The Call from God

 

The Call From God

By Penny Kohn

 

One secretary worked for both congregations, and on her desk sat two phones. She answered one, “Shalom, Temple Emuna,” and the other, “Hello, St. Anne’s Episcopal Church.” I was that secretary. It was 1969. 
 
“Hello, St. Anne’s Episcopal Church. Yes, I can tell you about our worship services.  Our traditional Sunday worship with communion begins at ten-thirty and lasts about an hour.”
 
“Shalom, Temple Emuna. Shabbat begins at 6:08 this week.”
 
Concentrate, I told myself. ­­Phone on the right is Temple Emuna; left is St. Anne’s.
 
It didn’t matter how busy I was. I simply couldn’t mix things up and answer the phone the wrong way. There were questions about kashrut and shiva as well as questions about baptism and Lent. It was hardest when congregants were in the office. Someone would be standing at my desk, and I’d be answering a question about Good Friday, and the phone would ring with a question about Passover.  I’d raised four children. I could do anything. It was just a matter of being organized. The right side of my desk had the Jewish work and the Jewish steno pad. The left had the Christian things.
 
Both phones were ringing at once.
 
“Hello, St. Anne’s. Please hold.”
 
“Shalom, Temple Emuna. Please hold.”
 
“Hello, St. Anne’s Episcopal Church. Thank you for holding. May I help you?”
 
I scribbled in shorthand on my steno pad.
 
“Yes. Let me explain the way we take communion at St. Anne’s. A group of parishioners gathers around the altar. When that group has taken communion, the next group gathers. It’s a circular altar so it all works smoothly. Thank you and I hope you have a blessed Easter.”
 
“Shalom, Temple Emuna. Thank you for holding. May I help you? Yes, the rabbi said that string beans are kosher for Passover. They’re actually a vegetable, not a bean, so they are allowed.”
 
I caught Rabbi Berkowitz’s smile as he walked past my desk, carrying a stack of rumpled papers. I didn’t tell him that his shoelaces were untied. I wasn’t being malicious when I warmly smiled back. There was a time when I would have rushed to say, “Oh, rabbi, tie your shoes. I don’t want you to trip,” but now I turned to the left and returned to my Christian typing, first making a note on my steno pad to buy more chocolate for my grandchildren for Easter.
 
An exciting experiment in interfaith relations. That’s the way The Boston Globe described St. Anne’s decision to share its space with Temple Emuna. The temple had been using rented space at Harvard, but now they wanted something more permanent. St. Anne’s had a large sanctuary and extra rooms that could be used as classrooms or offices. There were vestry meetings and prayer meetings and meetings with the congregation to discuss this partnership. The vote was unanimous. As our minister, Mr. Carr, so often said, “My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.”
 
 
We laughed together, Mr. Carr and I, as I reported on the flurry of phone calls I’d received complaining about ladies wearing pants to church. “There should be a policy. St. Anne’s is a house of God. Girls should not dress like men,” I mimicked an authoritative male caller’s know-it-all voice. Mr. Carr giggled like a schoolgirl, his bouncy cheeks dancing. Encouraged, I imitated an older woman’s gentle but firm voice. “I’m not sure if wearing pants sets the right tone.” My face was warm and flushed, enjoying Mr. Carr’s high-pitched giggles.
 
“You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people,” Mr. Carr stood up from his desk and preached in an exaggerated, theatrical way, making me lean closer to him, taking in the sweet aroma of his aftershave.
 
When he sat back down, I closed my shorthand notebook and got up from the chair in front of his desk, the heels of my pumps clicking on the office floor.
 
What would it be like to work for a rabbi? I’d never even met one. Would I know enough about Judaism to be helpful? Mr. Carr assured me the rabbi would teach me and help me, but still, there would be so much to learn. I was as devoted to Mr. Carr as if he were my husband. What would it be like sharing him with someone else?
 
I was twenty-three and a graduate of the Katharine Gibbs School when I first came to work for Mr. Carr, who was also new to the church. The former minister died after serving the church for many years, and his secretary retired. Mr. Carr ushered in a new era at St. Anne’s with me by his side, as we grew and learned together. I never stopped calling him Mr. Carr, and he never stopped calling me Mrs. Adams, even after all these years. He told me good morning before going into his office at nine o’clock, where he didn’t want to be disturbed until he organized his day. If someone wanted to speak with him before then, I said he wasn’t available, unless of course it was an emergency. I brought him coffee with just a touch of cream and two lumps of sugar at ten and again at noon.  Dictation was usually around three.
 
When I was pregnant with my first child, my husband Berkeley tried to persuade me to stop working and stay home and raise our child. I wanted to keep on working, though. I liked the hub of the office and looked forward to sitting with Mr. Carr, taking dictation from him. I felt like I was a vital part of the church, knowing its secrets, and knowing Mr. Carr’s secrets, too.
 
