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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.

Annie Abrams
November 26, 2013

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.


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.

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.

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.


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Annie Abrams teaches and writes in New York City. She holds her doctorate in American literature from New York University.

Annie Abrams teaches and writes in New York City. She holds her doctorate in American literature from New York University.