Judith loved art from a young age and when she was 17 she bought her parents a book all about ketubahs for their wedding anniversary. “I had never heard of illuminated ketubahs and was telling this young rabbi about it.” Turns out he was getting married that summer and asked Judith if she would design and do the calligraphy for his ketubah.
“He pestered me until I agreed, and he helped and guided me onto this path. I then went off to art school. By day I was doing large abstract painting and at night I was making ketubahs. I was definitely the only person making ketubahs in Wisconsin,” she said with a laugh. “I can’t believe he recognized that in me! Sometimes people can see more in us then we know about ourselves. I don’t think I would have had the confidence to attempt a legal document like a ketubah, on my own.”
Rabbi and Mrs. Frederick Wenger’s was the very ketubah Judith ever made, then in 2009, after 36 years of making ketubahs, Rabbi Wenger asked her to make his daughter’s ketubah. (Pictured above)
By day I was doing large abstract painting and at night I was making ketubahs.
Judith and I both felt it was no coincidence that we were speaking on the eve of Yom Hashoah, the Holocaust Remembrance Day, a day all about remembering our shared history, but also that we must always continue in our Jewish ways of life. “We were nearly rubbed out but I know that my ketubahs will outlive me. They truly are immortal, they are family heirlooms that will be preserved for generations to come. That is part of the joy and love of my work.”
Does the fact that your art is on a ketubah affect the design
or does the design come first?
“The idea that it’s a ketubah drives the design, it has completely impacted all of my work. I start out writing the text and then the art around it. The idea of the text is always there, whether it is visible or if I’m referring to the text behind the wings [of the art]. It’s just become a habit.”
I’ve done over 500 so that’s framed how I work, it is really my first love.
To a point that most of her work are ketubot. “I’ve done over 500 so that’s framed how I work, it is really my first love.”
What is your favorite medium to work in?
“Egg tempera which is a medium that was popular in the middle ages.” One of the most notable artist to use this same method is Botticelli who famously painted “The Birth of Venus.” It is pure pigment mixed with a fresh egg. “The reason I do it is not just be unusual but it is really beautiful and creates vivid colors. It is aqua based, rather than oil based, which makes it compatible with ink which is great for calligraphers. It is also very permanent so that the ketubahs will last for centuries, with museum-like quality.”
Judith says, “I like to tell my students “let your hand teach your mind. If I just start working and painting, the ideas come, it’s all tied in. It’s not just sitting around and waiting for inspiration to hit me. If you’re not making this kind of art, you really don’t know. I feel really blessed to be a ketubah artist, it’s a privilege.”