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MARRYING ART, LOVE AND 'PRAISE TO GOD' Artist decorates contracts for those entering marriage

With a paintbrush and watercolor, Avraham Cohen launches more Jews into marriage than many rabbis.

He is a master of the ketubbah.

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The word is Aramaic for "marriage contract," a religious document that dates back some 2,000 years, a binding agreement that lays out basic responsibilities between a husband and wife and penalties for shirking them.

Often, it is a simple thing, a piece of paper with the right words on it.

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In the hands of Mr. Cohen, it is a holy work of art.

"God gives out certain talents to certain people," said Mr. Cohen, an Orthodox Jew of 45 who lives off of Park Heights Avenue in northwest Baltimore. "A religious person realizes his talent is given and can't take all the credit, the same way you can't take credit for breathing. I can't take credit for having a steady right hand."

With that hand, a fine eye, and a spiritual view of the world, Mr. Cohen transforms blank paper into meadows and menageries inscribed with the ground rules for Jewish marriage.

The responsibility of the husband is to see that the wife is clothed, fed and that intimacy is maintained. The wife is to remain loyal to her husband and fulfill all the domestic responsibilities of a Jewish wife, primarily raising children.

The document is held up at the ceremony for all to see before being read aloud in English and Hebrew.

"Legally, there is no significance for decorating a ketubbah and there are some authorities who oppose it," said Rabbi Menachem Goldberger, who heads the Tiferes Yisroel Orthodox congregation on Park Heights Avenue. "But it's common practice for a ketubbah to be decorated, going back a long way."

A calligrapher and illustrator, Mr. Cohen applies watercolor, precious metals, inks and pastels to 100 percent acid-free "rag," a heavy sheet of archival paper.

If the betrothed share a passion for the water, the borders of the ketubbah may be a berth for sailboats, with Hebrew script penciled over a background of waves.

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One couple requested daffodils, another asked that their pet dogs be drawn into the document. Others desire the beauty of stained glass, images inspired by Marc Chagall, wild animals living peaceably together or scenes reminiscent of Jerusalem.

"When I was about 17 years old I saw Avraham's work at the Baltimore Jewish festival and vowed that some day when I got married, I would get one of his ketubbahs," said Michelle Goldman, 34, of Mount Washington. "Years later, when my future husband proposed, I showed him this dog-eared business card and said: 'Please . . . ' "

She and her fiance Jeff left the design up to Mr. Cohen when they decided to marry in 1985. He delivered a ketubbah with an Oriental flavor, one rich with the flowers of Israel in deep burgundy, purple and gold.

"It almost seems three-dimensional," said Mrs. Goldman. "In our first apartment and our houses, it's been the last thing we've taken down when we've moved and the first thing we put up at the new place. It's become an heirloom."

In the past dozen years, Mr. Cohen has created about 500 family heirlooms. He gets especially busy during the Spring, turning out two or three a week. Sometimes, he winds up rushing to the synagogue as the paint dries. "I've never missed getting the ketubbah there, but on rare occasions the illustration wasn't finished," he said.

A change of plans

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Raised in New Jersey by an ad salesman father and a mother who dabbled in oils, Mr. Cohen was doing art in his spare time in 1984 while a thesis away from a doctorate in epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health.

"I liked the diversity of forms in nature, the beauty of the natural world, but I was just fair at research and there wasn't much beauty in statistical analysis. It wasn't for me," he said. "I was only making a couple hundred dollars a week stipend at Hopkins. I told my wife: 'I bet I could make this much doing art.' "

At first he took whatever work came his way, such as covers of Jewish telephone directories.

A decade later, the money he makes with art is enough to support five children with his wife Sima-Leah, who teaches. An original Avraham Cohen costs between $350 and $3,000. The more detail, the higher the price. His work is known in Jewish circles up and down the East coast and has twice been exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution.

Conveying an idea

"I like art that has clean lines and nice contrast," he said. "I like when it conveys an idea."

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Half of those ideas are ketubot and the rest are family trees, honorary scrolls, Jewish New Year cards, keepsakes of other Jewish rituals -- such as a drawing of a boy walking into a house shaped like a Torah on his bar mitzvah -- and lithographs such as his "Celebration of Letters," a study of the Hebrew alphabet. Secular commissions have come from Johns Hopkins and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Once, he traded his work for a a beautiful box made by an Orthodox wood worker. The box is used in the annual observance of Sukkoth, the Jewish harvest festival commemorating the Hebrews' desert journey during the Exodus.

For Sukkoth, a thick-skinned yellowish fruit called a citron is wrapped in flax and hidden away. "You take a beautiful fruit," said Mr. Cohen, "and you say: 'Praise God.' "

Which is what he hopes people will say when they see his work.

"I think the works of your hands can be a praise to God," he said.

Raised a conservative Jew, Mr. Cohen studied in Israel as a Rutgers University undergraduate and went on to embrace Orthodoxy to become "baal teshuvah" -- one who has returned to a traditional way of life.

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"Maybe I was just receptive to God's signals," he said. "I think of God as constantly broadcasting and people have different kinds of receivers."

Now, he tries to transmit God's signals to those who come to him at the beginning of a life together.

"I think he tries to extend beauty into a marriage, to start it off right," said Michelle Goldman. "He wanted to make sure we understood the holiness of matrimony."

She added: "Avraham believes that marriage is ordained by God. Through his influence, I do, too."


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