What is your generational moment?

Brandeis community shares memories of defining events

We all have that moment — that moment that imprints itself on the fabric of our lives and the lives of a whole generation: Pearl Harbor, the moon landing, Sept. 11.  

“The power of a generational moment comes from the collective experience of the event — the sense that ‘all of us’ have shared it,” says sociology professor David Cunningham.   

The question “where were you when …” becomes a means to express that sense of shared experience but also to transmit memory from generation to generation. 

“These moments at some point transition from memory to history — from first-hand experience to a representation maintained through commemoration or memorialization,” Cunningham says. “Fiftieth anniversaries fall at the cusp of that transition — both direct and indirect memories remain in conversation, and that process helps extend generational moments to later generations.”

As we mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, BrandeisNOW asked the Brandeis community to share their generational moments.  

Where were you when …

… John F. Kennedy was assassinated? 

As a senior at Tulane University, I was studying in the fall of 1963 at the Sorbonne. On Saturday morning, Nov. 23, when I said hello to the landlady in whose apartment I was living, she informed me, "Votre president est mort." At first I thought that I had misunderstood her, that somehow I had not heard the exact words to indicate that it was the father of John F. Kennedy who had died the day before. When I realized what she told me, the shock, the sheer white-knuckle disbelief, proved overwhelming. Throughout the day, I saw throughout the city outpourings of grief that I fully shared. I remember visiting the Eiffel Tower and even imagining jumping off, so shattered did the normal order of life stunningly appear. The special resonance among Parisians was certainly due to his widow's own earlier study at the Sorbonne and to her famous state visit with President Kennedy to Paris in 1961. Nov. 23, 1963, was certainly a defining and indelible moment. Of course, the shock inevitably lessened and even vanished. But as a historian, I still cannot help reflecting on how different the course of history undoubtedly became because of that utterly unpredictable act of murder.

— Stephen Whitfield, Professor of American Studies

I was in third grade in Mrs. Diack's class, and I was sitting in the middle of the room, third row, about halfway back. I remember that the public address system came on with the radio and everyone laughed. Then the principal came on and told us what happened, and school ended. I met my brother (who was in sixth grade), and we went up the street to the high school where my mom taught and went to her office — that was our meeting place in the era before cell phones!

I remember that this was the first time I saw my mother cry for someone who was not a member of the family. I also remember going to synagogue and it was very full, similar to the high holidays — there was the feeling of a community in mourning. Everyone felt that there was a loss in their family.

— President Frederick M. Lawrence

… the 6-Day War began?

The tension had been building for weeks, ever since Egypt had expelled UN peacekeeping forces, blockaded the Strait of Tiran and massed hundreds of thousands of troops on Israel's borders. "The great hour has come," Cairo radio announced on May 16, 1967. "The battle has come in which we shall destroy Israel." I had visited Israel for the first time two years earlier, and had a vivid memory of divided Jerusalem (a playful Jordanian soldier had pointed his gun at me) and of my many relatives in the country. What would happen to them, I wondered. For weeks, we had watched tortuous proceedings at the United Nations and grainy television pictures from Israel, where, I recall, citizens prepared new cemeteries for the many expected to die in battle.   

On June 5, 1967, I overslept in the morning but awoke in time for the 7 a.m. news. War! Unconfirmed reports of Israeli strikes against Arab air forces! Heavy fighting on multiple fronts. I let out a yell, waking my parents.

For the next six days, the radio and television were never off in our house, not even on Shabbat, when we usually listened to neither. I took my transistor radio to school and listened to it whenever I could. The reports were unbelievable: Arab air forces destroyed; Israeli forces advancing on all fronts. On June 7, during recess, I heard the shofar sounded at the Western Wall — Jerusalem was reunited! On Saturday, Israel stormed the Golan Heights — never again, I thought, would my aunt in a Galilee kibbutz need to take shelter from Syrian shells.  

