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by Elaine Adler
(This is a modification of an article that has appeared in Neshama, a women's spirituality newsletter, and in Jewish Arts Etc, a newsletter that promoted Jewish art and artists.)
When I think of what being Jewish means to me, I think of connections. What connects me? Ancient melodies ... rituals ... prayers ... and Hebrew letters.
When do I feel connected? When we light candles each week to welcome the Sabbath ... when we stand in the glow of our Chanukah candles and prayers ... when we begin our seder each year. At these moments I think about our common bonds, rich heritage, and the way we connect to each other and our ancestors by stopping our normal routines to engage in these rituals. Our traditions have enabled Jews all over the world to feel connected to each other, to participate in ritual ceremonies when visiting any country, to feel at home even in a strange land.
But, aside from their forming the language of our prayers, how do Hebrew letters fit in? I am struck by the Kabbalistic description that Gd first created the Hebrew letters, and with their countless permutations, thus created everything there was to know, waiting for us to discover it all. Hebrew letters haven't changed since the fourth century B.C.E., when Ezra the Scribe declared them to be Holy, to remain unchanged in form, and to be used only for religious purposes. This is why the language of the ketuba is Aramaic. For many centuries, Aramaic continued to be the language of the day and of contracts. Ezra's decision has made the study of discovered ancient Hebrew texts relatively easy, since scholars are already familiar with the letters. Such is not the case for old Christian manuscripts, since Roman letter forms have gone through many changes over the centuries.
While adhering to the purity of their basic forms, I love to play with the beautiful Hebrew letters, discovering how one can push or pull their lines to enhance their expression ... the way the meaning of a passage can be conveyed visually by the feel given to the letters on paper. In examining old Hebrew manuscripts, I have been touched by the love the old scribes and illuminators had for the letters and the words. In many ways, it is a zen experience for me to sit at the drawing board and watch well-formed, beautiful, evenly spaced Hebrew letters flow off my pen. In creating my own manuscripts, I feel linked to every scribe who has preceded me through past generations.
I now have the opportunity to connect with people at special times in their lives as they commission calligraphic art for themselves or to give as a gift to someone they love: verses from a Torah or Haftarah portion for a Bar/Bat Mitzvah or newborn, invitations inviting loved ones to a Bar/Bat Mitzvah or wedding, birth announcements, and especially ketubot. Of all these, it is ketubot that provide the strongest link, connecting me to our past, our present, and our future. Every time I develop a ketuba, I am aware of its 2500-year history and the continuity it provides.
The ketuba was the original prenuptial financial agreement. It was initiated in the fifth century B.C.E., shortly after the return from the Babylonian exile, by rabbis who wanted men to realize that taking a wife was an important stepthat a man couldn't simply send a woman out of his tent when he tired of her. By guaranteeing a specified sum of money to the wife should their marriage dissolve, she was assured of some financial resources with which to return to the community (remember that women did not own property in those days), and a man would certainly think twice before having to pay the sum promised. For its time, the ketuba was a revolutionary document that offered some protection to women.
Over the centuries, many ketubot were beautifully adorned. The designs from each country are distinctive, the artwork reflecting the popular style used in the general community in a given region at the time. Thus, you can tell at a glance whether a ketuba is from Rome, from other regions of Italy, from Afghanistan or Persia or Gibralter. When I borrow a design element from one of these old ketubot, I feel connected to all former scribes, remembering and honoring their talents and traditions.
Many couples are quite surprised to discover that the traditional ketuba text is simply a financial contractone in which the groom takes the wife, pledges to care for her, and specificies a sum of money promised to her in case of their divorce or his death. They regret that it doesnt address shared values and hopes for their relationship, visions, and home. For the Orthodox, there is no alternative and the traditional text must be used. Many other couples also choose to use this text, which has changed little in 2500 years, because they want to maintain the tradition. Some combine a more contemporary English text with the traditional, while others seek alternatives to the Aramaic text and use Hebrew and/or English versions of one of the published modern egalitarian texts written by various rabbis. Some couples even turn the writing of their own text into a labor of love, or they use a combination of traditional, egalitarian, and self-written texts. It is a privilege to serve as a witness to their maturity as well as their sensitivity to their heritage, values, and each other.
I am constantly renewed by the care, learning, and sharing demonstrated by couples as they select just the right words and design to convey their feelings about each other and the home they want to create. When the process of writing and designing their personalized ketuba is complete, many say it was the most meaningful part of their wedding preparations.
Working with couples who choose to commission a ketuba is very special. Committed to their Jewishness a aesthetically enlightened, they view their ketuba as a link to their heritage and a statement of their love for each other. My faith in the continuity and future of Judaism is constantly renewed as I watch the love and respect these brides and grooms have for one another and for our traditions. Also wonderful is the commitment to Judaism made by a recently converted partner, or the mutual respect and understanding of an interfaith couple. The thoughtfulness gained by all couples as they discuss the goals they want reflected in their ketuba is awesome to watch.
It is a privilege to enter a couples inner circle as I get to know them well enough to create a design that will please and be a reflection of both partners. For many, this is the first time they are discussing artistic and visual preferences. While many couples discover that they both have similar preferences, sometimes one instinctively prefers geometric patterns and the other likes free-flowing abstract designs. This is when my training as a speech and language pathologist and counselor comes in handy, allowing me to provide insight as to how one's "wiring" might affect what seems pleaasing. Our negotiation process as we develop a design becomes a microcosm of the understanding and sharing each couple will need to continue throughout their married life.
Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that this career would evolve for meone that allows me to work with people at a happy and loving time in their lives ... to be a catalyst that helps them be in touch with their creative selves ... to be linked to our past in a spiritual and aesthetic way ... to do something Jewish and creative as my work ... to feel connected to my heritage in all aspects of my life.