We’re excited to welcome our guest blogger, Arielle Angel of Ketuv.com. What follows is an illuminating piece on the significance of the ketubah and how Arielle and her artist colleagues create works of art for couples of all religions.

A few years ago, when a friend of the family asked me to “paint their ketubah,” I didn’t even know what a ketubah was, much less what you were supposed to put on them. I learned quickly: the ketubah is a Jewish marriage contract, signed at the wedding to unite a couple by Jewish law, and often hung in the couple’s bedroom thereafter. The tradition of decorative ketubot goes back centuries.

A quick internet search revealed that there were lots of ketubot with trees on them, and that seemed to be what the couple wanted, too. A trained artist, I approached the job like any other commission, listening to the couple’s needs and translating them into my own personal style, using the medium I was most interested in at the time, gouache and gold leaf.

Years later, after several more ketubah commissions, my co-worker at a New York arts non-profit, Maya, suggested that perhaps there was a reason people were asking me—an artist, but not a “ketubah artist”—to create their ketubot, as opposed to going with one of the pages and pages of Judaica and ketubah stores on the internet. People were looking for something different, a fresh take on an old form. Why not get contemporary fine artists involved in making ketubot and reinvigorating the tradition?

Fast forward a few years and now Maya and I have started Ketuv, a ketubah company dedicated to helping people connect to tradition, and to one another, through hip wedding artwork by contemporary fine artists. At Ketuv, we feel that no matter who you are or what your background is, the ketubah tradition has something to offer. Here are a few ways we at Ketuv hope to push your conception of the ketubah a little further, thereby making it truly yours.

Ketubahs, they’re not just for Jews anymore: Yes, the ketubah originates in the Jewish tradition, but ultimately, the ketubah is simply a document that outlines the terms of the marriage. In a word, they are your wedding vows. Add art to the mix, and you’ve got an heirloom: a beautiful, visual representation of your marriage, and the oaths that you and your partner have made to one another. For Jewish and Interfaith couples, as well as non-Jewish couples, the ketubah is a wonderful way to connect to your partner and commemorate your wedding day.

Your ketubah, your words: While Jews who identify as Orthodox or Conservative don’t have a lot of leeway when it comes to ketubah texts, Jews of other denominations or secular/unaffiliated Jews, Interfaith couples, Same-Sex couples and non-Jews can basically do, well, whatever they want. This means your ketubah can say exactly what you want it to. At Ketuv, we can guide you in developing and applying your own ketubah text or vows, or you can choose from one of the multiple text options we have available, appropriate for all different kinds of couples.

Finally, and most importantly:

Not just trees: We love trees. Trees are awesome. But, they’re not the only symbol appropriate for a ketubah.

In the past, Judaica artists used to allow themselves to be influenced by the world around them, and the popular arts and cultural movements of the time.  But around the 1970s, Judaica started to become one thing: the painting of the rabbi, the trees on the ketubah, the watercolor Jerusalem. Traditional and progressive people alike associate these generic images with “Judaica” and they feel if they don’t look for something similar for their ketubah, they are not fulfilling tradition.

Actually, it’s the other way around. The real Judaica tradition involves engaging with the world around you. Our ketubot are appropriate for the occasion of marriage, but develop out of our artists’ studio practice. We focus on design, color, or illustration, and we try to guide our artists in thinking about the union of two people as they create. Other than that, we don’t limit their conception of the ketubah, which means that the artwork transcends what we traditionally think of as “ketubah art” and becomes, simply “art.” This also means that many of our limited edition prints are appropriate for Jewish, Interfaith and non-Jewish couples alike.

When commissioning a custom ketubah, we encourage our clients to think about the aspects of their relationship they most want to highlight. Is there a place that is important to you both? Are there colors that have symbolic significance? Do you and your partner have shared values or hobbies you’d like to highlight? Why not let your ketubah depict the park bench where he proposed or the score of a piece of music you both love? You can build your ketubah or wedding vows around the story of your love.

The bottom line: there is no reason your ketubah has to look like everyone else’s. The best way to honor tradition is to make it your own. And whether or not the ketubah is a part of your tradition, it will certainly become a rich and meaningful part of your future together.

Arielle Angel