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Twenty years after Ben and Marla and the Hebrew University bombing

I dream of them every year, remembering his rough veneer and heart of gold, her brilliance and generosity – and how I called their parents with the terrible news
Source: Wikipedia (Ariel Ben Natan)

So, take a good look at my face

When I rose from a deep sleep – I hadn’t slept for more than several hours, if that, a night – for the past five days – on a Newark to San Diego flight – everyone, it seemed, was staring at me. My row mate, an attractive woman in her late twenties, put her hand on my arm and quietly said, “You were sobbing in your sleep – we couldn’t wake you.” As I stumbled to the lavatory with a weak, embarrassed smile, a young priest commented, as if lecturing to the passengers, “He is a rabbi, and he is surely mourning for the Temple that has burned down in flames.” I blurted out – “If only…” In the washroom, I got a look at my ravaged red face. During those post days, I probably zogt (chanted) the whole Book of Tehilim (Psalms) at least twice, but the only psalm I could remember was sung by The Miracles in the late sixties:

So take a good look at my face
you’ll see my smile looks out of place
If you are closer, it’s easy to trace
the tracks of my tears

Where are they

This was during my tragic trek from Jerusalem to bury my students Marla Bennett and Ben Blustein, murdered in the terrorist bombing of the Frank Sinatra Cafeteria of Hebrew University on July 31, 2002. That day, when the staff at Pardes, especially Joanne and Trudy, tried to account for our students’ whereabouts. As director, I had initiated a joint program with Hebrew University to create Jewish educators well rooted in traditional Jewish learning and the best of pedagogy; and our students were studying there that day. I headed out with David, for his wife Jamie was found with “minor” injuries, which were later “upgraded to moderate” by the time we got there. “Moderate?” I remember wishing out loud that the arch-terrorist Yasser Arafat should merit to receive such “moderate” injuries. Jamie was not left alone for a moment by David, and in the next weeks by our circle, with many, including my wife Sheryl, sleeping on the crowded ward floor by her bed.

But where was Marla and where was Ben? All three were at the same table in the cafeteria, but when the bomb went off, Jamie had bent under the table – which ended up affording her some protection – to get a folder to show her colleagues. At first, racing around the hospital with senior staff members David Bernstein and Aryeh Ben David, we hoped we would not find them, hoped they had somehow avoided getting hurt, but soon we prayed that even if they were hurt, they would be well enough to be in treatment. I was called to identify a young woman who was terribly injured and was found in a Minnie Mouse t-shirt, gear that Marla favored. But it wasn’t Marla. Eventually, some of us straggled back to our office.

Dear reader, let me tell you about Ben and Marla so that you can understand the urgency which we would feel for any student, but they each had their own individual specialness.

Ben was a large man, who was tough. He had a rough veneer and a salty tongue. He called things as he saw them, sparing no one. And it came out hard because as a recovering alcoholic and being really bright, he saw things as they were and didn’t hesitate to say so. But he had a heart of gold with kindness, especially for the overlooked and forgotten – also expressed in a tough manner. He was a popular DJ in the Israeli clubs late at night, but always came to my senior Talmud shiur the next morning exactly on time prepared – a condition of acceptance. “I don’t spin on Shabbos” was his signature mantra that secular and senior music colleagues loved to repeat. And at the Shabbos table, he would sing the entire songbook with a unique and real beat – the only way. He made me dance with him for real on holidays.

Marla, it was her smile that just made you feel terrific. I have never met anyone who had so many people tell me, “Don’t tell anyone so they won’t feel bad, but I was Marla’s best friend.” And that included not only the intellectuals and impassioned activists but the ancient bent-over lady I met randomly that Marla helped shop with and actually paid for much of her groceries. Marla illustrated her Talmud with colored pencils indicating questions, answers, counter questions, proofs, and the rest. All in different colors. In the beit midrash (study hall) her page dazzled, and when I grumbled in class, “Just give me the old black and white,” she protested, “But the Talmud just makes me happy!” A brilliant student, she became a fervent committed Zionist at… Berkeley!

When the terrible news arrived, I resolved to first call the parents and tell them that we had little hope and then to call them back soon after with the actual news. I first called Michael and Linda in San Diego. Linda beseeched, “Marla loves you, Danny, and says you can do anything. Fix it!” When I called back with the fact that I couldn’t fix it, they were despondent. At that time, I had a strong intuition that in their inconsolable grief, they would not be burdened by any concern of how their relationship with Marla was. They always knew that they had a remarkable treasure and acted accordingly.

There was only one call to Richard and Katherine, Ben’s loving parents. Being respectively Harrisburg’s beloved pediatrician and a renowned bacteriologist, they told me that they figured I was bearing just terrible tidings.

