Local ketabah artist designs special piece for N.Y. doctors office

What do Maimonides and a ketubah have in common? Naomi Teplow of Oakland just might be the only person who can answer such a seemingly odd question.

It was last year when Teplow was contacted by a medical resident — for whom she had designed a ketubah five years earlier — with an unusual request.

“She asked me if I would create for her a Physician’s Prayer of Maimonides,” said Teplow, who has been creating ketubahs for more than 25 years. “It took me a whole year because I was busy with ketubot and I decided to make it into a limited edition Giclee [a highly advanced technology] print.”

Maimonides was a 12th century scholar, rabbi and physician who’s credited with writing the Physician’s Prayer, an oath that doctors still use today for spiritual inspiration and guidance.

Jennifer Bonheur, at the time finishing her residency at Lennox Hill Hospital in New York City, contacted Teplow and asked her to make a print because she wanted to hang an artistic document (rather than a colorless, shapeless, boring one) in her office after becoming a doctor.

Teplow, eager to tackle the request, drew from several sources for her inspiration.

“I read a lot in encyclopedias and online about ancient medical traditions,” said Teplow, who was born on Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael in Israel and came to the United States with her American-born husband and their two daughters in 1979. “But I didn’t want to use jars of pills as decorative elements for Jennifer in this piece. So I came up with the idea of [colorful] medicinal plants.”

Another source of inspiration came to Teplow when she and her husband visited Spain and saw cities from the golden age of Spanish Jewry, which occurred some 800 to 1,000 years ago under Arab rule.

“I fell in love with the Islamic geometric designs in Andalusia,” she said, so they figure prominently in Teplow’s finished product.

She also included the striped pillars of the mosque in Cordoba. Also in Cordoba, “we saw a statue of Maimonides, so when I came home I knew I had to put it into the piece,” she said.

Teplow decided to honor the Islamic art in her piece because “Jews lived in peace and harmony with their Muslim hosts,” she said.

She also wanted to acknowledge Bonheur’s achievement by honoring female doctors. So Teplow chose to include a picture of her own grandmother, Dr. Ester Baskin Einhorn, who trained in pre-revolutionary Russia, immigrated to pre-state Israel in 1926, and became a gynecologist and marriage counselor in Tel Aviv.

Teplow, who majored in comparative literature while in college in Israel, noted that the upper left side of the print includes the element of water. “It corresponds to winter, and to the planet Venus and the moon,” she said. “This is the spot where I chose to honor Jennifer and all other women doctors, especially my grandmother.”

Although Teplow had no formal artistic training, she took numerous workshops on art, painting and calligraphy. That foundation has enabled her to branch away from ketubahs — which she still does — into other genres.

For example, one of her latest projects was a “Welcome to the World” piece for another former client who was expecting twins in October. Teplow found the task as daunting and difficult as the Physician’s Prayer.

“I came up with something that has the baby’s name, place and date of birth and names of parents,” she explained. “And below that is a hamsa [hand], a good luck symbol, and inside the hamsa are two passages, one from Numbers, the other from Psalms.”

The piece also includes a drawing of the seven species of Israel, along with grapes, pomegranates, dates, olives and figs — all of which are split open.

Teplow, whose works can be seen at www.ketubotbynaomi.com, no longer makes custom ketubahs, so the challenge of painting original pieces truly excites her.

“I am so attached to the images,” she said. “The fruits, the seven species, the landscape of Israel, the colors of the flora and fauna, the Biblical references.”

When she labored for Bonheur — who is now officially Dr. Jennifer Bonheur, a gastroenterologist in Manhattan — Teplow said it was the overarching philosophy of the Physician’s Prayer that guided her.

“The attitude comes from the Renaissance approach to the universe as one coherent entity,” she said, “where everything relates to everything.”

Steven Friedman

Steven Friedman is a freelance writer.