In appreciative memory of JFK

Fifty years after John F. Kennedy won the US presidency, a very personal tribute to ‘a good man’ who ‘loved Israel very much.’

By DAVID GEFFEN
October 27, 2010 23:20
JFK

John F. Kennedy. (photo credit: National Park Service/National Archives)

 
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"And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”

Those words of JFK, which still resonate with us, I first heard at a dormitory of the Yale Law School where I had gone on Inauguration Day 1961 to visit several old friends. One was George Lefcoe of Miami, Florida, who is now an authority in the field of real estate.

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Lefcoe and three of his fellow students, whom I also knew, were sitting in his room when JFK began to speak on January 22, 1961. It seemed that we were all mesmerized. Lefcoe did not hesitate for a moment: “David, how lucky we are to be living at this time in American history. JFK will lead us in a direction which we never thought possible. He has experienced war, survived a major injury and grown to be a statesman. Keep your eyes and ears open, my friend, the US could well be a different country.”

Whether Lefcoe possessed special insight or whether he truly believed in JFK, those of us in that room were moved by John Kennedy and by George Lefcoe.

Another Kennedy line that day has regularly touched me all the years I have lived here in Israel: “Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind.”

THAT DRAMATIC election in 1960 between JFK and Richard Nixon had its own meaning for me, a Georgia boy getting ready to cast his first ballot. In 1942 Ellis Arnall, the candidate for governor of Georgia, used the interest of disenfranchised young voters to win the election against the powerful, corrupt Eugene Talmadge. He said, “I’m glad Georgia is first in something at last. I’m tired of us always being at the tail end. If 18 is a soldiering age, it is also a voting age.”

That was a key plank in his campaign.



Arnall promised that if elected he would insure legislation was passed to lower the voting age in the state. Once in office he held to his word, and Georgia residents from 1943 on could vote at the age of 18. In the late 1950s, I was a beneficiary of that electoral privilege.

“David, I know that you will be packing up to go away to school in New York at the end of the summer, but what you have to do is register to vote. You cannot do it from afar – you have to be seen in person to register.” My father would not let me off the hook, even though it was only 1959, and my first federal election was a year away. I reported to the office of Fulton County where I was to register and showed my driver’s license as proof of my age.

Surprisingly, the registrar seemed to know a bit about my family.

“David, I guess your grandfather is Rabbi Tobias Geffen and I think that you have an Aunt Helen.”

“How do you know my family?” I asked with great surprise.

“Well,” the woman replied, “ I went to Girls’ High School with your Aunt Helen and I have seen your grandfather casting his ballot on election days for over 40 years. Please give them my regards.”

That was a special way to become a voter. I have used my voting privileges in numerous states where I have lived and, of course, here in Israel.

NOT THAT I EVER expected anything to come of it, but I did see JFK in person once. When he was the senator from Massachusetts in 1957, I joined a group of district and national officers of Aleph Zadik Aleph, junior B’nai B’rith, at a winter leadership seminar in Washington.

One of our sessions was held in the Capitol, my first visit there. During a break, we went downstairs to the underground level where the lawmakers walked along going from the House to the Senate and vice versa.

All of a sudden the late Robert Levinson, an AZA member from Oregon, later a professor of history and expert on the Jews during the Gold Rush, shouted out.

“Look over there, David, that is Senator Kennedy with another senator I know, Richard Neuberger, of my home state.”

Several of us turned our heads, we had a quick glance, and then they were gone.

When I returned to Atlanta, I told my parents, my grandparents and some of my friends that I had seen Kennedy. The only reply I received was, “David, Sen. Richard Russell is our favorite because he is from Georgia. We do not need any Yankees.”

WHO WAS this Kennedy, many people began to ask in the early months of 1960. He emerged as a presidential candidate since he had failed to be chosen as a vice presidential candidate in 1956.

Now Dwight D. Eisenhower could not run again, Nixon was to be the Republican candidate and the Democrats wanted a strong individual who could win.

There is a Jewish angle to remember.

Kennedy had spent a lot of time with Massachusetts Jews and had addressed Zionist conventions. This is from a speech given by JFK, in 1947, before Israel became a state. It was quoted in a memoir by his close friend and aide, Lewis Weinstein of Boston: “It is my conviction that a just solution requires the establishment of a free and democratic Jewish commonwealth in Palestine, the opening of the doors of Palestine to Jewish immigration and the removal of land restrictions. Then those members of the people of Israel who desire to do so may work out their destiny under their chosen leaders in the land of Israel. If the USA is to be true to its own democratic traditions, it will actively and dynamically support this policy.”

A few weeks after his nomination, he was the keynote speaker at the ZOA convention.

These words about the meaning of Israel are quoted quite frequently and included in printed selections from Kennedy’s speeches: “Israel was not created in order to disappear. Israel will endure and flourish. It is the child of hope and home of the brave. It can neither be broken by adversity nor demoralized by success. It carries the shield of democracy and it honors the sword of freedom.”

His moving tributes to the Jewish homeland began to touch the hearts and souls of American Jews.

Of course, interest in Israel was not sufficient, I also had to feel that Kennedy could truly lead the US. A comment from one of his speeches has been kept in mind through the years because it touched a nerve in me and in others as well: “I believe in an America that is on the march. We must not stand still; we must not be at anchor; we must not sit on dead center; we must not content ourselves with the easy life; we must open the gates and stride forward in accomplishment.”

