Tomorrow afternoon, after officiating in the morning at the Bar Mitzvah of Jack Roth, an outstanding student at our Religious School, I am going to attend my 50th high school reunion. As you know, I am currently in the process of clearing out my office at the temple—a formidable task after 26 years. This past Wednesday, I experienced an amazing coincidence. Almost as though it were fated, I came upon a sermon that I delivered on Shabbat evening, June 5, 1993, the day before the same reunion, 25 years ago. Now, 25 years later, I would like to share it with you—again. I have changed the numbers, of course, but in certain fundamental ways, my thoughts remain the same. And so, while I have abbreviated it somewhat for the purpose of this E-Blast, here it is.
After Fifty Years
Tomorrow afternoon I am going to attend my high school reunion. But this is not just any reunion, and this is just not any high school. This is the reunion of the graduating class of 1968 of the High School of Music and Art, now known formally as LaGuardia High School for Music and Art and Performing Arts. 50 years since high school graduation—a bit scary to contemplate, but worthy of reflection as well. So I hope you will indulge me for a few moments in a personal reflection, and in it, I hope that you will be able to see some of your own faces as well.
As I said, the year of 1968—and as Charles Dickens said, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” For so many reasons, Music & Art was one of the happiest experiences of my life. For the first time in my everyday life, I was able to spend every day in the company of people who were just like me—musicians and artists—who saw the world through different eyes. For the first time, I could study together and grow together with other kids who didn’t hang out in the neighborhood, because they also had to go home and practice for hours in addition to their homework—whether in front of a piano, holding a violin, or an oboe, or sitting with a sketch pad and charcoal. Instead of going to basketball games, we went to concerts and museums. For the first time in my experience outside of music school, I was together every day with a group of kids who pondered the mysteries of the universe from a similar vantage point to my own. Indeed, in this way for me, it was the best of times.
But 1968 will also remain for me and so many of my peers, one of the most painful years in contemporary history—indeed, the worst of times. I am only grateful that I could endure that pain in the company of my friends and colleagues at Music & Art.
It was the year of the presidential election. The country had barely begun to awaken from its shock after the assassination of President Kennedy, five years earlier. Now the war in Vietnam was tearing the country apart at the seams. Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, the New Hampshire Primary catapulted Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota into a stunning position of prominence, making him a powerful new force to be reckoned with. The Gulf of Tonkin Fiasco, and then, we sat wide-eyed, staring at the TV, as President Lyndon Johnson announced, “I shall not seek, nor will I accept, the nomination of my party for President of the Union States.” McCarthy supporters, and opponents of the war in general, were jumping for joy, at the same time that some of the same people registered the defeat of LBJ with a note of sadness. Because in fact, it could be argued that in terms of passing progressive national legislation, Johnson was one of the greatest presidents we had ever had. And while many of these programs were initiated by President Kennedy, it was President Johnson who got them through. Nevertheless, while the War in Vietnam was also initiated largely by President Kennedy, it was Johnson who could not find a way to manage and conclude it, and it ultimately brought him down.
But the Johnson’s withdrawal, the whole picture changed. The senator from New York, Robert F. Kennedy, was now free to “reassess his position,” as he phrased it, and enter the race for the presidency. Now, no one could claim that his candidacy was merely a continuation of the old, bitter rivalry with LBJ. He could now address the issues. But we knew as well that he also meant to reclaim the “crown” of the Kennedy dynasty.
April 4th arrived, and the Rev’d. Dr. Martin Luther King was in Memphis to support a strike by the sanitation workers there. King was mounting a “Poor People’s Campaign,” which would bring thousands of people who wanted to claim their piece of the pie to a park in Washington, DC, to camp out in tents for months. But now King was bucking up against the most solid wall of all in the stratification of American socioeconomic structure. And those in power were deeply threatened. And then, there on a balmy evening in April, King stood on a motel balcony with his friends and colleagues, as a white man named James Earl Ray aimed the crosshairs of his rifle at Dr. King. In an instant, one of the prophets of our time lay on the floor of a Memphis motel balcony. Cities burned—LA, Chicago, Atlanta, and more. But our mayor, John Lindsay, though often criticized by many for waffling on his positions, got out into the street with his associates, and spent that night, and most of that weekend walking the streets of this city: in Harlem, Bed Stuy, the South Bronx, and more. And I am convinced that it was because of Mayor Lindsay that this city did not burn with the rest of the country.