I expected that they would be buried in Jerusalem, but both sets of parents wanted them home. I accompanied Ben to Harrisburg. We started at El Al where, in the hangar, comedian Yisrael Campbell, Ben’s AA sponsor, recited psalms for hours by the crated casket, to JFK, and then in the hearse with police motorcycle guards that Friday afternoon. It was a grieving small-town funeral. The hearse passed the fire station where all the trucks revolved their emergency lights and the firemen stood at attention, saluting Ben, their hometown boy felled in Jerusalem.

Despite my show of strength as rabbi at the funeral, eulogizing a beloved student, I could hardly stand upright after helping to fill the dirt on Ben’s grave. Then I was given strength. A student, Aaron Bisman, who had come in from somewhere came up to me and said with quiet determination, “We won’t just leave Ben and Marla. We will do something big in New York and in Jerusalem.” I knew he would, and that year he had amazing jazz memorials (Ben’s medium was percussion; along with Saskia on guitar and vocals; and Rebecca and Courtney were the dancers in the jazz group, ‘Women, Slaves, and Minors’) at the Knitting Factory in lower Manhattan and on the Tayelet (Promenade) in Jerusalem. The second was a young woman with many piercings and a hippyish garb, who very much wanted to tell me this: “I would not have the close relationship today with Torah and Yiddishkeit if it wasn’t for Ben.” I knew she spoke the truth.

A number of students had come to the funeral, and we were taken in by the community – by Rabbi Ron Muroff of the Conservative synagogue who knew Ben and his family well, and by Rabbi Chaim Schertz of the Orthodox shul. Community members soon understood that some students wanted to travel to Marla’s funeral in San Diego but lacked the resources. They took up a collection and passed it on to the students with love. We began the Blustein’s shivah with them; and we felt privileged.

Motzai Shabbat was an emotional Havdalah ceremony. Very hard to separate. I was picked up by a driver to take me to New Jersey for the wedding of a dear member of this group – Andy Katz and his bride Emily Shapiro. Andy called me with a sheilah (question) before I left. He asked if it was not more correct to delay the wedding, given the catastrophe. I thought of my Tosafist forebears who answered the exact same questions during the murderous violence of the Crusaders. I channeled their response: “Now more than ever, your wedding must continue.” I arrived at the hotel in the middle of the night – the driver was falling asleep at the wheel, and I forced him to take a two-hour nap. At the wedding, we were joined by more students and some who had been in Harrisburg.

The couple were an extraordinarily handsome pair (made in Heaven), but they were very sober. At the tisch, when the chatan (groom) was away for a moment, I suddenly had a vision of my late teacher, my grandfather the Menachem Tziyon – the Comforter of Zion – leaning over me and saying, “Remember what I taught you regarding the famous section in Kohelet (Ecclesiastes).” To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose unto Heaven.” It is followed by a series of opposing couplets in the infinitive, starting – a time to be born / a time to die – but then that structure is broken up by a pair in the continuous present – a time of mourning / a time of dancing! You will see that there will be a time that you must mourn, and you must dance simultaneously.”

I told this over to my students – as now my grandfather had left my side and was standing at the exit. I finished: “If you want to celebrate, dance! If you must mourn, dance!” And they did. Under the chuppah (wedding canopy), the very beautiful bride said that she wanted to say a few words about their murdered friends that she had written. I told them both that she did not need to, but she persisted and said words of true meaning.

The dancing was intense. In the middle, I was taken away and told to eat my main course before everyone. As I finished, my driver was at the door to get me to Newark International. Eventually, I made my way down to the plane and to sleep. And that’s where I began the story.

Arriving in San Diego, I somehow crawled to the baggage claim. Grabbing at my suitcase, I couldn’t lift it. “Hub nisht koi’ach,” I screamed in Yiddish – I have no strength. Then, smoothly, a hand appeared and lifted the bag. Tom Barad, a Hollywood director and producer who had studied with me at Wexner and then joined our Board had come down to fetch me. He placed me in his fancy sports car, raced me to the funeral and, at the same time, put me together for this next role. He was used to actors arriving at The Set all strung out. Marla’s funeral was the opposite of Ben’s – very large, everyone looked glamorous, and many highfalutin civic leaders were present. But one thing was the same – the tears were copious and real. I spoke of Marla as an etz chayim (tree of life), so full of life and the Torah of life, as well as protecting those who sought her shading presence.

The internment was in a mausoleum and its cold stone could not have been starker in telling the alternate reality. Marla’s real best friend from Pardes was there. The two often played off their seemingly opposite personalities. Indeed, the previous Purim [a holiday known for its topsy-turvy view of reality] they came as the Yeitzer (Inclination) twins, except it was Amanda Pogany (who often displayed “attitude”) dressed in white with a halo, dispensing sweet compliments and Marla as the Evil Inclination in black with horns displaying a real talent for some sharp zingers (but, being Marla, they were more hilarious than nasty).

