Custom meets commerce at modern Jewish weddings

From Genesis to Generation X, the Jewish wedding continues to adapt and adopt. Today, the romance and ritual of kiddushin (marriage) is celebrated with new takes on old traditions

Take the chuppah for starters.

A midrash tells us that God made not one, but 10 chuppot for Adam and Eve's wedding, each fashioned of gold and studded with jewels. Now, even couples who believe marriages are made in heaven realize that a chuppah made in heaven is not available. So, when not satisfied with the chuppah supplied by their synagogue or temple, many couples choose to either make their own or commission artists to create a chuppah that will knock their socks off.

The do-it-yourself-chuppah is often made of individually decorated cloth squares, fabric scraps, buttons, lace and other remnants of clothing once worn by family members or friends. The pieces are sewn together, and even if the stitches are lopsided, this one-of-a-kind chuppah resonates with family memories, making room (if only in spirit) for long-lost bubbes, zaydes and other loved-ones to stand beside the happy couple on their wedding day.

The commissioned chuppah movement is an MBA's dream. Case in point: Hollywood Chuppahs (I've changed the name, but not much). This company invites the bride and groom to: "Send photos and we'll create a chuppah complete with a picture of your home reproduced in hand-dyed silk!" (One glowing testimonial quotes a couple who wed under a chuppah with a rendering of the Brooklyn Bridge, visible from their balcony in Williamsburg.)

Want an outdoor feel to an indoor wedding? Then contact the chuppah artist who makes canopies from tree branches and leaves. Obviously, this artist is familiar with two old traditions: the tradition of holding marriages outside, under the stars (so as to invoke the Abrahamic blessing to have descendants as numerous as the stars in heaven), and the tradition of planting a tree when a baby is born and then using the branches and leaves from that tree to construct the chuppah for that child's eventual marriage.

This arboreal artist, by the way, encourages ecologically minded couples to turn their tree-branch chuppah into a gazebo or playhouse for future offspring. Bottom line? Custom-commissioned chuppah sales are going through the roof.

Next, let's consider the ketubah.

Some call it the first prenuptial agreement — guaranteeing, as it does, the wife's financial rights in case of (p'tui, p'tui) the husband's death or divorce. Others consider the ketubah a sales receipt for merchandise received — 200 zuzim (about 15 cents) for virgins, and 100 zuzim for women who've lived a little. Be it pre-nup or sales receipt, many couples in 2003 find the traditional ketubah out of touch with their views on relationships. The answer? Create new "ketuboth" with an egalitarian spin.

This move has generated an entire industry, where artists and calligraphers offer custom marriage contracts in mind-boggling styles. Celtic ketubot with Irish overtones. Pop art ketubot that echo Warhol. Personalized ketubot in which symbols important to the bride and groom — golf clubs, mah jongg tiles, mountain ski trails, etc. — hide discreetly in the borders, making this kind of ketubah a veritable "Where's Waldo" of wedding designs. (The practice of decorating ritual objects goes waaaay back, but let's face it. Today's market has elevated the concept of hiddur mitzvah — the beautification of a mitzvah — to new heights.)

Now, the wedding ring.

According to Jewish tradition, the ring must belong to the groom, be of solid metal and free of gems — plain and simple. But a recent trend finds couples ordering tall, ornate, ceremonial wedding rings like those popular in European Jewish communities during the Middle Ages. This, too, has created a new industry based on an old custom. Inspired by medieval designs, contemporary artisans are crafting ceremonial wedding rings of precious metals and topping them with miniature buildings — the Jerusalem Temple, a local synagogue or the couple's new home. Some of these Lilliputian architectural wonders are complete with tiny hinged doors that open and shut, and rooftop flags that spin like weather vanes. Another new spin on an old tradition, you might say.

Let's not forget the shattered wineglass.

Business is brisk in that department, too. "Break with tradition!" an online merchant says. "Take the magical moment when the glass was broken and freeze it in time, forever! Just send us the shards from the glass or bulb and we'll suspend it in a clear plastic cube, mezuzah or kaleidoscope! It's the ultimate gift for the bride and groom!" Another company will enclose the broken glass in a satin pillow, the use for which is unclear…

And finally, the wedding gifts.

Back in the shtetl, young couples didn't ask, point blank, for samovars and feather quilts. No. They thankfully accepted what was given: typically, money. At each wedding, public announcements were made. "The groom's uncle gives 12 rubles!" "The bride's cousin gives 6 zlotes!" "The groom's parents give a golden cup and the bride's parents give two silver candlesticks and a tallis!" Not surprisingly, this show-and-tell custom kept the village gossip mill busy for weeks.

Unlike their Old World counterparts, modern couples are saying both I do and I want, resulting in the birth of a new tradition — "Welcome to Our Wedding" Web pages.

"Hi! We're getting married!" one Web site sings. "We've compiled this page to give you the most up-to-date information on our wedding. There are only 457 days, 18 hours, 4 minutes and 27 seconds left until the big day! You are visitor No. 231 to our Web page! Come again!"

The site then details how the couple met, where the engagement ring was presented, the time and place of pre-wedding events, and maps of the city to help out-of-town guests find their way around. The site also provides, with no punches pulled, an online list of desired wedding gifts plus the stores that carry them.

The gift list covers the usual items — linens, kitchen gadgets, china and glassware — but today's couples also request gifts that were rarely (or never) considered in the past, such as movie DVDs (in one case the choices were "The Princess Bride" and "Braveheart"). Other suggestions: cash contributions to the honeymoon trip (snorkeling adventures head the list).

One wedding registry suggests you "gift" stock you already own or put money toward stocks for which the bride and groom have registered. (This idea was proposed before Wall Street imploded. One hopes that any couples who actually received stocks also got their fair share of sheets, ratchet wrenches and other necessities.) On the flip side of this coin, requests for donations to favorite charities are sometimes included on the wedding gift list.

This online gift phenomenon apparently affects couples of all stripes, including the president's press secretary, Ari Fleischer, and his bride. Fleischer was reportedly furious over news stories that he had opened a wedding-gift registry at Target, pronouncing it a "serious invasion of privacy." Comics on National Public Radio logged onto the online Target gift registry, bought a $9.99 bundt cake for the couple, and threw in gift-wrap and shipping costs.

What more can be said? How about this…

L'chaim to the Jewish wedding! The embodiment of "Something Old, Something New" (and it's good for business, too).