Jessie Engelman and her fiance plan to wed later this year in Jamaica, where they’ll sign a ketubah, the traditional Jewish marriage contract.
Soon after, they’ll host a pig roast in her tiny Iowa hometown.
Neither bride nor groom is Jewish, nor are they evangelical Christians looking to honor their biblical connections to the faith.
“My mom and my grandparents had never heard of a ketubah. … After we explained it they thought it was really cool,” said the 31-year-old Engelman, a quality assurance manager from Nyack, N.Y. “We love the spirit of it.”
More non-Jewish couples have embraced Jewish marriage rituals over the last decade. Some stomp a glass — or a lightbulb as a popular substitute. Others recite vows under a canopy, called a chuppah.
But it’s the ketubah, or a less Jewish cousin called a “Statement of Our Love,” that often catches the eye of couples with no familial or cultural ties to Judaism.
The demand for “non-Jewish” ketubot (the plural) increases every year at the sites JudaicConnection and ShopKetubah, both run by Cindy Michael in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The number of ketubah artists setting up shop online has exploded in recent years, making it that much easier for non-Jewish couples to embrace the practice.
The ketubah is more than just fancy calligraphy. It’s often poster-size and ornate, suitable for framing later with artwork either as backdrop or accompaniment. “Interestingly enough, some of the non-Jewish couples choose very traditional Jewish texts,” Michael said.
She works with many ketubah artists who offer words of love and loyalty specifically for non-Jewish couples. One offers an Apache wedding blessing and another uses inspirational text from New Age guru Kahlil Gibran.
“Many times they contact us after having attended Jewish friends’ weddings,” Michael said. “Previously, they often had to order a custom text but now there are many designs they can choose from with standard wording for all faith couples.”
Jannine Medrana Malave and her husband, Nelson, had a traditional Catholic wedding with a Mass in their childhood parish church in Philadelphia. Their ceremony included touches reflecting her Filipino roots and his Puerto Rican ones, but they also had a ketubah in a round design with English and Hebrew — signed by, among others, the priest who married them.
The ketubah was a gift from two close friends they consider their “Jewish mothers,” but it was Nelson’s idea after he noticed the ketubot in the shop of the National Museum of American Jewish History, where Jannine works as director of donor relations and special events.
“We like to learn about other cultures and other traditions,” said Jannine, 34. “It’s hanging in our living room, next to our crucifix no less.”
Stephanie Caplan is a ketubah artist on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. She’s been doing custom work for non-Jewish clients who found her offline and through her website, TheKetubah.com, for several years. She recently added more affordable prints suitable for couples who want to celebrate but not practice the faith.
“I always felt it was something that everybody could have,” she said. “I didn’t see why it should just be for Jews. It can be the thing that reflects the spirit of the day, more than those 50,000 photographs you took at your wedding. It’s just a nice energy.”
That’s what New York native Edward Cleveland Jr. and his wife, Maki, thought when they hired a ketubah maker.
Cleveland, 37, was raised Catholic in New York. His wife is from Tokyo. They wanted their 2008 wedding to be unique and hired a certified civil celebrant, Gerald Fierst, to officiate and help plan the ceremony. Fierst suggested a leather-bound “Statement of Our Love” in both English and Japanese, signed by the couple’s parents and other guests. The ceremony also included a sweet sake ceremony and presentation of orchids to honor his wife’s native Japan.
With friends “from all different walks of life and ethnic backgrounds and religions, we didn’t want anything that was religious but wanted everybody to feel something familiar,” Nelson said.
Fierst, who published a book last year on 21st-century marriage, “The Heart of the Wedding,” said Muslims, Quakers and others also have traditional religious marriage contracts.
“A lot of Jewish culture has become mainstream,” he said. “People don’t think of it as religious. They think of it as, ‘Isn’t that a nice tradition?’”