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New Styles in Chuppot (Wedding Canopies)

A circle of snowflakes, each one unique. A handstitched pillow, dipped in pink paint. A genealogical tree. Crafted on fragments of heavy canvas, l2 inches square, they were among 30 squares sewn together to form the chuppah, the bridal canopy, at Laurie and Ernest Lazar’s wedding last August. Made by close friends and family, together each of the the fragments told a story about the couple’s world. As a completed chuppah, they formed the symbolic home under which the couple was married

Laurie and Ernest Blazar of Alexandria, VA, will be hanging the chuppah on the wall of their home. “Hands down,” says Laurie, “it is the thing our guests remember most about our wedding. When I saw the whole thing pieced together, I cried. People put so much work into the squares.”

In a revival of a tradition going back several centuries, chuppot (wedding canopies) today are largely handmade, often by artists who use a remarkable blend of ancient crafts and contemporary forms such as needlepoint and embroidery, applique and paint, woodworking and dye. Whatever its fabric or design, the chuppah remains a covering with infinite symbolism that helps to sanctify unions made in heaven. Open on all sides, it is reminiscent of Abraham and Sarah’s tent, which was also open on four sides, welcoming the stranger from all directions.

Kabbalistic (mystical) sources assert that the canopy for the wedding between God and Israel was the tabernacle that the Israelites built in the Sinai desert. Like the chuppah, it was the “house” where the bride and groom began their life together. Just as the tabernacle was made of taestries on top of poles and beams, so the chuppah is made of a tapestry on poles.

Some date the chuppah from King Solomon’s times, likening it to a carriage supported by four poles in which the bride was brought to the wedding in ancient times. Others trace it to writings of the l6th century. But the Talmud tells us that using the chuppah to sanctify marriage goes back to the beginning of time, when before the Holy One married Adam and Eve, he erected l0 canopies for them in the Garden of Eden and blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply.”

According to artist, Eli Langner of Lynbrook, New York, as the ceremony progresses, the chuppah becomes the focal point of the wedding, enabling witnesses to experience the presence of God. “Recognizing the spiritual power the chuppah lends to the ceremony, couples in the past decade have become invested in its craftsmanship. The couples, working hand in hand with an artist to create the wedding’s ritual objects, are fulfilling the rabbinic dictum of hiddur mitzvah–the enhancement of ritual objects– which adds a note of beauty and attention to the observance of mitzvot (commandments). Through such an investment, couples are also pausing to reflect on the meaning of their wedding and the Jewish home they will build.

Laurie and Ernest patterned their chuppah after one they had seen at a friend’s wedding. They joined a growing number of couples who are eager to make their bridal canopy a reflection of the spirit of friendship and love they hoped would surround their marriage. They invited friends and family to create squares for the chuppah, giving them free rein to personalize them by recreating on fabric special moments, shared experiences and family history.

“I asked one of my best friends to research the meaning of chuppah for me,” said Laurie. “He worked on the Internet, went to the Jewish bookstore and explained to me that the chuppah represents a home. Everyone who helped us make the chuppah helped us make a symbolic home.”

Laurie describes the work that went into the chuppah. “My parents spent several months researching the names, birth dates and countries of birth of our ancestors going back to the late l800s. They wrote the information on paper and glued the pieces of paper onto cloth. My mother learned how to use the Internet through this project.”

“We had never heard of this kind of chuppah,” says Anne Kellman of Buffalo, NY, Laurie’s mother. “At our wedding 33 years ago, we had an ark and fresh flowers. It’s [the chuppah is] so meaningful and different. It met with a response that was so overwhelming.”

When Marc Sirinsky and Catherine Coulson were married in an outdoor ceremony in Ojai, California, they stood beneath a patchwork chuppah, the work of some 200 friends and relatives. The couple had sent out small white squares out with their wedding invitations and like Laurie and Ernest, they gave creative license to guests to design their own.

Describing the moments the chuppah, was carried down the aisle, Coulson recalls, “There was a large gasp as our friends and relatives realized what they had created.”

Adds Sirinsky, “The space under the chuppah is filled with light and holiness. For friends and relatives to come together and help shape and form that space was empowering. We felt we were part of a community that would watch over us and our marriage.”

Hebrew for “commandment,” it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. (“You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!”) The second is a good deed. (“Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!”)

Plural form of the Hebrew word “mitzvah” which means “commandment,” it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. (“You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!”) The second is a good deed. (“Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!”)

Hebrew for “canopy” or “covering,” the structure (open on all four sides) under which a Jewish wedding ceremony takes place. In its simplest for, it consists of a cloth, sheet, or tallit stretched or supported over four poles.

Hebrew for “instruction” or “learning,” a central text of Judaism, recording the rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs and history. It has two parts: Mishnah (redacted c. 200 CE) and Gemara (c. 500 CE), an elucidation of the Mishnah.

Helen Belitsky

Helen Belitsky is a freelance writer based in Maryland.