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Wedding on the Wall

August 2001

This article originally appeared in, and is reprinted with permission of, the New York Times.

The high-speed blender of American culture has produced its share of monstrosities like frozen "bagels" filled with strawberries and cream cheese in supermarkets and a half-scale Eiffel Tower with slot machines at its feet in Las Vegas, to name two.

But not every reinterpretation of an Old World favorite is a failure. Consider what is happening to the traditional Jewish wedding contract, the ketubah, signed immediately before the ceremony by the bride, the bridegroom and the witnesses. Although not legally binding, like a prenuptial agreement, it looks much better as wall art, especially now that artists are writing and illustrating them with increasing fancifulness.

Stephanie Caplan, an East Village artist who is booked solid through October on wedding contracts, prefers clients willing to let her try new ideas--and often these are interfaith couples. For one such couple, she made a contract with the text contained in three sections of a pie, one English, one Hebrew and one Japanese, with space around the pie for wedding guests to sign. The edges are decorated with watercolor eucalyptus leaves, symbolizing the bridegroom's California heritage, and traditional paper umbrella forms, symbolizing the bride's Japanese background.

Interfaith couples are "making it up for themselves," said Ms. Caplan, who charges $1,000 to $3,000 for a custom job. "These aren't your parents' ketubahs." She is right. For one thing, ketubbot (that's the plural) of yore would not have had figurative subjects. They remained fairly unadorned legal documents until the 17th century, when Jews exiled from Spain settled in Italy.

"Much more recently, in the 1960's and 1970's, we see the flourishing of the art in America," said Claudia Nahson, author of Ketubbot: Marriage Contracts from the Jewish Museum (Pomegranate, 2000). "That's when Jewish artists like Ben Shahn and Chaim Gross began pushing the form, freeing the text to meander around the page a bit and even to overlap slightly with the drawings."

Nowadays, wedding contracts are so figurative that there is even room for figures that wag their tails. An Atlanta-based artist, Miriam Karp, recently did one showing a couple standing under the bridal canopy with their black Labrador retriever. "I've had Yorkshire terriers, golden retrievers, Rottweilers," said Ms. Karp, whose rates for custom work run from Sl,000 to $3,000. "I draw the line at football helmets and football logos. I don't think that's appropriate for a ketubah." Nor will Ms. Caplan do just any subject. Her lip curls when she mentions how many couples request a cliched fairy tale cityscape of Jerusalem on the contract's border. "I will only do a Jerusalem for a couple that met or lived there," said Ms. Caplan, whose work is viewable at www.theketubah.com. "I don't just do it because it's pretty."

The heart of the wedding contract has always been the text, but even that is changing. Although Orthodox and Conservative contracts hew to an ancient text, in which the bridegroom promises to provide for his bride even in divorce, Reform Jews and interfaith couples have lots of leeway, subject to the approval of the rabbi who performs the ceremony. "One bride wanted to write in the text that she was a recovering alcoholic and it was important for her to agree to keep to this," Ms. Karp said. "But the rabbi vetoed it."

Yet to nonobservant Jews and even to occasional non-Jews who are contemplating a Jewish marriage contract, a rabbi's opinion is more or less irrelevant. A Massachusetts-based artist, Gad Almaliah, who produces a line of stamped-silver, copper-clad contracts, sells a printed version in wedding shops across the country with no Hebrew text or religious references at all. (They appear alongside the work of other artists at www.ketubahketubah.com.) A passage reads, "We unite in love to support and to care for each other."

Mr. Almaliah, who charges $300 to $400 for a contract, sees its purpose transcending religion. "It will always be there on the wall," he said, "you promising to be nice."

Copyright (c) 2001 by the New York Times Company. Reprinted by permission.

Hebrew for "document," a legal document that is both a prenuptial agreement and a certification that a Jewish marriage has taken place. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Allen Salkin

Allen Salkin has written for The New York Times, Talk, Details, InStyle, Fringe Golf, and The And.

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