Chuppah: Your First “Home”

  

By Maria Bywater

Chuppah - the first "home" for the engaged couple

I grew up in a large, close Catholic family, so when I got married in a Jewish wedding ceremony, finding meaningful roles for everyone in my family proved challenging. I had converted to Judaism, and the rabbi required that the roles linked to Jewish ritual—–signing the ketubah (Jewish marriage contract) and reciting the Seven Blessings, for example—be filled by people who were Jewish. Eventually, I figured it out: I asked my two sisters and two of my brothers to hold the poles of the chuppah, the wedding canopy under which the ceremony took place (you’ll also see it spelled “huppah” and “huppa”).

Looking back, what I remember most about the ceremony was how comfortable I was standing there, in that space under the chuppah, surrounded by so many people who represented important parts of my life. I didn’t feel nervous. I felt supported. I felt at home because the chuppah is symbolic of the marrying couples’ home—both their physical home and the spiritual home they’ll build together. And today, as a chuppah designer and founder of Huppahs.com, I specialize in hand-held chuppahs.

The chuppah is a deeply traditional element of the Jewish wedding ceremony, but also one with a great deal of flexibility as far as what style you use, which makes it a great opportunity to make the ceremony your own, whether you use a hand-held or free-standing version, want something large or small, formal or casual, traditional or modern, or simply or elaborately decorated.

If you didn’t grow up hearing a lot of Hebrew, like me, the only really intimidating thing about using a chuppah might be the moment you first try to pronounce the word out loud in front of someone. It has that back of the throat “h” sound at the beginning. It’s the same sound as at the beginning of the word “Chanukkah.” People pronounce Chanukkah all kinds of different ways, so however you pronounce the first sound in the word “Chanukkah” is a good way to pronounce the first sound in the word “chuppah.”

And really, once you’re past the pronunciation, it’s on to the fun stuff.

Handheld or freestanding?

Chuppah freestandingThere are two basic styles of chuppah: handheld—the kind I used—and freestanding. Both kinds have a canopy held up by four poles. The difference is that a freestanding chuppah will have more structure so that it stands on its own.

Traditionally, the chuppah is open on all four sides, in a nod to the first Jewish couple, the Torah’s Abraham and Sarah, who traditionally kept the four sides of their tent open to welcome guests.

Hand-held chuppahs hark back to when the custom of using a chuppah first arose in Europe in the Middle Ages. Young boys would escort the bride from her home to the ceremony location, holding the canopy over her head like royalty on procession through the city. There’s even an official name for the chuppah bearers: unterferers, which means “supporters.”

To use a hand-held chuppah for your ceremony, you can have the chuppah bearers lead the procession or enter from the side of the ceremony space just before the procession begins. Aside from the links to tradition and community, a hand-held chuppah works great when your ceremony space doubles as your reception venue and you need to move the chuppah out of the way quickly.

For a chuppah that is set in place when the guests arrive, choose a freestanding chuppah, with bases to hold the bottom of the poles or a frame with supports connecting the poles at their tops. Using a frame is pretty much a must if you want a large chuppah, if the canopy is heavy or if you want to add drapery or a lot of decoration.

What size?

You’ll want enough square footage under the canopy for the couple, the officiant and a small table for the wine and other ritual items. It can be as small as 60 inches by 60 inches. Generally, poles that are seven to eight feet tall work well for small to medium sized canopies, although you’ll also find taller versions for a dramatic look.

Where to Get a Chuppah

Some synagogues, wedding venues, florists, and event rental companies have a chuppah to borrow or rent. If you’re interested in this option, be sure to check the condition of the chuppah early in your wedding planning process. Ask the chuppah provider if they set up and take down the chuppah and if there are extra fees for delivery and set up.

You can also buy or rent a chuppah or chuppah kit online. You’ll find both commercial and artisanal versions. If you want a custom design, look for an artist on Etsy or other sites selling handmade items. My company, huppahs.com, rents different styles of chuppahs as well as canopies and poles if you only need one or the other.

For the canopy, you can use a tallit or tablecloth that you have on hand, especially if it has special meaning to you. Just make sure the fabric is in good shape and will hold up to being secured to the poles.

Another great option is to make the chuppah yourself or have someone make it for you. You can choose the form and materials that work best for the wedding you want to create, and you can let your style shine.

If you’re looking for a wedding role for someone who is not familiar with the Jewish wedding ceremony, asking them to help create your chuppah can be a great way to include them. Depending on the chuppah you envision, there can be roles for sewists, fabric painters, embroiderers, weavers and other textile artists as well as folks with light construction skills.

DIY Advice

My book, Sew Jewish, includes instructions for making a chuppah canopy and poles, but here are some guidelines to keep in mind if you’re designing your own.

