Reviving the Illuminated Ketubah.
In 1968 I stumbled into this abandoned garden of Jewish love and somehow sensed that it might not be dead but, miraculously, merely dormant. With all the energy and care I could muster, I watered and nurtured this garden. To my great awe and joy it blossomed again. I have inhaled the fragrances of its ﬂowering, tasted of its fruits, and become intoxicated. With this book I hope to share the joy that I have had creating and giving these ketubot to so many loving couples. Love Letters is an intimate meditation into Jewish love and seeks to convey the magnificence, richness, and beauty of Jewish love by matching quotations from Jewish literature with images drawn from my personal artistic efforts to revive the illuminated ketubah in our time.
The story of my work begins while I was studying in Jerusalem in 1968. A Torah scribe wrote out a Hebrew alphabet for me. As I copied out these magical letters, my love affair with the Hebrew alphabet began. I started to write out verses for friends, then began to decorate them crudely.
Around this same time, David Davidovitch published his beautiful book The Ketubah—The Jewish Marriage Contract Through the Ages. Here was my ﬁrst glimpse into an incredibly rich art form. I was deeply moved by these lovely old works. That this tradition was no longer practiced saddened and bewildered me.
I returned to the States with these ketubot haunting my consciousness. The upcoming marriage of friends sparked a moment of temporary insanity: I volunteered to write and illuminate their ketubah as a wedding present. The couple deeply appreciated my handcrafted gift and proudly displayed it at their wedding. The admiration this crude early effort garnered was deeply gratifying. I began to create other ketubot. I vividly recall standing on a New York City street corner, about to deliver one of these very early gifts, and realizing that this art form could actually be revived. Before long, couples were offering to commission me to create individualized ketubot for them. I had to come up with a price and sheepishly asked for the sum of ﬁfty dollars. To my surprise, they agreed to it.
From the beginning, I realized there is immense potential in this form of art. For one thing, unlike the traditional objects of the Jewish scribal arts—the Torah scroll, teﬁllin and mezuzah—the ketubah allows for considerable creative expression. Admittedly, there are certain stipulations: the accurate wording of the text itself, the requirement that it be written on a stable, long lasting material and in a way that renders it difficult to alter. Beyond these few constraints, I sensed tremendous leeway. The choice of letterforms, the shape of the work, the artistic style, the form of decoration, the colors, the selections of materials used are all wide open. The artistic variety and regional diversity of the ketubot from the past inspired me to improvise and experiment.
It also struck me that the ketubah differs from other graphic art because of the intimate connection between the document itself and the lives of an individual couple.
When a human being mints coins from one mold each one comes out looking exactly like every other, but the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, creates every individual from the mold of Adam, yet no person resembles any other.
Talmud Sanhedrin 37a
If every person is different, so each couple must be “doubly” unique. How could I capture the uniqueness of two individuals in a work that represents their union? Early on, I developed a method that continues to serve me. The method begins with my attempt to learn as much as possible about each person’s tastes, values, families, names, sensitivities, interests, and world-views. I became attuned not only to their direct answers to my questions, but also to the subtle hints in their conversation or in a letter they have written that might lead me in unexpected directions. I work with the conviction that anything and everything might, in some way, contribute to the work. Not everything the couple tells me will be expressed concretely in their ketubah, and I never know from which direction the spark for its design might come. Amazingly, when I sit down to translate a couple’s lives into a unique work, a phrase always jumps out, an image moves to the foreground. Some glance between them, an underlining in a letter, or a comment uttered with passion that I jot down during my interview, provides me an artistic opening into their world. From this entryway, I turn to Jewish literature to ﬁnd the verse, midrash, image, quote, symbol or combination of these that embodies the couple’s uniqueness.
My early efforts to revive the illuminated ketubah elicited an enthusiastic response. I think the notion that this drab document could be made meaningful, beautiful, and imaginative created the enthusiasm. Couples love commissioning something that expresses their special relationship. Naming what matters to them in their union, in their families, in their practice of Judaism or their artistic tastes is itself a loving process. Families and friends are often thrilled to see a ketubah prominently displayed at the wedding, and later in the couple’s home. Rabbis often incorporate excerpts from the letter I write to accompany each ketubah (explaining my inspirations and thoughts about the couple and the work) into their remarks under the chuppah.
Each work seemed to broaden appreciation of the ketubah. Couples who had married with the simple printed form also began to approach me. They inspired me to invent the “anniversary ketubah”—a partial copy of the text of their original with an addendum stating the new ketubah was not a valid legal document, but merely an artistic rendering. These ketubot celebrate relationships of ten, twenty-ﬁve or ﬁfty years.
After I produced a very special ketubah in 1971, there was a quantum leap in public awareness of my work. During the summer of that year, I made a ketubah for my ﬁancée, Rosalyn, and presented it to her when we married on the ﬁfteenth of Elul, 5731. While we traveled in Europe on an extended honeymoon, my father, Jack Moss—of blessed memory—ever one to encourage his children’s creative efforts, sent a photograph of Rosalyn’s ketubah and a description of my efforts to revive this ancient Jewish art form to B’nai Brith’s National Jewish Monthly. The editor, Charles Fenyvesi, became almost as enthusiastic about the work as my father. Rosalyn’s ketubah appeared on the cover of his publication shortly thereafter. Mr. Fenyvesi published three cover stories about my work with the ketubah over the next few years.
All of a sudden, I was ﬂooded with requests for ketubot. In 1974, a travelling exhibit of my work, entitled “A Tradition Reborn,” opened at the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley, California. The museum’s director, Seymour Fromer, invited me to be artist-in-residence at the museum. As a full-time, professional ketubah maker (probably the ﬁrst), I opened a little “ketuborium” in the back of the carriage house adjacent to the Magnes on Russell Street.
Those days were ﬁlled with creative energy. As I designed the commissioned pieces, I was profoundly aware that they worked on two levels. Each, of course, epitomized the mutual love of a particular couple. But at the same time, these ketubot enabled me to explore the vast potential and diversity this unique art form seemed to allow.
In 1973, The First Jewish Catalog published my article “The Lovely Art of Ketubah Making,” in which I encouraged others to make their own ketubot. The result of the publicity and a growing awareness of the art form gave birth to a new profession. Today, nearly every major city in the United States has one or more ketubah makers. A commissioned, illuminated ketubah is likely to be an honored and prominent “guest” at Jewish weddings in Dayton, Chicago, or San Francisco, exactly as it was hundreds of years ago in Rome, Gibraltar, or Teheran.
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This book is divided into sections that I think of as the seven stages of Jewish love. Each stage is explored in the collection of quotations from Jewish sources that I matched to the ketubot. The annotated bibliography at the end of the book cites and describes the sources of these quotations.
Human Wholeness explores the Jewish concept that from the time of creation a human being is neither male nor female, but the union of both together.
The section called Love focuses on the mystery, power and delights of love.
The Matching of Souls assembles quotations that reﬂect the miracle of the Shiddach. The heady romance of young love is expressed in The Dance of Courtship. In Anticipation, the quotations are inspired by a deep longing for union and an anxious, fervent expectation. The Wedding aspires to convey the remarkable blending of absolute joy, profound introspection, utter abandon and transcendent awareness of connection that are the hallmarks of a traditional Jewish wedding ceremony. Finally, Marriage gathers texts that reﬂect the tasks of building a Jewish home.