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.
Although Bien worked alone as a printer at this early stage in his career, he valued fraternization with Jewish organizations. Both in his daily life and in the space of the ketubah, he understood that promoting an agenda was easier if he allied himself with others. Bien was one of the earliest members of the International Order of B’nai B’rith, a Jewish brotherhood established in 1843 and dedicated to improving the image of American Jews by publicizing and financially backing their successes. In a history of the organization that Bien wrote for its periodical The Menorah, he explains that American Jews’ “petty rivalries led to frequent brawls, and, arrayed in hostile camps, their unhappy dissensions long prevented progress of any sort, while objects of common good were defeated and overthrown.” Perhaps because Bien resisted making exclusive allegiances with any particular sect of Judiasm, he was never an Emanu-El congregant. After all, in Bien’s words, B’nai B’rith sought to provide secular “influences outside of the narrow walls of synogogues.” But it is clear that Bien respected Emanu-El’s progressive stance and power to effect change among a growing number of New York’s Jews. Its rabbi, Leo Merzbacher, was a member of B’nai B’rith and “spoke publicly in its behalf.” Bien understood the congregation’s and the organization’s goals as sympathetic ones; he recounted the temple’s founding as part of B’nai B’rith’s history and allied himself with Emanu-El to advance his progressive aims.
That Bien sympathized with and respected the congregation’s aims is also clear from his ketubah: Bien’s name remains autonomous but he aligns it with that of the religious institution; Congregation Emanu-El’s name is the only other printed proper noun on the document. Additionally, Bien’s choice to include English and Aramaic texts mirrors Merzbacher’s use of those languages in his prayer book. Merzbacher was one of the well-educated, German-Jewish immigrants who sought to rid Judaism of its ritualistic elements and established the congregation to that end in April 1845. Merzbacher stressed the value of order, reason, and rationality to his mostly German-Jewish congregants and took a radical departure from the Orthodox practice he grew up with. He implemented aesthetic changes to services, including the use of an organ and the encouragement of reverent silence on the part of the congregants. By 1848, Merzbacher led weekly services in the German vernacular instead of the traditional liturgical Hebrew. By 1855, he published Seder Tefilah, a two-volume prayer book, with traditional Hebrew prayers on the right and their translations on facing pages in English rather than German—a language that reflects the congregation’s impetus to unify American Jews and promote their worth as American citizens. Although Bien’s ketubah was printed earlier than Merzbacher’s prayer book, it reflects a similar attitude toward the self-conscious use of English in traditional ceremonies.
Bien sought to integrate Jewish and American identities not only through aesthetics, but also through the technology that allowed him to make visible his message of integration. Lithography was a relatively new art form in America at the time, and when Bien established himself in that field, his brand name stood not only for intellectual and cultural progress, but also for technological change. Bien’s chosen medium required him to be wholly devoted to the enterprise of making his intellectual principles tangible. Before the lithographic steam press was invented in 1871, the art required concentration and physical labor. By keeping abreast of innovations in the technology of lithography and pushing himself to perfect the art, Bien lived out his recommendation to others in the pages of The Menorah to “keep pace with the progress of the age.” He explained in the magazine: “Whatever was found beneficial in one age was utilized and improved upon in the following age, and no rational mind doubts any longer that the human race has been making gradual but steady progress.”
Bien died in 1909. The next year, his son Franklin gained control of the Julius Bien Company; it soon became insolvent and was sold to Sheldon Franklin, who insisted on the rights to Julius Bien’s name as part of the deal, because it was one of the company’s greatest assets. By the 1910s, the Julius Bien Company had become famous for its Audubon chromolithographs, its detailed maps and atlases (including United States Census Atlases), and its illustrations of the railroad. Over a century after Bien’s death, his name still stands for a company that provided wide access to the growing body of American knowledge during the 19th century. The ketubah he designed at the age of 23, years before he achieved mainstream success, stands as early evidence of Bien’s gift for making new concepts visible to American audiences.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
A ‘mezuzah,’ like Judaism, is designed for life in this world, not for a messianic future, or for martyrdom