From pirouettes to Hebrew texts: Coincidences abound for two local ketubah makers

When local ketubah maker and Julliard-trained ballerina Melissa Dinwiddie saw the j. Readers’ Choice Awards issue in August, she could hardly believe her eyes.

The Mountain View resident was one of three regional winners in the “Ketubah maker” category, but that wasn’t the weird part.

What made her do a double take was the write-up of the winners, where it said that San Francisco winner Robin Hall had studied ballet at Julliard.

“I thought, ‘Oh God, yet another instance of getting something wrong,’ ” Dinwiddie said. “I sent an e-mail to the person who wrote that blurb, telling them I thought they might have made a mistake.”

Quite to Melissa’s surprise, the story was accurate.

Collage ketubah by Robin Hall

She contacted Robin and discovered that — sure enough — they both had attended Julliard, where they both had studied ballet, they both had become ketubah makers in the Bay Area and they both were first-place winners in the 2010 j. Readers’ Choice Awards.

“I was aware of [Robin] her, but had never met her,” Dinwiddie said. “I e-mailed her right away, saying, ‘I heard you went to Julliard, too. What are the chances of two Bay Area Julliard-trained ketubah artists?’ ”

Although the two women still haven’t gotten together (through last week, at least), their e-mail exchanges have revealed even more coincidences: They both teach yoga and are recovering from recent surgeries.

“I think it’s fun and funny,” Hall said. “It’s better to be connected with someone over positive things than getting tracked down for something horrible that happened. Who knows how many other paths we’ve crossed?”

Dinwiddie, 44, attended Julliard in 1986 and 1987, but her dreams of a career in ballet were cut short. “I was actually only there for a year,” she said. “I got injured, and I ended up coming back to California and graduating from U.C. Berkley, not in dance. That was pretty much the end of my dance career.”

Hall, 58, attended Julliard in 1965, and also didn’t end up with the ballet career she dreamed of, but for different reasons.

“I went to Julliard when I was 15 and wanted to be a professional dancer,” she remembered. “I took ballet classes for 25 years — it was what I wanted to do.”

Eventually, however, she decided that a professional dancing career wasn’t in the cards. She still loves ballet and attends performances regularly, and it’s also one of her favorite discussion topics.

“I have one woman in [one of my yoga] classes who was one of the original six Joffrey Ballet dancers from New York,” she said. “We talk about ballet a lot.”

“Round Tree of Life” ketubah by Melissa Dinwiddie

So how did two wannabe ballerinas each become interested in making ketubahs?

Although each took different paths, both women said it evolved out of a love of calligraphy and design, as well as seeking a deeper understanding of Jewish traditions and practices.

“I got started because back in 1994 I was planning my wedding,” remembered Dinwiddie, who helps lead High Holy Days services at Keddem Congregation, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Palo Alto. “We decided to have a ketubah, and commissioned one from a local artist. The first person we talked to incorporated paper-cutting into their work. I absolutely loved paper-cutting.

“After the wedding, I was really pretty lost and didn’t know what to do with myself. I started making paper cuts and took some of my designs into a framing store. They started raving about them and asked if I sold them. I hadn’t really thought of myself as an artist or having something of value until people started raving about my paper cuts. I felt like paper cutting wasn’t all that marketable by itself, but if I learned calligraphy and added illustrations, I could create a little hobby business.”

Dinwiddie had dabbled in calligraphy a few years earlier, and really enjoyed it. When the two crafts came together, it was a ketubah-making home run.

“I realized,” she said, “that this was my new passion,” and from that sprung her business, which she named Ketubahworks (www.ketubahworks.com, 650-938-3939).

Hall, who attends Conservative Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco, took a different path to starting her business, ABC Calligraphy (www.robinketubah.com, 415-771-1719).

It all began when she became interested in writing Hebrew letters at age 16, when she was attending an arts school in New York City as well as a Jewish institute.

“I loved the letters and how elegant they were — and the fact that they took on a kind of dancing,” Hall said. “They had a lot of light and aliveness to me. I found a scribe in New York who would publicly teach girls, so I started lettering in Hebrew at 21, and I’ve been lettering since then.”

Both Dinwiddie and Hall market their ketubahs through the Web and word of mouth.

For nearly two decades, Hall attended the huge International Gift Shows in New York City, showing off her wares in a booth run by an Orthodox Judaica manufacturer, which got her a good amount of business. She said she doesn’t sell in any local stores, but does get a number of recommendations from local rabbis.

Dinwiddie, on the other hand, does sell her works locally at Afikomen Judaica in Berkeley and Dayenu in the JCC of San Francisco, but mainly relies on getting customers via the Web.

Just like Hall. Of course.