Tag Archives: Hebrew

Casting Love Ketubah

Casting Love Ketubah, sumi ink and egg tempera on ragboard, 18" square, 2014

Casting Love Ketubah, sumi ink and egg tempera on ragboard, 18″ square, 2014

I enjoyed transforming the story of a couple, Anna and Andrew, into visual motives for this ketubah (Jewish illustrated marriage contract).  Andrew works in his family’s steel business.   Casting steel is a wonderful metaphor for creating a new, strong relationship.  Thus, the foundation of this design is the glowing forge, where a steelworker is pouring molten metal into the mold of a heart.  The forge also symbolizes the hearth, source of warmth and sustenance in the home.

Extending the “building” metaphor, reading counter-clockwise from the bottom, there are steel girders, followed by a pair of bower birds.  The male of this species creates an elaborate nest, which he decorates with colorful bits of paper and plastic, in hopes of wooing a mate.  So romantic!

Above the birds is a huppah, symbol of the home Anna and Andrew will create together.  Flying above the jasmine and hibiscus flowers is a hawk, a personal symbol for them.  Chicago’s majestic skyline at sunset surmounts the circle.  Continuing the circular motif are golden rings:  wedding bands, symbols of eternal love. Here they double as microscope lenses, through which we see slides of healthy breast and cervical tissue.  This represents Anna’s profession as a medical doctor, specializing in women’s health.

Returning to the personal narrative of Anna and Andrew, the circle is completed with a Lake Michigan sunset, as seen from the eastern shore, where they go to relax and unwind.

Finding a way to incorporate such disparate elements as the steel industry and gynecology was a wonderful challenge!  Anna and Andrew gave me free rein, which helped me fulfill the commission while allowing my creative stream to flow, unimpeded.

Revisiting Old Work

Ketubah, Judith Joseph, 1983. Watercolor, ink, ricepaper, ragboard.

Ketubah, Judith Joseph, 1983. Watercolor, ink, ricepaper, ragboard.

I get a funny feeling when someone brings me a piece of my work from decades ago.  I’m nervous.  Will the work look awkward?  Will it look amateurish?  Will this work of art be the painted equivalent of looking in a mirror and seeing a juvenile version of myself, with braces on my teeth and pimples on my face?

The oddest thing is when I don’t even remember the work.  I look at it, and I recognize the style, it’s unmistakably mine, yet I have no recollection of having made it.

The ketubah pictured here was made for a dear friend’s wedding in 1983.  I must have been in a hurry, because I didn’t get a photo of it, which is very unusual for me.  She moved with it far away, and I didn’t see it (although I have seen her) for at least 25 years.

She recently loaned me the ketubah so I could photograph it for my portfolio.  I never did a similar work, before or since.  The arches in the ketubah are cut into 4-ply ragboard, so there is a layered, dimensional quality.  I used metallic gold ricepaper, which is still shiny.  I was in a phase of using silhouetted dancers in my paintings, they appear here.

I look in the mirror of the past, and I see my younger self, smiling and joyous for my friend.

What is it like for you, when you see something you made many years ago?

Miles of Letters; Years of Love

Rabbi Frederick Wenger (l.) and Rochelle Wenger, holding their ketubah from 1973, at the wedding of their daughter, Miriam, to Daniel Landis, in 2010. (Photo by Amy Little Photography)

In the photo above, my artistic life is graphically bookmarked.  On the left is Rabbi Fred Wenger with his lovely bride, Rochelle.  At the age of 17, I made the ketubah for their wedding (which they are holding).  It was Fred’s idea:  he’s the kind of guy who recognizes a spark of potential in a person and nags them until they blossom.

It came about because I was an arty kid, and I mentioned to Fred that I had discovered a Jewish folk art I hadn’t seen before:  the decorative ketubah.  Fred’s response was, “You know, I’m getting married this summer.  Why don’t you make my ketubah?”  To which I answered in typical teenage fashion, “I don’t know how.  It’s too hard.  I wouldn’t know where to begin.”  Fred coached me.  He knew that I had enough Hebrew and artistic background to pull it off, and to say he lit a fire in me is an under-statement.
The last time I saw Fred and Rochelle in person was sometime in the 80’s, when they were still living in the Chicago area.  They later moved to Salt Lake City, Utah, where Fred was the rabbi at Cong. Kol Ami until he recently retired.  They raised their two children, Haim and Miriam, and when Miriam announced her engagement, they called me to say that they wanted to commission me to make her ketubah as their wedding gift to her.  I told them that they’d have to come up with something else to give Miriam and her fiance, Daniel, because this one’s on me.
The amazing thing is:  Miriam and Daniel have my first second-generation ketubah, and their parents have the first one I ever made.  It was truly beshert (destined):  I had another couple in line to be the first second-generation couple, but they changed their mind.  The universe intended for this milestone to be in the hands of the Wenger-Landis family.
Perhaps it seems grandiose to say that the universe put it’s big hand into this little arrangement.  But, when I look at the photo: at the primitive, shaky, faded work done by a kid who didn’t know about archival materials, yet expressed the exuberance of discovery; contrasted with a ketubah that reflects my life’s work (so far) of making ketubot, it moves me.  What also moves me is seeing the faces of my dear friends, who were shy, coltish, crazy-in-love kids when I made their ketubah in 1973, and how well life has turned out for them.  They are beloved in their community, have years of good works that have helped many, and have raised two wonderful and successful adult children– now they have Daniel in the family, too!
We move through our lives, as my dad says when I ask him how he’s doing:  “Just plodding along.”  We seldom get the opportunity to take stock of where we came from, and where we’ve arrived.  This photo does that for me.  I feel very blessed to have met Fred and Rochelle, and for the tremendous impact Fred made in my life by simply saying, “Why don’t you make my ketubah?”  It reminds me that we all can have this impact, if we pay attention, and put our energies towards positive things, for ourselves and in encouraging others.  Being a free-lance artist isn’t an easy life; it is constantly challenging and frustrating at times, but this is more than offset by the joy I experience in making ketubot as a collaborative art form.
If you’d like to see Miriam and Daniel’s ketubah close-up, and some more, too, click here.