JFK’s Thermal Underwear
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Last week Janine and I watched a great PBS special on American presidents. And, the moment that really transfixed me was watching John F. Kennedy’s inspiring inaugural address. He challenged America to remain true to the core ideals of the American Revolution—a defense of human rights at home and in the world. He pledged help to people around the world mired in poverty.
He said that “in the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger….I do not shrink from this responsibility—I welcome it. He said, ‘let every nation know…that we shall pay any price, bear any burden….oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.”
I wonder, with everything we have learned since Kennedy–about the price of defending liberty, about the complexity of defending freedom, and the difficulty of lifting people out of poverty—I wonder whether we still believe these words today.
I found what may be the beginning of an answer in another detail of JFK’s address. The narrator of the documentary noted that Dwight Eisenhower was at the time the oldest person ever to be president. And, Kennedy would be the youngest. And, in Kennedy’s campaign, he portrayed America’s leadership as old and tired, and himself as the vanguard of a new generation.
So, at Kennedy’s inauguration, he did not wear an overcoat, even though it was a cold day in January. But, what people didn’t know is that Kennedy was wearing thermal underwear underneath to keep him warm. Kennedy was bold and inspiring. But, he was also sensible.
I see in that double image of outreach and self-protection a lesson for us today. Can we take this as our model? Can we still be a light unto the nations of the world, while maintaining our good sense? Can we still reach out without overreaching?
I came across two pieces of synagogue history this past week that embody this tension. Eli Genauer sent me a brochure that was printed for Herzl Congregation in 1924. And, on the cover of the brochure, there was a picture of Theodor Herzl.
A few days later, I came across a fascinating article in Tablet Magazine. The headline read: “How a Seattle Synagogue Made Headline News By Hiring a New Custodian.” It turns out the synagogue was us, Herzl. In 1945, a Japanese-American named Eddie Otsuka was released from an internment camp, where like thousands of other Japanese-Americans, he had been forced to stay during the war.
Eddie was an immigrant. He had come to America in 1919, worked hard, and became a hotel manager. And, now that the war was over, no one would hire him. No one except Rabbi Franklin Cohn, the rabbi of Herzl. Rabbi Cohn was himself an immigrant. He had escaped Berlin in 1939 and assumed the leadership of Herzl in 1942.
Rabbi Cohn identified with the plight of Eddie Otsuka because of his own experience. His hiring of Eddie took courage. At the time, many Japanese Americans were returning from the camps to hostility. Vandals set fire to Japanese-Americans in San Jose. Gunshots greeted a returning Japanese-American family in Fresno. But, when Rabbi Cohn was asked why he hired Mr. Otsuka, he said “This is America.” Here it is supposed to be different.
I am proud that Rabbi Cohn’s courageous act is part of Herzl’s history. There are moments in a community’s past that we can go back to for inspiration as a beacon, a time we got it right. This is one of those moments.
At the same time, I am mindful of history’s complexity. Theodor Herzl is also a essential to our history. And, Herzl’s primary impetus was not to reach out to the world, but to protect us from the world. In fact, Herzl did battle with the Jewish idealists of his day. The idealists argued: “we are living in an enlightened age. Anti-semitism is on the way out. Don’t speak to us of a Jewish state. We don’t need another ghetto.”
And, Herzl argued: “the world hasn’t changed as much as you think. The Jews are never going to be accepted in Europe. You can try to change hearts and minds and build a more beautiful world. My job is to protect the Jewish people.”
Herzl and Rabbi Franklin Cohn. They are both part of our history. Which one becomes our model for today? Sefer Devarim, the Book of Deuteronomy, which we are reading now, is a retelling of history. But, it is not an objective retelling. Moses uses history to make a point. And, he is selective in how he chooses to tell the story of the past.
So, in this week’s parasha, Moses says that the lesson of the Exodus from Egypt is “Workers rights!” Our workers need a rest on Shabbat, just like we do. Since we experienced slavery, we should know better than to be a tyranical boss like Pharoah.
But, Moses could have spun that story differently. He could have said the lesson of our slavery is “Never again! Never again must we allow our destiny to rest in someone else’s hands.”
We say that we must learn the lessons of history. But, which version of history? When I was in Ashland, I saw a play written by a Vietnamese American about his immigrant parents. In the play, the writer’s father was a Vietnamese chopper pilot trained by America to fight the Viet Cong. Towards the end of the play, the father says to his son: “Don’t ever say that the Vietnam War was a mistake. The Viet Cong took everything from us. And, the American soldiers were our saviors, our champions.”
I was astonished to hear this reading of history in one of the most liberal places in America. I haven’t heard that explanation of Vietnam since the 1960’s. But, to me it says that we are always wrestling with the meaning of our history. Which version of the Vietnam story applies to the Syrian crisis today? Does Syria call us to “pay any price, bear any burden….oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty?” Or is it a trap? Is it a quagmire?
We can learn from history. We can be inspired by history. But, we are naïve if we think history repeats itself exactly. Parallels have been drawn between the prejudice against Japanese-Americans in the 1940’s and prejudice against American Muslims today. It’s a compelling analogy. There are many similarities.
But, in the 1940’s, there was not a single case of Japanese-American sedition or act of violence against other Americans. Yet, we put them in concentration camps. The situation today is more complicated than that. It doesn’t justify bigotry. But, it should prompt us to more nuanced thinking.
Parallels have been drawn between the Syrian refugee crisis and the Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe in 1939. And, Angela Merkel, is determined that Germany not make the same mistake twice. But, the analogy is not exact. Jewish immigrants did not grow up hating the West, or with hatred of other religions. They did not bring hatred to their new countries. And they did not commit acts of terror. You don’t have to be Donald Trump to worry about this. Even Bill Clinton specifically welcomed refugees who embrace American values.
This is not to say that we have no obligation to help desperate people. A human being in danger is a human being. A child is a child. The question is not: do we help or not? The question is: how can we best help?
How can we recover the simple idealism of Kennedy’s words: to be ‘unwilling to witness the…undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed….?’ How can we do that and remember that Kennedy, for all of his youthful idealism, was smart enough to protect himself from the cold on a January day?
As Jews, it might help us to remember that Herzl was not only about Jewish self-protection. It was Herzl who suggested that a successful Jewish nation could be a source of uplift to discouraged peoples in Africa. Herzl would have been proud of Israeli hospitals in the Golan treating Syrian refugees. And, he would have been proud of the Israeli organization that reached across the globe to give life-saving treatment to a young Afghani boy. But, I also think he would have cautioned us not to treat concerns about our safety and security lightly.
A lot has happened in the world since 1960. We cannot be all things to all people. But, withdrawal from the world is not an option. As we wrestle with who we want to be 2016, we can be inspired by the example of a youthful president who taught us to turn a brave face to the cold in the world, but to be sure to wear something warm underneath.