Jay Saper of Pashkevil Press in East Lansing
Jay Saper of Pashkevil Press in East Lansing

Jay Saper calls his endeavor Pashkevil Press, after the Yiddish word for a poster pasted on walls in Orthodox communities of the past and still seen most typically in Chasidic Jewish neighborhoods.

At age 30, Jay Saper of East Lansing is an old soul. Through his art, writing and teaching, he keeps alive the beliefs and history of progressive social/political activists, including some relatives, who preceded him by generations. 

We met at “Freedom of the Press,” a printmakers’ exhibit at Eastern Market in early October. He sat at his table patiently, waiting for passersby to stop and ask about his work. I was curious. I saw Hebrew letters on notecards. I saw an eye-catching letterpress poster featuring a well-known statement from Pirkei Avot about working to bring about a better world, with the word “organize,” a more modern reference to labor unions, tucked subtly in the background. 

All his posters are printed on a traditional letterpress, using handmade wood type set by hand. He calls his endeavor Pashkevil Press, after the Yiddish word for a poster pasted on walls in Orthodox communities of the past and still seen most typically in Chasidic Jewish neighborhoods. These posters can express political commentary aimed at those in power, convey other strongly held opinions or announce basic funeral information and more. 

This statement from Pirkei Avot about making a better world overlays the more modern statement: Organize!
This statement from Pirkei Avot about making a better world overlays the more modern statement: Organize!

“I honor this vibrant Jewish print culture by creating prints that engage Jewish history and texts, as well as support social movements,” Saper says. 

Yiddish is a big part of his link to past generations. He not only learned Yiddish to keep this Old-World language alive but also teaches it. Currently, he is translating a Yiddish poetry book by Holocaust survivor Rikle Glezer, “who leapt off the train from the Vilna ghetto bound for death at Ponar to take up pen and pistol against the fascists, chronicling her life as a partisan through poetry,” he says. This work, with Corbin Allardice, is supported by a translation fellowship from the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts. 

“I am very interested in connecting to my Jewishness by embracing Yiddish, my grandma’s first language,” Saper said. “Her life was in Yiddish. I didn’t hear it myself. When she died a few years ago, I didn’t want her to be the last in my family to speak Yiddish.”

He participated in summer Yiddish programs in Warsaw, London and Weimar, Germany. He has taught the language online during the pandemic, and he’ll soon teach an online course at Middlebury College, the liberal arts school in Vermont where he studied sociology. 

Art also is part of his background. As the son of Nell Kuhnmuench and Roy Saper, founder and owner of the highly regarded Saper Galleries in East Lansing for more than 40 years, he grew up around art. The gallery features many Jewish artists, including some in Israel. Since the pandemic began, Saper moved back to his family home, where he has set up a studio. He grew up attending Shaarey Zedek, a Reform synagogue in East Lansing. 

As I talked to Saper, his old soul first revealed itself in two stories involving family members. His Aunt Jeri Saper grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, where her synagogue and her rabbi’s home were bombed because the congregation held the first interracial service when they visited freedom riders who had been jailed. 

A papercut of ballerina Franceska Mann from Saper’s Radical Village walking tour of Greenwich Village.
A papercut of ballerina Franceska Mann from Saper’s Radical Village walking tour of Greenwich Village.

“My aunt was part of integrating public schools in Jackson and continued to do what was right even in the face of violence,” Saper says. “It’s incredibly inspiring. I am interested in what solidarity has historically meant and how we can build that today and come together with other communities with other experiences to build a better world. Those stories have a lot to lend to our present — a look backward to see how to navigate moving forward.”

Another family story is influencing an art series he is working on about Henry Ford. “There’s a larger story on growing up here and always being surrounding by Ford and his legacy, even though the Michigan Jewish community knows another story [about his antisemitism],” Saper says. “I want to create things that continue to engage these things that are protected.”  

He tells of when Ford got agitated by workers unionizing in Detroit, the carmaker started sending parts to be made in different little towns. One was Manchester, Michigan, where his great uncle stood up to Ford in those early years. This great uncle, with the only Jewish family in town, refused to sell his screw plant to Ford. Ford built a plant there and eventually, Saper says, the town’s library was built on the spot of his great uncle’s plant, with no mention of the Jewish business that had stood there. Saper aims to keep this legacy alive through his art. 

New York Years

After college, Saper studied progressive childhood education at Bank Street College in Manhattan. This was followed by teaching children at different progressive schools in Manhattan and Brooklyn, as well as being involved in organizing and political projects. He joined Park Slope Kolot Chayeinu, a progressive Jewish community. 

“In addition to my work as a letterpress printer, I am also a papercut artist,” he says. “I created papercuts, a traditional Jewish folk art, to honor the remarkable, overlooked stories of Jewish women in the resistance to the Nazis. My work was published as the chapter ‘Fighting Fascists with Folk Art’ in Cindy Milstein’s There’s Nothing So Whole as a Broken Heart: Mending the World as Jewish Anarchists (AK Press 2021).”

Another papercut project combined several of his interests. He wrote a zine called Radical Village, a history of the Little Red Schoolhouse and Elizabeth Irwin High School (LREI) founded in 1921 in Greenwich Village, the families associated with it and its connections to social movements over the past century. He became interested in the school’s history before he worked there and was drawn to its Jewish beginnings. 

“LREI was a hotbed of Jewish radicalism,” he says. “The school’s first students were Yiddish-speaking immigrants on the Lower East Side. The school served as a haven for politically active Jewish teachers and families who faced state repression and violence. The school was a cultural center for experimental and progressive Jewish artists.”  

As he dug into the history of the school, he decided to create a walking tour of Greenwich Village that highlighted some of the school’s famous students (Angela Davis, the children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and more), supporters of the school and events in the school’s history. The zine, with its papercuts, became a companion piece to the tour. 

Now that he’s back in East Lansing, he is restoring his traditional letterpress and creating wood type, teaching online, embracing Jewish cultural art traditions and doing his part to keep alive the spirit of progressive social activism so prevalent in generations of Jews before him.  

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