The ketubah, the marriage contract for Jewish weddings outlining the responsibilities of the groom to the bride, has long been an outlet for artists who sought to do something special with a simple legal document.
In its collection from the famed Cairo Geniza, the University of Cambridge Digital Library holds a collection of centuries-old ketubot drawn up with an eye toward beauty and display. Though handmade ketubot are becoming increasingly rare as the widespread availability of digital technology continues, there are still ketubah artists who shepherd soon-to-be-married couples from visual concept to putting pen to parchment on their wedding days. Several artists spoke about their work, why they make ketubot and more.
‘Wow, I Could Do That!’
Betsy Teutsch has been at this for so long, she now finds herself creating ketubot for the children of marriages she once served.
For Teutsch, a Fargo, N.D., native who moved to the East Coast when her husband joined the faculty of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, working on ketubot is part of her greater interest in Jewish art — her work has been featured in Reconstructionist prayer books, among other venues.
Teutsch married her husband during her senior year at Brandeis, and though she had no formal artistic training, she’d always been drawn to calligraphy; at the time, there was renewed interest in ethnically focused art, and she felt that there was more exploration to be done for Jews. When it came time to pick a ketubah, she had just the idea. “I thought, ‘Wow, I could do that!’” she said. At her wedding, friends and family remarked on the beauty of her finished product and, with that, her career as a ketubah artist was launched.
For decades, she’s created original ketubot, alongside fill-in-the-blank templates. She estimates that she’s made thousands of originals, and can’t even make a guess at how many templates have sold over the years — they’ve been in Judaica stores, online and physical, all over the country.
She used to work with families on announcements, invitations and diplomas, among other milestone documents, but that business was wiped out by new digital capabilities, something she was never interested in pursuing.
“I really came into this field through the love of calligraphy and Hebrew letters and the beauty of hand-done letters,” she said.
Though she no longer works on ketubot full time — she’s now a writer, with her second book forthcoming — she’s still approached from time to time by old clients, thanking her for her work. She was recently thanked by a woman who told her that the ketubah Teutsch had made years before, now kept in her bedroom, helped to “frame gratitude for my day.”
“That was remarkable,” Teutsch said. “How often do you find out that you are really part of somebody’s daily rituals?”
‘Tradition Meets Contemporary’
Nava Shoham, an artist based in New Jersey, came to ketubah-making in a different way. After moving to America from Israel in 1993, the artist had her eyes opened to the wide variety of Jewish denominations in this country, something she was unaware of before the move. She had made a few ketubot for her Orthodox family back in Israel, but found a huge new customer base, with different tastes to adapt to. If the endless scroll of happy couples with her ketubot on hand on her website, 1800ketubah.com, is to be trusted, she cracked that nut a long time ago.
“It brings me joy, it really brings me joy,” she said
Shoham, who has spent time in the fashion world and in graphic design, makes both originals and templates, wildly colorful across each and every one she produces. Her work is “tradition meets contemporary,” in her words, and over the years she’s kept her designs fresh by experimenting as much as she can.
Like Teutsch, she takes great pride in the relationships she develops with the couples she works for.
The ketubah, she says, is “an heirloom, it’s something that they cherish for many years.” At this point in her career, she’s sometimes contracted to make baby-naming designs for couples she met before they were married. “I’m part of people’s lives, part of people’s celebrations,” she said.
Rachel Marks was finding it terribly difficult to pick a ketubah when she and her husband were married in 2009.
“I couldn’t really find anything at the time that I really liked,” she recalled.
So what’s an art school graduate to do? She made her own ketubah, and a career was launched.
Marks has made a career of making her own meaning, in a way. Describing she and her husband as “lapsed” Conservative Jews, she said that one of the main drivers of her desire to make her own ketubah was to find something specifically meaningful to them; now, she does the same for the couples that she works with.
The name of her business, Tallulah Ketubah, is a reference to both the Irish name “Tallulah” and the Native American word pronounced in the same way, meaning “leaping water.” The name, Marks said, signals that her work is not just for traditionally religious Jews, but for same-gender and intermarried couples as well. She enjoys the artistic challenge of marrying different languages and cultural traditions into one.
After moving to Philadelphia from Baltimore in 2013, Marks had her first daughter, and decided that while she was home, she’d begin to create ketubot, both individualized for couples and as templates.
“It’s been great,” she said. “I feel like it has enabled me to continue painting, to actually be a paid working artist, which is every artist’s goal. And the custom work especially is very collaborative, and so I get to really to a certain extent know the couples that I’m working with.”
And like Shoham and Teutsch, she’s beginning to see the ensuing life cycle events that come after marriage for the couples she’s worked with, and she treasures her role in that.
“It’s so nice to see that I had some small part in the beginning of their married life together,” she said.
Jesse Bernstein writes for the Jewish Exponent, an affiliated publication of the Baltimore Jewish Times.