the Meshal ha-Kadmoni, the rooster and a similar quail-like bird (though referred to as a hawk) are paired in "conversation."