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.