September 22, 2019

When ketubah didn’t wow, bride created her own

ketubah: Jewish wedding contractTsilli Pines couldn’t find a ketubah that she and her fiancÃ(c) liked. The Jewish wedding contract is often artfully handwritten and later framed as a wall decoration. But Pines, 33, a Portland, Ore.-based graphic designer, wanted something modern and simple. So she designed her own ketubah — and then one for a friend.

“I started thinking that other people might also be drawn to what I was doing,” she said.

Pines researched the historical precedent of the form and was attracted to the asymmetrical designs from Iran, which were very much in the spirit of modern graphic design.

“A lot of the early, native ketubot were incredible, too — they were more bold than ornate, and I found that beautiful,” she said.

Having grown up in Northern California, she found the simplicity of Japanese design a big influence: “I’ve looked at an enormous amount of material in the course of studying and practicing design, and I’m sure a lot of that makes its way into my work.”

Pines is creating ketubot that feature trees or flowers or birds or moons under the name New Ketubah. But what sets her work apart from other, more ornately decorated ketubot is the minimalist simplicity, the words floating in open space.

“My designs are loosely based on ideas about togetherness or growth or time, and they are open to interpretation,” she said.

Most of the designs are drawn from nature, and some touch on traditional ideas like the Tree of Life or The Song of Songs. Flora and fauna are actually common themes in ketubot, she said, stretching back to the 17th century, and probably even before that.

“It’s not so much that I’m breaking new ground with the subjects,” she said. “It’s more that I’m trying to use these themes in a graphic language that’s reacting to our current time and place.” Ketubot, she said, “have always spoken volumes about their social context.”

Pines was born in Israel and recalls her parents’ ketubah from the army.

“It’s a government document, much like marriage licenses in the United States — a no-fuss certificate,” she said.

Although she says she is not religious, Pines considers herself “Jewishly connected” and thinks of the form as something personally expressive: “It’s something you don’t have to do, but rather choose to do.”

With New Ketubah, Pines is trying to reach people looking for something different than the illuminated manuscript style of many of the traditional ketubot. “Those designs are beautiful, but they don’t reflect the contemporary aesthetic,” she said. Her designs are for people who are looking for a “cleaner, simpler look,” but still want their ketubah to be a celebratory ritual object.

To complete the ketubah she sews design elements into the paper — the roots in the Tree/Roots ketubah, part of the branches the birds are perched on for the Beloveds ketubah — and packages it so that couples don’t have to worry about framing before the ceremony. Included is an archival pen so that everything is ready for the big day.

New Ketubah tailors its contracts to the different Jewish denominations, including Reform, Humanist and secular texts. (Orthodox and Conservative texts emphasize the obligations the husband has to his wife, while other denominations are more egalitarian.) The ketubah can also be tailored to interfaith, secular and same-sex couples.

“I often help couples translate their own custom text into modern Hebrew because it’s such a personal expression,” she said.

In the future, Pines hopes to branch out into Judaica as well, but for now she’s concentrating on ketubot. She says she didn’t realize how gratifying it would be.

“It’s more than just having a role in the wedding ritual — which is an honor in and of itself,” she said. “I’ve had people tell me that they look at their ketubah when times are hard in their marriage, to remind them of what’s important, and that’s tremendously meaningful to me.”

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