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The Do-It Yourself Ethos of "I Do"

This article is reprinted with permission of the Forward. Visit www.forward.com. For subscription information, call 1-866-399-7900.

Michael Endelman's parents couldn't quite recall their wedding canopy; a cursory look at wedding photos illuminated a beige cloth adorned with "some kind of greenery" and daisies. Like most standard-issue chuppahs, it was pretty--and unremarkable.

But when Endelman, 27, marries later this month in Marin County, Calif., he'll stand beneath an eye-popping quilt made of stitched-together squares lovingly decorated by 24 close friends and relatives with puffy paint, quotes from the Song of Songs and even a retooled image of Bob Dylan's "Freewheelin'" album.

"Most people would kind of throw a tallis (prayer shawl) up there and never think about it again," said Endelman, a journalist who resides in Manhattan. "It's a nice way to personalize it and get the guests involved in the wedding in some way--more than just people showing up."

Endelman is far from the first groom to labor a personal touch to his wedding. But just as Americans are eating burgers "Your Way, Right Away," displaying their names on everything from jewelry to belt buckles to license plates and are even encouraged to "Be an Army of One," weddings, too, increasingly emphasize the individual. Money, of course, can buy individuality--as in the case of an anonymous Syrian Jewish bride who is to be married in New York this summer wearing the country's most expensive dress ($300,000). But for others of more, uh, limited means, as in the case of Endelman's wedding, a good, old-fashioned, do-it-yourself ethic is the order of the day. As such, in the Jewish wedding of today, mixed CDs are burned, couples are writing their own vows and chuppahs are handmade.

"It's absolutely true that people have been personalizing their weddings more and more," said Grace Cohen Grossman, senior curator for Judaica and Americana at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, who recently curated the exhibit "Romance and Ritual: Celebrating the Jewish Wedding."

In recent years, nowhere has the trend been more pronounced than in the creation of unique chuppahs, which are increasingly, painstakingly, created to reflect the bride and groom's life and ideals. The trend toward make-your-own chuppahs "is definitely out there," said Anita Diamant, author of The New Jewish Wedding, Revised (Fireside, 2001). "People are interested in making their weddings as personal and as meaningful as possible," she said. "Certainly since around 1985, people have been experimenting with chuppah covers."

For Endelman's chuppah, best man Jacob Fine, a rabbinical student, sent 24 cloth squares out for "special" guests to decorate; he then enlisted the help of a neighbor in Amherst, Mass., to stitch the squares together. "Squares like that are very much from the American Folk Art tradition," Diamant said. "The friendship quilt was made for a long time, for hundreds of years, as a gift."

A quilted chuppah, said Diamant, "is a lovely combination of Jewish and a very American tradition."

It's also a very inclusive practice, something increasingly important as the intermarriage rate hovers around 40% to 50%, depending on whom you believe. When Lauren Mactas, 30, marries her non-Jewish fiance, Brian, this November at West Point, they'll stand beneath a chuppah quilted by Brian's mother, made from swatches of "autumnal" fabric chosen by 35 guests.

"I wanted to make an effort to make it interactive for him and for everyone who is involved, so they don't feel separated," said Mactas, a special education teacher in Brooklyn.

"Plus," she added, "I like the idea of this thing representing everyone who is important to us."

Aside from the dramatic finale of breaking the glass, chuppahs are often perceived as the hallmark of a Jewish wedding. However, "It doesn't take much for a Jewish wedding," said the Skirball's Grossman, noting that chuppahs are Jewish custom--not law. "There are very few laws. Over time, the traditional Jewish wedding has gained wonderful rituals and customs, lots of rich symbolism and affirmations that are both public and private."

Marrying under a chuppah is a custom that symbolizes the couple's sharing a roof for the first time. According to tradition, the chuppah should be open on all four sides, symbolizing Abraham's tent, which was always open to visitors. While the most "traditional" chuppah is a tallis held aloft by four posts, "There's no Jewish law about what it has to look like," said Diamant. "It's a matter of what individual couples decide to spend their time and money doing."

However, a requirement of a Jewish wedding, a ketubah, or marriage contract, has long been an area of personalization and creativity. Ornate ketubahs have been the norm among Sephardi Jews for centuries; Ashkenazi Jews, on the other hand, are relative newcomers to the trend. As with chuppahs, however, individualized ketubahs are becoming more and more the norm in modern American Jewish weddings.

When Emily Benz, 27, married her husband, David, last August in Ann Arbor, Mich., she spent considerable time writing the text of her ketubah. "For me, it was the writing of the contract that made it meaningful," she said. "It was a good chance to sit down and talk about what we wanted out of our marriage and what was important to us. We used it to talk about, ideally, what we'd do together and push each other to do in our lives."

A close friend of the bride and groom, Summer McClinton, an artist, designed the contract using spray paint and stencils. "She's been involved in our lives the entire time Dave and I have known each other," Benz said. "Somehow, her knowing us would be reflected in whatever she made."

Plus, why pay retail when you can have a trusted friend do it for free? Prior to enlisting her friend, Benz said she had shopped for a hand-painted ketubah and found them to be "very, very expensive."

Indeed, as the average cost of an American wedding hovers around $22,000, according to Conde Nast Infobank--and that number jumps to nearly $33,500 in New York City--cost is a factor for many couples who pursue the DIY (do-it-yourself) route. When Mactas met with the florist for her upcoming nuptials, she was given the option of purchasing a flower-adorned chuppah with bamboo poles for $1,000.

"I said, 'Do I get to keep it?'" she recalls. The answer? No.

"It was the most unsentimental and unromantic thing I had ever heard," Mactas said.

Nonetheless, according to Susan Katz, owner of the Washington, D.C.-based Distinctive Events by Susan B. Katz, most people continue to have a florist make their chuppahs, which generally cost between $650 and $1,500, "depending on how extravagant it is," she said.

And yet, Katz is a fan of the personalized, have-your-guests-pitch-in approach. "I've recommended that," she said. "It's a wonderful idea, and it becomes more personalized."

When Jesse Cook-Dubin, 23, married this spring near Charleston, S.C., he and his wife, Rebecca, had difficulty finding a portable chuppah to use in their outdoor ceremony. So instead, as a professional woodworker, he made one. "There were other adequate options, but it was definitely a welcome addition to the ceremony to use something I had built myself," he said. "What I built for $100 worth of material you couldn't have bought for less than $600, $700."

Looking ahead to standing under his own homemade chuppah, "I think it will be a very nice memento from the wedding," Endelman said. "We'll be able to visualize who was there, who contributed, who came--it's more than just a photograph."

Having Jewish family origins in Germany or Eastern Europe. Having Jewish family origins in Spain, Portugal or North Africa. The term literally means "Spanish" in Hebrew. Hebrew for "canopy" or "covering," the structure (open on all four sides) under which a Jewish wedding ceremony takes place. In its simplest for, it consists of a cloth, sheet, or tallit stretched or supported over four poles. Hebrew for "document," a legal document that is both a prenuptial agreement and a certification that a Jewish marriage has taken place. Yiddish for "prayer shawl," a ritual item that is worn and has knotted fringes (tzitzit) attached to the four corners.

Lisa Keys is a freelance writer.

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