Where Were You When Rabin Was Shot?

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As with those other infamous shots in the 60s that resound in our memories, frozen by the singular import of the tragic occasion, I have no trouble recalling the moment I learned of Rabin’s assassination. I was in the middle of teaching a three-hour introductory psychology class at my college in Crown Heights. We were just returning from our ten-minute break when one of my African-American students asked if I had heard. “Heard what?” “That Rabin had been shot.” For a minute, I didn’t understand. The ease with which his name emerged must have surprised me. Had the whole world really kept up? Did everyone, regardless of background or context, have at their fingertips the names of Peres, Shamir, Begin, Sharon, Dayan? And why was he making such a point of telling me? Did he somehow know that I’d have more than an average, passing interest?
Yes, I knew very well the name of Rabin. As the descendant of generations of Jews born in Jerusalem, as an adolescent who couldn’t help feeling a special kinship, even with Eva Marie Saint, after seeing Exodus, as a groom who took his marriage vows under a chupah on the beaches of Eilat, I took pride in many of his accomplishments. And while the well-celebrated peace efforts of his last two years seem to have vanished with him, I refer to those dramas that now seem so long ago–exploits of the Palmach before the country was formed, the efficient surgical strikes of an unparalleled air force, manifestations of prototypically Hebrew ethics, which originated somewhere between Genesis and Deuteronomy and which were continually on display between the Mediterranean and Red Seas, between Sinai and Golan, between dawn and dusk on six days in June in 1967. The generals who always led the charge across threatening territories, loaded with land mines. The precision bombing of the oil tankards, without an enemy life taken. The courage and ingenuity of the Entebbe invasion. Rabin, often the mastermind, symbolized the resolve by which the state of Israel was born and the care by which its values were nurtured. And even when he fell temporarily from grace with–scandal of scandals!–an attempt to preserve a few real dollars outside of his country that regularly devoured savings with 50 per cent inflation a year, I felt for him. Give of yourself but also take care of yourself. The shrewd coup where nobody really gets hurt. A victimless crime. How can I save a little here? (On my first trip to Israel, a well-to-do sabra asked my companion, as we were disembarking, if she’d mind wearing the mink she’d bought abroad till we all cleared customs. It would save her a few dollars. I liked that too.) However patriotic one is, the tax collector–well, that’s something else.
But while my personal history is known hardly to anyone, word of my “ethnicity,” as all my Jamaican and Trinidadian and Nigerian students are used to referring to it, had apparently gotten around. Without my becoming aware of it, I had become the campus Jew. Without applying for the position, I had become the authority, the arbiter, the representative on matters Jewish. (As the years went by, I would become in charge of bringing the menorah to the winter holiday table and certifying the authenticity of the latkes that somehow would find their place, adjacent to the collard greens and sweet potato pie and goat curry.) And however awkward I felt to be so chosen, I couldn’t help but appreciate the genuineness of the offer. When that three-hour class was over, three staff members, one African, one African-American and one Caribbean added their expressions of sympathy. And with those, I actually began to feel simultaneously as Jewish and as at home in this almost totally black environment as I ever had. They knew, they identified, they shared. We’ve had our own many centuries of this, thank you, so we all recognize the pain of sudden and violent and senseless death.
As circumstances would have it, that evening marked the end of the shloshim following my mother’s death, and so I went off after class toward the other end of Crown Heights in search of a minyan, to be able to say kaddish. I had ventured in that direction once before, to the huge synagogue on Eastern Parkway, adjacent to the banners proclaiming “The Meshiach is Coming,” and while I had then received more than a few suspicious glances, it was nothing like this. As I walked into the musky vestibule, opening into this huge, noisy, sprawling arena that more resembled a Mid-East market place than a house of spiritual devotion (but with prayer books the only items in the stalls), I , properly dressed in black suit and sporting a knit yarmulke, stood out as if I’d been wearing a kaftan and Arab headdress. Because the Jews at this shul are not testimony to 2000 years of Diaspora–from even a few feet away they appear identical in appearance and manner: black hats, peyiis, beards (even the teenagers, it seemed), tsitsis dangling from their waists, and the side-to-side davening sway, whether standing, walking or even sitting. There can be no mistaking the outsider.
But what I sensed also in the first moment of my grand entrance was that the news of that afternoon had brought them closer together and more insulated from the world. Who was I? A terrorist in suit and tie? Israeli intelligence infiltrating the right wing? They stared at the stranger’s briefcase. Was it ticking? They watched me pick up a siddur. They covered their mouths and whispered to one another. A bold young man finally approached me and in an Eastern European accent asked, as might any salesman in a department store, if he could help me. (Perhaps I was shopping for a new suit and had made a wrong turn). I told him I wished to say kaddish. He looked stunned, disbelieving. I asked, not hiding an ironic tone, “You are a shul, yes?” With a hesitant tilt of the head, he indicated the right direction. And there, for the next fifteen minutes, despite the constant murmur which occasionally grew to a din, I and others prayed. And when I had uttered my last amen, I hurriedly left, almost bumping into a grinning, gesticulating adolescent, who, parading in front of a group of children, was apparently recreating and celebrating the afternoon’s event as he shouted, “I did it, I did it.” And on the sidewalk island in the middle of the parkway, not apparently to be outdone, a group of Lubavitchers danced and sang, while a few bystanders shook their heads as if to say “These-guys-are-crazy-and-no-wonder-that-a-Yigal-Amir-who-must-spring-from-such-roots-thinks-he-talks-directly-to-God.”
My mother was born in Jerusalem, and her mother and father before her, long before the state of Israel was conceived. But when it was born, she, like so many other nomadic, impoverished, persecuted Jews, was reborn. And here I was, on a day when its leader was brutally gunned down, trying to do a modicum of justice by her, finding the most observant place in Brooklyn where I could recite a prayer and have nine Jews lean over and at just the right moment say “amen,” one of the 613 mitzvoth which an observant Jew is required to perform daily, and ending up feeling more connected with my Jewishness by virtue of the sentiments of my African and Caribbean colleagues.
And in the ensuing weeks, as I attended memorial services at Conservative and Reconstructionist synagogues, as I gathered at rallies at Carnegie Hall and Madison Square Garden and in front of consulates, I would confirm that if Rabin’s death taught us anything, it was that Judaism, like any organism, only lives when it can breathe some outside air.
After teaching psychology for almost forty years at Medgar Evers College as well as serving as the Department’s chairperson, Ethan Gologor was recently appointed Acting Dean of Liberal Arts. One objective of this new position is to draw to the Central Brooklyn College a greater number of Jewish students, who represent a significant proportion of the Crown Heights population.