Elsa Wachs Studios
Umbrellas of Ancestry

by Hope Weiss
from the Jewish Exponent Weddings supplement, June 20, 2002

I don't know who I want to get married to, but I know what I want to get married under: an Elsa Wachs chupah. Specifically, I would like to be married under the Braman family chupah. It is clouds of white silk and tapestried flowers and organza and detailing and, oh, it's just gorgeous. Perhaps the Bramans will lend it to me. Probably not. Once Elsa has made you a chupah, you don't lend it out.

It's not like me to gush. Go to
www.elsawachs.com and you'll see the
beauty of Elsa's customized chupot. She calls them "umbrellas of ancestry." Elsa's goal is to "create touchstones through art to enrich the soul." She talks about a "patina of culture," "threads of life," and the "beautification of all life cycle events."

Customized chupot are canvases which tell the love story of the bride
and groom. Perhaps more than any other tangible wedding item, the chupah relates the significance of the wedding day. Two lives are coming together to forge one new path. That path, backwards and forwards, is displayed on the chupah.

Working with the Chupah Maven
Commissioning Elsa to create a chupah involves much more than placing an order. Elsa is not just a Judaic artist. She is a weaver, sewer, archivist, historian, detective and family counselor.

How do you start the process? "My clients and I begin a dialogue. The dialogue opens a thinking process for them. That thinking process becomes a journey. That is the most important part of the process. When clients call me, I ask about their dreams and visions, their feelings and philosophies, and those of their intended." Dreams and philosophies on a chupah? Oh, yes. Before Elsa goes forward with the artistic process, she takes you backwards to your roots.

The schoolteacher in Elsa comes into play. When you commission Elsa, she gives you homework. "I literally sit people down with pencil and paper
and give them assignments." Elsa encourages clients to gather objects from their past and from their family. "I tell them to go back, look and see what they have. People say they don't have anything, but that isn't true. I tell them to talk to parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, even neighbors. In the process of going back to look for things, you learn things about your relatives, and yourself."

And, she wants to talk to your parents. "I encourage both sets of parents to come into the chupah-making process. That's where families begin. It develops links in the family and creates a richness to the dynamics amongst these people. So, by the time you get to the chupah, there are these wonderful connections amongst the people standing under the chupah."

Once your treasure chest of momentos is assembled, you deliver it to Elsa. "Clients bring me a box of stuff. I put all the stuff on my worktable and leave it there. I let it simmer and percolate. I play with it. I let it sit for a few days. I start to lay things out on fabric. I match different fabrics and colors and accents." The process takes weeks, even months.

A Blessing on Your Head
There are some definitive decisions that the bridal couple makes before Elsa creates their chupah. Size matters. Elsa needs to know how many people will be standing under the chupah and the general lay out of the bimah. She also asks about colors, and guides her clients towards coordinating decisions. Traditionally, every chupah has a Biblical verse. Elsa recommends the verse be in Hebrew rather than English. A favorite is "Ani l'dodi v'dodi li," which means "I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine." There are many beautiful verses, and a whole bible, from which to choose.

Usually, Elsa makes the chupah into a family tree. She asks for the English and Hebrew names of family members, including siblings, parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. This could take some research for the bride and groom, but Elsa considers it part of the learning, growing and uniting process. "The couple have to ask their living relatives, or consult ketubot or Bar Mitzvah certificate or bris certificates. People discover wonderful things." The Biblical verse and family names can be painted or embroidered onto the chupah. Elsa has created Hebrew letters out of dyed silk and outlined letters in pearls. Before embroidering or painting,everyone double-checks the spellings. Hebrew can be a tricky thing.

The Big Day
Elsa very often goes to the synagogue to set up the chupah. If time or distance is a factor, Elsa sends the chupah to the florist orchestrating the ceremony. In Biblical times, parents would plant a cedar or willow tree when their child was born. When that child married, branches from the respective trees were used as chupah poles. Nowadays, chupah poles can be rented from synagogues, florists and other sources.

Interestingly, Elsa says that the bride and groom don't see the chupah before it is put up. "They see it when they walk down the aisle, and it is magical. There's an awe that comes over people when they see the names of their family, the photograph of their grandparents, the key from the zoo from their first date."

The chupah transmits the wedding's fairy tale aspects. They are fit for a princess and her worthy prince.

Elsa's Story
The telling of the fairy tale is Elsa's privilege. Her own tale is quite circuitous. As a child, Elsa loved art and displayed a talent for it, but her  parents wouldn't send her to an art college for more training. During the late 1950s, nice Jewish girls didn't go off to art school. Instead, Elsa went to Temple University and became a kindergarten teacher. "My parents were happy," Elsa says, "because I had something to fall back on."

Of course she did find a nice Jewish man, and they married and raised children. Elsa rediscovered her artistic bent via one of those children. In the early 1960s, Elsa's son Ken came home from his first summer at Camp Ramah with a tallis he had started to make in arts and crafts. He asked Elsa to help him finish it. "Ken said it looked too 'camp' for synagogue. He wanted something more sophisticated. I went to the synagogue library to do research on tallit. I bought fabrics, patterns, and fringe and finished Ken's tallis." Ken loved the tallis. He wore it to synagogue and soon enough, his friends were asking Elsa to make them tallit.

Then the 1970s came and the Women's Movement took hold on the country and Elsa. "I was a young woman with kids. I felt pressured to go to work.One of my friends wanted to take me to a seminar in Philadelphia about channeling your talents into the workforce. I said I didn't need to go; I knew instinctively that I would start my own Judaic art textile business. Once that thought came into my mind, I knew it was the right path to follow. I knew how and what I was going to do. I think that I had been unconsciously thinking about it for years."

Or perhaps, it wasn't so unconscious. Elsa had been effectively running a
not-for-profit business. All she had to do was charge for her services and start bringing home the brisket. Elsa began to create Judaic arts and crafts. She made pieces for sale and for commissions. The manufacturing end of the business left her cold, so she concentrated on commissions. "I love to work with people and interact with their lives. I learn about them and become part of their rite of passage. My work adds texturally to their lives. Literally." Hence, the chupah. It marked the beginning and the end of Elsa's journey, as it has for Jewish couples throughout history.

Hope Weiss is glad to have one wedding accessory out of the way.

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