50 years ago today President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. November 22, 1963 was a Friday. Those of us who remember share a sad cultural reflection. We can all think back to where we were and what we were doing.
I was sitting in my 2nd grade classroom with friends when the janitor rushed down the hall, poked his head into our room and tersely told our teacher, “The President has been shot.” Our teacher turned visibly angry and screamed, “Why would you make up such a terrible thing?” Two minutes later we heard our school principal’s voice over the loudspeaker. He told us our parents were coming to bring us home, school was closing early so everyone could be with their families.
From my vantage point today, I wish I had access to the words spoken in synagogues that Friday night or Shabbat morning in 1963. Though I remember where I was when the news broke, I don’t remember what my parents said when they came home from synagogue where they went to be with their friends and community on that very somber Friday night. I can only imagine the mood, the despair, and the grieving crowd. I wonder how, back then, the inexplicable in human affairs was explained? What wisdom from that national tragedy, if any, has stayed with us for all that we have experienced since?
So on this anniversary, here’s a different memory from the ones being shared in the media this week. In Israel, Shabbat had already begun when President Kennedy died. For the first time in its history, The Jerusalem Post published on Shabbat. David Ben-Gurion heard the news on the radio. He is quoted as having asked, “Where were his security forces? He was a brave man, sensible, and so young.”
Youth was a political asset in President Kennedy’s mind. During his campaign for the presidency he remarked to a Zionist group, “The Jewish people, ever since David slew Goliath, have never considered youth as a barrier to leadership.” A generation lost its youthful spirit 50 years ago. Even so, Jewish tradition reminds us. “Honor in old age does not come from length of life. Honor in old age does not come from length of years. Understanding is the gray hair of humanity.” Aging as we all are, we’re still trying to understand such horrible events when they occur.
President Kennedy’s assassination remains a searing memory, foundational to so much that became America over the next 38 years. I say 38 because September 11, 2001 marks the tenor of the past 12 years and either supplants or joins the two Kennedy and Dr. King assassinations as the searing, foundational memory for this generation.
On November 4, 1963, President John F. Kennedy issued his annual Thanksgiving Proclamation. In it he declared, “Today we give our thanks, most of all, for the ideals of honor and faith we inherit from our forefathers- for the decency of purpose, steadfastness of resolve and strength of will, for the courage and the humility, which they possessed and which we must seek every day to emulate. As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them.”