By Harriet P. Gross
If Ahasuerus had presented Queen Esther with a ketubah (which somehow I highly doubt!), she would have loved one by David Moss.
A longtime Jerusalemite, Moss recently brought the easygoing cadence of his Ohio roots to Temple Emanu-El for a week as artist-in-residence, making presentations to preschool parents, religious- and day-school students, rabbis, families and sisterhood women. For the latter, he presented his amazing ketubot, featuring microcalligraphy, delicate papercuts and exquisite illuminations — this last an ancient skill he’s revived and transplanted to modern Jewish documents.
“The ketubah was instituted by rabbis 2300 years ago,” Moss said. He defines this “marriage contract” as an “insurance policy” for women, to guarantee their sustenance after divorce or a husband’s death. Once these were artistic documents, but over centuries they were somehow reduced to printed forms that wound up folded in drawers rather than rating home display.
“I take old things and give them new life,” the artist said. “My art career began because I was captivated by the beauty of the Hebrew alphabet’s 22 letters. The ancient tradition was to illustrate the ketubah’s text.” After doing his first as a wedding gift for friends, there were many requests, and something very old found its way back into Judaism.
Moss makes other art, too, using wood and ceramics as well as parchment and paper. But three elements sing through everything. “First, all I do comes from a deep Jewish place, based on and within our tradition. Second is creativity, a spark of freshness, a new way of approaching something old. Third is the craft. I spend ridiculous amounts of time making these objects because this is a religious exercise.” Jews shouldn’t pray quickly or study shallowly, Moss says, and the same is true for him in his work.
To create a ketubah, he first spends time with the betrothed pair to find out who they are and what they consider important. Then he researches, finding appropriate symbols to personalize the ancient text, which may be centered within an elaborate border (a couple whose Hebrew names are Dov and Zipporah love the bears and birds scampering around the floral garland that rings their document) or hand-lettered over a central design element (like a multicolored collage tree ketubah for the marriage of two whose priorities are the outdoors and a green lifestyle).
One couple loves all things Oriental; their ketubah could pass for a traditional Chinese brush painting, but on closer inspection, you find that the lines of vertical characters are actually Hebrew. What first seems a three-dimensional stack of books in varying sizes is a marriage document, with traditional text written along the volumes’ spines.
You needn’t be quite as rich as Ahasuerus to purchase one of these custom-made treasures, but you should be sure your marriage will last long enough to justify a considerable investment. (Perhaps just the ownership of such a ketubah would mitigate against divorce? I wouldn’t be surprised!) And if you married years ago in a modest ceremony with the standard into-the-drawer ketubah, Moss now designs documents for milestone anniversaries. They’re much like the real thing, but don’t provide two lines for the witnesses’ signatures required at weddings.
The art of Moss, “spiritual architect” of Dallas’s Yavneh-Akiba Academies, is a permanent presence on campus: a remarkable abstract frieze interpreting the Binding of Isaac, and a carved walnut shtender — an old-fashioned reading stand that’s actually a large Jewish puzzle box: Somewhere within are hidden all the ritual items needed for our faith’s celebrations, requiring a treasure hunt to find the shofar in its ebony-topped case, the lulav and etrog holders, the Shabbat candlesticks and Kiddush cups, the chanukiah with nine metal “olives” to hold the oil they’re made to burn.
Non-Jews respond to Moss’s aesthetic, too; some of his work can be found in the Getty and British Museums and in the Harvard University Libraries; Southern Methodist University’s Bridwell Library will soon be added to the collectors’ list. But “I’m creating for Jews,” Moss reminds us. “I make folk art of a rather sophisticated kind … but Jews are a different kind of folk!”
The Book of Esther implies that poor Vashti took nothing with her after her banishment, so we wonder if Ahasuerus’ new Jewish queen really lived “happily ever after,” or if he later got rid of her, too. But if she had a David Moss-designed marriage contract, Esther could have sold it for a handsome sum as a work of art.
A happy, gladsome, artistic Purim to all!
By Harriet P. Gross