Fifty years ago, JFK was killed in Dallas. I was very young at the time – it is one of my first news-related memories. I recall my father picking up the phone and crying out, “Turn on the TV!” I remember the flashing word “Bulletin” on the screen – and in this case, the lack of picture was worth a thousand words. My home synagogue was just down the street from JFK’s birthplace and a memorial service and march took place there on the day of the funeral. You can read about it here and see vintage video of that march, including my father, z’l, in his cantorial garb.
November 22 has become America’s National Yahrzeit, really the only one that Americans observe. Once a person has died, Jews typically observe the anniversary of a death and not the birthday; but other Americans continue to focus on birthdays, even long after someone has died. This is really the only exception. Abraham Lincoln’s birthday (Feb. 12) is far better known than his “yahrzeit” (April 15). But for JFK (born May 29), November 22 will always be the date that we remember.
There is a fascinating conversation in the Midrash about why, as Ecclesiastes 7:1 puts it, the day of death is better than the day of birth. A story is told of rabbis walking along a pier and noticing that a ship on its maiden journey is sent out with great fanfare, while one returning from sea is greeted in silence. Rabbi Levi suggests that the opposite would be more appropriate. When a child is born, all that we have is potential; there are plenty of unknowns. But when a person dies, we have a whole life to celebrate, all the achievements, the full impact of that person’s deeds, which will continue to resonate to eternity.
When a person is born, the life of his family changes dramatically. But when that person dies – and not just a president but anyone – the ripple effect can be felt globally, and beyond. A yahrzeit can be celebrated, but the celebration is always tinged with sadness. We say Kaddish on the yahrzeit because that prayer recognizes that even God has been diminished, that the universe has a spiritual black hole, that the garment of sanctity has been torn.
Today we will say Kaddish for President Kennedy, because a nation was torn that day in November, fifty years ago. And even as the jubilee year usually marks a time of release, we’ve not yet been released from the trauma of this event. The wound to our national psyche has not yet fully healed. But we can still celebrate the hope and promise that was that moment in time that we called Camelot.
This week’s memorials have been cathartic. But many more yahrzeits will pass before we will be able to say, with no reservations, that America has truly moved on.