Joshua Hammerman
Rabbi, award winning journalist, author of "Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi"

America’s National Yahrzeit

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.

About the Author
Award-winning journalist, father, husband, son, friend, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and rabbi of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Author of Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi – Wisdom for Untethered Times (HCI Books). Rabbi Hammerman was a winner of the Simon Rockower award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism, for his 2008 columns on the Bernard Madoff case, which appeared first on his blog and then were discussed widely in the media. In 2018, he received an award from the Religion News Association, honorable mention, for excellence in commentary, for articles written for the Washington Post, New York Jewish Week, and JTA. Among his many published personal essays are several written for the New York Times Magazine and Washington Post. He has been featured as About.com's Conservative representative in its "Ask the Rabbi" series and as "The Jewish Ethicist," fielding questions on the New York Jewish Week's website. Rabbi Hammerman is an avid fan of the Red Sox, Patriots and all things Boston; he also loves a good, Israeli hummus. He is an active alum of Brown University, often conducting alumni interviews of prospective students. He lives in Stamford with his wife, Dr. Mara Hammerman, a psychologist. They have two grown children, Ethan and Daniel, along with Chloe, Casey and Cassidy, three standard poodles. Contact Rabbi Hammerman: rabbi@tbe.org (203) 322-6901 x 307
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