A special element of the campaign were four televised debates. This was first time that television was used in this fashion in an election campaign. At the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York where I was a student, we had only one tiny TV set in the lounge. For each debate we piled up in front of the screen.

I cannot say that I remember the words, but I do recall how the candidates looked.

Here is the description written by Theodore White in his The Making of the President 1960. “The contrast of the two faces was astounding. Probably, no picture in American politics tells a better story... than that famous shot of the camera on the Vice President Nixon as he half slouched... Lazy Shave powder faintly streaked with sweat, his eyes exaggerated hollows of blackness, his jaw, jowls and face drooping with strain.”

Kennedy, on the other hand, was tanned, spoke with authority and was just more attractive.

THE BAY OF PIGS fiasco in 1961, when an armed attempt was made with Kennedy’s support to overthrow Fidel Castro, is hardly remembered. What occurred in 1962, the Cuban missile crisis, has been forever etched in my memory.

I cannot emphasize enough that I thought this was the end of the US, maybe the world. Watching TV, I got the feeling that a major conflict was on the horizon between Russia and our country.

The USSR’s Nikita Khruschev did not appear prepared to retreat. Kennedy was resolved that no more missiles would be delivered to Cuba. Who would flinch? “The dagger only 90 miles away pointed at the heart of America,” as Cuba was labeled, must be removed. Khruschev could not stand up to Kennedy – the world was saved.

This crisis had added leverage for me since in February 1959 I had been in Cuba with the Emory University Glee Club. Arriving only a few months after Castro’s triumph, we visited a number of sites on the island where we sang.

The concluding days were in Havana where we concertized at the university.

My roommate, also Jewish, and I went to the only kosher restaurant, Moishe Pipick.

In our broken Yiddish, we learned from the Jewish Cubans at the eatery that Castro meant business and would build a new nation. They hoped America would help, but if not their leader would find another partner. Castro did turn to Russia when the US failed to aid, and thus the missile crisis had its personal impact on me.

I was much impressed by the civil rights stands Kennedy took. It was a shame that he did not live to see the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. The explosions, the beatings and the terrible treatment of the blacks in Birmingham in 1963 finally forced all Americans to realize that something had to be done to grant them their rights as American citizens.

I had quietly advocated for a change, but now I knew it had to be.

America was an enlightened nation and had to raise the standard of living of all its citizens, black and white. Kennedy, through word and deed, made Americans not only take notice but also take action.

WHEN HE was assassinated on November 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas, my wife and I were students here in Jerusalem at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America’s Israel branch, now known as the Schechter Center. Early Shabbat morning, November 23, we were awakened by a fellow student who said that the president had been killed. For a moment we thought it was Zalman Shazar. The wife of another student said quite emphatically, “We are talking about President Kennedy. He was killed in Dallas as he and his wife were riding in a motorcade through the city. What a tragedy – he was a special president.”

We all accepted her words and then together we left for a tour of downtown Sephardi synagogues. At the four we visited, everybody said, “We are so sorry to hear about the president.” A few days later a memorial service was held at Beit Hillel on Rehov Balfour.

One of the most moving Jewish tributes given in the US for Kennedy was the one beautifully phrased by Rabbi Morris Adler of Shaarey Zedek in Detroit. Tragically, in March 1966 Adler was himself assassinated on his own pulpit by a deranged student whom he had counseled.

Selections from his address will provide a picture how Jews and Americans felt at that terrible moment in the country’s history: “John Kennedy was not one of many. He was one, one chosen by our people, vested with authority and bearing the hopes and dreams which millions of individuals entrusted to him. Our vocabulary does not yield words to suggest the enormity of the tragedy or the intensity of our shock.

“The bullet was aimed at one man. Its target, however, was the human, civilized, free order under which we live. Its target was the discipline, the mutuality, and the law which through centuries of struggle and sacrifice man has built into his collective life.

“The demented mind that pulled the trigger represents an upsurge of primitivism that threatens civilization.

“We are diminished this day as men and women, as religious believers, as Americans. All who cherish freedom, who uphold the equality and dignity of all human beings and hope for world peace, are personal mourners, poignantly and intimately bereaved by the death of John F. Kennedy.

“We shall not answer violence with violence, raise fist against fist or wield club against club. But we shall so reinforce our resolve, firm our determination, steel our will, that even the men of darkness and violence will recognize that their force and brutality cannot prevail against our inflexible and invincible purpose to realize fully the American promise and hope.

“We shall not despair nor exhaust ourselves in grief. We will walk forward, keeping bright the memory of John Fitzgerald Kennedy and striving to be worthy of it.”

IN 1976 when my wife Rita and I brought our three children, Avie, Elissa and Tuvia, here for a six-month sabbatical, one of the first places we visited was the Kennedy Forest outside of Jerusalem.

We purchased saplings and after planting them in the soil there I said a few words: “President Kennedy was a very good man. He loved Israel very much. Sadly, a person who acted out of hate killed him. With your trees in this forest you now become a part of his life. One day bring your children here and tell them President Kennedy’s story.”

In the spirit of this article, the author’s oldest son, Avie, was selected in 2003 to be a Wexner Israel Fellow and studied for a year at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government in Boston.

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