in september of 2000, i received a call at work from a board member who had been helping me with my job. he explained that the minutes of the last board meeting needed to be sent with a reminder and agenda for the next meeting. the board member told me the bylaws had recently been changed to allow for emailed correspondence and i needed to send it them to all board members. so i did.
a week or so later, i received a letter from a founding member of the synagogue, the husband of a past president. he called me an idiot, prejudiced again luddites who have no interest in email. he could not believe i hadn't sent any communication to his wife, a former synagogue president. he found it insulting to the synagogue and would make sure that everyone knew how awful i was.
i had been at the synagogue for 9 months. i had next to no training for the job. i was doing the best i could, the last thing i wanted to do was insult anyone and honestly, i had no idea. i was mortified.
i came clean. i needed to know if i'd actually fucked up. so, i told the board member who had been helping me out and he rolled his eyes and laughed. when i told the rabbi, he also laughed and said that the letter writer was a pussycat.
the letter writer and i eventually found our way to an uneasy peace. his wife, the past president, and i eventually became friends. they've both passed away. i'd be lying if i said i didn't miss them a little.
in my desk there was a file of letters. there were letters of complaint my predecessor had received from members, nasty memos from board members and the rabbi. it was all i didn't find it right when i'd taken over the job. it took awhile. when i did find it, i felt a little better. so i put my nasty letter in the file and added a few more over the next decade. when i left, i buried the file in my filing cabinet. i wonder if its been unearthed yet. i hope that when its found, it makes someone feel a little better about the hits they've taken.
A few weeks after I was named Acting Executive Director, I received an odd piece of mail. It was addressed to my attention. There was no return address. The envelope contained a recent mailing sent from the synagogue, covered in red proofreading marks. My heart sank. I knew everything I did was under a microscope but this seemed crazy. I had nothing to do with that mailing. Someone else proofread it. I'm sure, at the time, the sentence "I'm not even supposed to be here today!" crossed my mind. I was 25, thrust into a very grown up position and I had no idea that one of my new responsibilities included grammar enforcement. I'm sure I locked myself in the bathroom and cried for a minute or ten. Once I got over the initial itchy feelings, I thought "WHO DOES THAT?"
The following week, I went to lunch at my predecessor's home with the envelope in my purse. Casually, as I was about to leave, I pulled it out and asked her about it. She laughed and told me she'd been getting them for years. She had no idea who they were from.
Years later, after Shabbat services, Mrs. E came up to me. I was very fond of Mrs. E. She is a lovely person with a great sense of style and had never once accosted me after services to yell at me*. I was happy to stop and chat. She smiled and said, "I have to tell you something... Mr. E was beside himself during services tonight. He couldn't find a single error in the service flyer. You know he's been the one sending you all your mailings back, right?" Busted.
The next week I called Mr. E and asked him to be my new volunteer proofreader. He happily accepted. I'm sure he's still proofreading everything for the synagogue.**
*Yes, this happened. More than you'd guess.
**This has nothing to do with where I put the double asterisk but its important. When I told Kateri I was thinking about writing this post, she told me I best come correct and use my shift-key lest Mr. E ever happen upon this post. So, I did. Don't get used to it. There is no Mr. E proofreading my blog posts.
rosh hashanah begins sunday night. i had to look that up. a few years ago, i could tell you when the high holidays were that year and probably the next. my life revolved around that calendar.
i'll admit that i looked it up by going to the website of the synagogue i once worked for. i know, i know... but i knew it would be there and that i could snoop a bit into the current goings on. while i do, from time to time, hear from synagogue members who wonder how i'm doing, i rarely hear how the synagogue itself is doing.
i recognized a few names and a photograph i took years ago on the website but that's about it. it seems like a different world from the one i spent so much time inhabiting. they've moved on. i'm not surprised. i have too.
not so much that i'd found a new congregation though. i've considered a few and i know i should join somewhere. unaffiliated jews, blah blah blah. it was the same song at every board meeting where membership was discussed. i believe in synagogue membership. i do. still, i'm wary.
