For many young couples planning a wedding, a ketubah may be far from the top of the to-do list. The traditional Jewish marriage contract, historically intended to protect the wife-to-be in the event of divorce or her husband’s death, can seem a bit archaic.
Far from it, according to the founders of Ketuv, which aims to unite the world of Judaica with fine art. By connecting couples with independent artisans who create personal, sometimes custom-designed ketubahs based on each artist’s unique studio work, Arielle Angel and Maya Joseph-Goteiner hope to spread the word about how beautiful and powerful a ketubah can be — for Jews and non-Jews alike.
“For a 1,000-year-old document, the spirit of the ketubah is actually extremely progressive. It has so much potential to be really meaningful, something that reflects a couple’s bond,” says Angel, 27, a New York City-based artist and co-founder of Ketuv. She’s currently pursuing an MFA in fiction at Columbia University, after studying studio art at NYU.
In April of this year, the two were proud when Ketuv became part of UpStart Bay Area’s 2012 cohort, giving them access to business advice and workshop space in the social venture/consulting firm’s San Francisco office.
“It’s really helped us to define our vision,” says Angel. “What we used to just describe as selling ketubahs is now more about us taking our place in the broader tradition of Judaica.”
She and Joseph-Goteiner, 29, are friends who kept crossing professional paths while working in New York City’s fine art scene. The seed for Ketuv was planted after friends of Angel’s who were getting married couldn’t find a ketubah they liked, and decided to commission the artist to decorate one for them.
“It was one friend, then another, then another, who were saying ‘I want something that really represents us, and I can’t find it,’ ” recalls Angel. “There was something there.”
Joseph-Goteiner, a photographer who grew up in San Francisco and was living in New York, was helping Angel to document her work. Soon the pair found themselves talking about what ketubahs meant to the younger generation — and ultimately planning a business.
“We’re both in communities of artists where people are struggling to support themselves, especially in the past few years,” says Joseph-Goteiner, who also studied at NYU. She worked as an arts administrator in New York City, but moved back to the Bay Area earlier this year to pursue an MBA at California College of the Arts.
“We realized it could be a great opportunity for artists who are not necessarily Judaica artists to help support themselves and diversify their studio practice at the same time,” she says.
After reaching out to artists — both Jews and non-Jews, who worked in all different forms of graphic arts — the two developed a roster of about 15 (now almost two dozen) and launched Ketuv.com in September 2011. On the website, couples can browse by artist, motif or text type; opt to specify their observance level, whether they’re a same-sex couple, and more.
Artists are based all over the world — London, Israel, Sydney, in addition to the U.S. — and work in a variety of forms. San Francisco collage artist Rachel Liebman uses small pieces of paper taken from images of ancient manuscripts, intertwining different languages, religions and cultures. Her unique pieces represent her humanistic world view, according to the artist’s statement.
Before Angel and Joseph-Goteiner knew it, what began as a business venture took on layers of meaning for them personally.
“Hiddur mitzvah basically means it’s a mitzvah to beautify another mitzvah,” says Angel, who delved into the history of ketubahs at the start of the venture. Around 1400 or 1500, she learned, Jewish couples started using the legal documents as decorative objects, but that tradition had waned by the early 20th century.
In the 1970s, decorating a ketubah started to become popular again — but a few standard styles were established, and in Angel’s eyes, “they were all kind of alike. It was, ‘this is what Judaica has to be.’ ”
Couples who contact Ketuv can come with ideas about themes that represent them, ask to have a brainstorming session with an artist, or choose to customize a limited edition print already available on the website. One couple — the bride was Jewish American and the husband was Persian — selected a ketubah with an intricate pomegranate filled with rubies: the fruit was symbolic of both of their cultures, and rubies represented the bride’s birthstone.
“We started with this idea of trying to preserve this ritual in a way that made it meaningful for a new generation of couples,” says Joseph-Goteiner. “So if a couple may not have wanted a ketubah to begin with, they would be intoxicated by the beauty of this object in a way that they wind up keeping the tradition alive.”
While living on different coasts might make artistic collaboration a bit more challenging, it actually allows the Ketuv founders to reach out to their respective communities more easily, says Joseph-Goteiner. Both she and Angel are happy to meet with potential customers who would just like to have an up-close, in-person look at Ketuv’s ketubahs.
In the long run, a ketubah might even save the cost of marriage counseling: Couples have shared that a ketubah mounted on the wall can be a touchstone to defuse marital bickering or discord.
“It brings them back to that special day where they made a commitment to each other,” says Joseph=Goteiner. “That transcends the text.”