“They’ll think you have to work, that I don’t make enough money,” Berkeley grumbled.
 
“No one thinks that,” I replied, but wondered if they did. Then there was another child, and another, and another. I liked getting out of the house, away from the diapers and the cleaning. I worked from eight to three, walking through the Square to get home when my children came home from school. When my youngest son went to high school, I worked until four. That way, I still had time to get dinner on the table by six when Berkeley came home from work.
 
I was Mrs. Berkeley Adams.  I cooked and cleaned for my husband and was proud to have both a full-time job and a spotless home. Although I didn’t enjoy cooking, I was serious about it, looking up recipes in Good Housekeeping and writing down the ingredients to buy. “Make him a good dinner every night, and make sure you look nice,” my mother counseled. My daughter rolled her eyes when I tried to pass on this advice. Dust coated the furniture in her house. “Who has time for dusting?” she replied when I gently suggested that her husband deserved a clean home.
 
 
The rabbi’s hair was too long and I wished he’d shave his sideburns. He was scarcely older than my eldest son and dressed no better. Those awful bell-bottomed pants looked particularly inappropriate for a rabbi. At least Mr. Carr dressed respectably in a suit and tie.
 
The rabbi was so busy, I hardly had time to meet with him, but he always smiled boyishly when he passed my desk, rushing off to some meeting or another, his shirt often not tucked in.
 
Mostly, I just took his messages, writing them down on pink While You Were Out slips and returning phone calls with his answers. The church had converted a storage room to the right of my desk into the rabbi’s study. Mr. Carr’s study was to my left.
 
Rabbi Berkowitz didn’t dictate. He wrote letters on yellow lined paper and gave them to me to type.  I often wondered what it would be like to have that special time alone with him, taking dictation, writing down his words as they came out of his mouth.
 
Putting the temple stationery and a sheet of carbon paper in the typewriter, I quickly calculated the margins and began to type, reading from the yellow lined paper he put in my inbox. There was a temple meeting at three. Before it started, I had to call the Cambridge Answering Service so the phone would be covered while I was in the meeting.
 
I wasn’t quite used to these temple meetings. Mr. Carr always began meetings with prayer. Everyone closed their eyes and prayed that the meeting would be productive, that God’s presence would fill the room, and that the budget would be balanced. I loved that quiet time when I put down my pen and prayed for the church. God called me to St. Anne’s for a reason. He called me to Temple Emuna for a reason, too, but I wasn’t quite sure what it was. While I prepared the coffee, I stopped to quietly pray. I was a stranger and you welcomed me.
 
When Rabbi Berkowitz told me I could call him Harvey but not in front of the congregants, I’d almost answered the phone the wrong way, I’d been so shaken.
 
“Oh no, I want to call you ‘Rabbi’.”
 
“Then ‘Rabbi’ it will be,” he said gently. “It’s a mechaya to have you as my secretary. That means it’s a joy, a delight, almost like a blessing. Mechaya is a Yiddish word, Mrs. Adams. You know the word chai, life. Well, mechaya …”
 
Thank God the phone rang.
 
“Hello, St. Anne’s Episcopal Church.”
 
 
Then, he didn’t need me to make coffee for his ten o’clock meeting. “One less thing for you to worry about.” He smiled a bit too cheerfully before darting back into his office. When I asked about his sermon, he told me he was typing it himself.
 
“I’d be happy to type it for you, Rabbi,” I offered.

He looked at the wall.  

“Typing it myself helps me think about what I want to say.”

If only I could take dictation from him. Maybe he didn’t know I could keep up with him no matter how quickly he dictated, and that I could make sense of his thoughts even if he rambled. We’d go over his calendar together so I could make sure he was where he was supposed to be and had everything he needed. I could remind him in advance, not as he was flying out the door. If only he’d let me bring him coffee in the morning.

The younger generation was different. My sons washed dishes, cooked, and changed diapers. One of my daughters-in-law took an auto mechanics class and knew how to change a flat tire. Another daughter-in-law didn’t wear stockings to church and marched in protests in Harvard Square, her loud voice screaming above the others. She informed me that “office wife” was a derogatory term. Rabbi Berkowitz would probably agree with her. I wondered if he washed dishes and changed diapers.


“You don’t need to do that, Mrs. Adams.”

Six neatly stacked packets containing Bic stick pens, sheets of lined paper, agendas, and meeting minutes for the participants of his four o’clock meeting were spread out on my desk. The rabbi, who always smiled, was frowning when he came out of his office and saw them. “Just give out the agenda and the minutes. People can bring their own pens and paper to the meeting.”

