This is a fictionalized account of an historical event that took place in Detroit in 1964.
Gates of Righteousness, that’s what the synagogue’s name meant. Shaarey Zedek’s soaring peak hovered over the highway like a spaceship about to land when the prominent Jewish congregation relocated from the inner city to the suburbs. Many mocked the ostentatious design and predictably my Uncle Si defended the new edifice, while my father, who attended the modest Temple B’nai David, sided with the detractors. “Controversy has been part of Jewish life since biblical times? It’s a tempest in a tea pot,” Uncle Si told my dad. Their clashes went almost as far back as the Talmudic disputations. In my mother’s eyes her older brother, my father’s chief adversary was the ultimate authority on every subject. A bachelor well into his thirties, Si had supported his widowed mother and six siblings. He’d finally married Lily, a beautiful widow with two children to me as exotic as a gypsy with her long dark hair and olive skin. Together they’d moved up in the world. He specialized in immigration law while she ran a successful children’s clothing store.
My mother dangled Si and his wife Lily before us as glittery icons to be copied. When she tried out Lily’s recipes, my father rejected the spicy food, insisting that he preferred a plain piece of broiled meat. Since they were both lawyers, Si always seemed to be peering over my Dad’s shoulder, scrutinizing everything from his legal practice to his child rearing methods. My father then felt compelled to point out flaws in the perfect picture and his campaign to tarnish Si and Lily’s halo tore at my loyalties.
Attending Sabbath services with my aunt and uncle during a weekend home from college wasn’t my preferred activity but guilt had put me there. My mother was flattened by depression, a black storm that hit her every few years. Her younger sister was suffering in the final stages of cancer so as her surrogate I would accompany my uncle on a deathbed visit. On that dreary February day, Shabbos came first. Seated in the grand synagogue, I surveyed the crowd gathered to celebrate a Bar Mitzvah. Their stylish hats and jewelry made me feel out of place in my baggy sweater. Their charismatic leader, Rabbi Bernard Balm, looked pompous and intimidating in his black- robe and crown-like skull cap. Despite the ultra-modern synagogue and his Americanized flock, he warned against the dangers of assimilation and the loss of Jewish identity. He’d made a special effort to reach disaffected youth, and since he was my Uncle’s buddy, I was expected to be properly cowed in his presence. Yet their generation seemed smug and complacent, and religion quite irrelevant to my life. If Rabbi Balm’s modern-day medieval cathedral was meant to lure me back into the fold, it hadn’t worked.
I couldn’t have been more than five when Uncle Si appeared at my bedroom door after I’d been tucked in. With a flourish he twirled a hanger that displayed my new spring coat–a cream colored fabric covered by fine green checks. Thrilled, I knew this special garment would turn me into a stunning princess. Yet, my father disapproved– why all the fanfare over a simple coat? A few months later, Uncle Si brought me a red-haired hamster and everything came undone. The furry creature hid under the bed, and my normally calm father drew a line. Si must take back the hamster–that dirty animal wasn’t going to live in our house. Despite my tears, my dad stood his ground–one small victory in their long rivalry.
Nevertheless, I loved Si and Lily’s lakeside house with its ample grounds, bursting rose garden, and cuddly, golden terrier. Unlike my parents, they were vigorous, outdoorsy types who were studiously grooming their acreage. To their suburban Jewish friends, they probably seemed as unconventional as rural hippies. As I matured, I began to notice their art collection. A series of framed Diego Rivera prints, a personal gift from the artist, graced their walls. Uncle Si had helped Rivera with some immigration problems when he painted his auto industry frescoes at Detroit’s Art Institute. Those infamous murals with their naked figures and unapologetic images of birth and death had incited a storm of protest. Many in our hometown had called for their removal, but Edsel Ford intervened, and they survived, unlike Rivera’s New York Rockefeller Center murals which were whitewashed.
During the Bar Mitzvah boy’s Torah reading that Saturday, I nearly dozed off. Had kids been that little when I’d danced at lavish Bar Mitzvah parties, blissfully oblivious to the adults. Uncle Si nudged me as Rabbi Balm approached the podium. I listened to his sermon about Honest Abe Lincoln, comparing him to the recently slain president Kennedy. Lincoln’s life, like Kennedy’s, had been snuffed out too soon, he said. In my English-major-superiority, I silently critiqued the speech. Wasn’t that analogy a worn-out cliché by now? Then, drawing a parallel between the divided Jewish community and America during the Civil War, the rabbi ended with gusto, comparing Lincoln’s hour of bitter decision to the current crossroads in Detroit’s Jewish community. Give me a break, I thought, what crisis is he talking about? The civil war is in Vietnam, not Detroit.