For the canopy, choose fabric that is lightweight, doesn’t stretch, and looks good from both sides. A canopy made heavy by the fabric or extensive needlework can make holding the poles or attaching the canopy securely to the frame difficult. If the canopy is lightweight and not too large, add some combination of loops, reinforced holes or ties to enable you to attach the corners to the supporting poles or frame. If the canopy is large or heavy, make sleeves on the edges of the canopy to fit into supports running across the top of the chuppah frame.

Hand-held chuppah

Popular materials for the structure are wood, dowels and tree branches, especially birch branches. PVC piping is also a popular choice for frames when you plan to cover the pipes with drapery.

If different people will be providing your canopy and poles or frame, make sure you know how they’ll fit together before anyone gets to work. Ideally, put the whole chuppah together for a trial run well before your wedding day so that you can make adjustments if you need to.

Whatever style of wedding you choose, with all the chuppah options available to you, you’re sure to find one that feels like home.

Maria Bywater is the founder of Huppahs.com, the leading national wedding chuppah rental company and author of the book Sew Jewish: The 18 Projects You Need for Jewish Holidays, Weddings, Bar/Bat Mitzvah Celebrations, and Home. She lives in New York’s Mid-Hudson River Valley amid her large, close family.

Our DIY Ketubah

  
Ketuba_grandparents

This painting in my grandparents’ home provided inspiration

After our first pre-wedding meeting with Rabbi Frisch, we were giddy with excitement. We walked the 10 blocks home reviewing all the things we had talked about. (Check out my last blog post to see how we chose Rabbi Frisch to officiate.) One detail that stood out was when Rabbi Frisch asked us if we were going to have a ketubah. Amma said something like, “Oh is that the canopy thing that you stand under?” and I said, “No, no, that’s a chuppah!” I thought I was so smart for half a second, until I realized I didn’t know what a ketubah was either.

We learned that the purpose and meaning of the ketubah, like many traditions, has changed over time and still varies from one Jewish community to another. Currently, within our particular community, it is basically a written and signed statement of love and commitment between the couple getting married. You can read InterfaithFamily’s kutabah explanation here.

You should have heard all the ketubah mispronunciations we came up with in the days following our meeting as we discussed whether or not we were going to have one. That week we went to our friends’ house for dinner and brought up the subject with them. They were married two years ago in a Jewish ceremony. They showed us their ketubah and told us the story of searching for just the right one. Not satisfied with anything they could find in the area, or online, their rabbi put them in touch with an Israeli scribe. The result was a stunning, sacred document with thick black Hebrew lettering and gold accents. As an artist and a bride-to-be, I was inspired.

Knowing I am an artist, Rabbi Frisch mentioned that if we did decide to go for it, I could make our ketubah myself, so I set to work researching the various versions and styles and decided it was definitely something I wanted to try my hand at. I loved the circular designs I was finding in my searches. Knowing I was bound to take a lot of liberties adjusting the meaning and language to suit our needs, I wanted to use more traditional colors and motifs to balance out the inevitable modern flair.

As I was familiarizing myself with ketubah art, one particular image made its way into the forefront of my mind; a small painting my grandparents have had hanging in their house for as long as I can remember. The combination of shapes and colors (and the fact that it had a line of Hebrew text below it) was just the inspiration I needed. I also loved that I would be drawing my inspiration from something that tied back to my family, giving the whole project a deeper foundation. I found a photo of the painting I had taken last year, while documenting some of the art and tchotchkes around my grandparents’ house. I collected my paints and inks and began designing our ketubah.

Our DIY ketubah

Our DIY ketubah

I continued to use the original painting as a reference throughout the composition of the piece. In the original, a strange bird sits atop a large golden egg and the whole image is framed by a circle. It occurred to me that a bird sits on an egg to protect and nurture it, so perhaps it could do the same for our promises to each other.

I found a ketubah text that suited us beautifully, and painted it in black ink within a gold circle, meant to represent the egg from the original painting. Among decorative shapes, I painted the same strange bird from my grandparents’ painting, sitting on top of our promises, keeping them safe. I regretted not knowing how to write in Hebrew, but knew I could at least copy a few words. I searched online for a morsel of Jewish wisdom that would add value to our ketubah.

Within seconds, I came across the perfect words: “Shalom Bayit,” or “Peace in the Home,” a Jewish concept referring to domestic harmony. I did my best to copy the words letter for letter, bringing my creative journey to an end. I presented the finished piece to Amma, and we were both excited to welcome it into our ever-evolving vision of our wedding, and our marriage.

I’m doing it for me.

