If JFK, Why Not a Jew?

Our local daily newspaper, the Cape Cod Times, put out a call for personal remembrances of the day that John F. Kennedy died. The usual responses will be sent in and I thought about it, but decided not to. I was fifteen and that day I was cutting a high school class with a friend when a woman came running out of her home yelling “the president’s been shot”. We thought at first that she was in a hundred year time warp and meant Lincoln. Then we ran back to school to learn that we were being dismissed early and that something horrible had happened in Dallas. Subsequent 1960’s assassinations changed my generation, but all of this has been written about for so long that it feels tired and frayed, that there might not be anything new to say. Now the fiftieth anniversary of the Kennedy assassination is being recognized with thousands of memories, photos, films, and events.

Growing up in Rhode Island in a family of Democrats, it was natural that my folks would be Kennedy supporters. Rhode Island was, and is still, a majority Catholic state. This election was looked at as if the old days of prejudice against Irish and Italian Catholics were over. And it gave hope to Jews.  If a Catholic was elected president, why not a Jew someday?  These discussions, naturally, were among Jews. Jews in public life were rare in the United States at that time. As a kid, my Jewish heroes were all in Israel. We read about Theodor Herzl, Moshe Dayan, and David Ben-Gurion; we read about strong kibbutzniks planting crops, breaking up rocks, and imagined our quarters tossed in the blue JNF boxes being used to plant trees where nothing had grown before.

There were Jews in public life, but the thought that there would be Jewish political leaders or a president in the United States seemed unlikely to me. Sure there was Louis Brandeis, but did I have clue what the Supreme Court did when I was a kid? Nope. When Jacob Javits was elected to the Senate from New York in the late 1950s, I kind of knew about it from listening to my parents and their friends talk over card games, but he surely did not hold my attention like David Ben-Gurion did.   The dream that in the future there could be a Jewish president in the United States did not seem too farfetched once the Catholic glass ceiling had been broken.  Dream on.

When Michael Dukakis was nominated for president in 1988, my first thought was that there was not a snowball’s chance in hell that a Greek Orthodox guy married to a Jew would be elected. Never mind that he was a terrible candidate; nice guy, awful candidate. And not a Protestant. Then came Joe Lieberman, a Jewish guy just a few years older than I am, the first Jew nominated by a major party for Vice President.  All I could think of was that a heartbeat away from that much power might be too much for some neo-Nazi to handle. I worried about nutcases.  Not only a Jew, but a guy who is Shabbat shomer and keeps a kosher home, and talks about it.  His wife’s name is Hadassah!  Could he be any more Jewish? Well, we know how that worked out. Would Gore have won without Lieberman? Probably not since Lieberman was his best asset and Gore did not even carry his home state of Tennessee.

When Barack Obama was nominated and chose Joe Biden to be his running mate, I kind of got the optimism that a mixed race guy becoming president could give to Americans. Yes, a new day, but also an old one. Again a Protestant (no, not a Muslim), although Biden’s a Catholic.  In the middle of a discussion about his candidacy, my pals looked at me as if I was nuts when I said, well, they’ll elect a black guy before a Jew.  And I stand by it, even more so now that anti-Semitism seems to be trendy again.  There are several members of congress who are Jewish, but with all the bickering in Washington basically screwing up the country, there’s not a lot of admirable qualities to praise in either party.  I am not so starry-eyed that I think that the Knesset is less dysfunctional than the US Congress with all the parties and the deal making to grab a majority that it takes to elect a Prime Minister; but for some reason, I have more faith in a bunch of Jews running things. Sue me for feeling safer with Jews in power.

So what do we tell Jewish kids in the US looking for Jewish leadership heroes?  In the past few years, we learned that Madeline Albright was born of a Jewish family, but this doesn’t really qualify her as a Jewish leader. And, horrors of horrors, John Kerry recently discovered his Jewish roots.  You could have fooled me. So, even with all the political dissension that is part of Israel’s history and present, there are Jewish leaders, of all different viewpoints. Tons of them, but it takes learning about Israel and making sure that young American Jews know that a Jewish homeland is more than a place on a map or some ancient place mentioned in prayers.

There has been a lot written about the lack of interest and advocacy on the part of Jews in the United States on issues related to Israel. The next generation might be even less engaged.  As they learn about American leaders, including the abbreviated presidency of John F. Kennedy, will they dream about a time when American Jews will feel the emotion that Catholics felt when JFK was elected? Do they have a chance of ever seeing an America that is ready for a Jewish president?  Does it even matter to them?

About the Author
Irene Rabinowitz made aliyah in 2014 and lives in Jerusalem. Prior to making aliyah, she lived in a small odd town at the tip of Cape Cod for 28 years. She lived in New York City for 16 years as a young adult (or old child), but is a Rhode Islander by birth. Irene has served as a local elected official and retired from a long career in non-profit management at the end of 2013, after serving as the Executive Director of Helping Our Women for 18 years. She has worked at the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance and retired in 2020 from her position as the Resource Development Manager at the Jerusalem Rape Crisis Center. She recently retired from her position as a Consultant at Landman Strategic Fundraising. Pro cycling fan. T1D.