As he appealed for healing and brotherhood, I hid my disapproval, for Uncle Si’s sake. Our family sorrows had caused him so much strain–he’d lost two sisters to cancer; now a third was dying and my own mother was cursed with chronic depression. Since Si was the only functional member of Mother’s clan, his stability made me more forgiving about his quarrels with my father as well as his unsuccessful attempt to steer me away from my last boyfriend. As the Sabbath service drew to a close, people began shifting in their seats, eager for the final Kiddush, the Mourner’s Prayer, and the closing Adon Alom. Even a recalcitrant believer like me could belt those words by heart. In a few moments, we’d be wishing one another: “Good Shabbos,” and toasting the Bar Mitzvah boy. He might be a total stranger to me, but his family would be footing the bill for rugalach, sponge cake, and wine.
Suddenly, a young man rushed toward the altar and I recognized the nerdy brilliant guy who’d gone to my own high school, but his name escaped me. Thin and gawky behind prominent spectacles, he was the stereotyped image of the bookish, scholar. Only months earlier I’d heard him speak at a teach-in on Vietnam. With thousands of other students, I’d listened to talks on colonial history and U.S. foreign policy. Ho Chi Minh, we learned, was the George Washington of his country, opposed to the corrupt South Vietnamese puppet government supported by the U.S. That day I hardly noticed my former schoolmate, indifferent as I was to brainy guys with no sex appeal. Now this same fellow was facing the rabbi. He raised his right hand and a gunshot resounded into the high ceiling of the sanctuary. The shocking blast rendered the crowd silent. School shootings and attacks on houses of worship were unheard of in 1964. Taking control, the shooter ordered the Bar Mitzvah boy, two cantors and the synagogue president off the stage. When they hesitated, the rabbi urged them to obey. “This boy is sick,” I heard him say. As the assailant proceeded toward the pulpit, someone tried to grab him but the rabbi intervened, “Go back down,” he said. “I know him.”
“I know him, too.” I whispered to Uncle Si who shushed me. As if we’d been immobilized by teargas, we sat paralyzed as the intruder grabbed the microphone and began reading from a crumpled piece of paper. Since his voice seemed so calm and controlled, the collective impulse was to let him have his say.
“This congregation is a travesty and an abomination. It has made a mockery of Judaism. I am ashamed to say I am a Jew. You care for nothing except your vain, egotistical selves. With this act, I protest a humanly horrifying situation.”
On Vietnam, he ‘d sounded so rational, and yet this act was clearly insane–obviously he’d gone off the deep end. With his captive audience of seven hundred watching, he proceeded as if he were following a prepared script. Again, he fired into the air–this time the rabbi moved toward him. Then at point blank range, he unloaded his gun into the rabbi’s chest. As he collapsed, the congregation’s screams became deafening. In the chaos we hardly noticed when the attacker turned the weapon on himself. As he stumbled and fell, some worshippers rushed forward, but I remained frozen, my arm on Aunt Lily’s. Uncle Si moved toward the rabbi who was surrounded by other helpers. Amid the tumult, I could hear the rabbi’s wife trying to comfort two people, apparently the shooter’s parents, “It’s not your fault,” she assured them.
Each wounded man was rushed away. After some confused milling about we were urged to leave the synagogue. Reluctant to go, Uncle Si seemed utterly dazed as we headed past the white-covered tables set with platters of cake and goblets of wine. I offered to drive, and in an uncharacteristic surrender of control, he let me take the wheel. We didn’t make it to the hospital to visit my dying aunt that day. Back in their cozy living room as we tried to recover, I couldn’t silence my own questions: Had the young man been fighting the rabbi for long? Did people know he was disturbed? Was there no warning?
“I feel so sorry for his parents, those poor souls. What did they do to deserve this?” Lily murmured.
“He was a very sick boy and the rabbi tried to help him,” was all my uncle could manage.
I objected, trying to make sense of what I’d seen, “He’s an anti-war leader. How could he be so sick?”
As the story unfolded, I learned about the attacker’s psychiatric history. He’d been hospitalized and seen by several therapists, but he’d resisted treatment. Papers in his room revealed his plan to assassinate Secretary of Defense McNamara in retribution for the innocent Vietnamese victims. His desperate note pleaded: “Listen to my voice, you deaf ones. Listen to how sick, sad, lonely, and forlorn it is.” His relatives hadn’t considered him threatening; he was just another dissident youth frustrated over his inability to change the world. Maybe a bit overzealous about Vietnam, but no one considered him dangerous. He died from his self-inflicted wounds, and despite heroic efforts to save his life, Rabbi Balm succumbed a month later. In retrospect, the killer was cast as a tragic aberration; a promising, gifted student gone berserk. I never heard what became of the boy whose Bar Mitzvah was celebrated that terrible day.