so, sunday night while i'm not at services i'll be thinking of some of my favorite synagogue families. i'll be thinking about dorie and how we would sit outside the auditorium for a few minutes every single year, catching up from last year. i'll be thinking about eugene and all of my crazy checklists for him. i'll be thinking about JM and about how i would hold my breath each and every time he began a sermon, wondering if he was going to piss people off more than the year before. i'll be thinking of jamie and dinner at mrs. g's. for a very brief moment, i'll miss it and i'll wonder if i'm afraid a new synagogue will be just like BT or if i'm worried it won't be enough like it.
at the synagogue, one of my most complicated relationships was with the building superintendant. upon reflection, it was also one of my most enjoyable. when i read the borrower, it got me thinking about him. the main character's parents were from russia. there were a few other russian characters. they all reminded me of him. an odd turn of phrase here, some stubborness there...
he worked at the synagogue long before i arrived. he had habits that were so deeply entrenched that i was foolish to even attempt to change his behavior. he told me that my predecessor and him never ever butted heads, that she was a wonderful human being. multiple people told me that he and mrs. g had more than their share of fights. in spite of that, i'm pretty sure he loathed me 75% of the time. that other 25%, he was extraordinarily kind and generous. he brought me small sweet gifts when he went on vacation. he always told me when he felt like someone was trying to do me dirt or when they were just simply to be avoided. "troublemaker," he'd whisper. he was spot on in every single case. he and i also shared a love for JM - which meant he was one of the only people in the building toward the end who understood fully just how much everything sucked.
he had a crazy way of fixing things. it more often then not involved duct tape. i will never not think about eugene when i see this scene:
what i really loved about eugene though was the completely wacky things he'd say every now and then. my two favorite eugene-isms and the ones i heard most often were "until i forgot" (before i forget), and "i kill you twice" (i'm really pissed at you).
he had a mad love for his cat, oliver. oliver looked just like dizzy. when i showed eugene a picture of dizzy i bought myself a month of no loathing. he loved cats, he explained, "they are mysterious. they are like woman..." i almost died from giggles. it was all so adorably weird.
but really, the conversation with him that i will never ever, not in a million years forget is this one:
me: are you calling me crazy? what did i do now?
E: (smiling and laughing) no, no. its a greeting. in russia.
E: yes! you know, like boy chicken. they say coo-koo-ri-koo.
me: a boy chicken? you mean a rooster? you mean cock-a-doodle-doo?
E: YES! coo-koo-ri-koo. you say hello to a good morning.
i wrote cookoorikoo on a scrap of paper and put it in my wallet. i would pull it out and giggle every once in awhile. then, one day, i needed a name for my business. i pulled that note out of my wallet and stared at it for a bit. it was the perfectly whimsical word. it was just what i needed.
that scrap of paper is still on my bulletin board. thanks, eugene.
someone from the synagogue forwarded me an email today that they had received from JM. he's living in israel now and has launched a new business. its so fascinating to me. before he was a rabbi, he was a high school english teacher. that seemed so funny to me because he was such a rabbi. he often joked about the novels he would one day write or his plan to take up gardening one day, once he was a retired rabbi. instead, he's building houses in israel.
we don't talk. we haven't talked in eons. we were texting one another every once in awhile and trading voice mails from time to time but i don't think we've really talked since the day i gave my notice in february 2010. things went crazy after that and we just never talked again. he and the board were at war and i was in the middle. he kept me at arms length, and only spoke to me when absolutely necessary. he was my boss and my friend and he just stopped speaking to me. it was three months of awful.
during that time, everyone else was talking to me, questioning me, whispering in my ear. people said some terrible things. but also some things that were just painful for me to hear, even if that wasn't their intention - "how can you not know what's going on? you used to be his right hand!" yeah, thanks for the reminder.
i shut down almost completely during that period. i wasn't sleeping, i wasn't taking care of myself or any of the things i was responsible for outside of the temple. we had our gas turned off at home because i'd just forgotten to pay it. i was a mess.
