The flags are going back up all the way now. The socially distanced memorials are concluded. Once again, we have embraced the memories of the tragedies of Sept. 11, 2001. For many, this was their first “Where were you when …” moment. For some, this might be their only “Where are you when …” moment … so far.
Each generation has its defining “Where were you when …” moments. They define us more profoundly than describing ourselves as a Generation X, Y or Millennial. We are not sure what to call these moments. In 2005, Readers’ Digest called them Milestone Events, and published a chronology from 1939 to 2005. The Table of Contents suggest that Readers’ Digest tried hard to find good news “Where were you when …” moments. Examples include the announcement of the end of World War II and the first Americans walking on the moon. Yet, the overwhelming majority were the heart-stopping, tear-flowing, tragic moments.
In 1977, authors R. Brown and J. Kulik published the term, “Flashbulb Memories.” It is a pretty good term, if you are old enough to remember a flashbulb. Brown and Kulik wrote, “Flashbulb memories are memories for the circumstances in which one first learned of a surprising and consequential (or emotionally arousing) event.” Brown and Kulik published their research a generation before the Twin Towers, Shanksville and the Pentagon. The authors continued, “Hearing the news that President Kennedy had been shot is used as the prototype case.”
The John F. Kennedy assassination was the first Flashbulb Memory for most of my generation, I assume. It was for me, for sure. I recall vividly the screams of my classmates in Earth Science Class in Junior High School, a new school brilliantly geographically located to be naturally integrated, a predominantly Italian-Catholic and Jewish neighborhood to its east, and a predominantly African American neighborhood to its west. President Kennedy and his team gave such hope to the Civil Rights struggles. We were in Queens, New York City, hundreds of miles from segregation. We loved each other, played together, sang in chorus, played in band and orchestra, sat next to each other, and weeped when suddenly the school principal interrupted the class with a public address system announcement (remember the PA Systems) of the shooting in Dallas. We froze. We had our “flashbulb moment.”
Television was live, but newspapers were plentiful and saved for our historical record. So many papers, so many writers, so many angles, but one stands out so vividly to me to this day. I used it in spirituality lessons in my nursing homes this week. At its core is a very touching way to accept a mitzvah. Its essence is the simplicity of the profound three-word sentence, “It’s an honor.”
Jimmy Breslin (1928-2017), a great New York City journalist, told us the story of the assassination of President Kennedy in the now-defunct newspaper, The New York Herald Tribune. Jimmy Breslin was born in the Jamaica section of Queens, close to where I grew up, where Governor Cuomo grew up, and where President Trump grew up. I know those roots. Jimmy Breslin died in Manhattan, the borough of the World Trade Towers.
Breslin’s piece on the assassination is considered a staple in college journalism classes. Breslin wrote from a perspective no other writer took. Breslin wrote the story of Clifton Pollard, the Arlington National Cemetery employee who dug President Kennedy’s grave.
Here is an excerpt from Jimmy Breslin’s classic article: “Clifton Pollard was pretty sure he was going to be working Sunday … so he put on overalls … before going into the kitchen for breakfast … [His foreman called him], ‘Polly, could you please be here by 11 o’clock this morning? I guess you know what it’s for.’ … The cemetery superintendent met him when Clifton arrived. ‘Sorry to pull you out like this on a Sunday,’ Metzler said. ‘Oh, don’t say that,’ Pollard said. ‘Why, it’s an honor for me to be here.’”
The article is titled, “It’s an honor.” It is easily accessible on the internet. The bosses thought they were giving Mr. Pollard a work assignment. Clifton knew he was accepting a mitzvah. This is how you turn work into a mitzvah, with an open heart and deep spirituality.
The parsha from this past week, the week that included the 9/11 remembrances, included Deuteronomy 30:6. This had been classically translated as, “G-d will circumcise your hearts,” a challenging phrase to prep for bat and bar mitzvah. Rabbi Shraga Simmons of aish.com presented a more modern and more poignant translation as, “G-d will remove the barriers from your hearts.” When we look at the opportunity to perform a mitzvah as “It’s an honor,” we are a partner in removing a barrier from our hearts.
May the new year see you remove more barriers.