As disturbed as the gunman may have been, formulations of his message were bursting out everywhere. Abbie Hoffman would soon make the slogan: “Kill Your Parents,” a common refrain. To my cohorts, the rabbi’s generation had everything wrong, and metaphorically at least, they must be annihilated. From Alan Ginsburg to Bob Dylan to psychiatrist R.D. Laing the incantation that society itself was sick reverberated. Could craziness be disentangled from politics? I wondered. The rabbi’s murderer might have been deranged, but wasn’t it a matter of degree? The killer’s convictions were at war with the rabbi’s just as ideas about communism’s evils were wreaking death in Vietnam. Those youthful musings led me to wonder if my mother’s clinical depression could be more than personal pathology. Was her illness a symptom of unconscious rage over all the ways she’d been silenced and repressed as a woman? Though I never expressed these thoughts to Si and Lily, Rabbi Balm’s murder blasted open the vault of secrecy surrounding mental illness in my family. From then on, I couldn’t stop asking such questions.
Twenty years later when my father died of prostate cancer, I was surprised to find that
the cemetery plot that Uncle Si had arranged was directly across from the impressive granite memorial that marked Rabbi Balm’s grave. Despite their differences, Si had made sure that my father would rest in good company. A week after his funeral on a hot August day, Uncle Si and I cleaned out my father’s office. I moved fast, filling cartons efficiently so I would be too busy to dwell on my memories of days spent visiting my dad’s office, watching how work transported him to a world far from my mother’s troubles. Si had insisted that we keep the many boxes of files and store them in his garage.
“You never know when an old client might appear in need of some documents,” he warned. Exhausted, we sipped Lily’s tea, but I was impatient to be finished and fly back to my own life on the east coast.
“I really appreciate all that you’ve done for us,” I told them.
“Don’t even mention it, “Si gestured as if to sweep away the emotion in my voice. Then changing the subject, he added. “I wish that you lived closer so YOU could store all those papers. They take up too much room.”
“Now we must find a home for your mother,” Lily sighed. Even with her white hair, she
still looked exotically beautiful. “That’s not going to be easy.”
Though I’d offered to help from my own home a thousand miles away, Lily and Si
managed without me. First, they organized an estate sale for my parents’ apartment–then they relocated my mother to a Jewish Home for the elderly.
On my next visit, I went alone to my father’s grave. Just days earlier, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had been assassinated by a right-wing religious fanatic. Walking past Rabbi Balm’s stone monument, I paused and thought about the two martyrs. The similarity of their respective murders, both by Jewish zealots made me wonder again about the hazy line between insanity and acts of conviction. Could political assassination ever be a rational choice? Should all terrorist violence be considered crazy? When I stopped to see Lily and Si, they both seemed so frail that I wondered if we’d have another visit. Despite our cheerful conversation, we couldn’t avoid speaking about the murder in Israel.
“Never before has a Jewish leader been killed by one of our own.” Uncle Si shook his head.
“What about Rabbi Balm?” As I uttered the question, I girded myself for one of his lawyerly debates but Si paused as if I’d stumped him; then his face crumpled as he remembered.
“I suppose you’re right,” he said. His ready acceptance of my challenge stunned me. Was this my uncle, the man with an argument ready for every occasion? I suppose it was less painful to have forgotten the disturbed young man who’d murdered his friend. With my father dead and buried we had no family rivalries to settle; now that I was middle-aged and Si close to ninety, our generational battles were over. Yet a part of me missed his old righteous fire.
Judith Cohen’s novel, Seasons (The Permanent Press of Sag Harbor, New York), was first published in German translation by Rowohlt of Hamburg as part of their international New Woman Series and has been reissued as an eBook. Her short fiction has appeared in The North American Review, New Letters, High Plains Literary Review, Sojourner, and other journals. Her new story collection Never Be Normal (2021) is available from Atmosphere Press. Her reviews and articles have appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, The Dallas-Times Herald, The Boston Herald, The Boston Review, and The Women’s Review of Books. She’s had residency grants to Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, Yaddo, MacDowell and other artist’s colonies. She’s taught at Harvard University and Lesley University in Cambridge, M, and is now a yoga teacher.