“The History of the Ketubot Brought Back to Life the Story of Lviv Doctor Reichenstein” – Vita Susak

On the exhibition of ketubot at the Borys Voznytsky National Art Gallery of Lviv. The exhibition features Jewish marriage contracts, which were saved by the Lviv collector and hematologist Marek Reichenstein. (Editor’s note: The exhibition ends on January 19, 2016. The address of the museum is vul. Stefanika, 3.)

Obkladynka2819We are talking with the candidate of science of art history Vita Susak about the exhibition of ketubot in the Borys Voznytsky National Art Gallery of Lviv. These ketubot are Jewish marriage contracts that were collected by a famous Lviv patron, the hematologist Marek Reichenstein. “Jews long considered how to protect and how to guarantee a certain level of material comfort for women, and when a ring was placed on her hand, the marriage contract was affirmed and handed to her,” says Ms. Susak. “The decorative elements of the ketubot reflect how the Jews of Italy, while maintaining their traditions, were open to what was created by those contemporaries who lived with them, and were analogous with European fashion,” comments Susak on the elegant designs in keeping with Jewish and Italian traditions of marriage contracts.

Larysa Denysenko: Greetings to the listeners of Hromadske Radio! The program “Encounters” is on the air. I would like to remind you that this project is supported by the international [charitable] organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter. This time we are in Lviv. We have a very interesting topic of conversation and guest. Our guest is Vita Susak, candidate of science of art history. Welcome, Ms. Vita. We will be discussing an interesting exhibition, which struck me personally, now on view in Lviv. This is an exhibition of Europe… I mean Jewish marriage contracts. Ms. Vita, when we look at this exhibition, we realize that there is a combination of several cultures. There is the influence of Italy, Italian ornamentation, and there is the influence, of course, of Jewish culture, which is extremely powerful. But what binds all of this to Lviv?

Vita Susak: Well, first of all I wanted to say that when you inadvertently said “European,” it started to be all very well formulated, because they are really both European and Jewish marriage contracts, which are called “ketubot” in the plural. This is in fact an interesting exhibition that shows not only the original Jewish tradition. The history of Lviv is hidden behind them. The history is tragic and, on the other hand, multicultural, and all of this is very much connected and combined, and we continue to combine it.

This is a story that started only five years ago, when the head of the archives of the Lviv National Art Gallery discovered some puzzling items among exhibition posters of the Soviet era. These were parchments with unfamiliar lettering and the head of the archives could not read them. She immediately showed them to the gallery director Borys Voznytsky. They invited in a Lviv rabbi, and he said that these could be ketubot. This is how they were discovered.

The story did not finish there because there was some research to be done in order to understand what was their time and period. One foundation, a foundation that supports us a great deal and works to restore justice and that prefers to remain anonymous, helped us to make this project possible. They helped us to invite the specialist Shalom Sabar from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who arrived in the city last year. He reviewed all these items and as he reads Aramaic and Hebrew, and is a specialist who catalogued ketubot collections in different parts of the world, was able to read, date, and analyze these items. It was a history of memories.

There is an additional story about the origins of this collection. Another person helped here. This is Doctor Sergey Kravtsov, an architecture specialist and former citizen of Lviv, who has been living and researching art in Jerusalem for many years now. When he worked in Lviv in the nineties at the Museum of Ethnography, where the archives of the Lviv Jewish Museum were stored, he remembered old photographs which featured the ketubot. It takes a genius to make something simple. Thus, due to these photographs we recognized some of the ketubot that were found in the gallery. This made it possible to understand the origins of the collection. They come from the collection of Dr. Marek Reichenstein, who was an eminent person, a renowned physician, and a collector during the interwar period in Lviv. Thus, the story of this exhibition is the story of not only of the discovery of the ketubot, but also the discovery of the man and the collector Marek Reichenstein. Larysa Denysenko: I am always interested in these issues of the private and collectors. How could the actual marriage contracts, which are part of, let us say, the private world of people, end up…Where could you buy them? Who was interested in selling them, as is now common, let us say, at the auctions? There are so many obstacles, too many rules in this regard. How did he discover them? How were they were saved? Why was it interesting for him?

