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Where were you...when Kennedy was assassinated?

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By Amy Avgar, Carl Hoffman, Jack Nussbacher, Judy Shapiro, Morton Leibowitz, Nina Reshef, Vera Freudmann

NOVEMBER 22 2013 marked the 50th anniversary since President John F Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas. They always said that if you were around that day, you always remember what you were doing when you heard the news. So we put that very question to some ESRAmagazinewriters, and asked them for their memories of that fateful day in 1963.

Nina Reshef

It was a sunny day when I came out my class at Brooklyn College at 12 noon, 22 November 1963. People were milling around, which was unusual for students at a campus where you had to run from building to building to get to your lectures and labs. I heard someone say that President Kennedy had been shot, and was probably dead, but few of us could believe it; I certainly couldn't. I had campaigned for Kennedy and he had been elected, which helped me feel more a part of the great American society that had promised so much to my immigrant family.

And then he was dead. Now the black-and-white history texts were suddenly red, white and blue. Filled with awe more than fear, I waited until the announcement came that classes were cancelled for the rest of the day. When I got home, the turn of the TV's dial ushered me into a new world.

What was I to do? Prayer was out of the question to many; that was something the non-Jews did when tragedy struck. I couldn't phone anyone because I didn't know anyone. And I was stunned by the realization that Brooklyn College would still be there the next day, as would my friends and the subway going home, but so much more provisionally.

My personal Kennedy assassination

Carl Hoffman

When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, the world reacted with shock and sadness. I also reacted with shock and sadness, but there was something more than that going on in my mind. I took Kennedy's death personally.

On November 22, 1963 I was 11 years old and in the sixth grade at the Sarah Greenwood Elementary School in the Dorchester section of Boston. I was in the Boston Public School System's pilot 'rapid advanced class,' because in those days I was thought to be 'gifted'. To this day I have no idea why.

This was a pilot class, still experimental, so the school system spared no expense in providing us with the latest new textbooks; new learning materials; new teaching equipment; new desks and chairs that weren't bolted to the floor but which could actually be moved around the classroom; all kinds of fancy new educational whistles, bells, buzzers, and gongs; and most importantly, a new teacher, specially selected and trained to deal with—I wince once more as I write this—'gifted' children.

While all of this was going on, we had a bright, young, handsome man in the White House, John F. Kennedy, our own dashing youthful senator from Massachusetts. The only president I had been aware of before this was Dwight Eisenhower—instrumental in winning World War II before I was born—but later a gray, bald, grandfatherly presence throughout my childhood, smiling blandly down at me from black-and-white portraits hung in every nursery school and elementary school classroom in which I'd been imprisoned up to 1961. After eight years of Ike, Kennedy was a major change.

And after almost as many years being taught by elderly, unmarried, embittered, gray or blue-haired ladies with dowdy dresses, baggy stockings, ill-fitting dentures, and bifocal eyeglasses suspended from tarnished metal neck chains, my new teacher was a major change too. Mr. Joseph DeSario was young and male, two characteristics I had never seen in a teacher before.

But there was more to it than that. An 11 year-old mind has a lot to process. Everything is new; experience and information come flooding into the brain like a tsunami, often faster than a kid can clearly sort out. Sometimes things get confused. Stated simply, my young new teacher, in front of me every day, and my young new president, on television every day, began for me to blend into one person. Both were young and handsome. Both were charismatic. Both were liberal Democrats, with what seemed to be identical outlooks and opinions. Both were married, had pretty young wives and cute little toddler children. Both had been in the military. Both were Catholic. Both were from Boston. Whenever one appeared, I saw the other. Whenever one spoke, I heard the other. As far as my gut was concerned, President Kennedy was Mr. DeSario, and Mr. DeSario was President Kennedy.

You can imagine my state of mind on that November day. As fate would have it, Mr. DeSario was sick the next few days and absent from the classroom, leaving us in the hands of, yes, another blue-haired, embittered old lady with eyeglasses hanging from a metal neck chain. He came back though, and we—along with the rest of the country—mourned our dead president and got on with our lives.

I graduated the sixth grade and the advanced class in June 1964 and never saw Mr. DeSario again. I heard that he rose in the Boston Public School System, becoming principal of a high school, and then some sort of administrator. Early last summer, moved by a memory, I googled his name to find out where he was and what he was doing. I discovered that Mr. Joseph DeSario had died less than two weeks before, a little short of his 80th birthday.

Where was I when Kennedy was assassinated?

Judy Shapiro

Leaving my doctor's office in Flatbush, Brooklyn, I noticed someone listening to a transistor radio held close to his ear. "President Kennedy's been shot," he said aloud in shock, to no one in particular. I continued to walk to the bus stop, thinking that I must have heard wrong.

