Updating the Traditional Jewish Wedding

The biggest motivator for change in Jewish wedding customs by liberal Jews has been egalitarianism.

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Other couples also maintain the Aramaic text but choose their own English text that describes the home they want to build together or the nature of the love they share. A number of sample English texts exist on the Internet, for instance. Still other couples do away with the Aramaic entirely. These couples may compose their own ketubot in English and Hebrew in accordance with the values they want to govern their marriage.

Multiple options also exist for those couples who choose not to follow the traditional requirement that witnesses be Jewish men. Some couples ask four witnesses--two men and two women, rather than the traditionally required two men--to sign, while others take a fully egalitarian attitude toward witnesses, asking two women or a woman and a man to sign. Some brides and grooms ask all present at the ceremony to sign the ketubah, either under or on all sides of the text.

Today's ketubot also differ from those of [immediately] past generations in regard to their artistry. Many modern-day brides and grooms choose their ketubot from "galleries," both real and virtual. Some design their own ketubot with treasured symbols, or commission a Jewish artist to do it for them. Far from a piece of paper kept in a drawer for safekeeping, today's ketubot are typically adorned, framed, and prominently displayed in Jewish homes.

In adding ornamentation to their ketubah, couples today are not so much inventing a new tradition as reviving an old one. Most prominently in the late medieval period in Middle Eastern nations, Jews decorated their ketubot with brilliant illumination.

Most radically, perhaps, some couples have chosen to revise the entire notion of "ketubah" altogether. Instead they engage in a brit ahuvim (covenant of lovers). This agreement allows for each spouse to share in an equal partnership; no suggestion of "acquisition" is made at all. A ceremony of this nature does not use a ketubah or rings in the traditional sense. Instead the couple signs a document describing their commitment to each other. Lesbian, gay, and heterosexual couples have formed britot ahuvim.

Personalizing the Huppah

The huppah has taken a variety of forms throughout Jewish history. In the early medieval period, the groom would place a tallit (prayer shawl) or veil over his bride, covering her as a symbol of the marriage's consummation. But with the use of portable canopies in 16th-century Eastern Europe, the huppah began to refer more to the tent or structure itself and less to the act of covering the bride.

wedding flowersSince there are no legal requirements specifying the dimensions, shape, or ornamentation of a huppah, modern-day couples make their own decisions regarding its design, and these too, like the ketubah, reflect personal values and priorities. Some use their synagogues' huppot, while others construct their own. Wedding guests often assume a prominent role in huppah-making in the months prior to the wedding. For instance, a couple might send each of their guests a square of fabric and ask them to create personalized designs on that square. All the squares would be sewn together prior to the wedding to create the huppah.

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Valerie S. Thaler

Valerie S. Thaler is a Ph.D. student in the Judaic Studies Program at Yale, where she concentrates on 20th-century American Jewish history. She is beginning dissertation research on American Jewish identity in the 1950s. An alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, Valerie received her M.A. in Judaic Studies and Jewish Education from Brandeis, and has her B.A. in American Studies from Yale.