I gripped the Bic pens as possessively as if they were Mr. Carr’s Waterman fountain pen.

“But they might need them.”

“Not necessary. You have other things to do.”

He looked at me with his gentle brown eyes and turned to run off wherever he was going. Since I didn’t keep his calendar, I didn’t know where that was. I only knew that he’d be back by three.

I shoved the pens back into the cardboard box, using more force than necessary. Then, instead of stacking the blank sheets of writing paper into a neat pile, I grabbed one and ripped it to shreds. I heard Mr. Carr stir in his office.

“Shalom, Temple Emuna,” my voice came out high and chirpy.

After two unsuccessful attempts at typing a simple letter, I took an early lunch break. I sat in the garden of Longfellow House, the former home of the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, annoyed by the bees swarming around me as I ate my tuna fish sandwich and apple. The lilacs and the daffodils were in full bloom, their scent tantalizing. I hoped the beauty of the garden would calm me, but those pens continued to dance in devilish circles in my head. I didn’t have to be bothered by the bees. I could go get ice cream at Bailey’s. That was my kind of place, solid and sturdy, but I’d have to walk past the drum circles in Harvard Square and smell the marijuana and God knows what else. I was too agitated for that.

I always make packets for our church meetings, I imagined myself confronting Rabbi Berkowitz. I’d speak in a strong, confident voice.

He’d blush and brush his wild hair out of his eyes. I’d look right at him in that assertive way my daughter-in-law said I should. He’d relent and say, Yes, of course, Mrs. Adams. The men would appreciate that. I was only trying to save you time.

Instead, I asked Berkeley that night at dinner if his secretary provided pens and paper for meetings.

“Do you think I pay attention to those kinds of things? I have a job to do, Margaret.” 

We ate the rest of our dinner in silence.
 
 
After I washed and dried the dishes and cleaned up the kitchen, I sat down in the living room and closed my eyes. The house was quiet except for the ticking of the grandfather clock in the hallway. It was such a familiar sound, I hardly heard it anymore but now it comforted me. Berkeley had fallen asleep on the back porch. I would rest only for a short time, but it was long enough to be smacked with the realization that I was acting like a toddler, stubbornly clinging to safety the way my two-year old grandson clung to his blanky. “Just try,” I had coaxed my daughter when she refused to go on the newly painted swing in the park, the one she used to love but now it was painted red instead of black. She held on to me for dear life and kicked her saddle shoes into my skirt. I tried to convince her it was the same swing she had always liked, but she was too frightened to listen.
 
Gibbs girls with shorthand speeds of a hundred and twenty-five words per minute didn’t whine and compare one boss with another. Gibbs girls didn’t say, “That’s the way we’ve always done it.” Gibbs girls were always professional and didn’t argue with their supervisors. Gibbs girls adjusted to new situations. Gibbs girls always supported their boss. Always.
 
Bic pens were just Bic pens, hardly worth a temper tantrum.
 
Sighing, I went back into the kitchen to get the The Joy of Cooking. Was it too hot to make pork chops for dinner tomorrow? That was Berkeley’s favorite dish.
 
 
August 1969 was an especially busy time. Mr. Carr had just come back from a week’s vacation on the Cape and was now preparing to attend the Special General Convention in South Bend, Indiana. He’d preached in support of Bishop Hines’s statement calling on the Episcopal Church to “take its place humbly and boldly alongside of, and in support of, the dispossessed and oppressed people of this country for the healing of our national life.” Personally, he didn’t support granting money to the Black Panthers, believing that Episcopalians should not support violence, but many of our congregants held different views. Voices were sometimes raised at coffee hour.

It was the month of Elul which Rabbi Berkowitz described as a special time of introspection and soul-searching before Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. In July, he joked, “You’ll see, Mrs. Adams. There won’t be a single paper on my desk by Erev Rosh Hashana.” We laughed cozily together. I liked this idea of a month of soul-searching and reading Psalm 27 twice a day. The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? What would it sound like in Hebrew? It was such a guttural language—not particularly pretty—but maybe it would sound nicer coming out of Rabbi Berkowitz’s mouth.

But in August, the rabbi came right up to my desk and told me in his earnest way, “During the month of Elul, we seek forgiveness from those we have hurt.” He looked directly into my eyes. “I am sorry for anything I have done to hurt you, Mrs. Adams.”

“You haven’t hurt me, Rabbi.”

“Well, just in case I have.”

With his boyish grin, he retreated into his office and closed the door, something he never did unless he was meeting with a congregant. His office was even messier than it had been a month ago. Now there were stacks of papers on the floor, too. He told me not to straighten them or dust his desk.

