Wedding: Bridge to reconciliation


I got married June 30 at the Chabad Residential Treatment Center. 

Yes, you read that correctly. I didn’t get married at the Four Seasons but at a drug and alcohol rehab facility on the corner of Olympic and Hauser boulevards. It was the most un-orthodox Orthodox Jewish wedding a girl could have. 

Aside from the fact that it took place at a rehab, the attendees included the following: Orthodox Jews, gay men, transsexuals, sober folks, residents of the rehab and people who don’t fit into any of those categories. 

Who would have guessed that this would have proved the means to reconnecting me and my husband with his estranged family?

You see, my husband and I were two former stray dogs who ran loose on the proverbial highway of life. We’re both recovering addicts — I have eight years and my husband has 10 years clean and sober. The reason we decided to get married at the treatment center was because that is where my husband was for the first two years of his sobriety, and we wanted to give back to a place that had given so much to him.

We had such a vast array of guests because we’re both underdogs and understand the misunderstood. We see the beauty in the abnormal. But mostly, we believe in second chances, and we were fortunate enough to get them.

Both of our lives had been burned to the ground before we met. I was a drug addict in an unhappy marriage to a man who hadn’t touched me in more than six years, had just been fired from my job, was homeless and sleeping in my car. My now-husband had gotten into some serious trouble with the law and got a nudge from the judge to get his life back on track. He entered the Chabad treatment center in 2003 suffering from multiple addictions. We met after he heard me speak at an AA meeting.

The severely destructive paths that we were on all but decimated our relationships with our families. Unfortunately, he caused a lot of shame to his family through his behavior while drinking and using — he was arrested and had to be bailed out of jail by his parents — and they became estranged. 

His brother and sister couldn’t bear witness to his unraveling, so they cut him out of their lives. His parents were in shock, so they kept their distance, not really knowing what to do. Then there was my family, who was not supportive of my choice of partner because of his troubled past as well as my horrendously embarrassing first marriage to a questionably gay man. 

What finally swayed my family is meeting my love for the first time. They saw what a transformed, wonderful and good man he is. He has this calm inner light that shines brilliantly. I believe that light is God-consciousness. 

I found this quote by Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach recently, and I believe it defines who my husband is:

“Every Jew must firmly believe that inside him there resides a pure soul. Regardless of what his situation may be, even if has strayed from the right path, the inner essence of his soul — which is a portion of God — remains pure and unsullied. … From this tiny center of the soul that has not been tainted by evil, the transgressor derives the strength to do teshuvah (repentance), make amends for his failings, and soar to the loftiest spiritual heights.”

My husband has soared to his highest self by working a stellar recovery program for 10-plus years now, repenting and redeeming himself. Most importantly, he has a strong connection to his higher power. 

For years, my love would write letters to his brother and sister, trying to make amends. Those letters went unanswered for 10 years. When we got engaged, he decided the time was right to try again for reconciliation. Much to his and my surprise, both his brother and sister responded to his calls and e-mails. It wasn’t much, but it was something. 

We had no expectation that they would attend the wedding, but at the last minute they showed. It was a miracle — my husband’s entire family came to our wedding. His mother, father, sister, brother and cousins all flew to Los Angeles from back East. 

The door to forgiveness was open, and they all walked through. Seeing my husband’s brother — a man who previously said he would never speak to him again — joyously dancing the hora in front of us made me cry for days. 

His sister was so grateful that the wedding gave her family a chance to reunite. I kept looking over at my mother-in-law, who sat with her entire family surrounding her, in tears. She never thought this day would come. It was a special day and what seemed like the hottest day of the year. The love radiated as strongly as the sun.

Everyone who attended the ceremony commented on how intense it was because it was healing on so many levels. My husband’s family relationships are finally mending. It goes to show you: Never give up hope. Miracles happen. It is only when you open your heart that you will be able to reach out and begin to build a bridge of reconciliation.


Mara Shapshay is a blogger, writer, performer and stand-up comedian.

