We should say kaddish for JFK

Today is the 51st anniversary of the death of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Here is what I published 11/15/13 in the Jewish Standard...

This year, the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination, I want to recant my opinions and actions at JFK's thirtieth yahrzeit. I should have said Kaddish for JFK then, I was wrong. I will do it this year.

Yes, we should say kaddish for JFK.

Here is what I wrote in 1993.

It was bright and sunny in Washington on November 22, 1993, thirty years after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I was attending an annual conference of over 7000 professors of religion and biblical studies in the capital city. What a shame, I thought, that at this conference there was no formal recognition of the anniversary of the death of this leader at this conference. Here were gathered so many experts in religion and ritual, and they made no attempt to memorialize the day.

At a break between sessions of the conference I headed directly for the hotel entrance. A quick negotiation with a taxi driver confirmed that for $15 to $20 and less than an hour's time I could get out to Arlington National Cemetery walk up the path to JFK's grave site, spend a few minutes and return to the learned discourse of the meeting.
In the cab I wondered what I would do when I stood at the memorial in front of the eternal flame. It was JFK's yahrzeit, the anniversary of his death. In Judaism, members of the family recite the Kaddish prayer for a deceased relative each year on the specified day.

But Kennedy was not Jewish and not my relative. I could not see myself reciting a mourner's prayer for this hero. What then? I'd wait until I got to the site and play it by ear.

What would I find when I got out there? Would it be crowded? Would it be emotional? Would it be a media circus? In Beijing, China, people wait on line for hours on an ordinary day just to pass in front of Chairman Mao's mausoleum.

What drew me out to Arlington? I was 14 when JFK died, too young to attain a deep appreciation of the man and his politics. I was neither obsessed with theories of his death, nor was I particularly enamored by his biography. Yet I felt a strong, almost mystical force drawing me out to his monument on that day.

The site was much smaller than I had imagined, a few minutes walk up a path from the entrance to the cemetery. I passed groups of Japanese tourists on the way up. They worship the dead, I thought to myself. No wonder they find the time to visit Arlington. When I reached the place, I saw that right in front of the memorial flame a lone TV journalist with a microphone was interviewing a teenaged boy wearing a baseball cap. About fifty people surrounded the site of the grave itself. Young and old, men and women, white, black, Asian. A cross-section of America stood there silently, and a bit solemnly.

For a moment I felt the presence of a fearless man, the energy of a leader, the spirit of a visionary. And as I looked around I saw that nobody was crying or somber. A few people looked serene and some appeared satisfied. I took a deep breath and sighed but uttered no prayer, no kaddish.

On the way back down the path I noticed the reporter still talking to the boy in the cap. What deep insights has this young man shared with the viewing public? I wondered which of his sound-bites will make it on the air? And the Japanese tourists were in no hurry to get through the cemetery to the main memorials. But I had lectures to attend and promises to keep.

In the taxi I reflected on how American public national expression treads so lightly over history and fashions such simple symbolism.

What a contrast between this brief trip and my extraordinary experience of the previous morning at the new Holocaust museum. I might have written here more about the depths of historical memory and the complex symbolic statements at that memorial site. I might have recounted now that throngs of somber folk inched through the exhibits there, afraid to go too fast lest they miss a detail of the enormous evil of the epoch or blur a depiction of the unbelievable suffering.

And I might have explained how I could not cry or utter the Kaddish prayer at that site either. Maybe the museum was too public. Perhaps the exhibit was too complete.

Out of the memories and symbols of so many martyrs, victims and heros in our nation's capital, I sat at this season to write and reflect first about JFK's thirtieth yahrzeit.

Well, I suppose I can confess that as I sat on the plane, as we were leaving Washington, I did say a few words in an undertone: "May your memory be a blessing for us all, Mr. President."


Anonymous said...

Well Tzvee, my friends and I were already mature high school juniors at Bronx Science and we had recognized the Kennedy administration as the third Eisenhower term--more nothingness in terms of getting progress. We did not yet realize quite how insanely risk prone JFK had been. The media covered for him as he led his zany love life and no one yet comprehended that Khrushev had saved us from nuclear war just one year earlier when JFK was willing to explode everything over Cuba.

Tzvee Zahavy said...

interesting point of view - but this is not about his abstract personal or political achievements - more about how i felt about a great democrat and a martyr.

Henry Frisch said...

"democrat" who had South Vietnamese leader assasinated? Democrat who did nothing to advance civil rights? Martyred to what cause?

Tzvee Zahavy said...

so henry, i take it that you won't be visiting the gravesite.

Anonymous said...

I've been there. It was long ago. You still haven't responded to my questions.

Also, do you get so much traffic that you need to use the annoying alphabet soup? I usually see that stuff only at Ticketmaster.

Tzvee Zahavy said...

Consensus among scholars is that JFK ranks 12th among all presidents noting, Cold War leadership, proposed Civil Rights legislation, defused Cuban Missile Crisis, "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech in West Berlin, Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, Project Apollo, Peace Corps, New Frontier, early death left impression of unfulfilled promise.

I did answer -- my essay is not about JFK's legacy or rankings -- it is about my personal feelings.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps there was no commemoration for Kennedy just as there is commemoration for Lincoln, Garfield, or McKinley.

mds 62-2 said...


I, who am not a liberal democrat also feel the emotion of 11/22/63. We were at that in-between age, 11/22 was the farewell to our childhood.

Anonymous said...

j.f.k. was before my time but i worship him.
i have read everything there is about him and he was one of the greatest leaders we have ever had.
he was truly a remarkable man and leader