In Memoriam: John F. Kennedy
Last Thursday – Thanksgiving – was the 49th anniversary of the assassination of our thirty-fifth President, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. We were invited by our mehutanim (in-laws) for Thanksgiving dinner. Somehow it just didn’t feel right to sit down to a feast on November 22; I always feel like an avel (mourner) on that day. Why can’t Thanksgiving be postponed one week to November 29, the fifth Thursday in November, when the fourth Thursday is November 22? I wasn’t able to run the Thanksgiving Turkey Trot in Prospect Park; when Thanksgiving coincides with this terrible anniversary I run it with a special custom-made shirt, then repair to the monument at Grand Army Plaza to recite tehilim (psalms) and leave my race number, suitably inscribed. As it turned out, if I’d known that “be here at 2:00” meant Jewish time, I would have been able to run the race. It took this alteration of my routine to show me just how much doing that run meant to me; the depression that comes over me every year on November 22 took much longer than usual to lift this year, despite thoroughly enjoying the company of my in-laws.
During JFK’s campaign to secure the Democratic nomination in 1960, much was made of the fact that he was a Roman Catholic. Supposedly, if he were to be elected, American policy would be made in the Vatican and not the White House, c.f. the oft-repeated concern of Irish Protestants that “home rule means Rome rule.” This is what John F. Kennedy had to say about such concerns when he accepted his party’s nomination:
I am fully aware of the fact that the Democratic Party, by nominating someone of my faith, has taken on what many regard as a new and hazardous risk new, at least since 1928. The Democratic Party has once again placed its confidence in the American people, and in their ability to render a free and fair judgment and in my ability to render a free and fair judgment.
To uphold the Constitution and my oath of office, to reject any kind of religious pressure or obligation that might directly or indirectly interfere with my conduct of the Presidency in the national interest. My record of fourteen years in supporting public education, supporting complete separation of Church and State and resisting pressure from sources of any kind should be clear by now to everyone.
I hope that no American, considering the really critical issues facing this country, will waste his franchise and throw away his vote by voting either for me or against me because of my religious affiliation. It is not relevant. I am telling you what you are entitled to know: As I come before you seeking your support for the most powerful office in the free world, I am saying to you that my decisions on every public policy will be my own, as an American, as a Democrat, and as a free man.
The President-to-be must have had a terrific speechwriter. Nothing could have been clearer. I first heard it shortly after the assassination, and it still rings in my ears, as does his Inaugural Address. Contrast this ringing affirmation of American ideals and his own political independence with what I heard sometime in the 1980s from that professional hater and perennial candidate for local public office, Rabbi Yehuda Levin. During one of his campaigns, asking for the votes of the Orthodox community, he stated that he was a shaliah (messenger) of gedolim (prominent rabbis) and, if elected, would do their bidding. He said that he was looking for someone to say alai kilelatkha b’ni (see Gen. 27:13), to take the blame if he, Yehuda Levin, messed up. The battle lines could hardly be more starkly drawn: a man with wide shoulders willing to take responsibility for his acts in office, and some of them were less than creditable (the Bay of Pigs invasion comes to mind), versus an errand boy for old greybeards. And ever since, campaigns by Orthodox candidates for public office consist mainly of contests to garner the most haredi Rabbinical endorsements and pabulum about “sharing our values.”
Some sort of yeridat ha-dorot (generational decline) seems to be at play here. In those days there were giants on the earth (see Gen. 6:4). Now we have nothing but pygmies. Heaven help us all.