When I returned home my parents confirmed what I had heard; it was all too true.

We were Democrats, and my father was active in his local political club. He admired and voted for Kennedy and did not hold it against him that his father, Joseph Kennedy, had been a Nazi sympathizer and was an anti-Semite. Our loyalties were to the United States of America—"the greatest country in the world—and never forget it," said my grateful father, who had arrived with his family as a 9-year-old immigrant from Russia.

We were all proud of the young, handsome, cultured, idealistic, accomplished, charismatic, patriotic Kennedy. The fact that a Catholic had been elected augured greater pluralism in politics.

When John F. Kennedy was assassinated I was 18 and studying in Brooklyn College. I was shocked that anyone could hate our promising young president enough to kill him. I remember watching his stoic wife and two small children at the funeral on the television screen. With his death, I felt a potential gift had been taken from us.

Jack Nusbacher

I was taking Part III of the US Medical Board exams in the charming upstate town of Syracuse, New York when I learned of JFK's assassination. I must admit I did not feel a deep pang of shock upon hearing the news, even though I had voted for Kennedy. I was a supporter, but not a fan. Perhaps it was just that no US presidential assassination was laden with the historic tragedy of Lincoln's, notwithstanding other presidential assassinations and assassination attempts in the hundred years between his and Kennedy's.

In retrospect, however, it was Kennedy who was best able to express, in his brief presidency, two apparently opposite visions and dreams of America, which I share. The two events that marked - if not accentuated - his presidency were the creation of the Peace Corps and his stand in the Cuban missile crisis. The former gave expression to America's oft-forgotten, generous, liberal nature, the latter to its role as the pre-eminent power against tyranny and evil in the world. How unfortunate it is that in recent years, most US presidents have seen fit to favor one of these two visions at the expense of the other, as if they were mutually incompatible. Both visions are vital in today's world.

Morton Liebowitz

Friday November 22 1963, newlyweds living in Manhattan, we were going to friends in Queens for Shabbat. We were running late – it was a short Friday – and the phone rang just as we were leaving the apartment.

Ruth picked it up;it was her mother. "President Kennedy has just been assassinated. He's been shot. He's dead. Turn on the TV." We watched with horror and tears as the awful news sank in. "Who did it? Was it a Jew? A Black man?." The usual questions.

We were really running late now. We were down in the subway and we boarded the train. We looked around us in the subway car to Queens. It was obvious. Everybody knew. Everyone was crying, particularly the black people. Strangers shared looks of horror. You wantedt to scream. You also wanted to cry. You stifled the pain.

We arrived at our friends' home in Queens.

"Was it a Jew?"

Vera Freudmann

Shabbat, and we were settling down to dinner. A knock at the front door was in itself alarming, as nobody was expected and casual visitors were unknown on Friday evenings.

My sister's boyfriend rushed in. "I came to tell you," he said, "because I knew you wouldn't have heard. President Kennedy has been killed."

I didn't hear any more, but started crying hysterically as soon as I took in what he was saying, and ran into my bedroom. I spent the entire weekend in mourning, crying over my lost hero, the man who was going to save the world, the man whose matinee-idol good looks adorned my bedroom walls.

At college on Monday morning, I made a remark to a friend about the earth-shattering events of the last few days. She looked at me in puzzlement and carried on telling me about her weekend. JFK didn't figure at all. I was thunderstruck that anyone could be so untouched by what had happened.

I joined in the general mourning, obsessively watching TV for the next few days, and dreamed about John Kennedy for many months. He was always out at sea, drowning and frantically waving to me to save him. But I never could.

The day Kennedy was shot

Amy Avgar

Ironically, my American history class at Brookline High School, where I was a senior, had just let out and I was headed down the hallway toward my locker. I had as yet no idea that the course of American history had only minutes before been dramatically altered. I heard the public announcement system come on and a trembling voice reported that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas while riding in a motorcade with his wife, Jacqueline. Cries of disbelief and grief could be heard throughout the school. Classes were dismissed and I remember walking blindly in the direction of the streetcar as if in the grip of a terrible nightmare. When I reached home, the television was on and the unimaginable scenes, in black and white footage, were being shown: the open limousine in which the President and his wife were riding, the shocked bystanders reporting what they had witnessed and the tearful crowds in front of the hospital as the announcement was made by Walter Cronkite, confirming that JFK had been pronounced dead. My father, a conservative rabbi, was at home and tried to comfort me, but the tears wouldn't stop, nor the questions: Who would do such a thing? Why? What now? It was the end of an age of innocence. 



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