In November 2012, Mariana Rose Thorn and Brian Scharf were each asked to help co-create a space and ritual for their mutual friend Quinn’s baby shower.
A few months later, they ran into each other at a Dirty Dozen Brass Band show in San Francisco. Scharf described it as the “classic moment where the smoke clears, and there’s this beautiful woman in front of me,” except that this time, he had already met her.
Thorn invited him to a gathering in Santa Cruz a few days later; at the same time, they heard their friend Quinn’s baby was born.
While they lived in Oakland when they met — and still do — they both have roots in the North Bay. Thorn, 34, grew up in Sebastopol, and is a dancer and dance teacher who has also started her own line of essential oil spritzers and beard oils. Scharf, 33, from Santa Rosa, is a designer and builder. He also designs environments and is a craftsman, building furniture on the side. When Scharf told Thorn he was Jewish, she said, “It’s fine with me if it’s fine with other people.” Thorn had been raised by Buddhist parents and knew little about Judaism, but one thing she did know was that not everyone might approve of their relationship.
They fell in love quickly.
“I immediately felt at home with her, like I was at peace,” said Scharf, while Thorn said early on, she had a hint of recognition that this was her husband, even though she’s usually skeptical of such things. Scharf was ready to propose after three months, but he waited until his birthday and asked her at the Symbiosis Music Festival in September 2013.
The newly engaged couple hoped to marry soon. They planned a trip to New York to meet Brian’s extended family, and that’s where they came up against an obstacle: The family patriarch, Zayde Sy, would not accept his grandson marrying outside the faith.
“I think it was my last shred of pure innocence realizing the world is a complicated place. I was going on the idea that love conquers all; I wasn’t willing to open myself up to the fear or concern,” Scharf said.
Zayde Sy asked the couple if they would meet with a rabbi at his synagogue.
While Scharf’s first impulse was to walk away from a religion that wouldn’t include his future wife, especially since in recent years he hadn’t been connected to it himself, “we realized together that we should open up to this experience and see what can be created,” he said. “There was something strong in that family bond, and between us, we wanted our relationship to open pathways, not close them.”
It helped that the rabbi they met with was a young woman, and rather than the lecture Thorn feared, the rabbi began by asking about them. “Maybe you can expose yourself to the Jewish world where you live, and if something resonates, then it might be a path for you,” Thorn said, recalling her gentle suggestion.
“She was key,” said Scharf. “If she had been stuffy, or if we felt like we had to prove something,” to her it would have been all over.
The next day, Thorn woke up feeling lighter. She returned home resolved to find a Jewish community as well as a teacher to study with, and she found both in a class being offered called “Judaism for the Beginner’s Mind” taught by educator and ritual leader Arik Labowitz. (The class was offered at Berkeley’s Chochmat HaLev, which Thorn found out about from her acupuncturist.)
She and Scharf enrolled together, and after a time, she began studying with Labowitz for conversion. “I was going to go for this full-on, but if we got to a point where we felt it’s not resonating or I’m faking it, we’d stop,” she said.
That never happened. Though it delayed their wedding plans for quite a bit, Thorn converted last June, and on Sept. 2, they were married by Labowitz at Leonard Lake, near Ukiah. (On their wedding website, along with all the logistics guests might need for the several-day celebration, Thorn added a tongue-in-cheek tab called “Is she Jewish?” It contained an essay describing her path to conversion.)
The night before the wedding, the bride and groom held separate gatherings, where friends and family could share advice, and the morning of their wedding, they did separate mikvah rituals in the lake.
The traditional ceremony “became this anchor for our whole life together,” said Thorn. “It was really beautiful seeing how those roots and heritage could enrich these moments so much.” Furthermore, she said, “My brother kept saying, ‘I like how Jews do things,’ and the running joke in my immediate and extended family now is that they’re all converting.”
Looking back, she said, “I’ve gained a lot, not only from the experience, but from being part of Brian’s family and the greater family of the Jewish tribe. There are certain things about the extended community and sense of support and belonging. And, it was beautiful to witness Brian reconnecting with his heritage.”
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