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Tying the knot, Jewish-style

New exhibit explores wedding traditions, old and new

By Cindy Mindell

WEST HARTFORD – Turn on a reality-TV show or flip through a bridal magazine and it will quickly become apparent that the modern American wedding is not an easy undertaking to plan or to avoid. Constructing the ceremony and celebration that are billed as the happiest day in one’s life requires patient navigation through the infinite trappings and trends of what has become a $55 billion industry.

Unless one holds to staunch religious tenets, the modern wedding is apt to infiltrate the plans of even the most conservative engaged couple. As American Jews have acculturated and assimilated, the traditional Jewish wedding has morphed as well, bringing modern twists to ancient customs like the chuppah, breaking of the glass, modest bridal gown styles, and the Sheva B’rachot — Seven Blessings.

How has the Jewish wedding changed over recent history? In a new exhibit, the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford explores the evolution of this significant lifecycle event.

“Breaking the Glass: The American Jewish Wedding” features a display of vintage wedding gowns from the University of Connecticut Historical Costume and Textile Collection. Reaching further back in time, the exhibit showcases reproductions of 12 antique ketubot from the collection of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. (See page 19 for more information on the exhibit and related programs.)

These Jewish marriage contracts from all over the world not only tell the story of the couples standing under chuppot throughout Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East, but also shine a light on the Jewish communities they hailed from, many now gone.

A rabbinic (rather than biblical) tradition, the ketubah dates to Talmudic times (70-500 C.E.) and is the standard marriage contract that Jewish law requires a groom to provide for his bride on their wedding day. Signed by two witnesses, it outlines the man’s obligations to the woman, including traditional conjugal rights such as food, clothing, and shelter, as well as his financial obligations to his wife in case of divorce or widowhood. Rabbinic authorities considered the ketubah so fundamental to Jewish marriage that a couple was not allowed to live together without one, or in the event the document was destroyed or lost.

Written in Aramaic, the common language when the text was first standardized, the ketubah is an egalitarian document that appears in the home of every Jewish married couple across socio-economic and geographic spectrums. It is also a public document, traditionally read aloud during the marriage ceremony.

And since it is publicly displayed, writes Nanette Stahl, the Joseph and Ceil Mazer Librarian for Judaic Studies at Yale, many Jewish communities throughout the world – mostly Sephardic – developed indigenous decorative traditions to enhance the ketubah. Stahl explains that the university’s collection lacks examples from eastern and central Europe because Ashkenazi Jews considered the marriage contract only as a standard legal document.

“Though the text is primarily the same in all Jewish communities, no one style characterizes the art of the ketubah”, Stahl wrote in “Art of the Ketubah: A Study in Jewish Diversity,” a 2009 exhibit at Yale. “Different Jewish communities adopted styles and even shapes for their ketubot that were characteristic of their localities and often reflected the artistic traditions of the countries in which they lived.”

For example, while Italian ketubot “reflect the openness of Italian Jewry to the rich artistic heritage of its surrounding culture,” Stahl writes, those created in Muslim lands exclude human figures, in keeping with Muslim and Jewish religious restrictions.

With the development of modern printing processes, the handwritten, illuminated ketubah all but disappeared by the 20th century. In the late ‘60s, the tradition was revived by American Jewish artist David Moss and others. Today, the document is still written in Aramaic, and some couples choose to include Hebrew and other languages in the text. The exhibit also includes examples of modern ketubot.

“Breaking the Glass: The American Jewish Wedding,” on display from June 26 through Sept. 30 at the Mandell JCC Chase Family Gallery, 335 Bloomfield Ave., West Hartford. For more information visit jhsgh.org.

CAP: A Ketubah from Bozzolo, Italy that dates back to 1780.

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