  

In the middle of the grueling Intro to Judaism class, I decided to devote yet more time to the synagogue and take the Beginner Hebrew class, taught by the Rabbi’s wife. We met on Sunday mornings, which meant I could go to the synagogue directly after the earliest Mass. The beginner class focused on the letters, pronunciation, and meanings of some basic root words and the intermediate class focused on the Hebrew in some of the common prayers. I ended up taking both Hebrew classes. For the last session, before summer hiatus, I read the Avot to both the Rabbi and his wife. The Rabbi would fix my pronunciation without even looking up and I would have to repeat the word until it was perfect. At the end of what seemed to be the longest hour of my life, the Rabbi asked me why I am taking all of these classes.

Without even thinking, I responded, “I’m not doing it for Sam. I’m doing it for me.” No one had ever asked me this question before and I hadn’t really thought about it, so I was shocked at the automatic response. It’s true; Sam was not pressuring me into taking any of these classes. He didn’t even ask me to take any of the classes. I took the initiative and signed up for the classes on my own, did all the reading, and practiced all the Hebrew, (and sometimes even refused Sam’s assistance).

“I’m doing it for me.” I want to learn about Judaism because it’s such a big part of Sam’s life. He devotes his Friday nights, Saturday mornings, and his life to Judaism and I want to understand why. I want to understand him better. I want to help Sam choose the Hebrew text for our Ketubah, and then be able to read and understand it. And, if we do decide to raise our children in the Jewish faith, I would like to be able to help them.

Throughout this quest of understanding why Sam is so devoted to Judaism, I am finding the religion, culture, and the language to be fascinating. The prayers, songs, and rituals of Friday night service are incredibly rich and deeply rooted in history. I find Sam’s synagogue to be a very peaceful and comforting place. Going to services regularly is spiritually fulfilling (to an extent). I feel a sense of belonging in his congregational community, and I also play on the temple’s softball team. I enjoy the home rituals, especially the challenge of finding Kosher for Passover recipes. However, in learning about the Jewish faith, I am reminded that it is not the religion for me.

Anne and Sam 2014

As Sam and I plan our lives together, I will continue learning about what makes him tick. I will take my time and go at my own pace to find where I belong in the religion aspect of his life. (Religion is one of those things where you have to find it at your own speed and enjoy it.) I do not plan to convert to Judaism, but I plan to continue learning about Sam’s religion, for myself.

How do you #ChooseLove? Tell us here!

Ketubah

  
My sisters, Michelle (far right) and Carolyn (in blue), with a portrait Michelle painted for our High School

I come from a family of artists. My mom’s grandfather was an amazing painter. My dad’s brother is the cartoonist for Sally Forth. Dave, my brother, runs the Combat Paper Program from the Printmaking Center of NJ. Carolyn, my sister won the 2010 Congressional Art Award and had her artwork displayed in the Nation’s Capitol. And, my other sister, Michelle, has created dozens of pastels, charcoals, and paintings, which are hung in galleries and homes throughout Delaware.  My family is very artistically gifted, with each member having his or her own unique style and preferred medium.

Sam and I were discussing our ketubah (marriage contract) artwork and after much thought, we decided to ask Michelle to paint it for us. We looked at hundreds of designs online and most of the ketubot used trees because the Torah is referred to as the tree of life.  We are comfortable using this imagery and would also like to incorporate the four seasons. After talking with Michelle she is combining these ideas into two trees of Spring and Summer reflecting the two trees of Fall and Winter to represent the years gone by and the years to come.  We asked her to use chalk pastels in bright, bold colors to exude life and energy.  Sam and I took what we liked from a lot of different designs and Michelle is combining all of our ideas together to create something uniquely for us.

Finding a scribe that would write interfaith text on a piece of someone else’s art took some research.  We found a scribe who belongs to the New York Society of Scribes and happened to be visiting Boston, near where Michelle lives.  Michelle met with this scribe and together they picked out the paper that would be conducive for both her chalk pastels and his calligraphy ink.  After much discussion, we realized that it would be better logistically for Michelle to do her artwork after he wrote both the Hebrew and English text.

Finding the text for the ketubah was more difficult. We looked at several texts and it was a lot easier to pick out the language we didn’t like, than find something we both agreed upon.  Sam wants the language to be more formal, in honoring the traditions of the past, whereas I would like the language to represent us both as equals.  After going back and forth on text, nitpicking every word, we think we have finally agreed on some language but would like to get approval from our parents and Rabbi before the scribe begins his work.

Our goal is to get the text to the scribe by the end of this month, so he can create his calligraphy so Michelle has enough time to create her artwork.  Our ketubah will be the most valuable piece of artwork in our home; therefore, we are being very diligent in crafting the language and design.