Conventions often take professionals to exotic locations, not least of all to entice potential participants to attend. Dallas was not chosen for my rabbinic convention- the Rabbinical Assembly- because it's exotic. It actually has a significant Jewish community, and our new president, Rabbi Bill Gershon, leads a major congregation there.
But though I'm sure that the citizens of Dallas cringe when they hear this, it is virtually impossible to say the city's name without automatically conjuring up images of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Any American old enough to remember that awful November day surely can recall exactly where he or she was when the news came through, and how we all sat transfixed as television news came of age covering the assassination itself and the funeral that followed.
I'm positive that Dallas has wonderful places to see and to eat, but I could in no way imagine myself being there and not visiting what is now called the "Sixth Floor Museum," housed in the building formerly known as the Texas School Book Depository. It was from there, of course, that Lee Harvey Oswald is said to have fired the shots that killed the President, and the sixth floor, from which the shots were fired, along with the seventh floor, have been declared a national historic site and converted into a poignant museum.
I had been anticipating visiting the site since I learned that our convention would be in Dallas, but I readily admit that I was unprepared for exactly how sobering and emotionally charged the visit would be.
As I looked out the sixth flow window and saw exactly what Lee Harvey Oswald had seen fifty years earlier (other than the trees having grown, the buildings and signs have been kept exactly as they were in 1963), I felt as if I were in a dream. I knew just about every detail of what I was looking at: The sharp turn off of Elm Street that brought the motorcade into Oswald's telescopic sight; the infamous grassy knoll off to the front right, from which many still believe that a second gunman lurked; the triple overpass that loomed not far in the distance ahead of the President's car…
What I had not seen before, and I found particularly chilling, was a white X painted in the center lane at the exact spot in the road where President Kennedy was hit by the first bullet. Cars were driving over it every other second, seemingly oblivious to its presence. But there was no way, for me, at least, to avoid being transfixed by it. After leaving the museum itself, I stood on the "grassy knoll," where parents and their young children had stood and then dropped to the ground in terror when they realized that the sounds they were hearing were not firecrackers, as they first thought. I looked back at the sixth floor, and stood dumbstruck by the import of where I was, and what had transpired in that very place. Time had not diminished the horror.
On my way back from the museum to my hotel, I realized that there were only two other times in my life that I could recall having a similar feeling of stepping into a horrific image that had been imprinted in my subconscious.
The first happened in Israel, not long after the massacre of twenty-seven Israeli school children in the northern town of Ma'alot. I was there in 1978, four years after the incident. I remember rounding a corner and seeing the outline of the school building, and having to catch my breath when I realized what it was. I wasn't in Ma'alot to visit that sight. The group that I was with was visiting development towns in the north, and Ma'alot was simply on the list. But I remember clearly being particularly traumatized by the unmitigated brutality of the event, and there was no way to be oblivious to the fact that I was standing on unholy ground. It was a profoundly unsettling experience.
The other instance is one that I know I share with those who have traveled to Shoah-related sites in Eastern Europe. There is no way to approach the iron gate at Auschwitz emblazoned with the words "Arbeit Macht Frei," or the ruins of the crematoria, or, for that matter, dozens of such horrific places, and not tremble as you realize where you are, and what happened there, and how it is that you are visiting all these years later and weren't alive to experience It yourself. You stand there and struggle to articulate a coherent sentence, only to discover that there are no words equal to the task.
Obviously, there is no comparing the Shoah-related sites to Dealey Plaza in terms of either scope or historical significance, and I'm certainly not trying to imply that there is. Almost everything about the Shoah is sui generis, and defies comparison. To imply otherwise is to betray its unique place in human history.
But the intricacies of human cognition and how it is that we process horror aren't necessarily responsible to issues of historical scale and scope. The loss of a loved one can trigger feelings of grief for someone else who died long ago. In a related way, the eerie feeling of standing at that sixth floor window and looking out at Dealey Plaza brought back memories of other instances where being in a particular space so indelibly imprinted on my psyche produced a recollection of other such moments. I had never been there before, but I knew that space.
The whole experience at Dealey Plaza, including the time it took to get there and back, took up maybe three hours out of a four-day convention. The days and nights of the convention itself were rich with learning, and the opportunity to renew and refresh precious friendships. But visiting that museum, walking that ground and seeing those streets, is something I'll not soon forget. It was, in so many ways, a remarkable experience.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.