It was a typical Wednesday evening. And then the phone rang.
The voice was distinctive. Someone I knew from synagogue.
“What are you doing this evening? Can you be at shul in an hour?”
“What’s going on?” I asked, confused.
“I’ll explain later. Can you be here?”
“Um, OK,” I said.
I grabbed a cold slice of pizza from the refrigerator and drove to the synagogue we both attended, arriving five minutes later.
For a synagogue that was always bustling with activity, it was eerily dark and quiet. I saw three men enter a side door. I followed.
Before long, the group had grown to 10 men. We were standing around in the downstairs lobby, nobody knowing what to do or where to go. Then from behind, the familiar voice again. “Come with me.”
Two of us went into a storage closet and grabbed the synagogue’s chuppah, the traditional Jewish wedding canopy. It consisted of four plain wooden poles attached to a worn blue velvet covering. It was the kind of chuppah meant for those who didn’t spend thousands of dollars on custom-made canopies adorned with flowers.
We put the chuppah in a car trunk. Then all of us, including one of the synagogue’s rabbis, piled into three cars and headed off into the darkness.
I was in the back seat of the car driven by the person who had phoned me. I had no idea where we were going or why. I sensed I would know soon enough and didn’t ask.
Traffic was light as we made our way onto the 405 north toward the San Fernando Valley. About 30 minutes later, we exited the freeway. In the distance, I saw a large, brightly lit building: Northridge Hospital.
We made our way behind the building and parked in a mostly empty lot. In front of us was a row of windows revealing a brightly lit waiting room filled with sofas, folding chairs, a TV and a couple of long tables.
“They wanted their children to know their parents married according to Jewish law.”
We grabbed the chuppah from the trunk and entered through an unlocked back door. Several people, presumably patients and their families, were huddled in conversation.
A 30-something man with two young kids entered the room. He was wearing a yarmulke, shook the rabbi’s hand, and the two sat down at a corner table. The rabbi carried a large scroll and unrolled it on the table. A ketubah (marriage contract).
Not more than a minute later, a parade of nurses came through the door. One was pushing a woman in a wheelchair, with several IV tubes attached to her arms. Immediately everybody sprang into action.
The rabbi instructed four of us to hold the chuppah in the center of the room as the man and the woman patient centered themselves underneath.
The rabbi proceeded to say the wedding blessings and perform a Jewish wedding ceremony. The man put a ring on his bride’s finger. He repeated the rabbi’s words in Hebrew: “Behold, you are consecrated to me with this ring according to the laws of Moses and Israel.”
As hastily as it had happened, it was over. The nurses returned the bride to her hospital room.
On the way back to the city, I got an explanation. Years before, the couple married in a civil ceremony but never had a Jewish wedding. Then the wife became seriously ill and had to undergo a major surgery that could go either way. They then decided if the unthinkable happened, they wanted their children to know their parents married according to Jewish law.
As we made our way through the Sepulveda Pass back to the city, I wondered if they really did it for their kids or for themselves. Perhaps something inside told them it was the right thing to do, to finally bring Judaism into their marriage, starting with their wedding ceremony.
Decades have passed since that Wednesday evening. I never followed up to learn the outcome of the surgery. It wasn’t my business, and a part of me didn’t want to know. All I knew was every Jewish wedding, lavash or not, is memorable.
Even under the harsh, bright lights of a hospital waiting room.
Harvey Farr runs a Los Angeles-based public relations firm specializing in nonprofit marketing.