"People ask me, 'What do you do?' " said Tamar Fishman. "I make doilies."
Well, not exactly.
What Tamar Fishman does is paper-cut art, particularly Jewish paper-cut art, a 19th century Eastern European tradition recently revived. Her specialty is the ketubah, the standard Jewish marriage contract that dates more than 2,000 years and is traditional among Orthodox and Conservative Jews.
Today, the artistic ketubah is undergoing a revival among Jewish couples of varying degrees of observance who appreciate its beauty and symbolic value.
But commissioning a ketubah by Tamar Fishman is more than buying a work of art fraught with ethnic tradition and religious meaning. It's a little like going for premarital counseling.
In hours-long sessions with the affianced couple, Fishman draws from them their innermost shared and separate values, thoughts and experiences, to be mirrored in subtle and explicit ways in the finished work.
"Trying to piece together what's significant in your life is a difficult job," said Jay Yurow, 33, who went to Fishman with his fiance Rita Abraham, 36. "It made us do a lot of thinking about our values."
The focal point of the ketubah is the text, a prenuptial agreement that ensured the wife's welfare, should the marriage end. The text, traditionally written in Aramaic script, is surrounded by an array of decorative symbols.
The traditional symbols include Sabbath candles and ceremonial wine cups and spice boxes. The secular items that Fishman has worked into the area around the ketubah text have included a Redskins helmet, bicycles, running shoes, a basketball hoop, books, typewriter, koala bear, gray whale, blue whale, jaguar, dog, guitar, airplane, cars and scales of justice.
One ketubah had the Grand Canyon, another the mountains of Western Maryland. Yet another incorporated the skylines of Washington and New York. All to tailor the piece to fit the couple.
In a more abstract vein, she has couples read romantic passages from the Bible, to be inscribed on the ketubah. "I send them to do homework," is how she describes the process. She also helps them find sayings to fit their particular philosophies of life. She probes, questions and probes some more.
"It made us think deeply about what are the most important touchstones in our lives," said Ruth Fredman, 52, an anthropologist who married Michea Cernea, 56, a sociologist, in August. It was the second marriage for both.
"The things that are important professionally we were satisfied to have lower down in the corner . . . very subordinated to children and traditional Jewish things," she said. "It was a very meaningful experience for both of us."
It also was a welcome diversion from the usual wedding stresses, worrying about caterers, music and invitations, Fredman said. "It reminds you what the wedding is really about, that's it's not about which person you invite and what the caterers are going to serve," she said. "It grounds you."
This soul-searching experience begins at the Fishman family dining room table in Bethesda, where Tamar has lived for 18 years with her husband, Samuel Fishman, a rabbi who is associate national director of the Hillel Foundation of B'nai B'rith. They have four sons, two of them grown.
Her husband helps her proofread the ketubah text. "She has a very nice marriage," Fredman said. "I don't think anyone who didn't could do this."
The Israeli-born artist conducts her interviews in the dining room but does her actual paper-cutting at a table in the kitchen. Her artistic accomplishments belie her background. She has a master's degree in botany (thesis: "Growth and Development Without Cell Division of Wild Rice") from UCLA, where her husband was the campus rabbi for 10 years.
They met in Israel, where she dropped out of school to marry him and emigrate to the United States. Her passage to paper-cutting was through volunteer art work at her Montgomery County synagogue, Beth El, where she started making paper-cut window decorations several years ago.
Then, someone asked her to do a ketubah. More than 100 ketubot and seven years later, she has more than enough commissions to keep her busy throughout the year.
After a meeting or two with the couple, she does a preliminary sketch and then has them back to review it. If it's approved, she proceeds with the paper-cutting, using an X-acto knife. The process usually takes at least a month.
Her only secular paper-cut was commissioned by the State Department for presentation by President Reagan to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin during his 1981 state visit. Titled "American Landscape," it incorporated into its design the White House, the Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial and the Supreme Court.
When the State Department asked for a Jerusalem silhouette as well, she noted that this country does not recognize that city as the Israeli capital. The Statue of Liberty and the Liberty Bell were inserted instead. But the saying on the Liberty Bell, "Proclaim liberty throughout the land and to all its inhabitants," was deleted because of its implications for West Bank Arabs.
She has done ketubot for White House staff members, and for the 53rd wedding anniversary of former Supreme Court justice Arthur Goldberg, who she said identified himself simply as "Mr. Goldberg" when he first phoned.
"Mr. Goldberg, tell me a little about you," she said.
"Okay, when I was on the Supreme Court . . . ." she recalls him replying, to her astonishment. "He said he'd send a chauffeur, but I said I'd deliver it."
The feedback from people suddenly infused with Yiddishkeit, an appreciation for Jewish culture, is inspiration to her. One man for whom she did a ketubah said he was so moved he read every prayer for the first time during the Jewish New Year service. "It gave me a chill" to hear him say that, she said.
Going to Tamar Fishman is "like self-analysis," said Yurow, a Virginia real estate lawyer who married Abraham in January. "It's a learning experience," Abraham said. "I'm not very literate in the Bible. She gave us a whole different perspective on history and tradition."
As their meetings with Fishman progressed, Yurow said, "it was reassuring hearing my wife, who was not my wife yet, give the same responses as I."
The Yurow-Abraham ketubah includes the tent of Abraham "because that's my last name and because Tamar said the tent represented hospitality, which we wanted to emphasize in our home." It also contains the skylines of New York and Washington, where bride and groom, respectively, were born.
For Abraham and Yurow, Fishman has also prepared a second-generation paper-cut for their infant's room. It has a family tree with the names of the child, parents and grandparents, a teddy bear and a tricycle.
The Fishmans were invited to attend the couple's baby briss, a circumcision ceremony. "It was pleasing to see the ketubah on the wall," Fishman said.
Her work, and those of other area Jewish artists, will be on display and for sale Dec. 6 at the Jewish Folk Arts Festival at Blair High School in Silver Spring. But material rewards are not the incentive, Fishman said.
"No money can buy those pleasures of getting into people's lives," she said. "The rest of it comes and goes. Money comes and goes. Kids come and grow. You make a connection with someone without any intermediary. You touch a common part for a minute. Having a little dot shared."