John Fitzgerald Kennedy, z’l

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, z’l

Should we say Kaddish for JFK?

This year, the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, I want to recant my opinions and actions at JFK’s 30th yahrzeit.

I should have said Kaddish for JFK then. I didn’t. 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, 30 years after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I was attending an annual conference of more than 7000 professors of religion and biblical studies in the capital city. What a shame, I thought, that 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 gravesite, 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 50 people surrounded the site of the grave itself. Young and old, men and women, “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 soundbites 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 heroes in our nation’s capital, I sat at this season to write and reflect first about JFK’s 30th 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.'”

Rabbi Dr. Tzvee Zahavy of Teaneck was president of the Young Democrats at Yeshiva College from 1968 to 1970; he was ordained at Yeshiva University and received his Ph.D. from Brown University. He was an award-winning professor at the university of Minnesota from 1976 to 1995.

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