There were massive support rallies for Israel during the long week and perhaps the largest crowd in synagogue that Shabbat morning that I had ever seen outside of the high holidays. 

And then the fighting ended. The armies poised to destroy Israel had themselves been destroyed.

At the time, it seemed like a miracle. Peace and tranquility seemed just around the corner. Alas, 46 years have passed since then, and I am still waiting. But the memory of June 5, 1967, remains vivid.  

— Jonathan Sarna, Professor of American Jewish History

… the human genome was mapped?

When the project began, I was very young, and all I remember hearing was that it was too big to ever get finished. I remember people around me talking about how it was a waste of money and time. 

Fast forward: It was the fall of 2000, and I had just started grad school. I was with my classmates at MIT, and we had just come back from genetics class when the copies of Nature and Science were delivered to our study room. Both journals published lead articles on the competing genome projects: Nature was the private project; Science was the public project. All my classmates ran to the table in the center of the room and started reading and discussing the project excitedly. We talked about how this would help treat disease, study congenital disorders and find new genes we didn't even know existed yet. Seminars were announced all over campus led by one of the primary authors of the public project, a professor at MIT, Eric Lander. Every one of my classes, for an entire week, started with a dramatic introduction to the new face of molecular biology opened by the human genome. 

It was clear the human genome was going to change the face of genetics and medicine. Here I was, a first-year grad student standing on the edge of an entirely new world of research. The impossible had become possible! All I remember thinking was "What will WE do next?"

— Melissa Kosinski-Collins, Associate Professor of Biology

… the World Trade Center was attacked?

I remember sitting inside my fourth-grade class for an English lesson when the class received an announcement over the loudspeaker that all students were being sent home for early dismissal. No explanation was provided, which was unusual because usually this message would be accompanied by a "due to inclement weather" or "this is an emergency drill." I don’t remember watching the news when I got home, and I don’t even think my parents spoke to me about what had happened. Aside from "tragedy" and "accident," I knew nothing about the events that had transpired in NYC on that day. I was satisfied living in my 9-year-old self’s bubble of ignorance. But over the next few days, I was struck by the gravity of what had occurred on 9/11; several desks remained empty in my classroom, and I learned that a few of my classmates lost their parents and close relatives in the twin towers on that day. Even then, I did not know the details of what had transpired, and, really, it was only until I was mature enough to grasp what had happened that I could understand it. In many ways, it is not the moment itself that haunts me, but how I look back on the events now. 

— Ricky Rosen '14, Student Union President

We were so young when the twin towers fell. I remember walking into the living room to ask my parents a question after I came home from school, and their eyes were glued to the television screen in a way I had not seen before. I saw true horror and terror in a way I had not felt before. I was scared. They kept replaying the historic footage, and, as the day unfolded, more and more facts helped to explain this major terror attack. Sept. 11 was the first major terrorist attack on American soil for our generation to experience. The attack was also an exploration into the world outside America, and I feel it encouraged us, collectively, to reach outward and seek to understand a world that was outside of our grasp yet affected us so significantly. Especially in Boston, it seemed that we knew someone affected by the travesty, and we collectively mourned the loss of life.

— Brian H. Hough '17

Responses from Facebook:

There were so many defining moments that it's hard to pick just one: JFK's election, JFK's assassination, first space shot, first moon landing, Bay of Pigs, Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam War, birth control pill, Summer of Love, Woodstock (even though I didn't attend), Altamont. We were born amidst the post-war exhuberance and economic growth (albeit coupled with the social conservatism of the '50s), became conscious during the '60s (but were a few years too young to embrace the excesses of that decade fully), and came of age at the start of the disco '70s. We experienced major shifts in the culture during our first two decades. There were a series of defining moments, not just one.

— Mark Gershenson '74

The explosion of the space shuttle [Challenger] was a biggie, and Reagan and the Cold War in particular were still big.

— Robin Blonstein '84

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