California marriage, Renewal-style

Not many weddings start off with a fire-dancing groom, a hula-hooping mother, a 91-year-old grandfather drumming, and a rave featuring wildly costumed family and friends.

But for Sela Luna Gaglia, 27, and Zachary Zaidman, 35, the weekend — which was part Burning Man, part Jewish Renewal — was the perfect way to transform their not-so-unusual courtship into a marriage promising passion, fire and endless love.

Sela, whose given name is Patty, had moved back in with her parents in Livermore in June 2001. The single mother had been living in San Diego, and after breaking up with her son’s father, she felt she could use her parents’ support.

A leader for Challenge Day, an organization that conducts workshops in high schools to raise students’ self-esteem and prevent violence, Sela told a co-worker shortly after her move here that she craved community. More specifically, she wanted to meet people who are passionate about what they do.

That co-worker and now good friend, Ben Schick — cradling his newborn son under the couple’s chuppah on a recent sunny Sunday afternoon at Walker Creek Ranch in Petaluma — recalled his role in bringing the two together. “I know some people you should meet,” he told Sela.

Ben invited her to come to a “spiritual gathering” — which mainly consisted of watching “West Wing.” That night, she met Zak for the second time.

Sela drove Zak home that night.

“We talked about all the most important stuff, spirituality and physics, and beliefs and how we do our work in the world and how that’s based on all our beliefs,” she said. “Then there was a certain point where we just stopped talking and just looked at each other in silence for like 45 minutes.”

It has been a period of huge transformation for Sela. Brought up as a not very observant Christian, she turned to Taoism for several years. Her sister Debbie Gaglia, 26, who lives in San Diego, described her sister as always being ahead of the trends. Whatever she would do, others would follow. Debbie also said she’s seen her sister go through amazing changes throughout her life. Meeting Zak facilitated her latest incarnation, and perhaps the most drastic.

By immersing herself in a Mill Valley stream as her mikvah two days before the wedding, Sela not only marked her transition to marriage; with three close Jewish women friends standing by as witnesses, she also converted to Judaism, Jewish Renewal-style, with plans for an official Reform movement conversion later.

More than a year ago, feeling stronger in her identity as a Jew-to-be, she began searching for a Hebrew name, with the help of friends. When she heard selah — an expression similar to “amen” — in a prayer, she just knew it was her name. Later, she found out it also means “rock.” She chose Luna as her middle name, for her affinity with the cycles of the moon.

Zak, too, has gone through his own transformation. Born in the United States to a Canadian Jewish mother and a Mexican Jewish father, he was raised in the traditional Jewish community of Mexico City. His parents divorced when he was 6, and both remarried — his father twice. He attended U.C. San Diego and moved in 1992 to the Bay Area, where he launched a successful software company called Gravity.

At 25, Zak had an experience that shaped him profoundly: cancer. He’s now been cancer-free for 10 years, but after he hit the two-year mark, he began on the spiritual path that he is still on today.

“I felt my life transformed by the whole experience, and I had a very strong awakening,” said Zak, who calls himself a social entrepreneur, working on projects that promote interfaith relations, environmental awareness and a more compassionate planet. After Gravity was acquired in 1999, Zak became certified as a teacher of Jewish meditation at Berkeley’s Chochmat HaLev.

“It’s when I started to become involved with the spiritual life that is such a central aspect of my life today. I am a different person because I have been so blessed to have faced my own mortality and to have tasted the sweetness of being alive.”

Perhaps the greatest gift Zak possesses, his older brother Zev Zaidman said, is his conviction that everything is right and perfect just the way it is, and that things will work themselves out as they’re supposed to. When you’re in his presence, he can convince you of that, too.

“Without feeling the warmth of his eyes and his person, it’s really hard to describe who he is or how he helps people,” the 36-year-old Berkeley resident added.

After thinking about it a bit, Zev said his baby brother is like a “holy angel” in his ability to help others, and that in Sela, he’s found someone who has the power to do the same for him.

“Zak brings a softness to her,” said Debbie, of her sister, Sela. “It was there, but she was caught up in the chaos of life. But he slowed her down and reminded her of the softness inside.”

A year ago, Sela and Zak moved in together, into a communal vegan household in Oakland. The house is the headquarters of the Earthville Network, a nonprofit started by friends Mark and Dara Ackermoore in Dharamsala, India, that spearheads projects that support a more compassionate, peaceful and sustainable world.

The wedding festivities began with a Shabbat dinner on Friday night at the ranch. By Saturday afternoon, more guests had begun to arrive, spending the afternoon lounging by the small lake, swimming or canoeing.

After dinner and before a Havdallah service, guests outfitted themselves in multicolored wigs, wild makeup, lots of glitter and costumes. Billed as a birthday bonfire for Sela’s 4-year-old son Kaya, who wore a furry, light blue animal suit, the evening was actually more of a rave, with friends of Zak’s spinning trance music.

Although guests had been advised to bring costumes, a ranch employee ensured all guests were fully decked out by lending costumes from her personal collection — acquired from years of attending the annual Burning Man arts festival in the Nevada desert.

Dressing up came naturally to the couple and their friends, many Burning Man aficionados among them. Even relatives got into the spirit, too, although one colorfully costumed Mexican aunt of the groom could be overheard remarking in great amusement, “You know what we look like? Like Zak’s friends!”

