Oy Betcha: Wedding Cake with a Side of Cultural Appropriation

This is a guest post by Tiffany Gallagher, who recently started blogging with her husband at Oy Betcha! about their adventures converting to Judaism. She’s thinking their ketubah needs to include a line in Aramaic about her getting the Labyrinth DVD in the event of separation.

As someone coming into Judaism with absolutely no connections whatsoever – aside from the possibility that my soul was at Mount Sinai, which I hope to someday uncover for certain via hypnosis, along with the knowledge that I was Cleopatra – I am distinctly aware that my adoption of Jewish practices may be seen as cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation, friends, is taking someone else’s culture and adopting it as your own fun little thing, like these folks mentioned in the New York Times are doing.

But from the bottom of my hoping-I-am-not-a-hypocrite heart, I hope this is not what I’m doing.

…the Austins are part of a growing phenomenon of non-Jews incorporating the ketubah, a document with millennia-old origins and a rich artistic history, into their weddings. Mrs. Austin, in fact, first learned about the ketubah from her older sister, also an evangelical Christian, who had been married five years earlier with not only a ketubah but the Judaic wedding canopy, the huppah.

“Embracing this Jewish tradition just brings a richness that we miss out on sometimes as Christians when we don’t know the history,” said Mrs. Austin, 29, a business manager for AT&T. “Jesus was Jewish, and we appreciate his culture, where he came from.”

Beyond its specific basis in Judaism, the ketubah represented to the Austins a broader concept of holiness, of consecration. “We wanted a permanent reminder of the covenant we made with God,” Mrs. Austin said. “We see this document superseding the marriage license of a state or a court.

Let’s put aside that Mrs. Austin claims that the paper ketubah hanging over her sofa is a permanent record of their covenant with each other (helpful hint: paper is not exactly “permanent”) and how they seem to think that the ketubah is all about romance and not, historically, about preserving a woman’s financial stability if her husband should divorce her (ah, love!). Let’s focus, instead, on how their ketubah, pictured on the left side of the article, includes a blurb about the Christian faith, which makes it not-so-Jewish after all.

Here’s where I feel hypocritical. I align myself with Reconstructionism, which comes with it such decidedly newfangled things as egalitarianism, but I like the idea of keeping traditions traditional. The Austins’ ketubah mentions Christianity. That, to me, means it’s a keepsake document styled in the form of a ketubah, which is something entirely different. One must pay the club dues to get use of the facilities. That is to say, if you’re going to adopt traditions of Judaism, it would make sense to believe in its tenets. One of the biggies is that the Messiah hasn’t arrived yet.

I mentioned this article to my husband and his comment was, “It’s their Bible, too!” That would be a valid argument, if the ketubah was a Biblical thing.

Ketubot started about two thousand years ago, when the sages of old decided that it was prudent to protect a wife’s, and her children’s, interests going into a marriage, as women and their children could easily be stripped of all property and money if a husband died or otherwise left (which is both pretty awful and awfully draining on a community’s resources). The ketubah rolled the biblical mohar, or bride price, into the divorce settlement, which performed the dual purpose of enabling poor young men to marry sooner (since they didn’t have to pay for their women up front) and protecting a woman’s interests in the event of divorce (which obviously helps women, children, and the community). So, really, if they wanted to be all Biblical and to honor Jesus’ heritage, Mr. Austin should’ve given Mrs. Austin’s father some coin and a few sheep.

I understand the desire to supersede the civil trappings of marriage. My husband and I were married in a civil ceremony officiated by a judge in a courthouse. It was a whirlwind ceremony meaningful only because of whom we were marrying. One of the things I’m most looking forward to about finally converting is getting remarried, which will be meaningful not only because of commitment we’re making to each other, but the commitment we’ll be making to a whole community that shares the religion of our souls. Lighting candles on erev Shabbat and collecting bling isn’t about us picking up souvenirs on our trip through the land of the Jews, but about laying the foundations of Jewish life together. And that, to me, is the big difference.

(Photo: Santheo)

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4 comments

  1. really rad subject matter, and you do a great job with it.

    i have similar viewpoints to yours, and find myself often putting a lot of thought into whether or not i am appropriating someone’s culture (and being really pissed off and/or sad when i see appropriation occurring). as a person interested in producing more and consuming less (food, belongings, etc.), i often find myself looking to cultures who have expertise on these skills, as my culture of origin does not. both my values and my socioeconomic status require knowledge and use of these skills, but i’m not comfortable placing them into my repertoire with out understanding, and hopefully honoring, the history attached to the development of these skills. i also want to understand and be honest with myself about how my white culture is very much responsible both for the loss of these skills to many peoples, and to the increased need for them across cultures, as sometime soon, we will not be able to consume at our current rate whether we want to or not.

    thanks for your contribution to this bigger conversation!

  2. Could you explain why you both seem to regard “cultural appropriation” as a bad thing? Maybe there’s some special connotation there that I’m not aware of.

    As an example, if a European-American finds that the insights of Buddhism help her have some perspective, is that bad? Or is this not the sort of thing you’re talking about?

  3. @ Mike: The difference, to me, is whether or not something is being appropriated with knowledge of the history and implications of whatever they’re adopting. A good example would be the (now very outdated) trend of wearing a keffiyeh (see http://blogs.villagevoice.com/fashion/2007/02/times_is_behind.php#). I think it’s only natural for cultures to borrow from each other, but I think it’s important to respect the origins, and not overwrite them with your own take, passing it off as the original.

  4. @ Sonya: Thanks so much for the positive feedback! That’s very interesting insight as well. I’ve never thought about it in the context of resources.

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