We at Music & Art gathered at the school on the morning after King’s death, and walked to Central Park for a memorial rally. From 135th Street and Convent Avenue we walked all the way to the Central Park Rink: four abreast—there must have been a thousand of us—arms linked in the style of the Civil Rights Movement, singing “We Shall Overcome,” a racially integrated group, with tears in our eyes and black mourning bands on our arms. In our teenage hopefulness, we truly believed that we could bring about a better day. As a Jew, I still believe that, and for reasons I will soon explain, I believe the others do as well.
June 5th—50 years ago this past Tuesday—Robert and Ethel Kennedy, and several of their then children (Ethel was pregnant with their 11th) – gathered in the Ambassador Hotel in LA, awaiting the results of the California Primary. Kennedy and McCarthy had been running neck-and-neck. But as Kennedy pulled ahead, it became clear that California would make or break him. And indeed, as I had hoped, he won a landslide victory. He would now certainly win the Democratic nomination, and even more certainly, go on to win the presidency. The Democrats now were licking their chops at the prospect of the second Nixon/Kennedy showdown. Because this time, there would be no squeaker. This time, Bobby Kennedy would receive an irrefutable mandate. This time, our country could really begin to realize the dream of a more just and compassionate society; an end to civil unrest; a nation at peace, both internally and internationally.
I would give anything—to this very day—if I somehow had the power to turn him around from that hotel kitchen. When Bobby died, it was as though a piece of me had died—piece of my youth; of my hope in the future. I know that Bobby was not a perfect person. There is no such thing. But I truly believed that Bobby had evolved as a human being in remarkable ways, so as to thoroughly internalize a true empathy for those who were poor; not simply out of the “noblesse oblige” that his family taught him, but out of his own human compassion and understanding. He possessed such personal power and magnetism that he could begin to help us change the inequitable structure of American society. He and his advisers would stop the war. There may be some of you who would view my belief in this man as childish or naïve, and that is your prerogative of course. But nothing will diminish my belief in this man’s potential. Perhaps part of the proof now is in his children, and grandchildren: lawyers, congressional representatives, workers for the environment, and social activists of all stripes—workers for tikkun olam, the reparation of our world.
What followed Bobby’s death, of course, was the debacle at the Chicago Convention, and the election of Richard M. Nixon. The War in Vietnam wore on for years, and in fact, escalated, and ultimately, of course, the country had to endure Watergate….
When I graduated from Music & Art I was 16. I felt as though I should have had the world at my feet. Instead, there was a vice-president named Spiro T. Agnew, who called the demonstrators and protestors in this country “an effete corps of impudent snobs posing as intellectuals.” That phrase is seared into my memory. Spiro Agnew—remember him?!
I dare say that it was virtually impossible to have gone through the experience of those years without coming out of it marked in some way. At the time, the watchword of the generation was: “Never trust anyone over 30.” Then eventually, of course, we all turned 30; and 40, and so on, and now many, if not most of us, are looking toward retirement, and many of our children are over 30, or thereabouts. Many of us are grandparents, rejoicing in that stage of the life cycle. But in fact, our lives have been shaped by the year 1968, and the time period around it.
Many of us have devoted our lives to public service—whether in law, or social work, or the Peace Corps, or any number of professional pursuits whose ultimate goal was tikkun olam—the reparation of our world. My husband Stephen graduated from his own high school in GA in 1968. He became a rabbi, and also an attorney, dedicated to public service, working for the NYC Housing Authority for many years, on fair housing regulations and anti-discrimination suits to make things easier for low-income families in this city.
And I as well committed myself to doing my part, from within the religious community—the community of conscience and optimism—to helping to bring about the kind of world we still believe is possible, and which we believe God intended for us to establish.
My peers and I have had our own personal crises during these 50 years; our triumphs, our defeats, our gains and losses. Perhaps we have been tempered a bit, and have realized that our feelings of invincibility were perhaps rather unrealistic. But we are here—and we will gather tomorrow—with the same basic beliefs with which we left in 1968—our belief in justice, and the human potential to create, and improve—belief in our responsibility to realize the potential for beauty and order in the world—and above all, our belief in human dignity, and the creative impulse with all of us.Tomorrow as we gather, I will meditate on these things, and hopefully we will renew each other’s resolve to continue to aspire to realize them. And, no matter where or when you went to high school, I wish the same for all of you.
And with that, I wish you all a Shabbat Shalom Um’vorach—a Shabbat of blessing, and a Shabbat of peace.