You can go home again


On Fridays, the children would line up, all glittery pink shoes and Ninja Turtle T-shirts, and hike up a steep driveway from the preschool yard to the temple sanctuary. They walked single file or in pairs, one teacher in the lead and another bringing up the rear, each holding one end of a rope. The kids, 3 and 4 years old, gripped the length of the rope with their little hands stained with watercolor paint and Play-Doh dye. You could hear them singing Shabbat songs as they walked, and later, as they poured into the aisles and climbed onto the chairs in the temple and tried to sit still for a whole 20 minutes. By noon, when parents went to take them home, they were spent and tousled, excited but worn out by the morning's exploits. In their backpacks, they carried small challahs they had baked for that evening's dinner. 

The last time I looked, my own kids were putting their little challahs next to a store-bought one in our dining room. That was 15 years ago. Yet I can hardly drive past their old school these days without seeing them and their little friends, loved and cared for and blessed with that unspoken compact between fate and its children — that they will be eternally young, forever standing on solid ground, thriving and triumphant and able, should they ever need at the end of a long, hard morning, to go back to the quiet safety of home. 

That's what the rope is for, what constitutes a major difference between Western and more traditional cultures: past elementary school in this country, the rope becomes the umbilical cord that must be severed in the interest of parents and child; past voting age, it becomes a noose that'll kill you if you put up with it for more than four hours on Thanksgiving. In our neck of the woods, the rope may choke you if you let it. But if used sparingly, it can be the lifeline that's always there, right below the water's surface, in case you feel you're drowning. 

I saw that rope again last Friday night at the famed and fabled “Jewish rehab” clinic Beit T'Shuvah, on Venice Boulevard in Los Angeles. You don't have to be a patient or a family member to belong to the synagogue, or to attend Friday services, which is one reason I, and many others, were there that night. The other reason, I suspect because I experienced it that night, is that something extraordinary and transformative happens here every week. 

There is, to begin with, the range of characters you find here, and that you'd never see under one roof at a traditional shul. An African-American family sits in the front row, next to an Ashkenazi doctor and his wife, between a young, pretty, school teacher and a tall, tanned man in $3,000 crocodile cowboy boots. There's the six-piece jazz band that accompanies the slender young cantor, and the clinic's senior rabbi and spiritual director, Mark Borovitz, known affectionately as Rabbi Mark, whose personal story — ex-con saved by faith — he doesn't let you forget. 

And there is, to the great credit of the clinic's founder and director, Harriet Rossetto, the intentional shedding of pomp and circumstance, of the theatrical staging of board members and major donors on the bimah and the endless speeches by distinguished gentlemen in suits that is so common at more established synagogues. To my personal relief, there's also the condensed length — two hours instead of the usual four at traditional synagogues, the absence of a why-not-say-it-a-dozen-times-if-only-once-will-do? mentality that will have you recite the same few verses extolling the almighty's goodness and generosity until you forget what you're saying. 

Mostly, though, there's the word itself — teshuvah — and the very astonishing way in which it is realized here. In Judaism, teshuvah represents the process of confession and atonement and the eventual purification of the soul, the kind of thing we hope for around the High Holy Days, and, I dare say, rarely achieve. That is the mission and purpose of the center, its patients and staff. But it's the word's literal meaning — return — that rings especially true here.  

The minimum age for being admitted to Beit T'Shuvah is 18. Many of the patients are not much older than that. They are beautiful, brilliant creatures at the brink of adulthood, radiant with youth and promise. Just the other day, they were singing Shabbat songs and baking challah to take home to their parents. Some time between the moment they walked out of that first synagogue and into this one, they let go of the rope that had kept them on one path with most other kids their age. But now they're back, and the only thing they seem to have lost between that day and this is the sense of invulnerability, the illusion, perhaps, that they will never need a lifeline, never lose their way in the beaming, dazzling light of youth. 

Could anyone have seen, had they examined the palms of those little hands lined with sand and streaked with markers 20 years ago, the road these children would travel thereafter? Is that why they made those small, hard challahs? To leave a trail of breadcrumbs in case they went too far into the woods? 

It's not true, what they say about going home. In some places at least, for some fortunate people, you can go home again. On Shabbat, they even give you a challah in this home. It's larger than what the kids made in preschool and considerably more palatable — as good a reason as any to attend the service.


Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC whose column appears monthly in The Journal. She can be reached at ginabnahai.com.

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