Chuppah design grows into an art form and heirloom

"You, our family, are very precious to us," she wrote, "and having a 'piece' of you in our family wedding canopy will mean a great deal to us…I know you are wondering what you can send that will be significant; the answer is quite simple, almost anything! Your offerings are an integral part of our family history…"

Everyone responded. Michael contributed a red plastic elephant-shaped key that opened information boxes at the Philadelphia Zoo, a happy token of his childhood. Diane, his bride-to-be, decided on a necklace Michael had given her. Though Diane's grandfather, a cantor, had died, Diane's mother sent his white pompom-topped hat. Other relatives sent pieces of fur, gloves, even a tallit. Wachs herself contributed two scarves: one that her parents had given her when she was 16, and one that a cousin had brought back from his honeymoon. The cousin had introduced Wachs and her husband, and Wachs, in turn, introduced the cousin to his wife.

Wachs sewed pieces of the mementos onto the antique ivory velvet and lace of the chuppah, creating a family album of sorts.

"I layered textures and symbols, just as people layer our lives with texture and content," says Wachs.

In the 14 years since she made it, the heirloom chuppah has graced the weddings of her three sons, her cousin's two children, and other relatives. Constructed in sections, the chuppah will eventually be split among the three sons.

Wachs, who lives in Wallingford, Pa., continues to create chuppot for couples of all movements who want to beautify their wedding ceremonies. Her collages have included keys from honeymoon suites, bits of Bermuda shorts, photographs and documents from birth certificates to ships' manifests and postcards (computer scanned, then silk screened or transferred thermographically onto the fabric).

Wachs is not alone in her devotion to the growing art of the chuppah. Carol Attia of San Leandro has a Web site — www.underthechuppahonline.com — featuring some of her custom designs, including a quilted chuppah that incorporates squares designed by the couple's friends and family and a batik center designed by the groom. She can also be reached at (800) 661-4127.

A number of other Bay Area artists have ventured into chuppah design, including Nancy Pechner of Silkheart in San Rafael, (415) 492-8652; Tova Matatyaou of Sunnyvale, (408) 738-3281; and Nancy Katz of Berkeley; (510) 843-5280. Their names are in Resource: A Guide to Jewish Life in the Bay Area at www.jewishsf.com/ resource

Reeva Shaffer, a calligrapher and fiber artist in the Washington, D.C., area who has researched the chuppah, says it contains multiple meanings.

"It is a sign of God's presence at the wedding and in the home; a gateway to life together; an entrance into the holy covenant of marriage; a shelter representing a new home; a symbol of Abraham and Sarah's welcoming tent."

Once, says Shaffer, it was common to conduct weddings in the open. "The stars would shine on the couple and it was hoped the marriage would be blessed with offspring as numerous and bright as the stars [based on Genesis 15:5]. The chuppah served as a booth, separating the wedding circle from the hustle of the street and creating a sacred space."

In talmudic times, it was customary to plant a cedar — representing majesty, strength, height and hardiness — at the birth of a boy, and a cypress, representing beauty and grace — at the birth of a girl. Both also represented longevity and life. Chuppah poles were often made from branches cut from the trees.

According to The Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols, edited by Ellen Frankel and Betsy Platkin Teutsch, at the end of the betrothal period in ancient Israel, "a new bride was escorted in a festive procession to the groom's room or tent — the chuppah — where the marriage was consummated."

Today, the proliferation of contemporary Judaica artists has increased the popularity of handcrafted ceremonial wedding art.

"There is a need for beautiful Judaic art with modern interpretation," says Shaffer, who weaves meaning into her chuppot by using braiding and tallit-like symbols. "We braid our formerly separate lives together to form a whole."

For her own family chuppah, which has been used for two of her four children, Shaffer created a central piece of pink and lavender silk with everyone's names; four other detachable pieces are connected to it. For her daughter's wedding, Shaffer also designed a wedding banner. Instead of placing ribbons on two sides of the aisle, Shaffer handpainted Hebrew and English verses from the Song of Songs in gold onto two 100-foot banners of white China silk.

Many chuppah artists like to use gematria, the correspondence of Hebrew letters and numbers. One popular gematria is 32, which corresponds to lev, or heart. Wachs, for instance, created a chuppah in which each panel has 32 flowers. The tzitzit also correspond to 32, with eight strands in four corners. "In Ashkenazic tradition the bride gives the groom a tallit, to symbolize the giving of the heart," she explains. Other significant numbers are 18, for chai or life; 7, for completeness, wholeness and luck; and 10, for community (the number of a minyan).

Artists Margery and Eli Langner of Lynbrook, N.Y., used gematria and symbolism in the first chuppah they designed 13 years ago: their own. The 8-foot round chuppah featured two hands holding one flame each, and a larger flame in the center. The concept concretized a quote from the Baal Shem Tov: Each person has a light going from their soul to heaven. When two people meet who are destined to be together, their flames unite, kindling an even greater light. The chuppah, vibrant in red, blue, purple, orange, green and gold, is encircled by 32 flames, reflecting the "passion and fire in a relationship that burns away negativity,"says Margery.

With their company, Original Design Chuppah, the Langners have made hundreds of chuppot in applique and embroidery for clients ranging from Orthodox to Reform. Langner says no single popular symbol exists: "I've done everything from doves to Grateful Dead bears." Their Web site is www.customjudaica.com

To personalize chuppot, most artists question the couple about their relationship, family, professions, goals, likes and dislikes, and what they envision for their wedding. "It gives me a tremendous feeling of warmth to be involved in the budding of a couple's hopes for their future," says Margery Langner. "My couples come back for brit pillows and bar mitzvah tallitot. One family said, the first thing we do is call the rabbi, then get the hall, then call you to make the chuppah. I like being part of their family."