When asked what brought them together, Ken Maki and Kathy Hollander say it’s beshert, plain and simple. But then after a pause, Maki adds, “Even though we had to knock off our respective spouses before we got together.”
They both break into booming laughter, and it’s clear this is not the first time they’ve made that joke. It’s also apparent that behind the laughter lives a lot of pain.
“On Friday nights when we light candles, I light two for us and three more,” Hollander explained. “One for Mike and Leslie, and one for Ken’s son and my daughter that passed away, and one for the rest of both our families. We can include our losses, and we’re here to support each other in that.”
Mike Hollander was Kathy’s second husband. They married in 2002 and he died in 2009 from a heart attack. She has three daughters (in addition to a daughter who died from her first marriage, which lasted 22 years). She has eight grandchildren.
Leslie Provence was Maki’s third wife. They married in 2002 and she died of melanoma in 2005. After Provence passed away, he nearly fell apart, Maki says, and soon married a woman he met on JDate. That marriage lasted five years.
Maki’s first was a “starter marriage,” in his words, in which he had a son who died shortly after birth. His second marriage lasted 18 years.
Hollander and Maki, both 60, first met in 1999, when she was working as an administrator at Oakland’s Beth Jacob Congregation and he joined as a new member.
“His was the first membership packet I ever processed,” she said.
In addition to their complicated love lives, both Hollander and Maki have interesting spiritual lives. Neither was born Jewish: Hollander is a product of Oakland Catholic schools, and Maki was raised an atheist but later became a spiritual seeker. At one point, he was a born-again Christian.
But one day, after his pastor gave an unsatisfactory response to a question, Maki recalled, “I stepped out of his office and the church in the same step.”
What made them both decide to become Jewish — and Orthodox at that — could be the topic of another article. But suffice it to say, in 2013, after some time away from Beth Jacob, Maki moved back to the area. Resolved not to spend Shabbat dinners alone, he decided to host Shabbat dinner every Friday, open to anyone in the community who had no place to go.
“I figured that was the only way to keep the matchmakers away,” he said, adding that as well-meaning as they might be, he didn’t feel ready for another relationship. He called the synagogue office to put an announcement in the bulletin. Hollander answered the call.
“At that point, Mike had been dead almost five years, and my mother-in-law was still coming to my house every Shabbat, and she’d say ‘You have to start dating,’” said Hollander.
Like Maki, Hollander felt she was done. “I thought to myself, I don’t want to go through another loss like that again.”
But with her mother-in-law’s encouragement, she decided to take up Maki on his offer. The first week, the two of them were the only ones at the dinner. The next week, a third person joined them. By the fourth week, there were more people. Soon after, they started alternating between Maki’s and Hollander’s apartments and took on the duties of co-hosting together.
Both say there was no conversation about them entering into a relationship, it just kind of happened.
And then one morning, Maki told Hollander, “I feel like we’ve been married for 20 years, and that’s a good thing.”
At first they kept their relationship a secret from the community. But they accidentally outed themselves — first at Oakland Kosher Foods, when Hollander called him “hon” in front of other Beth Jacob congregants — and then later at shul on Simchat Torah.
While both said at first they didn’t feel the need to get married, it’s not so simple when you’re part of an Orthodox community; some won’t visit the home of an unmarried couple who live together, they say.
Last summer, on July 16 — Hollander’s 60th birthday — Maki drove her to the Gift Exchange in San Francisco and told her she could pick out any piece of jewelry, or if she wanted, a ring.
“In an Orthodox context, if a man gives a woman a ring, it only has one possible meaning, and I knew she knew that, so I let it go at that,” he said.
Hollander chose a ring, so when they got back to the car, he proposed.
They didn’t want a big production of a wedding, so they held what they called a “pop-up chuppah” in San Francisco’s Union Square on April 1. Daniel Fox, assistant rabbi at Beth Jacob, officiated. Since the wedding took place at 2 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon, in addition to their crowd of about 35 guests, they had plenty of tourists looking on.
They went to Sabra Grill for a celebratory kosher meal afterward, and that night the couple stayed in the city and attended “Beach Blanket Babylon.”
The couple returned home the next day, kashered the kitchen for Passover, and by Friday night they were back hosting for Shabbat. But this time it was also a seder — and they were married.