Jewish Journal

To each his own… Ketubah

by Anita K. Kantrowitz

Posted on May. 10, 2011 at 5:20 pm

Custom ketubot by Robert Saslow

Custom ketubot by Robert Saslow

For Rabbi Mike Comins and his bride-to-be, Jody Porter, the decision to commission a custom ketubah was a no-brainer. Comins, who had advised many couples about matrimonial matters over the course of his career, firmly believed in the centrality of a ketubah to the covenant of marriage. Porter agreed, adding that “since a spiritual journey was part of our courtship, it was important for us to have this [a ketubah] be a part of our wedding.”

For Comins and Porter, and many other couples who choose a custom ketubah, or wedding contract, finding an artist who is open to working collaboratively with them — on both text and design — is of utmost importance. And while printed ketubot are readily available at Judaica stores or via the Internet, finding a custom ketubah artist is more challenging.

Comins and Porter turned to San Fernando Valley native Robert Saslow, an artist and calligrapher who has been creating custom ketubot since the mid-1980s. Comins had first seen Saslow’s work when he created a ketubah for Comins’ brother’s wedding nearly 16 years ago; Comins said he immediately “fell in love with his work” and has been recommending him to couples ever since.

Although Saslow grew up making art, having been raised by a watercolorist/printmaker mother and an architect father, he assumed he’d have a career in commercial or graphic arts. But his career took a decidedly Jewish turn when he saw his first ketubah while teaching art at the Reform movement’s Camp Swig in the summer of 1983.

Intrigued by both the concept and the creative possibilities of ketubot, Saslow decided to try his hand at one. That same year, he surprised his mother — on the occasion of her second marriage — with his first ketubah. Word spread, and since then Saslow has created custom and printed ketubot for scores of Jewish couples, including rabbis; Jewish professionals; and secular, interfaith, gay and lesbian Jews. His printed ketubot are featured at Gallery Judaica in Westwood as well as on sites such as ketubah.com.

Shopping for a custom ketubah

How do we find an artist?
Custom ketubah artists tend not to advertise, so your best bet is word of mouth. Ask around — friends, people at your synagogue and, if you have one, your wedding planner.

How do we see an artist’s work?
Look at her portfolio to see the range of her work. Ask questions about what you see; it will help you learn about her methods.

How do we know he’ll be reliable?
As you ask your list of questions, you’ll get a sense of the artist’s temperament and personality. But, even if you found the artist through your best friend, ask to speak to prior customers. If he won’t give you referrals, find someone else.

How much input can we have?
Ask the artist how much leeway there is in her design. Some artists have strong ideas of what they want the ketubah to look like, some are completely open to input from the couple (even on artistic issues), and some are in between. Figure out how involved you want to be and choose accordingly.

How do we know the ketubah will last, physically?
Be sure the materials — paper, ink and paint — are of archival quality. You want to know that you’ll still be able to read the text on your 50th anniversary, and, especially if your tastes run toward vibrant colors, that they’ll remain bright over time.

How can we ensure that we’ll still want to see it on our 50th anniversary?

Saslow tells couples their ketubah is kind of like a tattoo — you plan to have it for the rest of your life, so think very carefully about what you want it to say. Do you want it to be a snapshot of where you’ve been together, or of the wedding day itself, or a vision of your future together — or some combination? Whatever you decide, he recommends you not get too specific about the “future” — keep those dreams in the realm of ideas, not tangibles.

How long will it take?

Find out up front what the artist requires; you don’t want to rush anyone who will be involved (sometimes rabbis approve the text). Saslow needs three to six months from the first design meeting to completion.

How will the final product be presented?
Because the ketubah will be signed at the wedding, it’s best not to frame it beforehand. But you do need to protect it: Saslow wraps his ketubot, against a stiff backing board, with clear acetate that you pull back during the signing — for which you use the archival-quality pens he includes.

How much will it cost, and how will we pay for it?

Compared to a print, a custom ketubah is a significant investment. Saslow’s custom ketubot run from approximately $2,000 to $4,000. Some artists offer payment plans; Saslow permits couples three payments. Couples also find creative ways to afford their ketubah, he said, including creating a “ketubah fund” on their wedding-gift wish list.

A calligrapher as well as an artist, Saslow creates every part of his custom ketubot by hand. Because there are no halachic restrictions on decorative components of ketubot, Saslow chooses his materials for both effect and longevity: a grade of imported French Arches watercolor paper that is smooth enough to allow distinct calligraphic lettering yet just rough enough to allow color saturation; long-lasting Japanese sumi black ink; gouache paints for a rich color palette; and colored pencils for both fine detail and pastel effects.

