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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.
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.
Blessings have been on my mind lately. In the Jewish wedding ceremony there are seven blessings recited, and, for better or for worse, I’m finding them complicated. Which is why, when our house started to shake during a thunderstorm the other night, I was already awake turning blessing after blessing over and over in my mind.
The thunder rolled, the lightning flashed, and my mind immediately went to the damage that we’d seen this winter, wondering if this storm would re-expose those leaks. After a few minutes of almost deafening rain, my mind finally slowed past its catastrophic style thinking to an appreciation of all of the noises, smells, and feelings that accompany a thunderstorm.
I was thankful for the rain that we receive here in New England, as opposed the droughts that are impacting so much of our world. I was thankful that I was inside, and lucky enough to be safe from the elements. I was grateful to be cuddled up under my blanket next to my sleeping partner, with my sleeping cat in the nook behind my knees.
I noticed Justin stirring from his sleep. “Good thunderstorm,” he muttered to himself.
It might seem simplistic, but right there… that was a blessing.
One of the pieces of Jewish learning I’ve most taken to heart is the idea that a prayer should speak to what is truly in your heart—the trappings of the words matter a whole lot less. (This idea seems particularly relevant when coming at the idea of one religion’s prayer from a multi-faith lens.)
Which is why we’re going to take the seven blessings and take them from complicated ideas to a simple “good thunderstorm” style message. But we need your help.
We’re asking seven of our friends to craft their own blessings based on the meaning of the originals. They’ll then be recited in the original Hebrew by our rabbi. What matters to us is less of the traditional language (we’ll have our bases covered by our rabbi’s recitations), but the sentiments passed along by the friends reciting the blessings.
Here’s where we’re asking for your help: if you were to simplify the following prayers to one word, what would it be?
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!
One of my favorite holidays is Hanukkah, and for that, I give a lot of the credit to the Beerorah. The Beerorah is something that my fiancé Derek and I came up with the first Hanukkah we were dating – well, really it’s a gift pack from He’Brew brewing company (a division of Schmaltz brewing) that his best friend had given him when the friend found out he was dating me.
We joke that the Beerorah combines our two loves: “My love of God with his love of beer.” And Derek really does love beer – it’s his hobby in a true aficionado’s way. I have learned more about craft beer in the four-and-a-half years we’ve been together than most people learn in a lifetime, and we love to visit beer bars and breweries just to try new and rare beers. Also he and his best friend have a collection of over 500 bottles of (craft) beer, carefully inventoried in their “beerventory.”
As for me though, the love of God part is apt too. A Conservative Jew, Judaism has always been a large part of my identity. Growing up, I attended synagogue every Saturday because I wanted to – not only to gain guidance from the Rabbi’s sermons or to enjoy the serene satisfaction of the silent Amidah (one of my favorite prayers), but because it was the center of the social circle for my friends and I. Go on a date? Having family drama? Meet at synagogue and we can discuss it.
But going to synagogue and practicing Judaism were also integral to my identity in part because of the climate in which I grew up. I am from Riverdale, NY – home of eight or nine different synagogues and many many Jews. Nonetheless, my synagogue was swatstikaed one weekend when I was in Hebrew School. On the night before Kol Nidre (the holiest night of the year) a year or two after September 11th, our synagogue was firebombed with Molotov cocktails. We attended services while eager news crews waited outside to interview us and have gone through metal detectors and pat downs with varying regularity ever since. So my Judaism and its essentialness to my identity came in part from the fears to my safety that came with it – and the way those fears bound my group of close friends and I together to the community and to each other.
That said, it was never essential to me to date a Jewish guy. I greatly enjoyed learning about different religions and cultures and watching people experience aspects of Judaism for the first time. I always had a strong opinion about how I wanted to observe Judaism and had my own relationship with God. I knew that my kids will be Jewish, that I am Jewish, that my family is Jewish, that I will never be anything but Jewish. And honestly, I knew I needed a laid back low-maintenance sports fan kind of guy – I wasn’t sure I would necessarily find that within the Jewish community.
You can say “Oh, but traditions! But continuity! But faith!” but I have also found that Derek has been much more respectful of my faith and practice than the Jewish guys I’ve dated. One got mad at me for not answering the phone while I was at a Friday night Shabbat dinner. I got in a heated argument with another who asked, “But WHY do you believe? WHY do you have faith? Where’s the rational proof that God exists?” Both were the moments when I knew the relationships wouldn’t work out. The Beerorah was one of the first examples of Derek’s openness and respect of my faith. And when we light it together each Hanukkah (this year was its fifth iteration), it reminds me of that – that we can meld what matters to us together to create something just as wonderful (or more wonderful) than the original. I haven’t compromised anything – I’m still Jewish, and I still have my love of God and my observance. He still has his love of beer. And we both have each other.
In many religious communities, it is customary for men and women to spiritually ready themselves before they walk down the aisle. A traditional observance of Orthodox Jews is to take a bath, or immerse themselves into a sacred pool known as a mikveh. For those more familiar with Christian metaphors, it would be like getting a baptism in a pool filled with Holy Water. One of the times the ritual is preformed is before a couple becomes married. At the end of the day, it is all about becoming spiritually clean and purifying our bodies before we walk down the aisle.
I find myself spiritually readying myself without the assistance of the mikveh. I am exploring the idea of the mikveh ritual, but in the meantime, I have begun the process of spiritual readiness that may be good for people of all faiths!
We need to purify the body, and make sure we fit in those wedding clothes! That means we need to work out. I put roller derby on the shelf. It was not only hurting my body, but was beyond mentally taxing. So I hung up my skates and took down the yoga mat. I began to practice Bikram Yoga. Bikram is strict 26 posture yoga practice done for 90 minutes in 105 degree heat. I admit, I am not flexible at all, but I am finding myself being able to let go of the daily stresses and finding mental clarity. For me, it really has become a mind, body and soul cleansing process which is exactly what I had set out to do for the wedding. After one of those classes, it certainly feels like I have been immersed in water.
The next part of my spiritual readiness is coming from my mentor and my groomsman, Scott. Scott became my mentor when I was about 10 months into a mentoring program and really began to look at life from an honest perspective. Over the past 4 years or so, he has been not only a mentor but a friend and really helped develop me into the man I am today and when I met Lisa. Scott and I recently began to restart our work together. The purpose is that by the end of it all, you have re-established or deepened your relationship with G-D. This past weekend, I spent close to four hours reviewing over the phone with Scott. Although we have done this process before, I truthfully say that this an extremely powerful experience and am already experiencing changes in my life. Today, I feel spiritually lightened and on a path to repair, mend, and strengthen all my relationships in life.
There is a lot of work left to do. There is the long list of actual wedding to-do’s, but after completing this post, there is clearly spiritual work that needs to be completed as well. I am looking forward to sharing more with everyone and taking those traditions and putting our new spin on them. Time to hit the bar… the ballet bar.