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The art of marriage on display in "Ketubah Renaissance."

There's a new exhibit at the Shainberg Gallery at the Memphis Jewish Community Center called "Ketubah Renaissance: The View From Memphis," and I know what your first question is likely going to be because it was mine too: What's a ketubah?

To put it simply, a ketubah (pronounced "k'-too-bah") is a marriage document, common in Jewish weddings for centuries, that explicitly states how a wife is to be taken care of financially in the event of divorce or the husband's death. It's an insurance policy for the married woman -- a legally binding wedding codicil established to compensate for what was once the man's power over his wife. Or, as ketubah artist and curator of the exhibit Donald Emerson says, "I think of it almost as the world's first prenuptial."

In many cases, ketubot (plural, pronounced "k'-too-boat") are works of art in addition to being legal certificates. The decoration of ketubot can be traced back to Italy in the early 17th century. As the art form grew in popularity, it spread to other Jewish communities across Europe and the Middle East.

It flourished for centuries, but as printing became more common, fewer couples had their ketubah handmade. Additionally, as civil law progressed and began to address women's issues, ketubot became less necessary. For many Jewish couples, however, ketubot never disappeared as a central part of a wedding and in a household, though their role in artistic expression became more scarce.

Since the late 1960s, there's been renewed interest in decorating the ketubah document. Today, artistically, ketubot come in just about any style. Artists featured in "Ketubah Renaissance" work in and borrow techniques from Cubism, Impressionism, Pointillism, micrography, medieval illuminated manuscripts, and much more. In addition to Emerson, Memphis ketubah artists in the show include Diane Harkavy, Sally Markell, and Stephen Wachtel.

There's also been a loosening of the definition of what a ketubah is. Many modern ketubot are, in addition to being legally sound, egalitarian statements of commitment. A ketubah can be more symbolic than strictly practical. In some instances, they include texts that resemble vows exchanged in a Christian marriage ceremony. A few of the exhibit's ketubot are commemorative, commissioned for couples' 50th wedding anniversaries.

But don't get the idea that ketubot are no longer viable, powerful documents. Traditional laws state that a couple cannot live together even one hour without a ketubah under the roof. Before loaning his ketubah for the exhibit, one husband asked his rabbi what the ramifications would be if his ketubah wasn't physically present in his house. It was determined that so long as the couple knew the exact location of the ketubah outside of the home, it would be okay for them to still live together.

Many of the ketubot in the exhibit are wonders to behold. One ketubah, a lithograph by Debra Band, is a labyrinth of geometric puzzle pieces interspersed with 36 starbursts. A trail of wavy, delicate black lines frames the image and advances through the space between the shapes. Upon closer inspection, the lines are revealed to be micrography: tiny handwritten words. In this case, the whole of Song of Songs has been committed to the page by Band.

Many ketubot utilize the symbols of Jewish art, mythology, and history. Common motifs include the menorah, the chuppah, pomegranates, the Star of David, signs of the zodiac, lions, crowns, and images of Jerusalem. Often visual puns or multiple meanings are built into the ketubah. In addition to the Aramaic legalese standard to ketubot, the text, often written out by the artist or a calligrapher, might contain quotes from the Bible. Selections often are personalized, including, in some serendipitous instances, biblical passages that contain the names of the betrothed within one sentence.

The relatively unknown nature of ketubot was one of the main reasons Emerson put the exhibit together. "The public doesn't see ketubot a lot, so I thought [the exhibit] was a way to turn things inside out, taking something that's private and making it public." The show also displays the diversity of expression. "In a sense, it's a reflection of the diversity in the Jewish community," Emerson says. "It's a small community, and people from the outside tend to look at it as monolithic and homogeneous. But actually there's a lot of variety."

Resonant within that variety in "Ketubah Renaissance" is a consistent, clarion, ancient agape, a declaration of fidelity that rings sweet visually and textually -- a holy devotion, a kedushah, made individual for a couple that honors the whole institution of love.

At the Memphis Jewish Community Center's Shainberg Gallery through February 25th

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