The evening included poi, or fire-dancing, performed by Zak’s friend, and then by Zak himself, a veteran of many a Burning Man. Another highlight was Zak’s mother hula-hooping, and Zak drumming along with his 91-year-old grandfather, who wore a multicolored jester’s hat with illuminated tips.

In the morning, Zak’s father and several male friends escorted Zak to the lake for his own pre-wedding mikvah. On the way back, he popped into the communal dining hall where guests were breakfasting to yell, “Hey everyone, I’m getting married today!” before scurrying off to get dressed.

Then, it was time. The men gathered under a tree and, about 50 feet away, the women gathered under another, with an Indian tapestry hanging between so neither group could see each other. Soon Zak joined the men, and Sela, escorted by her mother, joined the women. Tears fell as she saw the women assembled to greet her with songs and drumming.

Zak — short, thin and dark, and radiating a certain glow — wore an off-white wedding suit as worn by men in India, consisting of baggy pants, a long tunic, a matching kippah and athletic sandals, though he kept removing them, and was barefoot during the ceremony.

Sela’s face was glowing even more than her gold raw silk dress, which featured spaghetti straps, a corset-like lace-up bodice and a bustle hung low in the back, with orange and yellow marigold-like flowers attached. She had a short, sheer gold veil to match, and orange ribbons hung from her straight shoulder-length reddish-brown hair. Later, she donned high-top sneakers for dancing.

On the men’s side, several of Zak’s friends drummed in the background while the two fathers and other married men offered their wisdom. There was drumming and chanting on the women’s side, too, and close friends of Sela’s joined her one at a time, beneath her veil, to share a few intimate words.

Finally, surrounded by the fathers, friends and relatives, Zak made his way to the women, who parted to allow him to pass through. Tears were streaming down his face as he approached his bride. Within a few feet of her, he removed his sandals, as if he were standing on holy ground. He then lifted her veil.

On the ketubah, which was made by Zak’s mother, an artist who now lives in Santa Fe, was the traditional Hebrew text and a poem in English that Sela had written.

Guests made their way to the nearby amphitheater with wooden seats, surrounded by trees dotted with mirrored lanterns from India. Baskets were filled with Chinese fans, and packets of tissues were everywhere, in case guests cried. They did.

The chuppah followed, carried by siblings and close friends. Zak was escorted by his mother and stepfather on one side, and his father and stepmother on the other. Sela soon followed with only her father.

Sela’s sister Debbie created the chuppah — its center consisted of four different patterned satin panels — and gave her blessing as she explained its symbolism.

“The jewels along the front are for the many happy, precious moments to come that they will share together,” she said, and “the majority of the material is sheer, so that the sun can shine into their home and life and God’s grace will always be upon them.”

Zak’s 12-year-old half-sister, Ariela, who lives in Mexico, decorated the poles.

“The chuppah is our first shelter as husband and wife, a refuge, open to the loving embrace of our friends and family,” Sela wrote in the program.

When Sela slowly circled Zak seven times, their eyes were locked on each other the entire time.

The ceremony, officiated by Avram Davis and Jhos Singer, both spiritual leaders of Chochmat HaLev, lasted close to an hour. Parents, family members and friends also bestowed their own, unique blessings, including Zev, who held one of the chuppah poles, along with his and Zak’s three half-sisters, ages 27, 20 and 12. All of them offered blessings in English and a bit of Spanish.

Though Zak and Sela planned to recite their own vows, they did not write them in advance.

“Anything we thought of before would be contrived,” Sela explained later. “We’re both speakers and are used to being spontaneous. We knew that that moment we would be the most feeling.”

After, neither could remember exactly what they said, but among the things they promised each other were passion, fire and endless love.

Kaya, beneath the chuppah as ring-bearer, could no longer contain his boredom. During the ring exchange, he began swinging the microphone around.

“Kaya. Your mom is about to give me the most important present of my whole life,” Zak told him. “Do you want to see?”

“No,” Kaya yelled. The ceremony continued.

Their yichud, or seclusion, took place in a nearby tent, decorated by friends, which they ran to, still barefoot. During the reception, they sat like royalty upon chairs decorated by more friends in sparkly gold fabric, flowers and balloons.

Guests feasted on vegan fajitas and vegan chocolate cake. “No animals died for any of this delicious food,” Zak informed the guests.

The music progressed from traditional Jewish played by musician friends, to a mariachi band — a requirement at all Mexican weddings — to classic jazz, to more trance and rave. A techno-version of “Hava Nagila” was a favorite.

Later, guests individually offered more blessings. One musician did so in the form of a song he wrote; a co-worker of Sela’s, his arms fully covered with brightly colored tattoos, was speechless, and he simply prostrated himself in front of the couple.

Despite the hot sun, guests outdid themselves in joyous celebration until early evening. One high-energy friend ran around with a squirt bottle, both during the ceremony and the dancing, which helped cool guests off.

Just as guests offered their blessings to the couple, Sela and Zak did the same to their guests: “When two people decide to join their lives in holy union, it is a tikkun (healing) for the whole world,” they wrote in the wedding program.

“May all beings be as blessed as we have been in the embrace of your presence, may all hearts know the loving kindness and strength that weaves the fiber of our daily life, may all souls be enlivened by the breath-giving adventure that is life. And may our union be a blessing unto all.”

The writer attended the wedding as a friend

of the couple.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."