What are Marriage Contracts for?

Please welcome to the blog our newest contributor, Laura Arnold Leibman. She is Professor of English and Humanities at Reed College, and the author of a book that we discussed at the blog a while back: Messianism, Secrecy, and Mysticism: A New Interpretation of Early American Jewish Life. I am very excited to have Professor Leibman on board, as she brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise on subjects that our blog has been a little . . . (cough cough) weak on in the past. Welcome aboard, Laura! -- Paul

Laura Arnold Leibman

Neve Shalom Synagogue (Paramaribo)
In 1796 David Abraham de Vries of Suriname Congregation Neve Shalom did something relatively unexpected: he married Marianna Levij, his mixed-race partner of eleven years and the mother of his three sons.  Although legally Jewish, the marriage was unusual in several ways, and it potentially pointed to changing sensibilities. First, while European Jewish men in the Caribbean certainly had sexual and romantic relationships with women of color, during the eighteenth century they rarely formalized those relationships with marriage.  Second, unlike most of the women of color who cohabitated with Jewish men in other colonies, Marianna was herself Jewish, even though as a mixed-race Jew she held a second-class congregante status in the Synagogue.  The Jewish community’s response to the marriage was more typical, at least as of 1772 when situations like this had begun to arise: David Abraham de Vries lost his rights as a (white) yachid and became a congregante like his wife, “the same class as a mulatto.”  By 1802 such demotions would have less meaning, as some of the differences between congregantes and yachidim were eliminated.  Too late for David, however, who died shortly after his marriage and would have to be buried in a second-rate ceremony and congregante section of the cemetery. [1]

Historians of marriage generally point to the end of the long eighteenth century as a key era of change in which the “spread of the market economy” caused marriage to shift from “arranged marriages as a social ideal” to partnerships in which “individuals were encouraged to marry for love.”[2]  Such studies have primarily focused on Christian marriages in the United States. Scholars have been less inclined to ask to what extent this model of “yoke mates to soul mates” applies to early Jewish American marriages.  Over the next couple of years, however, more resources on Jewish marriage in the colonies are scheduled to become public and accessible, and these resources should help us address the role religion plays in the history of marriage, as well as how the Americanization of Judaism changed the notion of a Jewish marriage.  In this post I will first address the typical resources used for understanding early American Jewish marriages; second note changes in availability of these resources; and third highlight a few resources scholars and students might use to analyze these distinctively Jewish sources.

First, what resources can scholars use to understand early Jewish American marriages? The details of the marriage of David Abraham de Vries and Marianna Levij come from the synagogue records of the High German Jewish Synagogue known as the Neve Shalom Archive (NSA), the originals of which can be found in Paramaribo (Suriname) and duplicates of which are housed at American Jewish Archives (AJA) in Cincinnati. Indeed, aside from wills and letters, synagogue records generally constitute one of the best resources for understanding early Jewish American marriages.

In addition to keeping a record of disputes between individuals and synagogue boards over the status of individual Jewish marriages in minute books, early American synagogues generally kept records of all individual marriages, including an original copy of each marriage contract (ketubbah).  In this way, early American synagogue records differ from most American synagogue records today: during the early colonial era, the ketubbah was the official document of a Jewish marriage for both secular and religious authorities; hence synagogues carefully retained signed duplicates of the text of each contract. While these “copies” are not illuminated like the personal copies kept by Jewish families, they contain a shockingly wide range of useful information including the parentage of the couple, their racial designation if non-white, their status as converts (if applicable), the amount of the dowry, the size of the marriage portion provided by the groom, and the sexual status of bride.

The form of the contract also provides information about the ethnic and geographic origins of the couple and their propensity towards ritual innovation or continuity.  Equally crucially, since ketubbot books contain all the marriage contracts from a community during a specific era, they allow for analysis of changes across time or according to factors such as race.  This evidence is complemented by the rarer, beautiful illuminated ketubbot kept by families that also provide visual evidence of religious change and continuity.

