One day in October 1962, my parents visited me at school and encouraged me to come with them so they could buy me a new suit. It was a tempting offer. After all, I was in the 10th grade at the Talmudical Academy of Baltimore — classes were from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. — so a chance to miss part of the day, with permission from my parents, was appealing. As was the prospect of a suit from Calby’s, a popular clothing store in the heavily Jewish neighborhood of Pikesville.
But I said no.
What’s the use of buying a new suit, I asked my parents, when it’s likely that the world will be destroyed in the next couple of days?
Like so many around the globe, I was frightened and depressed at the prospect of an all-out nuclear war, which seemed imminent. We were in the midst of what is now described as the Cuban Missile Crisis, a dramatically tense 13-day confrontation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union over the American discovery of Russian ballistic missiles in Cuba, 90 miles from the southern coast of Florida. The episode marked the height of the longstanding conflict between the world’s two superpowers whose defiant military actions seemed to be leading to the Doomsday we’d feared for years.
Very different from the type of crisis gripping us today.
The coronavirus pandemic will not lead to a sudden, End of the World explosion. Rather, we are struggling to deal with a prolonged plunge into the dark unknown, a state of limbo with no finish line in sight. What’s similar, though, is a humbling sense that our fate is out of our control. And as I hunker down at home now, still reeling from the impact of a society — a world — turned upside down within the last few weeks and trying to imagine a return to normalcy, I recall those long ago feelings of fear and confusion from the most dangerous confrontation of the Cold War.
Less than two decades after the horrific mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Soviets and the U.S. were expanding their nuclear arsenals in a deadly arms race, with Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev threatening: “We will bury you.”
Fallout shelters — heavily fortified underground rooms meant to protect against radioactivity from nuclear bombs — were prevalent in the country at the time. A number of public buildings had them, and as kids, we were jealous of those few families who built their own shelters in backyards and basements.
In elementary school, we had drills to prepare for the Big Bomb, scurrying under wooden desks as if they would protect us from a zillion-degree blast. When I commented on the futility of these exercises during one of the drills, my sixth-grade teacher, clearly annoyed, responded by directing me and my desk closer to the window.
The dark pessimism of that distant period was evident not only in newspaper headlines monitoring the heated arms race between the U.S. and the USSR, but in popular culture as well. Nevil Shute’s 1957 post-apocalyptic novel, “On the Beach,” described how a group of Australian citizens awaited the spread of deadly radiation making its way from the aftermath of a nuclear war in the Northern Hemisphere. Key characters chose to take government-authorized suicide pills rather than suffer a slow, agonizing death.
The book was a critical and popular success, as was the movie of the same name based on it, which came out two years later and starred Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner.
(The ultimate political satire of the Cold War race, Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant film, “Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” was released in 1964, starring Peter Sellers as both the ineffectual president of the United States and the eponymous doomsday strategist.)
In real-life, after a week of intense, top-secret internal meetings, President Kennedy spoke to a shocked nation on Oct. 22, 1962. In what is considered one of the most dramatic presidential talks in U.S. history, he revealed the presence of the Russian missiles in Cuba and demanded that they be dismantled and removed, or America would take military action. (Ironically, he ordered a Naval “quarantine” — a word we are all-too familiar with today — of Cuba to prevent Russia sending more arms.)
That night was a sleepless and prayerful one in countless homes across the country. For the next six days, the world was on the brink of nuclear war. But in the end, each side managed to save face, and the immediate crisis was resolved. What lingered, though, was the recognition that life as we know it could change completely — could end — in a moment.
The Cuban Missile Crisis evoked the terrifying image of a clock racing toward midnight, and nothingness. As a teenager, I thought of all of life’s wonders I might never know. The fear today is that this full-stop period we are enduring may go on for many months, sending the economy, our society and our emotional lives down a rabbit hole. Suddenly, in an age defined by our non-stop, early morning to late night busy-ness — a constant complaint — we are being given an opportunity to reconsider life’s priorities.
The medical imperative to physically distance ourselves from one another only heightens our awareness of the human need to stay in touch — if not actually touch — with those who give meaning to our lives.
What sustains us is what always has in times of crisis. We turn to humor, like wondering: “Could Passover be delayed by a plague?” We rely on family and friends, our faith in humanity — as witnessed by the countless acts of chesed taking place each day in the community — and in our faith.
Rabbi Reuven Fink, the spiritual leader of the Young Israel of New Rochelle, the first synagogue in the country to have been hit hard by the pandemic, has been quarantined with the coronavirus for more than three weeks. He, like so many rabbis, has sought to bring solace to worried congregants. During his recuperation at home, Rabbi Fink has written several inspiring messages of hope to his community, most recently noting, “we have gained the time and perspective to want to be better and do better things. Each one of us can take away many ‘positive’ lessons from our predicament.”
He ended his call for reflection, prayer and good deeds by quoting the Prophet Isaiah: “Each person will help another and will tell his brother: ‘Be strong!’”
To which we can only add, Amen.