Two days ago we commemorated 6 million European Jews who perished in the worst of war crimes humanity has ever known. This time next week, the people in the State of Israel will be joyously celebrating our 65th Independence day, which follows the grief of the Memorial Day.
Each year before that day, I debate with friends, what is the honorable way to spend this national vacation day. Some cannot believe it appropriate to hike or enjoy oneself throughout this day. I constantly have to remind myself of the American tradition which celebrates Memorial Day by barbequing.
While I was an elementary school student I devoted myself to History and English classes. After all, we were taught that “a nation who has no past has no future”. I can recall myself memorizing the long list of wars in which Israel fought for its very existence. Coming to the end of the list, I was happy to understand that by the time I was born, there were no wars to commemorate. I was glad to be merely another bystander at the front-row of Jewish history; I had no need to take an active part as a combatant.
This notion changed pretty quickly when I understood that there was a constant threat of war that the citizens of this country cannot escape; it began with the 1st Intifada, which in Arabic means an uprising, continued on as the 2nd Intifada erupted in 2000, and goes on to this day with occasional Israeli civilian casualties at the hands of Arab terrorists.
Fortunately, as compared to the common situation of most Israeli families, my family never had to attend a ceremony at the military grave yard of Har Hertzel. However, for me this advantage was swiftly obliterated by the number of friends who were killed just by hanging out at a restaurant in a sunny day in the heart of Jerusalem.
One of these casualties has left a mark in my personal memory, and will not be easily erased.
It was the summer of 2002 and the 2nd Intifada was raging all over the country. In an effort to escape the horrors of this reality I took part in an Israeli-American youth program, “Nesiya”. During the program’s six weeks, I had the opportunity to meet American Jews my age that were as eager as I was to explore the beauty of this country; We also had the chance to learn more about the history of the Jewish people that ties us to this piece of war torn land.
During a Shabbat in which the group stayed at Safed, I looked for a special spiritual experience which the city is renowned for; the Carlibach “Kabalat Shabbat” minyan at the Bar Birav shul of the old city.
As I reached the synagogue, it was already packed. Apparently, many were looking for the same experience. Looking for a place to sit, I met the smile of a most beautiful woman, that I thought I would not forget but would never see again. Unfortunately, I was right.
That young woman was Marla Ann Bennet, the hopeful fiancée of one of my American counselors.
A few weeks later, while ending a long and exhausting day touring Tel Aviv, the news arrived. July 31,2002 – the 22nd of Av, 5762 – was a cruel twist in the Jewish calendar. The Frank Sinatra Cafeteria at the Mt. Scopus campus of the Hebrew University was shattered to pieces, along with its inhabitants. Among those who were killed was Marla. Aged 24 with her whole life and dreams ahead of her, Marla become a heroine in my personal history.
As a foreign student at the HU, Marla loved Jerusalem.
Here were her words from spring 2002: “My favorite thing to do here is to go to the grocery store. I know – not the most exciting response from someone living in Jerusalem these days. But going grocery shopping here – as well as waiting in the hungry mob at the bakery – means that I live here. I am not a tourist; I deal with Israel and all of its complexities, confusion, joy, and pain every single day. And I love it.”
Marla kept getting worried phone calls from friends and family overseas who were trying to persuade her to go back to the US. However, she wrote that she feels “excited, worried, but more than anything else, lucky…. Stimulation abounds in Jerusalem…. There is no other place in the world where I would rather be right now.”
But it was a few sentences in her writing that took my breath away, leaving me with an endless stream of tears in my eyes,
” At least if I am here I can take an active role in attempting to put back together all that has broken…I can see what goes on each day with my own eyes instead of with the eyes of CNN… My friends and family are right when they call and ask me to come home. It is dangerous here. I appreciate their concern. But there is nowhere else in the world I would rather be right now. I have a front-row seat for the history of the Jewish people.”
On the question of what is the most appropriate way to commemorate our fallen soldiers and non-combatant citizens, I do not have any advice; my own personal memory drives me to blend with the grief of the nation. On the other hand, my adventurous nature keeps sending me to explore the beauty of this land and its people, reflected so candidly in Marla’s words, her way of life and her death.