Second, we are entering an exciting era in which more early American ketubbot are becoming easily accessible than ever before.   Since most early American ketubbot are in a text-only format, they have rarely appeared in online collections of illuminated marriage contracts like those found at the Beinecke, The Jewish Museum, JTS, the National Library of Israel, the Jewish National and University Library, and the Jewish Museum in London (keyword: ketubah).  Two important early American ketubbah collections will soon be available, however: those of Suriname and Barbados.  One, the synagogue records and ketubbah collection of the Portuguese Jewish community of Suriname housed in the National Archive in The Hague are in the process of being digitized.  Selected ketubbot from this collection will be published in an English translation in Jews in the Americas: 1620-1826, edited by Michael Hoberman and myself.  Two, a member of the Bevis Marks congregation in London has transcribed the Nidhe Israel marriage registers of Barbados with the aim to publish them in the next volume of Jewish Historical Studies.  The originals of these documents are currently housed in London Metropolitan Archives along with copies of the synagogue’s minute books.  In addition to these collections, rare individual illuminated early ketubbot from Suriname and Curaçao are likely to form part of an upcoming physical and virtual exhibit from Amsterdam’s Jewish Historical Museum on Jews in the colonies.

Third, what are some resources for understanding these documents?  If illuminated, the graphic design of the ketubbah should be compared with Sephardic ketubbot from the Netherlands and London for signs of innovation and continuity. (Ashkenazi Jews generally did not illustrate ketubbot.)  In addition to looking at individual examples, there is a fabulous overview of ketubbot styles by region at The Jewish Museum.  These style or “types” are also excellent starting points for understanding the textual innovations and the mixed style of early American ketubbot from marriages between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews or Ashkenazi Jews who imitated certain aspects of the Sephardic style.

For example, the ketubbah of Meir Meyerstone and Rebekah De Meza on November 7, 1819 found from the HUC Skirball Cultural Center Museum Collection, Los Angeles contains an interesting mixture of traditions.  Since Jewish women take on the tradition of the husband, we might a plain contract in Aramaic with witnesses listed at the end.  Yet the ketubbah contains a variant on the blessing for the bride and groom followed by the text formatted in the two-part Amsterdam tradition with signatures following each section.

Interior Portuguese Synagogue (Paramaribo)
Although not illuminated, the ketubbot from the Portuguese synagogue in Paramaribo (Suriname) also adhere closely to the unique textual style of Amsterdam.  LAt the top is the Hebrew blessing “Under a good sign” followed by a standard contract in Aramaic signed by witnesses and then a reiteration of the contract below it (in Hebrew or Aramaic) also signed by witnesses.  One typical interesting innovation is that the contracts are sometimes signed by the groom, an innovation that can be found later in other American ketubbot and indicates a misunderstanding of the original purpose of the signatures, since the groom cannot serve as his own witness.

The texts for ketubbot are remarkably formulaic; thus, the body of either the Meyerstone-de Meza ketubbah or the Surinamese ketubbot can usefully be compared to the typical text (and its meaning) as explained by Rabbi Maurice Lamm on myjewishlearning.com: The Ketubah Text (Part I) ; The Ketubah Text (Part II).  Another great resource for understanding the text of ketubbot is Stephen Morse, who also has a ketubbah text generator which allows students to predict what a standard ketubbah would look like for a couple given basic information and then compare the generated text to the original. One interesting innovation of some of the Surinamese ketubbot is the inclusion of racial language about the bride and groom if they mixed-race.

Although our understanding of later Jewish American marriages have been augmented by analyses of ketubbot by Jeffrey Shandler [3] and others, little work has been done on early Jewish American artifacts related to marriage.  Digitization and transcription of archival materials promise a new era in the study of early American religion and its intersection with the history of marriage.

[1] Wieke Vink, Creole Jews: Negotiating community in colonial Suriname (Leiden: KITLV Press, 2010), pp. 237-38.
[2]  Stephanie Cootz, Marriage a History: How Love Conquered Marriage  (New York: Penguin,  2005), pp. 145-46
[3] Jeffrey Shandler, “Transformations of the Ketubbah; or, the Gallery of Broken Marriages” Images 4 (2011): 25-45.

All photos by Laura Arnold Leibman, 2008.


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