then, in may of 2010, we ran into him at the cemetary i hadn't seen him since he'd been, well, since he'd left the temple. i had called him once or twice to say "shabbat shalom." after years of saying shabbat shalom to him as i left on friday afternoons, it felt odd not to. i like to think he appreciated those calls. anyway, we were at the cemetery for shawn's grandfather's headstone unveiling. we stopped at the office to find out where to go and there he was, coming out of the office. he was there for another headstone unveiling. it was awkward at first but nice, exactly like running into an old friend. he joked with shawn a bit. he told me some day, maybe in a couple of years, we'd really talk about everything that happened but for now all he could say was that he missed me and loved me. he hugged us and walked away. i remember looking at shawn and he had the same confused look on his face that i'm sure i did. what the hell had just happened?
here i am, over two years later and i still have no idea what really happened and i just learned about his new life from a forwarded email.
so, watching the west wing over again has been interesting. it was on for a long time but it hasn't been on in a long time. this means i first watched some of these episodes 11 or 12 years ago. it feels like a lifetime. i remember how i came to watch the show - my father-in-law enjoyed the first season and thought i would too. then when i began working at the synagogue, all the women who worked there watched it. so, i started in order to have something to talk about over lunch. we all had our favorite characters - carol once said her partner understood that she would leave him in a second for tobey. june loved president bartlet. harriet loved cj. we all loved mrs. landingham. jm even watched and would join us in our discussions of the previous night's episode from time to time.
this week, when i began the third season, my heart sank. instead of picking up where the story left off, they began with an episode about muslim extremists and terrorism. it was written and filmed quickly. 9/11 had just happened and they wanted to do something. it was heartbreaking to watch, even now. its remarkable that when everyone was screaming for justice, this episode was a quiet exploration of how we'd gotten to this place.
the next day at work, the discussion of the show at lunch lasted at least two hours. on 9/11, we sat with a television in the library, quietly doing our work half heartedly, watching events unfold. rosh hashanah was a week away. we were now planning a community prayer service. work couldn't stop just because the world did. after that episode of the west wing, we were finally able to have the conversations we'd all needed to have before.
i've always known that one day i would want to write more about my time at the synagogue. working for a religious organization is fascinating. the stories are endless and the lessons learned are valuable. but as all my friends who've worked for a church or a synagogue could tell you, working for god can suck.
i was on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. i would get calls during dinner, in the middle of the night, too early on a sunday morning... no time felt like my own. plus, no one really calls their synagogue just to say "hi." something is going on that made them pick up the phone - a death, a birth, a divorce, a crisis of some sort. whatever it was, chances were good their emotional state was heightened. add to that a meager paycheck and yeah, working for god did indeed suck sometimes.
i've been thinking a lot about those years lately. surprisingly they have been, more often than not, happy thoughts. things were hard, yes, and my time ended on a sour note but they weren't always that way. i'm glad that i've gotten to the point that i can remember the better times.
last week, i was watching mad men and peggy said to don, "i want you to know, the day you saw something in me my whole life changed." that line got under my skin. days later, it was echoing in my head. after giving it a lot of thought i realized that i had said something similar to rabbi jm on the day i gave my notice.
i was young when i started, only 24. i was hired as the receptionist but my predecessor was in her eighties and was slowing down a bit. after a few months and many conversations with jm, they decided that i should work with her, learning how to do parts of her job, helping her out with the things she no longer wanted to do. i hadn't quite finished college and wasn't entirely sure what i wanted to do with my life. i'd had management experience and possessed some valuable skills. i liked the work i was doing and was eager. it was a good place to be, with exceptional people. truly. so, why not?
in may of 2000, my predecessor had a heart attack. it was memorial day weekend and jm called me at home. she had survived but it became clear that she was going to need more help than initially planned. i was going to need to do x, y and z starting immediately. he never really asked if i could, or even wanted to. this was what made sense to him and so this was what was going to happen. he knew i could do the job and so i would do the job. right then and there, everything changed for me.
everything that happened on the job for the next 10 years was a result of that moment, the moment jm believed in me. i also think its why my memories of the synagogue have been so hard to untangle. i have to start somewhere though and this seems like as good a place as any.
shana is a wearer of knee socks, lover of pie, horror movies and shiny things. she writes about horror and other things, makes pie and shiny things in portland, oregon, where she lives with her husband, shawn (aka shampton). she is the vintage jewelry and yoyo obsessed woman behind the cookoorikoo curtain. email me at email@example.com.
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