But before he even begins to create a design, Saslow learns as much as he can about a couple and their relationship, believing, he said, “A ketubah should be as unique as the couple that it is for.” Couples fill out a worksheet, of Saslow’s creation, containing questions about their lives together — how they met, their hopes for their marriage — and about things that are important to them, from animals and colors to ritual objects and philosophies.

Next, Saslow meets with a couple to “learn about their journey together,” he said.

“I ask them what they want to say, conceptually; I learn about them theologically and philosophically … and I base my design on their life together.”

During this one- to two-hour design meeting, Saslow begins the process of incorporating the couple’s thoughts and ideas into a coherent design.

“I sketch, we modify; I sketch some more. I tell them to be brutally honest about what they like and don’t like.” And although it will take another three to six months to complete the ketubah — including some back and forth for modifications along the way — Saslow said that by the end of the design meeting, he and the couple have agreed on a detailed design.

Story continues after the jump.

Lisa Wolkin said that when she and her husband-to-be, Seth, met with Saslow, “Within the first five minutes he had a sketch of what he thought we wanted, and we fell in love with it.”

“We’d seen friends’ and family members’ ketubot and had some ideas of what we were looking for, but had no idea of how we, or anyone, would bring things together,” Seth said about their initial search for a ketubah.

In the center of the Wolkins’ ketubah are two rows of four trees, two for each season, growing toward each other — “symbolizing two people going through life together,” Saslow said. The Eiffel Tower and the Chicago skyline — important places for the Wolkins — rise in the background, along with landscapes, including part of a golf course, central to their life. A badger (they met at the University of Wisconsin)  nestles beneath a tree in the foreground, and a whisk (Lisa is a chef)  and a hamburger (Seth works in the fast food industry) are subtly placed between stones on the pathway between the trees.

“We were thrilled that he was able to incorporate so many elements of who we are,” Lisa said. Creating the ketubah together, she added, “made the wedding very real and made it be a marriage, not just a wedding.”

Many couples also ask Saslow to incorporate Jewish themes or ritual objects that are important to them. David Green and Kathie Bradley, for example, were particularly inspired by pomegranates.

“There is a lot of symbolism in pomegranates … there is a midrash that every pomegranate has 613 seeds, which represent the 613 mitzvot,” Saslow said. So he meticulously drew 613 tiny dots within the ketubah — the dots on the outside of the pomegranate correspond to the number of negative mitzvot, those in the center, within the text, correspond to the number of positive mitzvot.

The landscape beneath the pomegranates is filled with details representing the couple’s life: a fountain at Occidental College, where they met; Three Rivers, where they were going for their honeymoon; and the skyline of Jerusalem, where they had lived for a year. Saslow drew the border — including a rose in each corner to represent the couple’s siblings, who were going to be holding the chuppah — in an Arts and Crafts style; the couple also wanted a lot of texture, which is visible on the leaves and branches that look as though they’re woven of bright strands of fabric.

Because each ketubah combines elements that are meaningful to a particular couple, the components often don’t exist side by side in reality. Saslow said he loves “doing scenes from nature, even if it’s not a real place … [but] I want to make it a place that you want to be.”

The vast landscape in Porter and Comins’ ketubah is a case in point.

Comins, founder of TorahTrek, feels deeply connected to both the desert and the Teton Mountains, having lived in Israel for 15 years (he is also an Israeli desert guide) as well as in Jackson Hole, Wyo. Porter said they also wanted water in their ketubah, to symbolize “the concept of water, as life, ever-flowing, changing and eroding into land, making its impact on the environment.” In Saslow’s design, the water serves as a bridge between the desert and the pinnacles of the Tetons.

Unlike many couples who choose their text from Saslow’s offerings (ranging from egalitarian and modern to very traditional), Comins and Porter wrote their own, based on The Song of Songs.

“Everything in the ketubah has meaning to us. [Saslow] did an amazing job of capturing what we were at some point not very artful in expressing … and turning it into art,” Porter said.

Saslow said that the couples he’s worked with seem to enjoy the process and are excited to be creating something beautiful together.

“And for me,” he added, “it’s a huge honor to be a midwife for their creation.”

For more information about Robert Saslow, visit robertsaslowdesign.com.

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