My fingers were hot on the typewriter. I got up from my desk and pointed the fan toward my face, but I still felt trickles of unladylike sweat trickle down my nose.

If only the phone would ring.


Nothing soothed like a good cup of tea, even on a hot summer evening. Lovingly, I took the teapot out of my china closet, taking a minute to caress its hand-painted flowers. I would pass my mother’s teapot down to my daughter, although my daughter used tea bags, not loose tea. Did she even know how to make a pot of loose tea, I wondered as I boiled water? The kitchen still smelled like corn on the cob and chicken. I poured the water into the teapot, cupping my hands around it to see if it was warm enough. Then I discarded the water and put a teaspoon of J Harney and Sons Earl Grey tea into the strainer. I poured fresh boiling water into the teapot, covered it with my mother’s lace tea cozy, and let the tea steep for exactly five minutes. The ritual comforted me.
 
I drank the tea on the back porch while my husband watched The Nightly News. Early in my marriage, I shooed Berkeley out of the kitchen when he awkwardly hovered over me, dish towel in hand. It was easier to do everything myself, and besides, I cherished my quiet time.
 
The tall, leafy trees in the yard swayed, giving shade to the stately homes on our street. Birds sang their evening songs. In the distance, I could see the Episcopal seminary on Brattle Street where Mr. Carr studied.
 
The rabbi did like me, I told myself. I glowed when he told me how professionally I represented the temple. I blushed when he told me his congregants loved me; they said I was so helpful and kind. There was such sweetness in his face. “Oh,” I babbled. “Thank you. Thank you very much.”

He was young and trying to lead a growing congregation. He didn’t want someone to make sure he ate lunch. Maybe I was still a mechaya to him, but an irritating mechaya. Was there a Yiddish word for that?

My tea was starting to get cold. I could hear Berkeley turn off the Nightly News.

All it took was a walk in Harvard Square to see that things were not the same anymore. Long-haired protesters screamed “Stop the War.” So many boys dying in Vietnam. The Cambridge Common reeked of marijuana. Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem wrote books suggesting I wasn’t fulfilled. Holocaust survivors with numbers etched on their arms prayed in the sanctuary of Temple Emuna in our Harvard Square church.

The leaves on the trees would soon be aglow in orange and red. The students would be back, freshmen with their anxious parents, knowing it was time to let their children start their new lives. Winter would come with its cold winds, followed by spring flowers and the heat of summer. That much would always stay the same. Other things would have to change. Even cherished things. That was the way it was.

Tomorrow, I’d dust Mr. Carr’s phone and straighten his desk the way I always did, but I wouldn’t go into Rabbi Berkowitz’s office at all, not even to secretly snicker at the growing piles of paper on the floor. If the Book of Common Prayer could be revised and a new hymnal could be approved, then certainly I could find the strength to accept change. I smiled to myself, remembering the way the elders of the church had grumbled about the changes to the Book of Common Prayer and the pastoral way Mr. Carr had calmed them. What would these long-dead gentlemen have to say about the hippies in Harvard Square?

To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven


At nine-thirty the next morning, Rabbi Berkowitz came over to my desk, flashed that smile I loved, and told me good morning. He wasn’t fidgeting or rushing; he was calm and gentle, making my heart swell. Maybe we would find a way to work well with each other.
 
However, at four o’clock, he cleared everything off his desk to search for the stack of While You Were Out messages he had lost. At first, I bit my lips to keep myself from offering to help, but after twenty minutes of listening to his frantic thrashing, I did ask him. I only wish I hadn’t blushed when he thanked me for finding those pink message slips. He blushed too, in sweet, boyish embarrassment.  For an electrifying moment, his soft hand brushed against mine.
 
“I’ll help you put everything back,” I blurted out, immediately regretting it.
 
“No need,” his face hardened, “but thank you, Mrs. Adams.” 

Instead of going directly home to make Berkeley dinner, I stopped to look at a circle of college girls with flowers in their hair and unflattering, loose fitting dresses, singing and dancing. How out of place I looked with my pale blue suit, stockings, and heels! One of the girls laughed as she took my hand, and the next thing I knew, I was dancing with them, whirling in the hot summer air, free in a way I’d never been before, round and round, singing even though I didn’t know the words.

         

 

Copyright © Penny Kohn 2019

Penny Kohn worked for many years at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA. An active member of Minyan Shaleym, she currently teaches a Kindergarten/First grade class at Temple Beth Zion and teaches creative writing and also puppetry to children in the Brookline, MA schools. She has audited many classes at the Solstice Low-Residency Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program at Pine Manor College and has studied at Grub Street in Boston.  She has published in Shark Reef Literary Magazine. This story was inspired by “My House Shall be a House of Prayer for All,” in Moment Magazine, December 2005.



 

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