Rewriting the Traditional Ketubahby Brie Stimson February 27, 2017
Julianna Bright, a Portland, Ore.,-based artist, is attempting to modernize the traditional ketubah design and the text that resides in it. Ketubot, which were originally legal marriage documents outlining the responsibilities of the bride and the groom, have become, for many modern Jews, a way of symbolizing their love and commitment and memorializing their wedding day.
Bright began designing ketubah artwork at the suggestion of her Israeli brother-in-law. To modernize the traditional text, she turned to several author friends to write their own.
Stylistically in the tradition of ketubah, her artwork has a folksy and ornamental quality.
“I think for a lot of modern Jewish couples, and I think interfaith couples and even people who aren’t Jewish who want to have a document that memorializes their vows, those original scripts [are] a little transactional and quite old fashioned,” Bright tells the Jewish Journal. “So I think now if you shop for ketubah on most sites there will be one that is the secular script, or the Humanist script or the Reform or maybe a same-sex couple script and you can sort of choose from those categories. What we did was we kind of wanted to take it one step further and invite people who are writers to take the original script and reimagine.”
Bright says traditional ketubot have a classic Judaica style to them, “and more and more I think there is some interest in modern alternatives.”
Here is an example of a traditional ketubah text, which focuses on the groom’s obligations to feed, clothe and attend to his wife’s conjugal rights:
“On the [day of the week], the [day of the Hebrew month], the [year] after the creation of the world, according to the manner in which we count [dates] here in, the bridegroom […] son of […] said to this […] daughter of […], ‘Be my wife according to the law of Moses and Israel. I will work, honor, feed and support you in the custom of Jewish men, who work, honor, feed, and support their wives faithfully. I will give you the settlement of […] silver zuzim, which is due you according to […] law, as well as your food, clothing, necessities of life, and conjugal needs, according to the universal custom.’
Ms. […] agreed, and became his wife. This dowry that she brought from her father’s house, whether in silver, gold, jewelry, clothing, home furnishings, or bedding, Mr. […], our bridegroom, accepts as being worth […] silver pieces (zekukim).
Our bridegroom, Mr. […] agreed, and of his own accord, added an additional […] silver pieces paralleling the above. The entire amount is then […] silver pieces.”
With her new mission to modernize the script, Bright first reached out to her friend Alicia Jo Rabins, a poet, musician and Torah teacher.
“It felt important to me to ask Jews to do this writing,” Bright says, “especially because I think the original text is … very important if you’re Orthodox or if you’re Conservative, but it felt like asking someone to reimagine it through the prism of their cultural experience. I’d say of all of the texts [Rabin’s] is maybe the most traditional.”
“Chesed (Loving kindness). Boundaries. Beauty. Chesed. We will love each other unconditionally. We will love each other forever. With full hearts, we choose each other; we accept each other as we are. We recognize the sacred light at the center of our union, and the sacred light inside each other. We will nurture this light for the rest of our days.
Gevurah (Boundaries). We will be honest with each other. We will be true to each other. We will be real with each other. We will honor each other’s limits, and our own limits, so that our love will be boundless. We will grant each other the space to grow and change, so that our union will thrive. We will maintain our lives as separate people, so that our life together will be a true and beautiful union of two souls.
Tiferet (Beauty) We will see and recognize the beauty in each other and in our union. We will create harmony in our home. We will return to balance, again and again. We will journey through life together. We will celebrate our love in every season.”
Each ketubah text that Bright and her author friends have re-worked, so far five different author texts and two “BK house texts,” is distinct and reflects the personalities and writing style of its author.
Here is another text, written by Sara Jaffe:
“It’s still solid there Remember when we said we weren’t sure? We didn’t know if it was too soon. We didn’t know if it was too conventional. We weren’t yet ready to become our parents, or to become parents. Remember when we were at the kitchen table in the car on the island at that one dark bar? When what we felt was vast and uncontainable? When we wanted to find a way to ensure the lastingness of that moment, without containing it? It was too soon. It was the wrong-sized container. It was too late, because our life already looked like something. And then our minds changed like the weather. The us of now is no more or less committed, no more or less real, yet there was the sensation of stepping off a cliff. It’s still solid there.”
Although not Jewish herself, Bright is married to a Jew and has her ketubah from their wedding up on the wall.
“I think at least in Jewish families there are people for whom ketubah is an important part of the ritual. It’s definitely something that goes up on the wall,” she says, “something that’s a sacred place in the home and a place for couples to return for encouragement and reverie and to remember their vows and refuel.”
Bright has been an artist and musician for years, and met her husband through music. They were in several bands together before becoming a couple. She has designed artwork for album covers, playing cards, books and has had her work displayed in galleries. She started her online ketubah business just last fall, and says she hopes her ketubot, seven designs available so far, have a timeless quality to them with a bit of modernity.
“I think one of the things that appealed to me most about the ketubah,” Bright says, “is the idea of binding an intention in a beautiful work of art with a partner, to be able to take something that is kind of so esoteric and hard to pin down … and put it into something that is physical and I like that a lot. I like the intentionality of it.”
Her website is brightketubah.com.