Joan Katz, 72, of Merrick, who has been representing ketubah...

Joan Katz, 72, of Merrick, who has been representing ketubah artists since 1994, shows some of her favorite ketubahs. Credit: Kristy Leibowitz

Some feature the tree of life. Others show the hamsa, known as the hand of God, decorative wedding canopies, called chuppahs, or flowers and vines, signifying the intertwining of two families.

But while biblical illustrations and symbols like these may be popular, they're not necessary when it comes to the illuminations -- or artistic touches -- that surround the text on a personalized Jewish marriage contract, called a ketubah.

Ketubahs, which have a 2,500-year history, are still an important part of a Jewish wedding today. Although details vary depending on the denomination of Judaism and other factors, the couple, the rabbi or officiant, and two witnesses typically sign the ketubah before the wedding ceremony. After the vows and the blessings during the nuptials, the officiant then reads the ketubah's text as the couple stands under the chuppah.

While ketubahs were created to serve a legal purpose, in the modern day (and in the United States), the signing of a ketubah is more about continuing tradition and demonstrating commitment than anything else.

Merrick's Joan Katz, 72, happens to be a ketubah expert, and she's spent more than two decades representing ketubah artists from around the world, advising local couples on how to choose the ketubah that's right for them and educating Long Islanders about this document.

"I feel grateful that I'm able to pass on the history," Katz says. "It's not just a piece of paper to put in a drawer."

While that's exactly where Katz keeps her own simple document from 1962, many couples who choose to have a ketubah have them framed and hang them in their home. A ketubah is a piece of artwork that should mean something to the couple who chooses it, Katz says, and for this reason, she prefers hand-lettered and drawn ketubahs over the increasingly popular ones available online.

"Would you buy a Monet painting online?" she asked.

We sat down with Katz and her collection of more than 100 ketubahs to learn about the history and the artistry of this ancient document.

Tell us what a ketubah is.

A ketubah is a legal Jewish marriage contract. When two Jews are married, they get one, and they keep it forever.

Ketubahs are written in Aramaic/Hebrew. Over the years, it has evolved so that English has been added. They have Conservative ketubahs, they have Reform ketubahs, and now, they have same-sex marriage ketubahs and interfaith ketubahs.

What does the actual language of the original ketubah say?

It's very archaic, but the essence of it is that it's a protection for women. Today, when there's English on a ketubah, it is an interpretation, never a translation. [The language is] very flowery and comes from the [biblical] "Song of Songs." It's about love and marriage and all that, and it's lovely.

How much do ketubahs cost?

They run between $300 and $600 for prints, plus $75 to $100 for the personalization. Custom, commissioned artworks that are one-of-a-kind cost $1,000 to $7,000. It takes upwards of 85 hours to do one.

And how long does it take to get one?

Four to six weeks for a print, but you have to give an artist many months to do a commission.

When did they stop becoming just a paper with the words on it, and start becoming such works of art?

It's been centuries. But it's really not a work of art for anybody but the person who wants it. If you're talking about value, there is no value. They're not worth anything to anybody else.

How did you become involved with working with ketubahs?

I was an art major, and I saw an ad to work in an art studio [in the late-1980s], not knowing what kind of an art studio. It wound up to be a young woman working in Bellmore in her basement, and she was a calligrapher and a ketubah artist.

I became her national salesperson. She sold to about nine or 10 stores herself, and I got her into about 120 stores across the United States.

[After she moved to Florida in the early-2000s], I approached many of the artists that I knew to see if they wanted representation. When you're an artist, you don't have time to work on marketing, so I was the marketer. And I was very successful at it.

How do you represent them?

I get them into stores. But now, the Internet has killed most of the Judaica stores. Everything is on the computer. I don't know how a person could buy a ketubah online. It's a piece of art.

Tell me about your license plate.

My [chuppah artist] business partner and I were talking one day, and [my] license plate was due. I said, "Maybe it'd be cute to have a license plate that said something other than the regular numbers and letters." And it was my anniversary. So my husband said, "OK, pick what it will say." We picked K TUBA. I always said to everybody, "Everybody gets diamonds, and I get a ketubah license plate for my anniversary."

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