Ketubot a traditional but creative promissory note

ATLANTA — "When you think about it, it's kind of a strange thing to have hanging in your living room," said Atlanta resident Mindy Tanenbaum of the wedding ketubah, or marriage contract, she and her husband, Michael, happily display in their home.

"Virtually everybody understands what a ketubah is," said Rabbi Shalom Lewis of Conservative Etz Chaim synagogue in Marietta, Ga. "But typically they don't know what's in it. They think it's beautiful and flowery, when it's actually more contract and less poetry. The English translation is usually more flowery."

Like many couples, the Tanenbaums knew they wanted a decorative and personalized ketubah with special meaning for them. Mindy was especially inspired after seeing a ketubah art exhibit in Athens and began searching online for a beautiful ketubah to call her own.

Eventually she enlisted her friend Julie Ames, a graphic design student at the University of Georgia, who designed a tree theme for the couple symbolizing their ties to Israel and their faith. Ames designed the ketubah and a calligrapher was hired to write out the traditional Aramaic text for the Orthodox couple.

One resource for ketubah-hunting Bay Area couples is Ketubahworks, a one-woman shop owned and operated by Palo Alto-based artist Melissa Dinwiddie. Her exquisite hand-painted and hand-lettered ketubot have proved so popular, she's usually working six months ahead of time to keep up with demand.

Because Mindy and Michael are Orthodox, the wording of their ketubah was traditional, outlining the groom's obligation to his bride.

However, many Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and even interfaith couples are choosing to include other wording in their marriage contracts — including provisions for divorce.

The so-called Lieberman clause was introduced in the 1960s and essentially states that in the case of a civil divorce the husband or wife can appear before a rabbinic court to request a get (a Jewish divorce decree).

Lewis encourages couples to include the Lieberman clause, but he doesn't require it. He says most couples do opt to include the clause.

Some rabbis will not accept a ketubah that includes a Lieberman clause — and others won't approve a ketubah without it.

Rabbi Mark Zimmerman of Beth Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Dunwoody, Ga., says he always explains to couples what the ketubah is about.

"Some couples are fairly knowledgeable about the document while others don't have a clue. So I always take the time to discuss with them and answer any questions they might have about the ancient Aramaic document."

Zimmerman says much of the ancient text does seem out of step with the times because the traditional wording simply spells out the obligations the husband undertakes toward his bride.

"I try to explain the ketubah in terms of its history as a very progressive document for its time that protected the rights of women who were completely vulnerable to the will of their husbands in the ancient world," Zimmerman said.

"The ketubah has been at the core of Jewish weddings for 2,000 years it is a tradition that we uphold until this day. It links the marriages of today with the traditions of the Jewish people over the generations."

Lewis also points out that the bride and groom's signatures on the ketubah are a nice touch — but not necessary or even required to make the document legal under Jewish law. It's the signatures of two witnesses not related to either the bride or the groom who make the document valid.

While a rabbi must approve the text of the ketubah, couples can express their own individuality and their feelings for each other through the artwork they chose for their ketubot. Lewis says he encourages all couples to purchase a specially designed ketubah.

That's where Dinwiddie comes in. The artist's approach to client satisfaction is simple: listen carefully to couples, find out their interests and base a design on that.

"Either they have a clear idea, and they art direct me," she says, "or they have no idea what they want. I talk to them, then ideas emerge that they didn't know how to articulate."

There's no limit to the artistic media available. Dinwiddie has created ketubot featuring collage, 3-D paper sculpture, gold leaf, and medieval illumination with gouache (an opaque water color medium). Her Web site is

While her $1,500 to $6,000 price tag for custom-made pieces might frighten off many young couples, Dinwiddie also offers less-expensive prints of some of her best ketubot, all of which can be personalized with added calligraphy.

Whatever the budget, most Jewish couples (and even some non-Jewish couples) want a ketubah of their own. "The ketubah marks a covenant," says Dinwiddie. "People like the idea of hanging a beautiful piece of art on the wall to commemorate their wedding."

Despite the technicalities in the wording and the clauses, most couples are just like Mindy and Michael Tanenbaum. They see the ketubah, as a symbol of their love and commitment

"I like the idea of the ketubah," said Lewis. "It's a promissory note between bride and groom."