Monday, December 18, 2006

LIFE ...

The last job I had in South Africa was one that I myself was shocked at getting. It was completely out of character for where I was in my life at that time. I remember all the different reactions I got from the various friends and relatives as I told them that I had applied for and been accepted to work at a temple/shul/synagogue. The one common thread was that of surprise.

I had grown up in a traditional Jewish home where all the holidays were celebrated. On a day to day basis we were aware of our Jewishness but we were not religiously observant. Our home was not kosher and we did not observe Shabbat/the Sabbath. My mother did however always light candles on Friday night and ‘Friday night supper’ was not to be missed. It was a family gathering at either my Uncle’s house, my Mom’s lifelong friend who was my Auntie Lily, or at our own home. No matter what was going on, I knew I had to be at Friday night supper, and I was … and I wanted to be there, too. We were like the average non-observant Jewish family in that we were proud of our heritage and content with attending shul services on Pesach/Passover, Rosh Hashana/New Year, Yom Kippur/Day of Atonement and various other holidays in between. I do have very clear memories of attending some Friday night/Shabbat services with my father when I was a much younger child.

Prior to looking for a job, I had worked freelance in the P.R./Promotions industry. I was flat broke and desperately needed to get on to some kind of regular income. I was single and was still recovering from the emotional ravages of having endured an ectopic pregnancy. I was 30 years old and had been in a relationship for two years that I knew was going nowhere. In spite of this, it had been easier to stay in it than to leave it. My emotional stability was seriously in question. Although I was essentially single, I was very clear that I was going to keep this baby – the problem was more how to get rid of the father from my life on a daily basis but allow him to be involved in his child’s life.

With the loss of this pregnancy, a spiritual journey started for me that has basically never ended. My first stop along the way started when I noticed the vacancy advertised in the local newspaper. It mentioned it was for a large Jewish congregation and what appealed to me was the four and a half day week. The offices would of course close at 1pm on Fridays for the preparation of Shabbat/Sabbath, so of course there would be no work on Saturdays either.

I was first interviewed by the office manager, then called back for an interview by the Management Committee and then finally for a third interview to be conducted by the Rabbi.

I did have an impressive resume but it was totally unrelated to any of the requirements for this job. Within minutes of my interview with the Rabbi, I knew I wanted this job. He read my resume, asked me all the questions that any prospective employer would ask and I answered them all perfectly. I was struggling to keep my shit together as I was so emotionally fragile. The empathy I could feel emanating from this incredible human being was making me feel very vulnerable. I instinctively knew that there was no coincidence I had ended up in front of this man and that I needed to be in this environment for my own healing as much as I needed the job for my own survival.

When all the formalities were over, he sat and stared at me for a few moments across the desk and then said to me, “I’ve read and heard what you have done for the last few years, now I would like you to tell me who you really are.”

I chuckled and said, “I’m not sure you have the time for that right now,” and felt my nervousness rising. I remember thinking that if I told this guy the reality of the person sitting in front of him, I would be fired before I got hired.

“Yes, I do.’ he said.

Close to an hour and a half later I walked out of the office feeling like all the weight I had been carrying on my shoulders had been lifted. I didn’t know why, and I’m not sure I understood what I was feeling, but I did know I was feeling lighter – and it felt better than how I had felt when I walked in some hours earlier.

As I got to the door of his office I thought to myself, “Oh my goodness, if he only knew I don’t even have underwear on under my long skirt….” I don’t usually go commando, but I had a painful scar from the surgery I had undergone to have my one tube removed and it was just more comfortable to go without underwear. As if reading my mind, as I was about to close his office door behind me he said, “Thank you for your honesty, Dawn.” Still keeping it together, I casually smiled and thanked him for listening to me when in fact I had nearly jumped out of my skin from shock at his comment.

A few days later I got the call from the office manager who had been the first to interview me, and she was happily offering me the job. To the South Africans reading this, I was in DIONS in Wynberg when I got the message on my beeper. There were no cell phones yet. I ran to the information desk and begged them to let me use the phone, and I told Helene that she had made my day by offering me the job.

The essence of my job was dealing with the life-cycle events. This meant that I would receive a call from both congregants as well as non-members from within the community at large requiring assistance in the event of a birth, death, marriage, Bar/Bat Mitzvah within their family.

I have stories from this experience that would justify having a blog dedicated to them and nothing else. What got me thinking along the lines of this post, is the way my life has gone for the last two weeks since my last post.

The course of my working day would be so varied. I recall clearly the events of one day. I had just taken a phone call from the grandfather of a baby who had suffered a cot/crib death. (SIDS)

I followed the required procedure of the call and scheduled the time for the family to come in to complete the necessary paperwork to process the burial of their infant. As I put the phone down, it rang again. It was the mother of a bride-to-be for a wedding the Rabbi would be officiating at some months down the line. She made reference to how long she had held on for me on the line and then proceeded to explain the reason for her call. A Jewish wedding ceremony takes place under a chuppah. In most shuls these are traditionally blue or red. This Mom wanted to know what color ours was as she was concerned about how it would match with the color scheme of the wedding party.

By the time I had ended this call, the Rabbi had responded to my internal office call to come and meet with me so that I could explain to him the details surrounding the family who would soon be presenting themselves in my office.

At this stage of my three year span in this job, I was very confident in what I was doing and in spite of my lack of formal training in bereavement counseling, I had gained a lot of experience and knowledge under the superb guidance and instruction from the Rabbi. I had proven sufficiently to him that I had an instinctive empathy for these kinds of situations which is why he would always respond without question when I would alert him to a situation that I was certain needed his intervention. This was most certainly one such time.

I all but slammed the phone down on the Mom who was extremely concerned about the potential clash of colors and expressed strong views about how pathetic this all seemed to me in light of the call I had taken just before her.

It was in the discussion that followed between me and the Rabbi that I learnt one of the most valuable lessons in my life. He explained to me how in that moment, the wedding of that woman’s daughter was without a doubt thee most important thing in her life. Nothing held more purpose or meaning for her, clearly right down to the smallest of details, however insane it might have appeared to me by virtue of the sequence of events I was faced with handling. It was my job in my professional capacity to extend the respect to each situation that it deserved, acknowledging without any shred of judgment the importance of each one to each person. That lesson has stayed with me ever since then and I draw on the experience of it very, very often.

It was this awareness that has helped me get through the events of the last two weeks in my own life.

It has been a challenging time for me as things have gone from what might seem like totally unimportant to the next person to deeply important to me. What has been amazing to me is that although circumstances have forced me off the blogging radar, my comments box holds 30 messages and my email IN BOX has brought me a steady flow of mail expressing concern from people I might never have the opportunity to meet in person.

So while we go about the daily activities of our lives, we need to always remember that what we see on the surface can so often be as far removed from the reality of what’s going on as is possible.

My sister sent me this beautiful message back on December 6th. Please watch it with sound ~ it will make a lovely addition to any internet/email wish you might want to extend to someone you love and are grateful for. If you would like to use it, this is the link.

p.s. The full extent of the relationship that grew between me and my teacher, friend and mentor, the late Rabbi Ady Assabi, can be read in a previous post. VOWS on September 5th, 2005