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Shelley S. Hebert

Ketubbot Across Centuries, Continents and Cultures

This 1807 ketubbah from Livorno, Italy is one of two commemorating weddings that took place on the same day, with two grooms who were brothers and two brides who were sisters. Image courtesy of JTS Library

As the spring wedding season approaches, a stunning new two-volume set published by the Jewish Theological Seminary Library reminds us that across centuries, continents and cultures, Jews have transformed a legal document for marriage into a cherished art form.

The Art of the Ketubbah” for the first time gathers 472 marriage contracts in the JTS Library’s world-class collection, taking us on a global journey spanning 37 countries from Italy to Ashkenazi and Sephardi Europe, the Ottoman Empire, North Africa, Asia, Persia, India, Israel, and the United States.  Its author is Shalom Sabar, professor emeritus of Jewish Art and Folklore at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In the narrative, he leads us on a tour of ketubbot from the 10th to the 21st centuries, meticulously describing the decorative elements, calligraphy, Torah verses, historical context, translations and remarkable stories his expert eye sees in each ketubbah.

Among the most fascinating are dozens of ketubbot fragments such as this one rescued in the 19th century from the Cairo Genizah, selected from among the 43,000 Cairo Genizah fragments in the JTS Library collection.

These beautifully designed new volumes are a catalogue, with entries ranging from Fustat, Egypt in the year 1023, to New York in 2012.  Each volume is itself a book lover’s treasure, with high-quality, large-format color photos offering scholars, avid readers and collectors the reading intimacy only an actual book can provide.

 

The Art of the Ketubbah” is an outstanding example of why the premier research library for Judaica and Hebraica in the Western Hemisphere is also among the entire world’s leading Jewish libraries—not only for scholars, but as a priceless asset for lifelong Jewish learning in the 21st century.

AN UNEXPECTED DISCOVERY. As I quickly experienced when my copy arrived, browsing its richly presented 846 pages can yield totally unexpected discoveries.

This artwork is identical to my parents’ ketubbah. Image courtesy of the JTS Library

In Volume 2, I was thrilled to see the identical artwork for my parents’ ketubbah from their 1944 wedding in Mobile, Alabama.  Although I had previously learned about the artist Sol Nodel by searching online and finding that a similar one had been sold at auction, the detailed authoritative information from Professor Sabar has deepened my appreciation of his artistry.  Sabar writes, “The decoration of this ketubbah is freely modeled on a Gothic illuminated page, combined with the strong influence of another Jewish artist active in the field in those years, the Polish-born American artist Arthur Szyk (1894-1951) whose popular Haggadah was published two years earlier.” I have seen wonderful Szyk museum exhibitions and have a copy of his Haggadah, but I would have never made that significant connection on my own.

SEEING OURSELVES IN THE JEWISH STORY. Enabling us to see ourselves and our families as part of the ongoing global Jewish story is but one compelling reason why even in the digital age, great Jewish libraries matter.  They not only collect and preserve our shared heritage, but increasingly are making educational resources and opportunities accessible well beyond their walls.  Starting on April 20, a four-part course on “The Ketubbah: What It Reveals About Jewish Life Through the Ages” is being offered by JTS online to participants anywhere.  In addition to learning about the social and economic history of ketubbot “from papyrus, to parchment, to print,” the class will provide an unusual opportunity to explore a ketubbah from one’s own family archives assisted by expert guidance.

TO LEARN MORE. Video recordings featuring some of the rare JTS Library Collection Venetian and Karaite ketubbot can be viewed online.

A limited edition of The Art of the Ketubbah is available to order in hardcover or paperback.

About the Author
Shelley has held numerous executive and board leadership roles in the San Francisco Bay Area/Silicon Valley Jewish community. She led development of the Palo Alto Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life as Executive Director, was board president of Hillel at Stanford, and has served on the advisory boards of the Jewish Chaplaincy at Stanford Medical Center, the Taube Center for Jewish Studies, the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life & Culture, and the Jewish Theological Seminary Library. Currently she is president of the Stanford Jewish Alumni Network and a member of Stanford's first Jewish Advisory Committee. Email: hebert.shelleys@gmail.com
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