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Jewish Journal

My Very Own Chuppah

by Carin Davis

February 7, 2002 | 7:00 pm

Kimberly and David Gowing stand under the quilt chuppah during their wedding at the Skirball Cultural Center. Photo by David Michael Photography

Kimberly and David Gowing stand under the quilt chuppah during their wedding at the Skirball Cultural Center. Photo by David Michael Photography

Hold onto your son's baby blanket. Don't give away your daughter's cheerleading uniform. If they hold precious memories and deep meanings, you may be able to recycle them -- as part of your child's chuppah.

Chuppahs and ketubahs are long-standing Jewish wedding traditions. But Los Angeles couples are now taking their heritage to a more personal place, using chuppahs and ketubahs with intimate, as well as religious, significance. And they are asking their parents to help them create these special wedding fixtures.

With their parents' assistance, Los Angeles-area brides and grooms are trading in hotel rent-a-coverings and standard flowered archways for chuppahs they can truly call their own. Joan and Joel Schrier of Brentwood helped their daughter and son-in-law produce a patchwork chuppah. Joan Schrier, a Skirball Cultural Center docent, sent out 36 fabric squares to her daughter's wedding guests, asking the friends and relatives to decorate their swatch with a meaningful illustration.

"Weddings all have common denominators: a white bridal dress, a band and not-so-wonderful food. This was a way to make Kimberly and David's wedding unique to them," Schrier said. She collected the finished squares and her husband sewed them into the quilt under which their daughter, Kimberly Gowing, married.

Gowing, a pediatrician, attended Palisades High School with her husband David, a singer-songwriter. The former classmates started dating after their 10-year reunion and married on July 1, 2001, at the Skirball.

"It was amazing to stand under the chuppah, glance up during the ceremony and see how many special people contributed to our day," Gowing said. Cherished chuppah panels displayed the handprints of a 6-month-old niece, a non-Jewish friend's Tree of Life and Joan Schrier's embroidered Rashi quote. The Gowings, who now live in Seattle and attend Temple De Hirsch Sinai, plan to prominently display their chuppah in their home.

The quilt chuppah is a fast-growing Los Angeles wedding trend. Nicole Jessel Heilman, who attends Temple Judea in Tarzana, also recruited her guests' talents. "I wanted to get my family and friends involved with our wedding," she said.

Heilman, a teacher, was married at the Bel Air Bay Club under a schoolhouse painted by her kindergarten teacher, photos scanned by a childhood friend and a police car she designed for her husband, Dave, a law enforcement officer. Heilman's mother, Maxine Jessel, spearheaded her daughter's chuppah effort. "It's the way people who shared in their lives could share in their ceremony," said Jessel, owner of The Max Event Coordinators.

Variations on the patchwork chuppah are springing up around the Southland. Some couples turn to themselves, not their guests, for square ideas. Newlyweds-to-be have sewn together fabric swatches from memory-filled clothing like football jerseys, baby blankets, beach towels from a first date at Zuma and even college pennants.

Carol Attia, owner of Under The Chuppah Online, has seen a significant increase in personalized chuppahs during her 10 years in business. She believes these self-designed chuppahs truly enhance a wedding day.

"A wedding is so personal, people want their chuppah to reflect who they are," said Attia, recalling one bride's chuppah made of white fairy lights. She sewed her favorite chuppah out of the mother-of-the-bride and mother-in-law's wedding dresses.

"The couple married under this chuppah viewed their wedding not as a union of two people but as a union of two families," Attia said. "It's wonderful that couples now feel free enough to express their love through creative concepts," she added.

Los Angeles couples and their parents display this same creativity with their original ketubah designs. While ketubah prints and texts can be purchased at Judaic galleries, catalogs and Web sites, many Angelenos produce their own. Original artwork can highlight everything from the couple's hobbies to their engagement stories.

Jessel recently created a ketubah that incorporated the newlywed's occupations. A teacher and a veterinarian, the couple's ketubah was covered with animals and children. "Bride and grooms really want the ketubah art to represent their lives, and their two worlds coming together," Jessel said.

Michah Parker, president of e-ketubah.com, just constructed a ketubah using a grandmother's painting of the bride and groom at sunset. Parker noted that the number of nonconventional ketubah requests he receives has increased every year since 1995. He credits this trend to technology

"Nontraditional, abstract, even bizarre, ketubah art and language has become more popular. When people surf the Internet, they get new and unusual ideas," Parker said. "Plus, now we can download art files, like the grandmother's work, or a friend's painting, so we have the ability to accommodate original ideas," he added.

Gene and Ruth Kirshner, members of Temple Beth El in San Pedro, enlisted modern technology to produce their daughter, Shana Johnson's, ketubah. Gene Kirshner authored the ketubah text and created the artwork on his home computer. "I once did a sample photo mat that looked like the two tablets. I had that in mind when I designed the art," said Kirshner, who once owned a framing business.

The proud father shaped his daughter's ketubah like the covenant tablets. "I've been putting away ketubah texts and ideas for years, in anticipation of my children's weddings. A ketubah is more meaningful if it has the exact words and images you want," Kirshner said.

Johnson, a physician's assistant, and her husband Matt, a Score Learning Center executive, married on March 25, 2001 at La Venta Inn in Palos Verdes. Johnson beams as she talks about her cherished ketubah. "I love it. It really captures our relationship, and it means even more to me and Matt because my Dad made it for us," Johnson said. Their ketubah, written in English, is bordered in the same deep rose color as Johnson's bridesmaid's dresses.

"It's so much more special and personal than the standard ketubah. It was a way to take the Jewish heritage and make it our own," said Johnson, whose ketubah hangs in her living room.

This desire to mesh Jewish culture with personal expression seems to drive these wedding trends. In producing their own chuppahs and ketubahs, couples weave their religious ties with their own lives. And in doing so, perhaps they are starting their own tradition.

Gowing was so moved by her personalized chuppah and her parent's involvement, she hopes to continue the custom when she has children of her own. "I'd love if they got married under our quilt chuppah, but with an added a perimeter of squares made just for them," Gowing said. Perhaps this new nuptial trend is actually becoming a new nuptial tradition.

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