The Art Of The Vow


When Aliza Boyer started making ketubahs, or Jewish wedding contracts, in 2008, the irony was that she and her girlfriend, who was helping with the business at the time, could not legally marry.

Now, gays and lesbians enjoy full marriage equality in New York and 11 other states, as well as in Washington, D.C. And seven other states have comprehensive civil union or domestic partnership laws. (None are recognized on a federal level, however, although advocates are hoping that a Supreme Court decision expected later this month will change that.)

But Boyer, 40, hasn’t gone under the chupah yet, because she is still seeking her bashert — the relationship with her girlfriend ended shortly before same-sex marriage was recognized in New York.

That hasn’t stopped her handcrafted and printed ketubahs from making regular appearances under chupahs throughout the country.

Through her company Ketubah Graphia, Boyer sells about 125 ketubahs each year, offering a wide choice of texts (Orthodox, Conservative, interfaith, same-sex, etc.), inks and designs. About 10 percent of these ketubahs are for same-sex couples, with some of them attracted by the 20 percent discount the company is offering them this year “in celebration of recent landmark decisions in favor of same-sex marriages.”

While same-sex weddings are a growing segment of her business, and Boyer gets a number of couples who belong to the LGBT synagogue Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, she says it’s “almost too early” to see whether the recent flurry of legalization (Rhode Island, Delaware, Minnesota and Colorado signed bills into law in May) has an impact on her ketubah orders.

“There are a lot of people who rush to get married legally when the law goes into effect, but in terms of having a ceremony with a ketubah, that’s something they might spend more time planning,” she says.

In any event, she says, “I’m happy it’s happening in this generation, whether they come to me” for a ketubah “or not.”

The same-sex text is sometimes used as a template for liberal heterosexual couples’ ketubahs as well, Boyer says, since “it’s inherently egalitarian.”

Boyer, who works out of her Brooklyn apartment (she just moved from Clinton Hill to Bedford-Stuyvesant), specializes in subtle designs and tiny, elegant calligraphy, the Hebrew or Aramaic text alternating with the English translation. Customers can opt for $300 prints — done on textured fine art paper and accented with hand-cut paper detailing around the border — or entirely handcrafted ones ($1,000).

The handmade ones, which make up about 30 percent of her business, are painstaking to make and require intense concentration: one mistake (fortunately, this hasn’t happened yet), and Boyer has to start over from the beginning. She labors in silence, without music.

“It’s meditative for me to use my hands,” she says. “I like it better than sitting at a computer and printing it out.”

Boyer, who has a degree in art education from New York University, didn’t grow up planning to be a ketubah-maker. In fact, she was more focused on painting and sculpting.

But when her sister married in 2003, Boyer, who had made other Jewish ritual objects and experimented with calligraphy, decided to try her hand at the ketubah. “It felt so meaningful to do my sister’s ketubah,” she recalls.

Soon, friends and family started making their own requests, and eventually someone suggested Boyer start a business.

When she first launched Ketubah Graphia, putting out her shingle on the Internet, she was one of the few ketubah-makers on the Web. Not surprisingly, that’s changed, and Boyer says the market is becoming more crowded.

“I’m one of the older ones,” she says.

Fortunately for her, the “idea of ketubah is growing,” as well, with more people —even some non-Jews — drawn to the idea of a written contract or vows that can be displayed in the couple’s home. Another ketubah trend she’s observed: adding text from other languages, such as Sanskrit (for two yoga enthusiasts) and Korean (for an interfaith couple).

Raised Conservative, Boyer moved frequently as a child because her father was in the Air Force. Born in Detroit, she lived in Florida and Southern California before her family settled in Phoenix. There she attended a small Jewish day school from fourth through seventh grades (so small she was the only seventh grader), going on to become an active United Synagogue Youth member in high school. While at Pitzer College (part of the Claremont Colleges consortium in Southern California), she spent a semester at Haifa University, where she became good friends with a group of Ethiopian immigrants who shared her dorm suite.

Soon after graduating, she came out as gay. “My family was supportive and not surprised, and has grown more supportive over the years,” she says, adding, “My sister has always been a big advocate.”

While her website — and the artisanal web store Etsy, where she also has a presence — enable her to sell her ketubahs online, Boyer says she still prefers to meet the wedding couple in person whenever possible.

In fact, these meetings are one of her favorite parts of the job.

“The Internet helps to get my name out there, but only two to three people have ever just sent an order form in without e-mailing or talking to me first,” she says. “It’s helpful for them to see the materials: my designs are subtle and can be hard to appreciate online. And it’s a nice moment for them to sit, compromise and make decisions about this important thing, one of the first big decisions they make together as a couple.” ✦