Before the wedding of her son, Michael, Elsa Wachs sent invitations to almost 50 family members. They weren't invitations to share the upcoming simcha -- not just yet -- but a request to contribute to the chuppah she was designing.
"You, our family, are very precious to us," she wrote, "and having a 'piece' of you in our family wedding canopy will mean a great deal to us.... I know you are wondering what you can send that will be significant; the answer is quite simple, almost anything! Your offerings are an integral part of our family history."
Not a single person failed to respond. Michael contributed a red plastic elephant-shaped key that opened information boxes at the Philadelphia Zoo, a happy token of his childhood. Diane, his bride-to-be, decided on a necklace Michael had given her. Though Diane's grandfather, a cantor, had died, Diane's mother sent his white pompom-topped hat.
Other relatives sent pieces of fur, gloves, even a tallit. Wachs herself contributed two scarves: one that her parents had given her when she was 16, and one that a cousin had brought back from his honeymoon -- the cousin had introduced Wachs to her husband, and Wachs, in turn, introduced the cousin to his wife.
Wachs sewed pieces of the mementos onto the antique ivory velvet and lace of the chuppah, creating a family album of sorts. In the 14 years since she made it, the heirloom chuppah has graced the weddings of her three sons, her cousin's two children and other relatives. Constructed in sections, the chuppah will eventually be split among the three sons.
An artist who lives in Wallingford, Pa., Wachs continues to create chuppot for couples of all denominations who want to beautify their wedding ceremonies. Her chuppah-collages have included keys from honeymoon suites, bits of Bermuda shorts, photographs and documents from birth certificates to ships' manifests and postcards (computer scanned, then silk-screened or transferred thermographically onto the fabric).
Wachs is not alone in her devotion to the growing art of the chuppah. The multipurpose flower-festooned or blue velvet canopies that used to be provided automatically by synagogues or catering halls have given way to decorative chuppot, exquisite in their design and distinctive in their meaning, commissioned both by families and synagogues.
A recent exhibit of contemporary Judaica at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in New York featured seven chuppot made of everything from luminescent copper wire and glass beads (by Nancy Koenigsberg) to translucent flax paper bordered with tea -- the beverage of relationships -- and eggshell -- symbol of new life (by Robbin Ami Silverberg).
Except for the fact that the chuppah is to be open on all sides, no halachic stipulations regulating size, shape or color limit the artists' imaginations. After the ceremony, these new chuppot serve as wall hangings in the home. Sometimes they are reused at baby namings.
Reeva Shaffer, a calligrapher and fiber artist in the Washington, D.C., area who has researched the chuppah, said it contains multiple meanings: "It is a sign of God's presence at the wedding and in the home; a gateway to life together; an entrance into the holy covenant of marriage; a shelter representing a new home; a symbol of Abraham and Sarah's welcoming tent." She refers to a Midrash describing how God created 10 splendid chuppot for the marriage of Adam and Eve (Breshit Rabbah).
Once, Shaffer said, it was common to conduct weddings in the open. "The stars would shine on the couple, and it was hoped that the marriage would be blessed with offspring as numerous and bright as the stars [based on Genesis 15:5]. The chuppah served as a booth, separating the wedding circle from the hustle of the street and creating a sacred space."
In Talmudic times, it was customary to plant a cedar -- representing majesty, strength, height and hardiness -- at the birth of a boy, and a cypress -- representing beauty and grace -- at the birth of a girl. Both also represented longevity and life. Chuppah poles were often made from branches cut from the trees.
According to "The Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols" (Jewish Publication Society, 1999) edited by Ellen Frankel and Betsy Platkin Teutsch, at the end of the betrothal period in ancient Israel, "a new bride was escorted in a festive procession to the groom's room or tent -- the chuppah -- where the marriage was consummated."
The chuppah also referred to the bridal canopy or the ceremony, itself. In Sephardic tradition, the chuppah usually consists of a tallit draped over the heads of the bride and groom, based on Ruth's words to Boaz: "Spread your robe over your handmaid, for you are a redeeming kinsman." In ancient times this act constituted a formal betrothal.
The chuppah served as an especially poignant sign of peace, transition and rebirth at the end of World War II, when thousands of Jewish refugees found sanctuary in displaced persons camps across Europe, awaiting immigration to the Holy Land and other countries. In a rush to reaffirm life, many survivors married and started families as quickly as possible.
Chuppot and wedding rings were in great demand. According to the records of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), which helped maintain religious life and supplied ritual necessities, 822 wedding rings appeared on a list of "amenities" in the American Zone in October 1946; 80 chuppot were distributed in 1948 among DP camps in Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Greece.
The blue, white and gold-fringed chuppot, manufactured in then-Palestine for the JDC, featured the Hebrew word "Zion" in the center of a large Magen David, surrounded by the words of the wedding blessing taken from Jeremiah: "The sound of joy and gladness; the voice of bridegroom and bride."
The JDC chuppot integrate the idea of weddings as acts of courage, faith and hope, not just in war-torn Europe, but in all times and places. Ritual art can embody and extend that spiritual notion.
Today, the proliferation of contemporary Judaica artists has increased the popularity of hand-crafted ceremonial wedding art. According to Terry Heller, whose company, Artistic Judaic Promotions, showcases Judaica artists, the chuppah sometimes becomes the first piece of art in a couple's new home.
"There is a need for beautiful Judaic art with modern interpretation," Shaffer agreed. "That is the concept of hiddur mitzvah [beautifying a commandment]." Shaffer incorporates her skill as a calligrapher into her chuppot, handpainting Hebrew phrases and the names of family members onto silk. Often commissioned by parents, families send back the chuppot to add new names every time another child or relative marries.
Many chuppah artists like to use gematria (the correspondence of Hebrew letters and numbers). One popular gematria is 32, which corresponds to lev (heart). Wachs, for instance, created a chuppah in which each panel has 32 flowers. The tzitzit also correspond to 32, with eight strands in four corners.
"In Ashkenazic tradition the bride gives the groom a tallit, to symbolize the giving of the heart," she explained. Other significant numbers are 18 for chai (life); seven for completeness, wholeness and luck, and 10 for community (the number of a minyan).
Ita Aber, an artist in New York, combines Ashkenazic and Sephardic symbols -- protective and fertility amulets, the hamsa (the Middle Eastern "hand of God"), Egyptian scarabs, turquoise, love birds with red ribbons hanging from their mouths and all kinds of rings that connote binding two people together.
For a chuppah that is now in the Smithsonian Institution, she embroidered hearts in each corner, but the design is based on four conjoined horns of an ancient altar at Megiddo that form the shape of a heart when put together. "The hearts represent both love and sanctity," she noted. Family heirlooms like the chuppah are vital, she explained, because years after the Holocaust, people again believe in continuity. "The chuppah," she said, "will go from generation to generation."
Rahel Musleah is an award-winning journalist and author who presents programs on the Jewish communities of India, where she was born. Her Web site is www.rahelsjewishindia.com.