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Jewish Journal

After 45 Years,

by Marilyn Zeitlin

May 13, 2004 | 8:00 pm

Berkeley, 1959. The Berkeley Gazette announced the marriage of two students at Temple Beth El. It was a small wedding performed by Rabbi Axelrod. Our parents didn't come, our relatives didn't come; they were afraid to fly from the East Coast. I wore a borrowed dress. There was no honeymoon, because the groom, a UC Berkeley teaching assistant was giving an exam the next day, and I had classes. That was then.

This is now. Forty-five years later we're getting married again. This time we are on a luxury ship, the Radisson Seven Seas Cruises' m/s Paul Gauguin, and we're renewing wedding vows, in Moorea, Tahiti. Instead of Rabbi Axelrod, we stand before Capt. Gilles Bossard. Instead of Hebrew, we get French-accented English and Tahitian from a man we met only days ago. We've chosen to have a short, symbolic ceremony on ship to celebrate the fact that we're still together in a world that isn't.

The m/s Paul Gauguin is well-known for performing renewal ceremonies in French Polynesian waters. The week we were aboard, there were couples celebrating honeymoons and anniversaries -- people in their 20s to 60s, married one month to 50 years. The ship has a one-size-fits-all renewal of vows ceremony, but it didn't fit us. It began: "My dear friends, we are gathered here today in God's sight to celebrate your love and marriage." It talked about the "honorable vocation of wedded life." And there was a place for silent prayer. I knew then that I'd have to write my own ceremony.

But as I began researching Tahiti, I wondered, "Why are people getting married here?" First, there was the story of Oro, the God of War. Seems that Oro simply got tired of his wife one day, so he conveniently got rid of her by dropping her "from the highest point in the sky" down to earth. After she was let go, Oro commanded his sisters to find him another wife, preferably one who wasn't "too corpulent." The sisters found a very young, beautiful girl "who agreed to be Oro's wife." That story didn't sit too well with me in my 60s -- especially the part about that young and trim beauty.

Then there was M. Gauguin himself. Sure, he was a gifted painter giving the world Tahiti on canvas -- painting the exotic women of his newly adopted home. But before sailing for Tahiti, Gauguin left his wife and five children in France -- some sort of midlife crisis. Mistresses and lovers followed, and the great artist wasn't very healthy when he began to wind down.

James Michener wrote "Tales of the South Pacific," describing the turquoise waters, the soft sands of the beaches, coconut trees everywhere, a quiet, peaceful, undisturbed, exotic land. This was the place Maurice and I were now seeing. This was Bali Hai, where fruit came in the shape of starfish, and bougainvillea got its name. There were "mangoes and bananas you can pick right off the tree," as in the musical "South Pacific." The backdrop was certainly one of the most romantic; now I needed something personal, meaningful to us.

I talked with Claudia Periou, charged with wedding and vow-renewal ceremonies. I asked her whether other couples had written their own vows ceremony. One woman, also a writer, had the captain read her version. But Claudia said the captain blushed during all of the references to that couple's sexual life. There were emotional ceremonies and impersonal ones. There were three couples, friends from high school, who renewed vows together.

I sat in my stateroom, overlooking some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. And I wrote our vows, later on parchment paper, the words spoken by Bossard: "Marriage isn't for everyone. Few of Marilyn's and Maurice's friends stayed married, and some friends were in their third marriages. During this couple's 45 years together, there were rose gardens and thorns, obstacles to remove, hurdles to jump over, problems to solve. But the glue that held these two together was their love and respect for each other. Out of their union came Michelle, Carla and Erica, and then the grandchildren, Devin and Alec; we did a great job!" The captain added: "You have been blessed."

An officer read from Kahlil Gibran, and we were serenaded with Tahitian love songs.

We drank champagne, and ate some of the cake baked for us. (The rest of the cake, which flew home in my cosmetics kit, was saved for our children.) For one whole week, the world's problems were forgotten as we snorkeled, fed sharks, danced, dined, shopped and read novels. For one week, we didn't read newspapers or watch CNN.

On Friday night there were services on board. A notice had gone out asking for a volunteer to lead the Shabbat services, and I offered my services. "Sorry, we have somebody," I was told.

At the services, we sang and prayed, and for a volunteer leader, it was a pretty good service. So I asked the leader: "What do you do in real life?"

In real life he is a real rabbi, Rabbi Michael Stroh of Temple Har Tzion in Toronto.

"So why didn't somebody tell us there was a rabbi on board? You could have performed our vows ceremony."

He smiled. "Here, I'm on vacation."

The last night's lavish dinner included "double chicken consommé with matzah balls."

We had two portions each because chicken soup seemed a good idea before the journey back to Los Angeles.

It costs about $200 for a vows renewal ceremony on the Gauguin, aside from the cost of the cruise. You can go kosher, too -- the Radisson line was voted "Best Cruise Line for Kosher Food," in last year's Total Traveler Guide to Worldwide Cruising.

For more information, contact Radisson Seven Seas Cruises at www.rssc.com. There is a direct flight from LAX to Papeete on Tahiti Nui.

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