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'Brooklyn' Ketubahs Give Ancient Aramaic Marriage Contract a Modern Edge

By Sonja Sharp | August 1, 2013 9:35am
  Young female artists in Brooklyn are updating the venerable Jewish bridal contract for hip city couples
'Brooklyn' Ketubahs Add Modern Edge to Ancient Text
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BROOKLYN — It's the ancient Aramaic version of a prenup.

While revolutionary for its time, the lengthy bridal contract at the center of every Jewish wedding is not a particularly feminist document by modern standards. And until recently, it hasn't been a particularly attractive one, either.

"Ninety percent of this stuff is heinous, and so much of it just looks alike," said Brooklyn artist Erika Scott, one of a small but growing number of young local artists who custom make ketubahs featuring everything from urban landscapes to graffiti-inspired insignia for hip couples looking update the ancient tradition.

"When I first started doing this four years ago, you would Google 'ketubah' and it was the same thing over and over and over. it was so traditional, there was nothing contemporary about it, and there was nothing that would speak to anyone our age unless you were very religious and that’s what you were used to."

Tradition is good, as far as it goes. The text of the ketubah has changed little in millennia: the groom promises to feed, clothe and please the bride, and makes material provisions for her in the event of his death or their divorce. The document is signed by two witnesses, read aloud to the wedding guests and given to the bride as part of the marriage ceremony. 

"It’s a symbol of your relationship together,"  said Clinton Hill artist Elke Reva Sudin, who both ornaments and letters custom ketubahs — including her own. "It makes it special to have something that’s going to solidify your relationship, that’s going to give hope for a bright future." 

In the past century, some Jews have altered the text to be more egalitarian, and some couples now chose to sign the ketubah themselves. But surprisingly few have found ways to update its fusty exterior, a mix of mid-century florals and boxy Jerusalem landscapes, with the occasional peacock or pomegranate thrown in. 

Until now. 

"I’ve done ketubahs that are very Brooklyn, that have the Brooklyn Bridge," Sudin said. "People are looking for more inventive ketubahs rather than a copy of something very traditional you can buy in a store, they’re looking for something that fits their attitude and their lifestyle."

Scott, who specializes in the intricate art of papercut, has created several New York-specific contracts for local couples, including the High Line and Prospect Park. 

"I think people in New York City are really are connected to places, whether the Brooklyn Bridge or a certain park or certain buildings, because there’s so many visual landmarks," she said. "[One] couple that I was working with had their engagement pictures taken in Prospect Park. They knew they wanted something of the park, and they gave me a bunch of photos that their photographer had taken." 

As more local couples have started looking for unique alternatives to the traditional contract, more artists have found themselves creating them. 

"I’ve never seen myself as a religious artist, someone that makes religious things," said artist Sara Erenthal, a Borough Park native who grew up in the neighborhood's ultra-Orthodox community and recently completed her first ketubah.

"It’s a big deal to ask for people’s support for my work, so I made it a point to go out of my way and make time and to touch on something I never imagined I would do."

Though she was reticent at first, Erenthal said the experience was a wholly positive one,  both for her and her clients, and that more couples would probably seek out custom contracts if they only knew they could. 

"It’s actually a nice piece of art, it’s not just a religious document," Erenthal said. "I think there’s a world out there that doesn’t know that it’s quite possible. I think people seeing this can definitely open their minds."