Vita Susak: Have you seen their design? They are works of art!

Larysa Denysenko: They are extremely beautiful!

Vita Susak: They are works of art. In the collection that now is on display in the gallery, we have only nine ketubot. The other items are not marriage contracts, but relics originating apparently from the former Jewish Museum in Lviv. Our collection is the most valuable by the fact that we have the oldest ketubah from the year 1694, that is, from the late 17th century, and the newest one dates from the middle of the 19th century. Because of these art objects, we can also observe how the decoration varied stylistically. I mean there are ketubot where it is immediately obvious that this is the Rococo style of the 18th century. The Sephardic Jews who lived in Italy, even though they lived in the ghetto, were very open and communicated with Italian society. The influence of European art on the fashion and style in which these ketubot were decorated is obvious.

You will ask how…Obviously, it is likely that Marek Reichenstein bought these ketubot in Italy. He had the opportunity to do so because he was a successful doctor, had a good practice, and had the means that allowed him to be a collector. After the First World War, he actively started to collect Judaica: a huge collection of books, a huge collection of graphics, and taking into consideration the facts we have from the information in the album which is now in the Museum of Ethnography, he had 25 Sephardic Italian ketubot.

He probably bought them. Why did Jewish families sell them? When the groom got the ketubah and handed it to his future wife, it most likely was kept in the family for that generation. Perhaps, their children also kept it. But if we look at how many epochs, generations, and centuries have passed after the marriage in Pisa in 1694, there were various family situations. You may have needed some money, and you did not remember who the grandmother and the grandfather were. Since it started to be worth something, it was on sale. The ketubot were found in Jewish families, and then dealers purchased them and then resold them. How exactly did Reichenstein get these ketubot, we will probably never know because he did not leave any memoirs about this, but now these collections exist. They are in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and the Jewish Museum in Paris. It is very rare to find something new…Therefore, the price of the so beautifully decorated ketubot on parchment is certainly very high at the auctions, and is estimated in the hundreds…I mean thousands.

And this is a unique collection for Ukraine. I am not saying that this is unique in the world. But there is a special ketubah from Modena where there are very nice decorations with all of the zodiac signs. There are even three scenes, one where David cuts off Goliath’s head, and another depicting the judgment of Solomon. This is of course first class, world class.

Larysa Denysenko: Talking about the ketubah itself, is it a legal document, a ritual document, or a traditional gift document? What exactly is it, so that people could understand?

Vita Susak: The ketubah is all of that in fact. We took into consideration our total unfamiliarity with this culture, and we specifically asked Professor Shalom Sabar to explain the ketubah in the catalogue, the tradition connected with it, the difference and specificity of these contracts with the Sephardim, and why Ashkenazi Jews who lived on the territory of Ukraine did not have illustrated and beautifully decorated contracts. This explains everything.

vita susak

Vita Susak. Photo by Hromadske Radio

Generally speaking, this is a story that shows that Jews long ago considered how to protect a woman. The marriage contract was primarily focused on protecting women, guaranteeing her some minimal material support if she was suddenly left alone with the children. This was written into the contract. The man is taking as his wife this woman, and he offers her such and such. Later a fairly standard text was developed, but there were always some additional conditions, and there you could even see the main text written in the same font, and additional conditions in lower case letters or in the second column. There are also examples of a contract with two parts—a primary and supplementary contract. Only the groom signed this document. He handed it to his future wife at the moment of marriage, as a guarantee that she is protected by certain material funds and has some guarantees when she is getting married to this man. It certainly is a legal document. For the Ashkenazis this document developed into a standard form, and they did not really decorate it. But Italy, with its love for and the ability to create beauty, influenced Sephardic Jews who came from Spain and settled there. There was a flowering of decorated marriage contracts that occurred there in the 17-18th centuries. The rabbis said that this ketubah cannot cost more than a certain amount because families became competitive over whose contract was the most beautiful.

