The twenty-second of November, 1963 was, as traditional Jews say, a "short Friday." At Rambam Torah Institute, the Orthodox day school on West Pico Boulevard at which I was a ninth-grade student, the day's teaching schedule had been compressed accordingly. Around 11:20 a.m., as a bell signaled our dismissal from morning Hebrew studies, a pair of students came bursting across the playground, yelling for all the world to hear, "Kennedy's shot! Kennedy's shot!"
Fifty years? Doesn’t seem possible, but there you are: “Ask not…” Ich bin ein Berliner…. “You can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you, Mr. President.” Like Pearl Harbor little more than 20 years earlier, the JFK assassination is what separates generations: “Where were you…?”
I was growing up in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, then as now a largely Jewish enclave amidst the City of Angels, In late October, my extended family had gathered to celebrate my Bar Mitzvah. The Biblical Hebrew text I intoned from the bima that Shabbat morning might have been spoken by the Lord to Abram, but doubtless applied to the benevolent superpower within whose peaceful shores we dwelt: “And I shall make of thee a great nation, and I shall bless thee, and make thy name great…”
Like all good Jewish youngsters an avid baseball fan, I mailed a Bar Mitzvah invitation to L.A. Dodgers uber-hurler Sandy Koufax, fresh from leading his band of Chavez Ravine brothers to a four-game World Series sweep of the hated Yankees. Though the future Hall of Famer never showed, I did receive a (mechanically) autographed picture-postcard – “Best Wishes, Sandy Koufax” – that seemed to add a proud exclamation point to the occasion.
Then, almost before we knew it, the wrenching news from Texas that Black Friday – the real one – abruptly imbued everything that had come before with a trivial, through-the-looking-glass quality. I vividly recall picking listlessly at my brown-bagged sandwich in the school lunchroom that midday, as teachers and students alike anxiously awaited word of the President’s condition. Presently, an 11th-grade student walked by, clutching a small white transistor radio. As he passed, I caught a tinny burst of instrumental music, the mind-ingrained melody an instant punch to the gut: And the rockets’ red glare…
Young as we were, horrifying as the day’s events were, we were fortunate at least in that our traditional Jewish upbringing afforded us a sort of emotional safety net. For this was not only Friday, but also Erev Shabbat – Sabbath eve. That afternoon, even as I watched the bizarre black-and-white images flickering across our antiquated household television screen – a Stetson-wearing Dallas police detective holding aloft a bolt-action rifle, JFK’s casket arriving at Andrews Air Force Base, a somber Lyndon Johnson addressing the nation for the first time as President – I took instinctive comfort in the familiar rituals of the approaching Sabbath: the aroma of freshly baked challah, a pot of soup simmering on the kitchen stove, even the smell of fresh polish on a pair of dress shoes.
Before long, it was time to stroll to our local synagogue for Friday evening services. KENNEDY DEAD, screamed the Preview editions of Saturday’s L.A. Times sitting in the news-racks at Pico and Robertson. At shul, before making Kiddush, the rabbi broke precedent and spoke, lauding JFK and his support of Israel.
Following our own Kiddush and Sabbath dinner at home, it was time for Birkhat ha-Mazon, the Grace After Meals. By tradition, the after-meal blessings are preceded on the Sabbath and Festivals by recitation of the 126th chapter of the Book of Psalms. This is one in a series that carries the introductory designation Shir ha-Ma’alot – a song of degrees, or ascents.
“Those who sow with tears,” we sang in Hebrew, “in glad song shall they reap.” As our voices rose, the ancient words seemed to take on powerful new resonance. One Shabbat would soon follow another, we realized, and a few weeks hence our homes would be filled with the reassuring glow of Chanukah candles. However strange and unpredictable things seemed on this new side of time, life would go on; the nation would recover. We would ascend from our grief; we would once again sing with joy.
Twenty-six hundred Sabbaths later, the torch has once again been passed to a new generation, one with no direct memory of the Kennedy presidency, Yet, JFK’s life and legacy – his all-too-human shortcomings notwithstanding – continue to resonate in our national life, and to inspire millions more around the globe. The ner tamid – the eternal flame of Jewish tradition – burns brighter than ever, even as JFK’s eternal flame at Arlington challenges us to ever strive for greatness.
May his memory be for a blessing. May we sing with joy, always.
Lewis Van Gelder