It was an unusually warm day for late November, over 55F (we hadn't yet started using Celsius), sun was shining and I was anticipating a pretty good party to celebrate my 12th birthday. Yes no doubt about it, November 22, 1963 would be a good day.
It began like all my other days. We lived in a suburb of Ottawa known as Elmvale Acres. As far as suburbs went it was relatively new located in Ottawa's southeast it boasted a couple of new high schools, some elementary schools one of which I attended, Vincent Massey public school on Smyth Rd.
I had just entered Grade Seven, moved into the area a year before with my family from a lower town Duplex where I grew up. Vincent Massey was unlike my previous school, Osgoode Street Public School. There one grew up fast and tough especially, if like me, you were one of the very few Jewish kids in the school. School yard anti-semitism was a common activity, one which followed me through much of my early school years.
Out here though in Elmvale Acres, while still an outsider, the fights and the obvious racism diminished. In fact it seemed that a new era had set in. While Ottawa remained buttoned down, stoic still resembling then a very parochial national capital there was freshness in the air. Just three years earlier a young and brash new American President had been elected in the United States. His beautiful wife and young children brought a new face to staid politics even here in Canada.
For faith minorities the landscape changed with the election of John F. Kennedy as its first Roman Catholic American president. I remember my father ruminating that if a Catholic can be elected president of the United States who knows perhaps one day a black president or maybe even a Jewish Leader of the strongest nation on earth. President Kennedy was the symbol of change.
My father who survived the Holocaust and understood in every fibre of his being what it meant to be stateless, victimized by racism and injustice, without hope, a stranger in a strange land. He embraced this dashing young president. So unlike the dull politics of our own country with older perhaps savvy but hard to relate to politicians like Lester Pearson and John Diefenbaker, Kennedy was the "new-model" politician.
Kennedy stood for justice and an end to bigotry. Only a few months earlier on June 11, 1963, he gave a moving address on civil rights that for the first time in American history moved the yardsticks forward when he proclaimed, "We are confronted primarily with a moral issue... It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution... One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs... are not fully free. They are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice... this Nation... will not be fully free until all its citizens are free... Now the time has come for this Nation to fulfil its promise."
It was such words and promises that made him so much different than the politicians of the past. And most importantly to my father, with the stench of fascism and totalitarianism still hovering in the historical air, Kennedy seemed unafraid of Communists (the new menace) like Khrushchev and Castro, standing up to their bullying with a fresh strength of character.
It was 3 p.m. on this November 22, 1963. I was sitting in Mr. Weaver's history class where ironically we were studying early 20th century American history. I was daydreaming of my party to come that evening to celebrate my 12th birthday. I was hoping that Wendy Briggs would show a little interest in me, truth be told I had a giant crush on her. Quite unexpectedly Mr. Gillies, our school principal entered the room and beckoned Mr. Weaver to step outside. We heard gasps; we knew something was very wrong.
Mr. Weaver stepped back into the classroom. His face was white, tears running down his cheeks. I remember being awed by the fact that heretofore I had never seen a teacher cry. "Boys and girls," he said in a halting voice, "just a short time ago we received the news that President John Kennedy was assassinated. We are sending you all home early so you can be with your families on this sad and historic day."
We were all stunned. Any other time leaving school early would have been reason for cheering. No one wanted to cheer. Slowly I made my way to the bus that would take me to my Dad's small grocery store. I sat on the number 66 not knowing what to think or how to feel. I saw my parents through the large window of our corner store. They were listening to the radio on the counter; both were crying. Another first, I never before saw my parents cry.
There would be no 12th birthday party that November 22 night. Though my Bar Mitzvah would be a year later where by Jewish law a boy became a man, it was on November 22, 1963 that my eyes were truly open to the realities of a world filled with undeniable hope and the balloon burst of unbearable despair.
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