Traditionally, after the ring was put on the finger, the ketubah was read, and then all the guests said how nice it was and how nicely it was painted. Then it was rolled up and given to the young wife.

Larysa Denysenko: Thank you, Ms. Vita. I would like to remind our listeners that you are listening to the program “Encounters.” Our guest is Vita Susak, a candidate of science in art history and in fact we are now in Lviv. With our talk with Ms. Vita we are presenting a very interesting exhibition of Jewish marriage contracts.

Talking again about how this was surely for the protection of women, we should mention that those are marriage and financial obligations and, in fact, obligations concerning property that the man assumes and presents to the woman and promises that it will remain exactly how it was. I would like to talk more about…We briefly mentioned the fact that they were luxurious and everybody tried…I understand such a gesture when your pride and your financial situation allowed you to make this beautiful gift when announcing your financial obligations so magnificently. What paint and other elements of decoration were used? Where were they ordered? From what artists? What was used for decoration? They look extremely beautiful.

Vita Susak: Well, certainly. Obviously at the time when the contracts were so popular in various Jewish communities in Italy there were special craftsmen who made them, and the level of expertise can be evaluated even when looking at the ketubot that one can see in this exhibition. There was a master from Pisa who made the oldest contract, whose date elicits sentimental feelings because this is a parchment that was decorated at the end of the 17th century. Obviously he was some folk craftsman who was not trained in art. We also see the exquisite, beautifully decorated floral ornaments on ketubot from Verona, from Ancona, or Senigallia. There it is clear that they are from the hand of a master who was a professional. To be able to create this ornament, to execute the transition of colors—he obviously studied somewhere. Of course, they did not sign their work. We do not have these names. But as Professor Sabar, who knows the collections of the world, told me we can see and say that two or three ketubot are the work of one and the same master. One work is somewhere in New York, and the other one is, for example, here. He even mentions this in the catalog.

What is also interesting is that we have a very interesting example of a ketubah à la Rococo where the groom’s name was Jacob and the bride’s name was Forturina. Scenes from “The Dreams of Jacob” were used to decorate this ketubah, and on the other side was the symbol of Fortune—a woman on wheels. Consider the fact that Jews cannot depict a person, that is anything anthropomorphic, but only zoomorphic, and here we have a ketubah from the 18th century where these elements are present in the small genre scenes and they somehow correlate with the names. Larysa Denysenko: Maybe this is the influence of the Italian…

Vita Susak: Absolutely! It shows that Italian Jews, while trying to observe their traditions, were open to what their contemporaries who lived in the same city with them created, whether in Venice, Verona, or some other Italian city. Therefore, it shows that Jews were also synchronous with European fashion, with European styles.

Larysa Denysenko: By the way, I wanted to ask you how the ketubot are related to the tradition of Italian marriage contracts. I mean, how were they really used because they absolutely look like some art project, and not like a boring legal document. For instance, I remember marriage contracts that I have seen before. They were done by a notary service in a dry, official manner. It was on good paper and, depending on the notary who was dealing with it, they had some historical value and maybe historical-legal value, but we cannot say that it was a work of art. Here we can say that they are creations of art, and I am curious if at that time in Italy they had any traditions for the Italian families.

Vita Susak: I did not hear about such tradition in Italian communities. I also cannot say this about Germans or French. All nine contracts that we have were made on parchment. I think the use of parchment is very old, and this is because it is stronger than regular paper. We are again talking about the Sephardim because the Ashkenazi took the more practical path: a standard text, a legal document that guarantees such and such.

Larysa Denysenko: Not artistic, but a form.

Vita Susak: Yes, not artistic, but a standard form. Sephardic Jews had this tradition and made contracts usually on parchment. I think they were better preserved this way, the colors were preserved, and were more reliable. This was a document that had to be preserved for the long time, as everybody was hoping for this when they were getting married. I think this was the motivation. If we look more closely at the oldest ketubot, on fragments of ketubot that were found in Egypt in the first century, paper was not used yet. This is the origin of the form. The front is not even because it came from the neck of the animal. That is why it has a form that may recall a building or temple. That is why columns and arches are often decorative elements.

