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A Ketubah Shows the Promise That Turned a Young Printer Into a Renowned Artist

Julius Bien is remembered for his maps and Audubon lithographs. But his talents were apparent at age 23 in a wedding contract.

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Detail of Marriage Contract, Printer: J. Bien, New York, New York, United States, 1852, ink and print on paper, 13 1/2 x 14 1/2 in. The Jewish Museum, New York, Gift of James H. Abraham, JM 71-59a-b. Photo by Ardon Bar Hama. (Courtesy of the Jewish Museum)
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As their ketubah makes clear, Cornelius Roos married Caroline Elsasser at New York’s flagship Reform synagogue Congregation Emanu-El on Jan. 11, 1852. The wedding contract includes many other names: the groom’s father Raphael Roos, the bride’s father Asher Elsasser, the officiant Rabbi Leo Merzbacher, and witnesses E. Lyons and J. Cahn. But the most significant name on the ketubah might ordinarily be overlooked, since it appears in small letters along the bottom border of the page: printer Julius Bien, who would go on to have an illustrious career making maps and lithographs of animals, landscapes, and machinery. Jan. 11, 1852, might not have been Bien’s “big day,” but it’s his story that’s the most striking in retrospect.

Today, artwork bearing Bien’s name can be found at institutions like the Brooklyn Museum, New York Public Library, Butler Museum of American Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Smithsonian American Art Museum. The ketubot Bien produced early in his career—including the one for Roos and Elsasser, currently housed at New York’s Jewish Museum—did not propel him to mainstream national fame. Instead, he received recognition for making high-quality maps of the expanding country for the government, prints depicting technological advancements like the railroad and reproducing, in lithographed form, Audubon’s Birds of America. As a lithographer, Bien was celebrated for advancing and making accessible 19th-century American knowledge production. Initially, Bien’s success at illustrating American intellectual progress makes his ketubah, a document mired in tradition, seem anomalous. But on close inspection, Bien’s concern for associating progress and American identity manifests in the ketubah. The marriage contract established as progressively American both the immigrants it served and the brand name “Julius Bien.”

Since Bien’s name alone is in print while the other names on the ketubah are handwritten, it has a sense of fixity in the face of variation; the parties directly involved in the wedding are incidental in comparison. Here his name serves to advertise his ability as a printer of ketubot and to establish his lithography business as a powerful, stable institution, despite the fact that at this point he was working alone with a single press, struggling to establish a reputation for himself among New York’s many independent lithographers. Julius Bien wanted his name to stand for something.

Perhaps Bien’s efforts at associating his name with intellectual and technological progress arose from his German past. In his homeland, Bien participated in the Revolution of 1848. When that liberal reform movement collapsed, he settled in New York City in 1849 as part of a wave of intellectual German immigrants called, appropriately enough, forty-eighters. As James M. Bergquist, emeritus professor of history at Villanova, writes in “The Forty-Eighters: Catalysts of German-American Politics,” “trying to generalize about the forty-eighters is a risky enterprise … but their political searching after coming to America kept them in active political discourse.” Bien saw his art and his participation in New York’s Jewish community as inherently political.

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According to Claudia J. Nahson’s book Ketubbot: Marriage Contracts From the Jewish Museum, the ketubah’s text follows a template so its authority is recognizable to Jews the world over. To further facilitate universal understanding of its terms, the traditional ketubah is written in Aramaic, the ancient language initially used among Diasporic Jews to communicate across geographic and cultural boundaries. Bien’s ketubah also lends permanence and legibility to a step in the couple’s Americanization; it reflects and promotes Congregation Emanu-El’s Reform program and in so doing marks the wedding as a distinctly Jewish-American one. Some intellectual German-American Jews, Bien among them, sought to help their less-educated brethren integrate into American society by ridding Judaism of archaisms they deemed unnecessary.

Perhaps the feature that most obviously sets this ketubah apart from others of its day and marks it as a product of both Reform Judaism and Bien’s work is its two-column format, one for English text and another for Aramaic. At this time, some of the congregation’s ketubot were written only in English, or had English on the recto and Aramaic on the verso, but on most bilingual versions the English was a strict translation of the Aramaic. On Bien’s ketubah, the columns share equal space on the page, suggesting equal significance and value for their contents. Although it is unclear whether or not Bien composed the English text himself, it certainly falls in line with his interest in adapting Judaism to suit the age. It certifies that “the Minister of Imanu-El” has “solemnized according to the form and custom of the Synogogue [sic] the marriage between, and have thereby joined together into Holy Matrimony, Mr. Cornelius Roos and Miss Caroline Elsasser.” Keeping the “form and custom of the Synogogue” vague reflects Bien’s hope for the ease with which American and Jewish traditions can coexist. The contract reflects a union not only between Caroline and Cornelius, but also between Jewish and American cultures.

Julius Bien ketubah
Detail of Marriage Contract, Printer: J. Bien, New York, New York, United States, 1852, ink and print on paper, 13 1/2 x 14 1/2 in. The Jewish Museum, New York, Gift of James H. Abraham, JM 71-59a-b. Photo by Ardon Bar Hama.

Bien’s interest in depicting the progressive nature of American Reform Judaism and the compatibility between Jewish and American marriage also comes through in his illustration of a wedding atop the two columns of text. The image appears to capture a moment during a typical ceremony, simultaneously a reminder to congregants of what happened at their own wedding and a model for how a Jewish-American wedding ought to be remembered. To an American in the 21st century, the image might seem benign, but it does not capture any traditional Jewish wedding rituals performed in Europe (or other American synagogues) at the time. The groom is not depicted smashing a glass, nor is the couple wrapped in a prayer shawl or drinking wine from a kiddush cup. Instead, the bride and groom are encouraged to stand hand-in-hand by the presiding rabbi. None of the eight figures—a bride and an older couple (presumably her parents) to the left, a rabbi in the middle, a groom and his parents and one other witness on the right—look straight ahead. All are solemnly engrossed in the ceremony, as though an outside observer caught them unawares during an intimate moment. As a result, the scene looks like an unself-conscious snapshot of American Jewry even though through it, Bien was actively showing that Jewish weddings could look just like American ones. Bien’s use of this image reflects the long-term goal he later writes about in the Jewish magazine The Menorah to “surround the cause of Judaism with greater dignity, and to make it more honored and respected by their fellow-citizens of other faiths.”

Fashionability and appearance were important to Bien, and not only for aesthetic or artistic reasons. Bien urged his fellow Jewish Americans, “If a society is to endure it must satisfy the various demands and requirements of the times.” In Bien’s view, Judaism need not be marked by old-fashioned garments or rituals. One way for American Jews to keep pace with their fellow citizens was to conform to secular American marriage customs, including their aesthetic codes. To be sure, Bien did not advocate complete secularization or assimilation through his illustration: A Jewish wedding could look American and still retain Jewish significance. The tablets and lions in the background are traditional Jewish images on ark coverings; the Torah is always behind the scene, literally and figuratively.

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