Saturday, December 27, 2014 Tevet 5, 5775

A Ketubah With Molars? That's No Problem!

October 20, 2005 By:
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Deborah Kaplan
Deborah Kaplan may not be able to assist a bride with choosing the perfect dress or help her design a stunning floral centerpiece, but she can create a beautiful document that will make the big event legal - at least by Jewish law.

A trained illustrator and calligrapher, Kaplan combined her two skills 15 years ago to design her very first ketubah - a traditional document outlining the bride and groom's duties to each other, which is signed by witnesses before a wedding ceremony. Her prints are now sold in synagogues, museums and Judaica stops throughout the country.

After graduating from Philadelphia College of Art, Kaplan worked from home, using her calligraphy skills to address invitations or handwrite menus. Soon, she was contacted by Main Line School Night - an adult-education program - and began teaching calligraphy classes.

"I always tell my students that if they find something interesting, they should bring it to class," said the Bala Cynwyd resident, who was recently honored for 25 years of service with the program, recalling what provided the impetus for her designing ketubahs. "The student had designed a ketubah and illustrated it, and I thought, 'Wow, this is what I should be doing.' "

With minimal Jewish background - though she spoke Yiddish to her grandmother while growing up in Mount Airy, her parents didn't really practice any Jewish traditions - Kaplan enrolled in Hebrew classes at Gratz College in order learn the language she'd be working with so intimately. (Though ketubahs are traditionally written in Aramaic, Kaplan says that the two languages are so close that having a better understanding of Hebrew allowed her to be more accurate with her work.)

She also met with a rabbi and a Hebrew calligrapher to understand the wording of the document, and still uses every opportunity to absorb as much of the language as she can - even at the Israeli-dancing classes she attends twice a week.

"I hear the Israelis jabbering, and I want them to tell me what they're saying because everything is about understanding Hebrew," said this 65-year-old mother of three and grandmother of five. "To understand it makes me more careful when I'm doing my writing."

She Takes Requests
But as an artist, getting the text right is just as important as designing a ketubah that accurately reflects the couple. And she gets all sorts of requests.

Once, a dentist requested a flower garden strewn with rocks in the shape of molars; other couples wanted the face of a beloved pet peeking out from behind flowers, or the flag of a favorite sports team or university subtly incorporated into the design.

Using what she'd learned from working with brides and grooms - and from a group she formed of about seven other ketubah artists here in Philadelphia who share ideas and critique various designs - Kaplan was able to expand her business to reach even those on the West Coast. She has created five standard prints - each able to accommodate Reform, Conservative or traditional texts - and receives orders from all over the country.

But no matter where her clients are located or how customized the design is, Kaplan acknowledges the important role she plays in a wedding ceremony, even though she doesn't normally attend the service.

"Long after I'm gone, these will be here," she stated. "I can't think of a better way to spend my time."

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