Wednesday, November 28, 2007

For one brief shining moment. . . .

President John F. Kennedy was assassinated 44 years ago on November 22, 1963 (6 Kislev 5724). For those old enough to remember, and I was eleven years old at the time, the day conjures up powerful emotions. It was a loss of innocence; such things were supposed to happen in rinkydink banana republics but not in America. The grief was indescribable; grown men cried openly, in the street (to be sure, our Tanakh is chock full of men crying, but it violates a strong Anglo-Saxon taboo). We know exactly where we were and what we were doing when we got the news. I was in my sixth-grade classroom checking my Think-and-Do Book (the reading workbook just about every kid in America used in the 1950s and early ‘60s) when Rabbi Harry Halpern, headmaster of East Midwood Day School, walked into the classroom and announced that President Kennedy was in the hospital in critical condition following an assassination attempt. Dispensing with the loudspeaker system, he made the same announcement personally to every class in the school. Rabbi Halpern left the class in pandemonium. The teacher tried to get us back to the Think-and-Do Book but nobody was thinking; we were just doing by rote. I was crying so badly that the teacher had to send me out of the room. Soon the bell rang and we went downstairs to the art room. On the way we saw Rabbi Halpern again, and he said simply, “It’s all over.” It was Friday, so we came home and made a gloomy Shabbat. On Monday school was closed and we watched the state funeral on our black-and-white twelve-channel TV.
Somehow we and the country carried on, and perhaps it was inevitable that revisionist history would debunk the legend that had grown up around President Kennedy when he was still alive, but I remember him as a truly great President, the like of which is rarely seen. For one thing, he was young, in a country that had been led by old fuddy-duddies for decades. He had two little children, and we thrilled to little John-John toddling around in the oval office. The touch football games with his brother Robert on the White House lawn also struck a chord in us. He wanted every American child to have one period a day of physical activity in school; today kids are lucky to get one period a week. If we had followed his advice we would not have fat little kids with Type 2 diabetes today.
We were engaged at the time in the Cold War with Soviet Communism, and the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev thought the young new President would be a pushover. He tested President Kennedy in Berlin, giving him an ultimatum to evacuate West Berlin, an island of freedom surrounded by Communist East Germany and a thorn in the Soviets’ side. Kennedy did not back down, and the Communists built the infamous Berlin Wall to keep their miserable people from escaping to freedom. The President would be tested again in the fall of 1962, when Khrushchev stationed offensive nuclear missiles in Communist Cuba, ninety miles from home. Kennedy faced the Russians down, guiding us to the brink of nuclear war and back. Khrushchev blinked and withdrew the missiles. Perhaps not surprisingly, Khrushchev acquired some respect for our young and vigorous leader, and the following summer he and Kennedy negotiated a limited nuclear test ban treaty, which banned nuclear tests in the atmosphere that up to then had been spewing carcinogenic strontium-90 and other radioactive poisons into the air.
The President was helped in his conduct of foreign policy by a patriotic spirit rarely seen nowadays. America was right and good, Communism was evil, and Communists were the enemy. Opinion leaders and the entertainment industry were not actively engaged in tearing America down like they are today, when we are similarly engaged in a titanic struggle with an implacable enemy totally committed to destroying us.
Before he became Presient, Kennedy wrote a book, Profiles in Courage, that should be required reading in any American history course. In it, he profiles several political figures who went against their constituents’ wishes to do what they believed was right, even though they stood to suffer politically for it. For instance, Texan patriot Sam Houston refused to take the oath of allegiance to the Confederacy when Texas seceded from the union. As President, he became a remarkable profile in courage himself. His greatest act of courage was on the domestic front. As difficult as it is (thanks to him) to believe these days, the American South at the time was essentially an apartheid country. American citizens with dark skin could not attend the same schools, be served in the same restaurants, even drink from the same water fountains as white Americans. President Kennedy ordered federal troops to carry out the court-ordered integration of the all-white Universities of Mississippi and Alabama. Following on that, he sent to Congress the most sweeping civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. He was taking the country where it was not yet ready to go, and the South reacted violently. The legislation in fact was not passed until after his death, but today it is hard to believe that Jim Crow, as apartheid in America was called, ever existed.
Due to his youth and vigor, President Kennedy was something of a father figure to Americans (pater patriae). And every year on November 22 I feel like I have yahrzeit.
Of course there is no halakhic significance to the day, but my mood is one of aveilut. I say extra Tehilim, avoid entertainment and listen only to appropriately themed music such as Leonard Bernstein’s Kaddish Symphony (which was completed on the afternoon of November 22, 1963 as the news broke). Tears still come, but being a dyed-in-the-wool American male I suppress them. Devout Christians facing a difficult decision often ask themselves, “What would Jesus do?” When I have to take a political position or perform a task requiring moral courage, I ask myself what JFK would do. I have little doubt that he would persevere and see our struggle to stay free through to victory.

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2 Comments:

Blogger droberdeau said...

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President Kennedy "Men of Courage: Four Principles" speech, JFK assassination research links, and my witnesses interviews, contributions, and my discoveries for your considerations.....

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Thu Nov 29, 01:28:00 PM EST  
Blogger Neandershort said...

Because someone took it on himself to murder Lee Harvey Oswald before he could be brought to trial, we will never have the closure that we would have if we knew the truth. What were his motives? Who, if any, were his acconmplices? Who if anybody put him up to it? If we ever have to martial arguments against vigilanteism, this is the most powerful one I can think of.

Tue Dec 04, 12:50:00 AM EST  

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