My mother made us go to religious services every Saturday morning.
When I was 6 or 7, we would walk or bicycle to the synagogue on the Army base, sing songs for an abbreviated service, and then repair to the sweet grape juice and amazing chocolate chip cookies afterward. It took maybe 30 minutes from beginning to end.
But once we moved to St. Louis, we had to dress up and go to Richmond Heights, about a half hour away, then sit for two and a half hours in a dimly lighted sanctuary while the rabbi and the cantor droned on and on, the same prayers over and over again. The congregation sounded like dying sheep, singing the lines of prayer as if they could scarcely get to their next breath. And the cantor … He would repeat each word of a prayer, then go back and repeat the whole phrase, then just when you thought he had finally, finally reached the end of the prayer, he would go back and sing it from the beginning. I wanted to scream or strangle him. No wonder it took two and a half hours to get through the service! Without him, we’d be out of there in an hour, tops.
Then came the sermon. Oy, the sermon. The rabbi would carry on for 20 or 30 minutes about something unintelligible. I think it was a postage stamp one time. Often he would skip around from subject to subject. I had a hard time finding the common thread. I guess it got hard to come up with new material after a while.
After the sermon would come the closing prayers, which came the closest to anything fun. Inevitably, some older guy would come around, gather up anyone below the age of 20 and ask them to come up front and lead the last song. This was kind of cute if you were below the age of 8. It was considerably less endearing for viewer and child if you were older, especially if you were gawky and fashion-impaired with a face full of acne.
The only good part about services was the reception afterward, where they served all kinds of baked goods, including wonderful fudge-frosted brownies that boded ill for my teen-age figure.
Waking up early for services was the final insult. None of us four kids wanted to go, but after a few years, we gave up on our moaning and groaning and just dressed and ate breakfast in resigned silence.
One morning, though, Oct. 8, 1977, we kicked up a fuss. We were off to a late start. It was already 10:30. We wouldn’t arrive until 11 at the earliest. It hardly seemed worth the effort. The days were getting shorter and cooler. We were tired and cranky. For once, we four pitched a fit. And for once, my mother considered, then said, “I guess we don’t have to go this week.”
We hardly dared speak. Victory!
My mother’s idea of Sabbath was to sit quietly in the living room reading the Bible or talking. To four preteens, Sabbath was the kiss of death to one’s social life. But anything was better than services. I don’t even remember what we did that morning.
But soon the startling news reached us.
“There was a shooting today at BSKI.”
BSKI was Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel, our synagogue.
What? Nothing of note ever happened at synagogue. The details began trickling out, each more outlandish than the next.
The shooter had been in a tree, lying in wait. He fired on people as they left a bar mitzvah. He killed Gerald Gordon, then 42, a father of three, and wounded Steven Goldman and William Ash. It was scary. It was bizarre.
Even weirder, he had picked Brith Sholom out of the Yellow Pages. He didn’t even know the place. He later admitted shooting some 18 or 20 other people, including Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt in 1978 and civil rights leader Vernon Jordan in 1980. Apparently, the shooter hated African Americans and Jews.
Joseph Paul Franklin was executed Wednesday, 36 years after he shot people leaving my synagogue.
Sometimes you wonder why you weren’t in a certain place at a certain time when you were supposed to be there. Is it fate? Something random? A higher power? I don’t know.
All I know is that I’m thankful I wasn’t there.
Laura Malt Schneiderman is a Web content producer for Post-gazette.com (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1923).