Repurposed trees hold chuppah and Tawonga community together

When Camp Tawonga director Ken Kramarz was leaving for the season in 2005, he had an idea. He was soon officiating a wedding of a Tawongan, and his eyes fell on a pile of cuttings. In forestry management, small trees and brush are regularly removed to prevent ground fires.

“I realized that if these were cleaned up, they would make good chuppah poles,” Kramarz said. He brought them home and smoothed them out, and they were used for the wedding shortly thereafter. Later, the couple burned their names into the wood, starting a tradition.

The poles have now been used more than 20 times, with a second set introduced last fall when two Tawonga weddings were slated for the same weekend.

Laura Goldman and Dennak Murphy photo/morgan bellinger-move photography

Longtime Tawongan Isaac Zones was the first to initiate the new set of poles when he married Vivian Santana Pacheco in September.

Zones admitted to feeling a little disappointed when he learned that another couple had reserved the original poles for their wedding the same weekend. Since some guests were attending both weddings, Zones thought they could take the poles from one ceremony to the next. But the other couple wanted the poles ahead of time, so his plan wouldn’t work.

“We were actually getting married at Tawonga, though, and it felt fine to compromise,” said Zones. “Ken [Kramarz] is always thinking toward the future, and he assumed that this conflict will happen again — where couples are getting married on the same weekend — and we should have a second set.

“I have a lot of friends who got married with the first set, and I liked the idea of using those,” Zones said, “but I also like the idea of being the first to start the new set.”

Kramarz said those who have used the poles reflect the diversity of the camp — with interfaith and LGBT ceremonies, and quite a span age-wise.

Dennak Murphy, the father of Tawongan Gabe Murphy, used the poles when he wed Laura Goldman last October in their Berkeley home. Both bride and groom are in their 60s.

In addition to his son’s history with the camp, Murphy said, “Some of our closest friends have generations of history with Tawonga too.”

Katelyn Simons, who wed Elijah Zarlin beneath the poles last summer, found it “really special to see [the names of] all these couples, some of whom are older than us, and some of whose weddings we’ve been to and they now have children. We’re not only bringing the history of Tawonga right there, but we’re joining this strong community. Feeling part of that is really, really special.”

Building community is what it’s all about, Kramarz said. “For many of us who work in the Jewish community, this is why we do what we do.”

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."