A cake topper with a groom wearing a kippah. A chuppah made, in part, with a grandmother’s lace. The gold wedding dress of a divorcee. A lease to a bride’s father for a wedding reception venue at The Alcazar in Baltimore in 1929.
These and other items are on display at the newly opened “Just Married!” exhibit at the Jewish Museum of Maryland in Baltimore, a uniquely upbeat and communal display. Running through Sept. 17, the exhibit traces the evolution of Jewish identity in Maryland through the lens of the most important day of many people’s lives — their wedding.
The idea for “Just Married!” came together because, as (bad) luck would have it, a traveling exhibit on wedding dresses as cultural art that was scheduled to appear during this time fell through. Joanna Church, collection manager for the museum and curator for this exhibit, had been putting together items from the museum’s collections to complement the planned exhibit and decided the museum could instead create its own.
“Most of our exhibits don’t use our collections as extensively as this one,” she said, adding that about two-thirds of it is from the museum’s collections.
Indeed, this exhibit is a collage of stories from the local Jewish community, tracking the way people have chosen to navigate their identities, both as Jews and as Americans. People express their identities in the big moments of life, said Tracie Guy-Decker, associate director for projects, planning and finance at the museum who also worked on the exhibit.
“That’s not superfluous or frivolous at all,” she said, referring to the idea that weddings are a less important topic for the museum to cover. “It really goes to what it means to be not just Jewish in America, but any religious minority or even ethnic minority.”
Visitors first walk into the exhibit under a chuppah and are greeted on the right by a large wall proclaiming “Just Married!” along with a film reel that shows footage of three weddings: the first from the 1930s, the second from the ’40s and the third from the ’90s.
The exhibit is broken into five sections. The first, “Everybody’s Wedding,” looks at how any wedding is often about more than just the couple. Families and friends play an important part in the decisions and, especially in the 20th century, frequently made a lot of the arrangements.
The second section is “There’s a Right Way” and explores the expectations placed on couples to be married a certain way or with certain traditions. The third section, “The Business of Weddings,” shows how, through the ages, businesses have been catering to the wedding industry.
The last two sections look at obstacles the couples face on their way to getting married (“We’ll Find a Way”) and the passing of tradition and memory to the next generation (“Generation to Generation”) — including the material aspects such as wedding dresses and chuppahs.
Each section starts with one couple’s story, and the entire exhibit is interspersed with other stories and quotes from oral interviews of people remembering their wedding day.
“We are emphasizing that this is a moment people want to remember and make a part of their lives,” Guy-Decker said.
‘The textiles are the stars’
The design of the exhibit was deliberate and was meant to really show off the artifacts, especially the textiles — the wedding dresses, tuxes and going-away outfits, along with chuppahs and even a brit gown (made from his mother’s wedding train) — said Jeremy Hoffman, a designer with Ashton Design who created the design for the exhibit.
“It’s a great group of artifacts,” he said. “What’s really exciting about this exhibit is that everything they’re showing has a story. We kept on saying — we probably sounded like broken records — that the textiles are the stars, and we designed around that.”
Hoffman is right. Each artifact does have a story, and those stories all come from right here in Maryland, spanning from as early as the late 1800s to today and encompassing as many different types of marriages, traditions and couples as possible. From a large traditional wedding and an early elopement to same-sex weddings and interfaith couples, Church and Guy-Decker said they wanted to ensure the diversity of the Jewish community was integrated throughout the exhibit.
The cake topper with the kippah, for instance, came from Marvin Spector. He’s been a longtime volunteer for the
museum as a retiree and had been chatting with Church about a photo of his parents used in the exhibit (they eloped when his mother was 16 and then had a more formal wedding with a rabbi a couple years later with no one the wiser) and happened to mention this cake topper from his own wedding.
“I thought it was very interesting,” Spector said of the exhibit. “And of course with the personal touch, it makes it even more so.”
Paul Kramer saw a few artifacts from his parents, Lee and Philip Kramer, make it into the exhibit: a large framed photo of the couple on their wedding day, a lease for the Alcazar Hotel ballroom for the wedding reception and an image from the guest book in which his father had meticulously written down all the guests names along with who gave what gifts.
“We were very happy they could get some use out of [these items],” Kramer said. “It was very exciting. It kind of preserves their memory and also preserves the time they lived in.
“The museum, I think, does a wonderful job of preserving Jewish heritage in Maryland, and I applaud them for that,” he added.
‘It’s important to keep things’
That recognition of the museum’s role in preserving the local Jewish heritage is exactly what Church hoped would be sparked in visitors. After all, this exhibit is not only showcasing the stories of their own family and friends, but also ensuring those memories live on.
“I’m hoping this is the kind of exhibit that really reminds people why we’re here, what we do,” Church said. “That it’s important to keep things, to preserve that heritage.”
The museum’s collections provided a lot to work with from the mid-20th century, but organizers soon realized there was a bit of a gap when it came to the modern era. So they put out a call and approached those whose stories they wanted to tell.
One of those couples to answer was Aimee and Caroline Harmon-Darrow. The couple’s chuppah (made, in part, from lace from Caroline’s grandmother), a wedding photo and their “Vote Yes on Question 6” (the referendum legalizing same-sex marriage in Maryland) sign are all included throughout the exhibit. Aimee is Jewish and Caroline is not, although she attended conversion classes when the couple decided they wanted to raise their children Jewish. Their wedding was officiated by Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Cohen of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation in 2011 when they were married officially in Washington. (Same-sex marriage would not become legal in Maryland until 2013.)
“I think it’s really cool that there’s such a diversity of weddings in the exhibit,” Aimee said. “It’s really neat to be able to lend personal items to tell stories of modern Jewish weddings.”
And it’s not just the personal items, they both said. As fun as it will be to see their own history reflected in the exhibit, it is even more significant that the Jewish Museum is committed to reflecting the different kinds of people and couples within the community.
“It’s been really meaningful for us to have been welcomed in a religious community as a lesbian couple and to be raising our family in a religious community that affirms and embraces our family,” Caroline said.
Over the years, culture and expectations of couples has changed, but, at its core, the Jewish traditions and ceremony of a wedding has not, said Rabbi Jay Goldstein of Beth Israel Congregation in Owings Mills, who has performed hundreds of weddings in nearly three decades as a rabbi.
“The basic form has remained the same,” he said. “The ketubah, the chuppah, the seven blessings, the breaking of the glass — those things are all there. It’s just that the openness and creativity around them [has changed].”
Rabbi Steven Fink of Temple Oheb Shalom in Baltimore, who is pictured in the exhibit marrying two brides, agreed, saying that while modern weddings tend to be less formal and, frequently, not in synagogues anymore, the couples who ask him to officiate still want that connection to both the Jewish tradition and the Jewish community.
“We all need community,” he said.