Nancy and Kim Goldov wanted to personalize everything about their wedding. She sewed her own gown. He composed music for the ceremony. They both created a new last name to share: combining Stolov and Goldschmidt into Goldov. So it probably didn't surprise anyone that the couple spent months crafting a one-of-a-kind chuppah to say their vows under.
"The rabbi used the image of weaving our lives together," when he commented about the way Nancy and Kim carefully planned their creative wedding, with the help of friends and family. Nancy says they decided to make their own chuppah out of hand-dyed silk and handcrafted wood in part because they wanted to create a lasting memory.
"The wedding became a focus for all of our creative energy," she explained.
They also were able to take such a creative approach to the chuppah because they had lots of time and friends who were craftspeople and willing to help with the woodworking and dying of the silk.
"It wasn't a sudden wedding. It was a very planned wedding," Nancy said. "It's not something every couple could do or want to.... We kind of went overboard."
But now, thanks to their hard work, Nancy and Kim also have a beautiful canopy over their bed. They can look up and see the magical "tree of life" with pomegranates, apples and figs. The tree surrounds a Star of David made from a piece of spallted maple wood found in a park. The four posts of the canopy are a delicate combination of several different kinds of wood.
Nancy says the chuppah cost a few hundred dollars to make, but is now considered a priceless family heirloom. She is having a quilt made for their bed that mimics the design of the tree. Someday she may change the chuppah in some way to signify their children.
One of the questions Nancy asked concerning her creative chuppah was whether it adhered to Jewish law concerning wedding ceremonies. According to The Jewish Catalog and Rabbi Maurice Lamm's book, "The Jewish Way in Love and Marriage" (Jonathan David, 1991) the chuppah is affected more by tradition than law.
Traditionally, the wedding ceremony took place under the stars as an omen that the marriage should be blessed with as many children as stars in heaven. To create a more intimate space for the ceremony, rabbis in the Middle Ages allowed the use of a chuppah, which symbolizes the groom's home into which he invites the bride. It is required only for the seven blessings and only the bride and groom need to stand under it.
"It teaches that this simple, fragile room which is now common to both partners launches the marriage," Lamm explained.
As with any wedding ceremony decision, it is best to discuss chuppah ideas with your rabbi before you start collecting materials and assembling the structure. Depending on whether the rabbi is Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative or Orthodox, he or she may have different ideas about what is required.
Some of the more common kinds of chuppahs involve a tapestry or tallit fastened to the top of four poles. The poles can be held by four friends or put in some kind of stand. Keep in mind the length of your ceremony before making a decision about whether to have people hold the poles. Some brides prefer to decorate the tapestry with flowers.
How elaborate a chuppah you choose also depends on how much time and energy you want to put into the project. A combination of creative energy and a little chutzpah helped Jenifer Thornton and her mother create a special chuppah for her wedding.
"I'm in a creative field and I knew that I didn't want to just do the standard," Jenifer said, adding that they researched whether they could rent a creative chuppah but found nothing to their liking.
"We just kind of thought, if it works out, great." The only problem was -- and this would be a big problem for many brides -- they didn't know what the chuppah was going to look like until an hour before the wedding. They couldn't put it together in advance and then move to the location of the ceremony.
Jenifer and Philip Thornton's chuppah consisted of plaster columns; adorned with lace netting, green plants, ivy and copper ribbon.
"It was beautiful and everyone loved it. The only thing I would change would be the lighting," she said, indicating she would recommend backlighting the chuppah for a greater impact.
She says it wasn't expensive, but warns that finding proper columns can be a challenge. Most replicas that can be rented are too light and easily toppled by sudden movement.
"It's difficult to rent them," she said. "They have to be heavy. You definitely don't want them to fall over."
She rented the columns from a friend who doesn't usually loan them out.
Another approach to creating your own chuppah is to consult with an architect or a landscape designer. When Julie Israel got married about five years ago she was lucky enough to have an architectural designer right in the family, her mother, Linda Haugen.
The chuppah for Julie's wedding to David Israel consisted of "marbleized" wooden columns and a trellis covered in ivy and flowers. The structurally dramatic chuppah fit in well with the architecture at Temple De Hirsch Sinai.
"It was a very dramatic and important structure and it added considerably to the whole ceremony," she said.
Fitting the chuppah to the setting and the personalities of the bride and groom is very important, but perhaps the most critical aspect of the project is getting prepared to build it the night or morning before the wedding in just a few hours.
Her experience in architecture and the theater prepared Linda for the project.
"If someone wanted to have a chuppah like ours, they should turn to someone with our level of experience," she said. "It would be difficult for the average person to do it. It really involves a lot of thought and coordination."
When asked if such a structural chuppah could have a second life after the wedding, Linda said one could consider reconstructing it in their garden: "It's your first house and that's what's so lovely about it."