The day Rabin was shot presented challenge to Book Festival keynoter

BY ROBERT A. COHN Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Page One of the Nov. 8, 1995 issue of the Jewish Light contains perhaps the decade’s most significant event affecting the history of the State of Israel and the peace process: the assassination, on Nov. 4, 1995, of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at the hands of a fanatic Jewish university student. Rabin, the great Israeli military hero of Israel’s War of Independence and of the 1967 Six-Day War, had been gunned down at a peace rally in Tel Aviv.

The same evening as Rabin’s assassination would present a major challenge to the 17th Annual St. Louis Jewish Book Festival, which was scheduled to open that night at the Jewish Community Center with a keynote address by the legendary comic genius, Carl Reiner.

How, many of us wondered, would Reiner, whose entire career was based on making people laugh, address a large Jewish audience in deep shock over the tragic loss of one of our greatest heroes? Would the Jewish Book Festival leadership cancel the event? If not, how would Reiner, part of the legendary comedy writing team and co-star with Sid Caesar of the classic early TV program, “Your Show of Shows,” be able to talk about his new book “Continue Laughing” when 1,500 members of the St. Louis Jewish community assembled at the JCC Edison Gym had recently learned that Israel’s brave leader had been martyred?

As it turned out, the gathering was like a collective shiva call for the local Jewish community. When Jews are in mourning, they need to be with other Jews—to pay their respects. Then JCC president Marty Oberman asked those in attendance to rise for a moment of silence. Jewish Federation President Morris Sterneck offered words of tribute to Rabin, with whom he had met in Israel only days before, as part of a local delegation.

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When Reiner at last got up to speak, he immediately put the audience at ease by sharing his own pain and anguish over the loss of Rabin. He recalled the old show business maxim “the show must go on,” as having guided him to complete the taping of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” the very afternoon of JFK’s assassination.

More to the point, he recalled another daunting challenge to the old maxim. During World War II, Reiner was part of a USO show that had to appear before 10,000 U.S. troops in Hawaii on the very evening the only president he and many of his fellow GI’s had ever known — Franklin D. Roosevelt — had died, April 12, 1945.

With that sensitive and brilliant introduction, Reiner eased the pain of the JCC audience and empowered those of us in attendance to gain at least a temporary respite from our deep sorrow. Everyone who was there will always remember Reiner not only as a “comic genius,” but also as a genuine mensch.

Through the years, the Jewish sense of humor has been deployed in defiance of some of our most horrific experiences. While laughter does not fully banish sadness, it provides us with the necessary release of emotions to face soldiering on.

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