On that infamous day in 1963 when the first president I had ever voted for was assassinated, I, age 24, and many other American adults, sat glued to our television sets.
The nation had already entered an age where television had become a pivotal part of politics. It was commonly thought that the debate between Nixon and Kennedy was influential in awarding JFK the election, all because Nixon sweated.
And so it was, in light of this most shocking event, the murder of an American president, so many were drawn to their TVs.
None of the viewers on that November 22nd would ever forget the usually restrained CBS anchor Walter Cronkite being brought to tears as he made the announcement that the president was dead. Nor would we forget the eyewitness view of Jack Ruby killing the assassin two days later.
History is rarely our friend. It’s the bad stuff that makes the news. We are, all of us, sitting on the sidelines of history, watching the often unpredictable events that change our world. And these days, we have no respite. The latest updates or bulletins are beeping at us from our cell phones or blaring at us from our TVs as breaking news. There is practically nothing as obsolete as the front page of the daily papers. We are, all of us, constantly battered by the news. And sometimes, the news happens to us.
On Yom Kippur 1973, we, an American Jewish family of six from Newark, with a pet dog, were living in an apartment in Jerusalem. Suddenly air raid sirens sent our hearts pounding and our instincts into overdrive. None of us knew what was happening, but all of us parents knew we had to collect our children. Cell phones were not yet invented. Few even had landlines. Our only hope of locating our kids was to yell out the window. But that turned out to be unnecessary. The children ran home. They too had heard the haunting scream of the sirens. They needed to be with us, and we were quickly reunited.
In those days, there was no Google to ask what was going on. And our televisions were useless on Yom Kippur, a day without media in Israel.
Our neighbors gathered at the front doors of our building at 3 Rehov Etzel in the new neighborhood known as French Hill. A long discussion ensued. Should someone, anyone, turn on the radio? We were all Jewish but of varying degrees of religious observance, from secular to ultra-Orthodox. And it was Yom Kippur after all. Finally a decision was reached, unanimously or not, I cannot recall. Someone produced a radio and turned it on. No one turned their back. The sound was grim. It was not news at all. It was a recording of martial music. Then we knew. We were at war.
I remember those days. Who could ever forget? And I, among the many things I did wrong, didn’t know to dash to the Supersol first thing the next morning, to stock up on basics to feed my children. The Israeli mothers knew, somehow, even those who were younger than I. Such things were part of their DNA. By the time I took the car to Ramat Eshkol, too late, the shelves were bare. Miraculously, we didn’t starve to death. Probably the black-market eggs helped!
Anyone who has seen the recent film “Golda” knows better than we who were there how devastating that war was. Ultimately 2656 young IDF soldiers were killed, and many thousands more were injured. We were glued to the radio news at 7 each evening when Chaim Herzog would spin the details of the war into English, so as to be reassuring, calm, nonthreatening, and under control. That was a way to manage the English-speaking civilian population, to avoid panic. We did not truly know how grim the situation actually was.
And then, unforgettably, a day later, the sukkot went up. That was phantasmagoria. They were right on schedule in between the funerals and hospital visits and blood drives and reports of soldiers missing in action. Skach and cheerful colorful decorations made by children filled the streets and rooftops as if there were no war.
And for those too old to serve in the army but too young to sit it out, people like my own husband, there was painting our dark station wagon’s headlights navy blue and driving soldiers to their destinations, feeling helpless and impotent but needing to be involved.
We all have been shattered by other news at other times. We were in Warsaw’s Chopin Airport on the day of the 9/11 attack, the infamous and tragic day when New York’s World Trade Center’s two enormous towers came crashing to the ground in the most devastating terrorist attack in U.S. history. We sat in the airport’s transit lounge impatiently and unknowingly awaiting our delayed flight. It soon became clear that this was not something benign. We asked airport personnel to fill us in, and we were told that a tower was down at Newark Airport, EWR. The misinformation was linguistic. It was several hours before the airport announced that all flights were canceled and we would have to find hotels for the night. That night became seven nights.
Once we heard what had actually happened, we needed, again, as in 1973, to be in touch with our children, who by then were adults. Screaming out the window was no longer an option. Three were in Manhattan and one was in Palo Alto, across the nation. We were blessed to own a cell phone, the only one in the entire lounge. But the connections didn’t work. New York was unreachable. Finally I decided to try our daughter in California. This was a bizarre phone call, which I vividly remember. By then I was completely frantic, yelling into the phone, “Have you heard from anyone?” She calmly replied, “About what?” She had not yet heard the news from New York. Her two toddlers were in command of the car’s radio and they had opted for tapes of Barney, a popular purple TV dinosaur. So I heard the incongruity of the cheerful Barney music as I anticipated the enormous death toll in Manhattan. I wished I could have drowned my fear and sung along with the purple one. I could not.
Eventually all of our children and their families were located. Many others were not so fortunate. Over 3,000 dead, and the count, all these years later, continues to rise as death and sickness from the disaster continue to take their toll.
A few weeks ago I prepared to submit a blog to this esteemed paper. It was a trip review of what undoubtedly was one of the most fascinating destinations we have ever visited. Although the trip was several years ago it remains one of the highlights of our world travels, simply incredibly fascinating. We traveled as a threesome, with my Herzliya sister, to Marrakech, Morocco. We stayed in the atmospheric ancient Medina, in a very old but immaculate and modern riad, a type of Moroccan architecture, ingeniously built to keep the heat out during the summer and the cold winds out during the winter. We toured what had been the Jewish Quarter with its old shul, wandered the lively souk, and rented a car and driver to see the spectacular sights of the High Atlas Mountains. It was an adventure, and we loved every moment of it. We bought handcrafted and lovely souvenirs, found plenty of delicious vegetarian food, and managed to stay safe from the onslaught of young Moroccans racing through the ancient streets in their very contemporary electric bicycles. It was a wonderful visit to a place — and now it has been largely destroyed by a destructive earthquake, mere weeks ago, which took thousands of lives. In my dreams I now conjure the places where our feet had trod, not knowing what, if anything, remains intact.
Is there a lesson in all this? I don’t know. Things happen, here, there, everywhere. Should we prepare for earthquakes, war, terrorist attacks, assassinations? I suppose we could hide in our homes only to discover that our destiny, our Samara, could be there instead. Our lives are unpredictable, and always have been. Destiny can find us wherever we are. Living requires a certain tenacity, a level of bravery, where we never know what is in store, so we plunge on in spite of whatever threatens our existence. That is called life!
You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Rosanne Skopp of West Orange is a wife, mother of four, grandmother of 14, and great-grandmother of three. She is a graduate of Rutgers University and a dual citizen of the United States and Israel. She is a lifelong blogger, writing blogs before anyone knew what a blog was!