Death and destiny in Dallas

In a sense, we grew up on that day, and we are still experiencing those growing pains.

US President John Kennedy and his wife in Dallas 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
US President John Kennedy and his wife in Dallas 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
There are certain seminal events which are burned into our memory. On a personal level, it might be our wedding day, the birth of a child – usually the first! – or, sadly, the passing of a loved one. On a collective level, it usually is reserved for some momentous act which defied reality, shocked us, or changed us in a significant way. The assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981, the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986, or Yitzhak Rabin’s murder in 1995 all come to mind.
But for me, the first such moment in my life occurred exactly 50 years ago today, on November 22, 1963 – also a Friday – when John F. Kennedy was killed in Dallas. Though I was only ten years old at the time, kept home from school because of the flu, I remember the sensation as if it was yesterday.
A cloud hung in the air as the adults around me walked about zombie-like, as if in a daze, as if their whole world had come crashing down upon them. And indeed it had.
At Shabbat dinner, my dad cried incessantly, his tears falling into mother’s chicken soup. I found his reaction strange, because Dad was such a staunch, lifelong supporter of the Republican Party, and Kennedy was a Democrat.
“Dad,” I asked him naively, “why are you crying? I thought you didn’t like Democrats!” Dad looked back at me, and I couldn’t decide whether he was going to spank or school me. Luckily, he chose the latter.
“Son,” he said softly, “our president is dead. Dead! Today, every American has been wounded; today, there are no Republicans or Democrats, there are only Americans.”
JFK’s murder was not just a national – scratch that, international tragedy – it was a turning point in American history.
While other presidents had been killed in office, JFK’s shooting happened in the age of mass media, instant communication and live broadcasts on TV. Although the actual assassination was captured only on a home camera – the famous Zapruder film – the subsequent arrest of assassin Lee Harvey Oswald; Oswald’s own capture and murder two days later, Lyndon Johnson’s swearing-in as the new president and Kennedy’s somber funeral were all displayed on the screen before an audience of hundreds of millions. As such, it touched an entire world, a world captivated by its drama and darkness.
. The 1950’s and early 1960’s were Happy Days, a time of innocence, simple pleasures and wide-eyed optimism. That would all change with the shooting. Youth rebellion and anti-establishmentism, protest marches, riots at the 1968 Democratic convention and Woodstock would replace sock hops, square dancing and surrender to authority.
JFK had brought a new spirit into the White House, into the country, if not the entire Western world. At 43, he was the youngest man ever to be elected president. Blessed with a unique – and authentic – charisma, movie-star looks, a quick smile and a witty sense of humor, JFK wowed the crowds everywhere he went, from Berlin to the backyards of America.
The scion of a prestigious political family – the Kennedy clan was about as close as the United States comes to royalty – Jack, as he was called, had an unimpeachable pedigree, yet was far from a conformist. He would become the first Catholic elected as chief executive, and he was determined to advance the cause of civil rights, no matter what the opposition.
A liberal, he had bona-fide military credentials, having earned his stripes as skipper of the PT-109 torpedo boat in World War II, highly decorated for saving its crew in the Solomon Islands. He blockaded Cuba and backed down the Soviets in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, forcing the Russians to remove the missiles they had installed on the island, at a cost to them of over a billion dollars. He also pushed through the Test Ban, the treaty banning the testing of nuclear weapons.
Chicago, my hometown, had played a crucial role in JFK’s election. It was there that Kennedy had defeated Richard Nixon in their first televised debate, viewed by 74 million fellow citizens. Until then, Nixon held a commanding lead in the polls, and Kennedy was relatively unknown. But JFK’s vigorous, aggressive demeanor made a deep impression on the nation, especially as compared to the stiff and sweating Nixon. The debate provided the impetus that Kennedy needed, and he would go on to win the election by the scantest of margins, just 113,000 votes out of a total of 69 million cast. It was said that Chicago mayor Richard Daley “delivered” the victory to JFK, as Illinois brought him home in true, “vote early, vote often” Chicago- style politics.
Years later, I would serve for more than a decade as rabbi of congregations in both Dallas and Fort Worth. DFW – or the Metroplex, as these twin cities are called by the locals – would struggle mightily to shed its image as “the scene of the crime,” indelibly associated with JFK’s murder. In fact, it was not until the Dallas Cowboys football team would rise in popularity – eventually to become known as “America’s Team” – that Dallas would come into its own and regain its honor and good name.
Sports – the unofficial “religion of America” – would ultimately rehabilitate the city and its citizens.
For Jews, JFK’s death had numerous implications. Some took pride in Oswald having been killed by a Jew, albeit one with a sordid reputation as a night club owner and strip-joint operator. Jack Ruby, who also hailed originally from Chicago, went to his death claiming that he had shot Oswald out of a sense of “patriotic fervor.” Claims that Ruby acted on behalf of the crime syndicate – in order to cover up the real murderer, who supposedly killed JFK in revenge for brother Bobby’s crack-down on organized crime as attorney general – were never proven.
JFK was succeeded by President Johnson, who ended up implementing many of Kennedy’s plans and policies.
LBJ was also a good friend to the Jews – some even claim he (ital)was Jewish! – and he quietly helped both Soviet Jews and the young State of Israel, which was in desperate need of both arms and diplomatic support in the mid-60’s.
Though we are neither prophets nor prognosticators, those who firmly believe in Divine Providence might view LBJ’s ascension to power as a benevolent blessing. I recall my own rabbi drawing this conclusion when he told our class: "Lee Harvey Oswald fired his rifle from a great distance, at an almost impossible angle. And yet, three of those bullets found their target, killing the president and wounding Texas governor John Connally.
But later, when Oswald was cornered by Dallas police officer Nick McDonald, Oswald drew his pistol and fired point-blank at McDonald.
The gun jammed, and Oswald was captured. If the Almighty decrees a death, nothing can prevent it; yet if He wishes someone to be saved, then that, too, will happen. It is all in God’s hands.”
Be that as it may, in many ways we have never recovered from the trauma of that dismal day in Dallas. There was a loss of innocence that transformed civilized society forever.
Violence and vigilantism become a part of our way of life. The Camelot of the Kennedy’s morphed into the mistrust of leadership and the cynicism of dashed dreams.
Hope in a better day mixed with the fear of what might lurk in the shadows, what might be waiting for us just around the corner.
In a sense, we grew up on that day, and we are still experiencing those growing pains.The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana.[email protected]