Everyone finally left, but by this time Amanda sank to the floor, leaning on the stone. “Aleyn vi a shteyn” (alone like a stone) is the Yiddish description. And it fit; she would not budge. I also fell against the stone, saying after a while, “I can’t get up unless you do.” We both rose. That night, the many students who were there camped out at the beautiful La Jolla home of Julie Potiker (also my Wexner student who became chairperson of the board) and her husband Lowell. A constant stream of food, drink, and comfort, as we had, as it were an all-night “shivah” of stories, reflection, and tears. All through the process, our attention and love were drawn to Michael Simon, a classmate of Marla’s. We had all been awaiting their engagement. Michael, seemingly a “congenital optimist”, as I once had called him, was shattered by the event. He accepted comfort, but it was to no avail. In the morning, people began to make their ways back home in the USA and me back to Jerusalem.

Aftermath

Back in Jerusalem, I was anxious for our “surviving” students due to their emotional turmoil, and I feared for our institution’s future. The staff and faculty, from the top down, could not have been more compassionate and realistic. And they were carrying their own emotional freight from these losses and others they had been close to, living in Israel. We were also fortunate to have new students, Aaron Katchen and Robby Grossman, who had significant Hillel expertise as directors to immediately become part of the mourning and healing process. Everyone’s efforts made a difference, but nonetheless, that year we were a beit shivah (shivah house).

I saw the Educators Program ending. Why should anyone come? It wasn’t fair, but I knew that I needed to get our student leader back. I wrote to Amanda Pogany and said I was coming to visit her at her parents’ home in New Jersey. Two weeks after the bombing, I flew at Sabbath’s end. I arrived in a buckets downpour without a raincoat or umbrella (I came, after all, from summer in Jerusalem) and then got the last car on the lot, a Chevy Impala, which I immediately smashed up in the front, slipping on the ramp. I was whisked to the angry manager’s office. He asked why I was here. I started to tell him, and then I saw that he had the Jerusalem Post article on the bombing on his desk. He, without a word, tore up my contract, handed me the keys to his own car, and sent me on my way.

Amanda’s parents let me in the house late Sunday morning with worried looks. Assertaining that I hadn’t eaten, they whipped up a serious breakfast, somehow all the foodstuffs had their kashrut certificates displayed. Their first real comment: “I don’t know what you intend to do, but she is not going back to Israel. She hardly leaves her room.” Amanda at last showed up to breakfast looking worse, if possible, than me. As I ate, the parents launched into a discussion of how Amanda would not be returning (impossible!) to Israel; then to how Israel and this program could not be abandoned; and finally, that Amanda would be coming back (she had to!).” Amanda conveyed her assent. I hadn’t said anything except, “Pass the blueberry pancakes.”

The students returned. The night before Hebrew U reopened, we all went together to the site of the cafeteria. Hardly a word was said – we all understood and stood close to one another. The next day, they went to class.

Epilogue

Every year, as the “Three Weeks” commence, I dream dreams of Marla and Ben. This year seems to be the same. I have a dream of leaving the school’s building and Marla running up to me from a table with her multicolored Talmud, saying with anticipation, “I think I can correct such-and-such a reading you gave us in shiur (class),” and we return to the Study Hall, but now the door is stuck. With Ben, it’s also always a variation of the same – we are dancing at a simchah (joyous event) with Ben’s eyes shut, singing rapturously – I shout out over the music: “Is this your wedding?” He opens his eyes, gives me his Ben “you can’t be serious look,” mouths the word, “No,” and then closes them and we continue dancing.

These dreams no longer frighten me, but they cause me to connect to a deep sense of guilt. A “guilt,” I hasten to add, that I would dismiss if coming from staff or faculty. I am feeling guilty for bringing them into a dangerous situation. There was real opposition to allowing Ben into our Educators Program due to his rough nature. I saw something that was gold for his future students and overruled the nays. And Marla, I vigorously wooed her to learn with us, dismissing the offers of other institutions for superior “educational training” as “mere training like you do with a puppy… here, we learn.” It worked, but the result was tragic. I think: “What leaders they would have made!”

I have long wondered what pathology or at least quirk has led me to embrace this guilt, which I know, deep down, really does not belong to me. But if you have been my student, then you know this: learning is not the real thing unless it brings understanding and it is not worth anything if the understanding does not lead to commitment; and commitment has a price for those who learn and for those who teach.

Ben and Marla, each in their own unique way, certainly had understanding and fulfilled commitment. Remembering each of them is a blessing.

And me? I’m surrounded by a wife who keeps me existentially and morally focused, love from my children, nachas (happiness) from old students, and real challenges from the new. And I’m still pushing peshat (plain textual understanding) and projects; and sometimes plotzin (collapsing in defeat); nonetheless giving it, I hope, my all. But during the “Three Weeks” I return to the Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, as they sing:

“People say I’m the life of the party
‘Cause I tell a joke or two
Although I might be laughing loud and hard
Deep inside I’m blue
So take a good look…”

About the Author
Rabbi Daniel Landes is founder and director of Yashrut, building civil discourse through a theology of integrity, justice, and tolerance. Yashrut includes a semikhah initiative as well as programs for rabbinic leaders.
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