As the end of summer nears, a new exhibit offers a glimpse into the world of one of the most sacred and ritualized events in Judaism: the wedding. Opening on Aug. 18, and planned to run for sixth months, the Skirball Cultural Center will be hosting an exhibit on Jewish weddings titled "Romance and Ritual: A Celebration of the Jewish Wedding. "
Curated by Grace Cohen Grossman, author of "Jewish Art," the exhibit focuses particularly on the traditions and evolution of the Jewish wedding, and the objects, symbols and dress that have come to be associated with the occasion. Beginning with the Skirball's extensive collection of ketubot, or wedding contracts, it goes forward to include art created for Jewish weddings in the 1990s by local artists such as Ed Massey, photographer Bill Aron, and Sephardic artist Sarah Guerrero. The exhibit also showcases the objects created to mark the importance of beginning a family.
In curating the exhibit, Grossman says that it was essential for her "to maintain, what has remained basically the same: ketuba, chuppah (the wedding canopy), ring, blessings and drinking wine." From these basic elements, the exhibit attempts to show the cultural diversity of Jews and their wedding traditions. "The transition in weddings can be seen in lots of ways through different items," Grossman explains of the collection of objects, which includes expected items like wedding gowns, to the unusual, like a pair of mikveh (ritual bath) clogs and towel from 19th-century Rhodes.
The Skirball's exhibit highlights a collection of ketubot -- dating from the 17th century in Venice, Italy through a ketuba created in Shanghai in the mid-20th century for a Jewish refugee couple.
The display also celebrates the continuation of marriage as it blossoms into family. The wimple, or binding cloth traditionally embroidered by a woman for the birth of her son, displays the path Jewish parents ideally wish their son to take. The unique piece of Jewish folk art bears an inscription with the child's name and the words "May he grow up to Torah, to the chuppah and to do good deeds." It is used as a swaddling cloth at the circumcision ceremony and to wrap the Torah at the child's bar mitzvah.
The assemblage of Jewish wedding gowns begins with the Victorian style of the late 19th century, to a traditional wedding costume from Persia, to a unique dress that was created for a wedding in the 1970s. "American wedding gowns show changing fashions over time and parallel American Jewish experience in the stories associated with them and what the ceremonies were like," Grossman said. "Middle Eastern clothing changed from costumes similar to local costumes of the period to white wedding gowns, yet some couples still use the traditional clothing for some aspect of their wedding."
The juxtaposition of a delicate ivory silk and lace of a Victorian gown worn by Annie Oshinsky in 1876 next to a gold velvet wedding dress worn by Joan Felmus in 1973, shows that the idea of what is appropriate in marriage and celebration has expanded, and become more individualized. The collection contains dresses from several decades, including that of the 1940s wedding of Peachy Levy, a Jewish artist. Her classic princess gown, with its tiny waist and frothy skirt, was bought at Saks Fifth Avenue in 1949 for her Reform ceremony at the Beverly Hills Hotel. "I really can't remember trying on any other dress, although I'm sure I must have," Levy says. "I do remember that when I tried this one on I knew it was 'it'," Levy reminisces. As for her wedding day itself, like many overwhelmed brides her memory of the day is shady, "I must honestly say I don't remember much except that I was in a dream world to be married to my darling Mark."
One of the highlights of the wedding dress section is the exquisite one Ed Massey sculpted for his bride, Dawn Harris, to wear at their 1998 wedding. Similar to a wedding cake in its delicate covering of flowers -- made not of frosting, but of sculpting clay -- the dress weighs more than 150 pounds, and required rope handles hidden inside of the dress to steer it down the aisle. It also featured a sculpted duck pond on the back of the dress, complete with a family of ducks to symbolize the couple's hopes for beginning a family of their own, which was realized with the birth of their son, Felix. At Grossman's request, Massey has created an installation piece of his proposal and wedding to Harris at the Skirball; complete with the music Harris composed to have played at their wedding.
Of all the wedding components on display at the Skirball, Grossman said her favorite part of the wedding is when the ceremony is over and the couple walks back down the aisle. "To me, it really symbolizes them beginning their new life together hand in hand."
For more information, call the Skirball Cultural Center at (310) 440-4500 or visit www.skirball.org.