Still recovering, Joseph Segal plans his New Year’s comeback

Still recovering from a head-on collision that nearly killed him 8-1/2 years ago, Joseph Segal rested from too rigorous a workout.

“I exercised too harshly,” said the spiritual leader of Marin’s Shabbos Shul congregation, straining to get the words out in a phone conversation last week from his bed in San Anselmo. “My body wasn’t ready for it.”

His plan is to join Nathan Segal on the bimah at the independent synagogue these rabbi-cantor brothers co-founded 19 years ago, for his first High Holy Days sermon in nearly a decade. An auto accident during a Jamaican vacation left him comatose for half a year and paralyzed the right side of his body.

Joseph arrived in the Bay Area earlier this month after an 18-hour flight from his parents’ home in Jerusalem, where he was living for the past three years.

But shortly after he resettled into the Marin gallery-studio where Nathan creates his abstract mixed-media paintings, Joseph collapsed during a workout.

The exercise required him to crouch on his hands and knees. While executing the movement, he got tangled up and wrenched his back and hips. It hurt so much, he said, “I cried.”

There was nothing else to do but go to bed. He took no painkillers. “It’s my character to tough it out,” Joseph said in his characteristic hoarse whisper. After the crash, he had to relearn how to speak.

“I was really messed up,” he said of his accident, “a hodgepodge of nothing.”

Now 50, Joseph hasn’t walked one step since he was 43. Currently he gets around in a wheelchair.

“I’m planning to stay [in Marin] till I can walk, talk and sing,” he vowed.

It’s been a slow process. But, he said, “My body’s coming more awake.”

During the past year in Israel, Joseph started regaining sensation in the paralyzed part of his body.

While recuperating from the injury he sustained while exercising, Joseph was in the caring hands of his nephew, Nathan’s 16-year-old son Daniel Jaffe. Jaffe was in charge of caretaking while his dad was performing a cantorial concert in San Miguel, Mexico.

“I’m doing the physical therapy, working out the muscles in his body,” said the young man, “and doing massage [techniques] my father taught me.”

Nathan Segal is a certified massage therapist who studied acupuncture and physical therapy. In fact, he was his brother’s caretaker when they lived in Marin together before Joseph flew to be with his parents and two sisters in Israel.

Since Jaffe couldn’t soothe his uncle’s pain with a rubdown, he served him, instead, sandwiches of avocado, tomato and cucumbers — washed down with herbal tea.

After eight days of languishing, unable to move because it would set off another excruciating spasm, Joseph suddenly announced, “There is no more pain; the pain has gone.”

The following day, however, he was not up to seeing visitors.

But he continues to trust that God is his rehabilitation therapist, and gives thanks each morning when he wakes up and gazes at a silvery painting of Nathan’s that “pours out light and color.”

Instead of taking a dose of medicine, added the spiritual leader — who along with his brother was ordained at Philadelphia’s P’nai Or — “I prayed.”

Recently, Joseph said, he cured himself of the asthma that has plagued him since the age of 7. A self-prescribed dose of fennel and turmeric and a dairy-free vegetarian diet provided relief.

“I’m a believer” in natural remedies, he said.

For mental therapy, he writes poetry. “You have to keep your sanity,” he said.

As if he were on the threshold of breaking his own version of a long Yom Kippur fast, Segal plans to break the nine-year silence he’s been forced to keep from his congregants. He’s scheduled to speak at Shabbos Shul’s Sept. 14 and Sept. 22 services at Strawberry Recreation Center, 118 E. Strawberry Drive, Mill Valley.

Joining him will be his brother, and playwright David Roche performing a one-man show titled “Church of 80 Percent Sincerity.” For information, call (415) 457-7800.