Larysa Denysenko: Yes, something like arches…

Vita Susak: This is the entrance to a new life. It is a very complicated symbolism that has very deep and sensual explanation. It also underlines the importance of family for Jews.

Larysa Denysenko: Ms. Vita, I would like to return to the families. These are real people. I understand that it is difficult to research the history or to find descendants. Maybe it is impossible but can we, for example on the basis of this contract and the names, social status, and the location where the contract was made, attempt to find some relatives of these couples and get to know their marriage life?

Vita Susak: You know, when I started this project, I was thinking it was not really my time and not my period. I was even trying to tell Sergey Kravtsov, “This is not for me!” But he said, “We have to do this.” When you hold this parchment in your hands, when you really read it and know the names of people, when you know that someone was from Verona, and someone was from Pisa, then you realize that in regarding this document we do not have any chance to know how many couples out of the nine were happy, and how many were not, who had children and who did not, who was arguing and who loved each other. This part is absolutely lost.

There are however family emblems on these ketubot. Thus, we can, as you say, discover some information but it should be done through another method. If someone sees our catalogue and sees the emblem and will know that this is his family, we can try to talk to these people. I do not think it is right to put too much effort into this now…I do not think it makes sense.

But for me these relics show how much the history of these artifacts is not finished at the moment of creation or at the vanishing of those for whom it was made. The story is only beginning. These objects were owned by the husband and wife, later by the children, then they were sold to someone, and then they belonged to the collection of Marek Reichenstein, and they rewarded him. Otherwise, who would have known about this hematologist? Now, due to these ketubot, his biography has become known. It turns out that during the First World War in Zolochiv he worked in a typhus hospital, where he made several important discoveries in the fight against typhus. Now the biography of this person, who was also very important for the cultural community, has been restored. And the story did not end with him.

After these contracts were found, they had to be restored. They were in the hands of a restorer who just recently died. This was Demian Kravtchyk, who was in restoration for very many years. Then there was the professor from Jerusalem who read these documents. And also Sergey Kravtsov, who restored the biography of this collector. Now the ketubot are on display and they are working again. For example, we have a very nice children’s program and the catalogue designer Iryna Dyak developed coloring books that we put on the walls in the children’s room, and everybody colors them…When we saw that children write “K+T=L” and someone draws a princess on one side and a prince on the another, it became obvious that these contracts continue to live and that the story of these contracts is not finished. Now it is a valuable exhibit of the Lviv National Art Gallery. Where else will it be, where will it be shown? This is like “La Gioconda” who already forgot about Leonardo da Vinci a long time ago. She has now lived her own life for many centuries, yes? This is what happens to every work of art, whether it is by Pinsel or a marriage contract from Pisa.

Larysa Denysenko: Ms. Vita, thank you for this discussion! We often say that people continue to live as long as we proclaim their names. These marriage contracts—which represent those people who got married a very long time ago and whose fates are unknown—restore the names, and these names are invaluable to Lviv, to the Jewish community of Lviv, and also to the Ukrainian community of Lviv. Thus, not only the contract becomes alive, but also the story of the collector. In that way we also try to recover the pages of Lviv history that were forgotten and perhaps not well known. I think it is important for children as well as for adults. Thank you very much. I would like to remind our audience that you were listening to the program “Encounters” on Hromadske Radio. Larysa Denysenko was with you. We are in Lviv and we visited the exhibition of Jewish marriage contracts. Our guest in the studio was Vita Susak.

The program is supported by the Canadian philanthropic fund Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Originally appeared in: http://hromadskeradio.org/zustrichi/istoriya-davnih-ktubot-ozhyvyla-istoriyu-lvivskogo-likarya-rayhenshtayna-vita-susak

Translated by: Olesya Kravchuk, journalist, interpreter

Additional translation and editing by Peter Bejger