Michael's Missives

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Tisha B'Av 5768 -- Remarks about Marla Bennett z"l

Remarks about Marla Ann Bennett at the
Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem
9 Av 5768 ~ 10 August 2008

I visited Jerusalem for the first time about eight and a half years ago. Since then, I have lived in Jerusalem (from 2001 – 2003); I have brought hundreds of students on study tours; I have returned on my own to visit friends; and, this summer, I have returned to again study at Pardes.

Still, whenever I think of Jerusalem, I think of Marla Bennett.
And when I think of Marla Bennett, I think of Jerusalem.

Tisha B’Av is the day when we recall the destruction of not only one Temple, or even of both Temples, and not even only of the destruction of Yerushalayim. Tisha B’Av is the day when we mourn losses and destructions on a national scale, as a people, but it’s also a day when we are meant to feel the loss and destruction on a personal, intimate level. The words of Eicha, Yermiyahu’s lamentations, resound with personal anguish.

I think it is fitting that Pardes has designated Tisha B’Av to honor the memory of four remarkable young people whose lives – and hopes and dreams – were destroyed by terrorist murderers. We know that the Talmud teaches us in Sanhedrin that to destroy one life is akin to destroying an entire universe. In the case of Marla and the others who were killed, the effect is magnified. As Yehuda Amichai put it unforgettably in “The Diameter of the Bomb”, the circles of pain and sorrow and mourning include the “entire world,” extending “up to the throne of God and beyond.”

Marla was preparing to be a teacher of Torah, with dreams of one day heading a school. How many students – how many worlds – would Marla have touched and changed indelibly? Dozens, hundreds, thousands? We’ll never know, but we mourn the loss in these universes.

I met Marla when I came to study at Pardes in 2001-2002. It took me about five seconds after meeting her to begin falling in love with her, and within a few weeks I knew that I wanted to marry this amazing, sweet, kind, and beautiful young woman. To my delight and, yes, surprise, Marla felt the same way about me.

When I think of Marla, I think of Yerushalayim. She was born and raised in San Diego, went to college at Berkeley, but her journey brought her to Hebrew U. during her junior year and then to Pardes in summer 2000. Marla arrived at a moment when the elusive dream of peace looked like it might actually be achieved. Instead, well, we all know what came next.

Marla loved Jerusalem. Here were her words from spring 2002: “I’ve been living in Israel for over a year and a half now, and 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 picking up my dry cleaning, standing in long lines at the bank, and 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.”

She loved this beit midrash. I can still see her sitting right over there, in her makom kavua. I can still see her because I spent a lot of time – more time than I’d like to admit – looking over at her when I was supposed to be studying my sifrei kodesh (holy books) during the year we fell in love. For me, Marla was the ultimate sefer kodesh, a living book filled with wisdom and laughter, smiles and love.

On the last Shabbat of July 2002, just after Tisha B’Av, Marla and I went for a walk in our beloved Yerushalayim, a walk that began in the heat of late afternoon and ended as the cooling breezes arrived in the hills of this holy city. On our walk, Marla pointed at houses to show me the kind of place where she’d like us to live some day. Some day. We walked through a playground filled with small children. We held hands as we walked, beaming in joyful anticipation of hundreds of Shabbat walks – and so much more – that we imagined lying ahead of us in our future.

July 31, 2002 – the 22nd of Av, 5762 – was a cruel twist in the Jewish calendar. Instead of nachamu, the comfort we all needed, we had our own Tisha B’Av. Hamas terrorists exploded a bomb in the Frank Sinatra Café at Hebrew U., killing Ben and Marla and seven others, and wounding our friend Jamie Harris-Gershon and nearly 100 others. Terror struck, and our nightmare became a reality. The year that followed, rather than a year of simcha, was one of mourning, of crying out in agony, of grasping for ghosts in the beit midrash and in the streets of Jerusalem. A year of searching for my beloved, though she would never be found.

When I think of Yerushalayim, I think of Marla. She also wrote this in spring 2002: “As I look ahead to the next year and a half that I will spend in Israel, I feel 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.”

Five years ago, when I spoke here in this beit midrash on the first yahrzeit of Ben and Marla’s deaths, I might have ended on that note – loss, sadness, pain, and unfulfilled dreams. But, this year, I feel that I need to add a postscript.

Part of the reason we feel such joy and love for Jerusalem is connected to how deeply and for how long we have mourned, and what we have brought with us of the memory of Jerusalem’s glory. Those of us who merit to be in Jerusalem on Tisha B’Av can understand – just by looking out these windows – why Rav Shlomo Goren, the chief rabbi of the IDF who accompanied the troops in 1967 as they liberated the Old City, created a new version of the Nachem prayer that we say today at mincha. Rav Goren’s version acknowledges that God may shake – or perhaps has already shaken – Yerushalayim from her dust, and will make – or perhaps has already made – her jump from the land of her anguish. Our hearts continue to ache for Jerusalem’s fallen, but we experience hope amid the shards.

In my own life, I have over these past 6 years brought the memory of Marla along with me as I have become an educator in the Jewish world, influencing dozens, even hundreds, of wonderful young Jewish and non-Jewish students each year.

Yermiyahu is the author of Eicha, but he is also the author of these words:

“Od yishama b’arei Yehuda u’ve-chutzot Yerushalayim kol sasson v’kol simcha, kol chatan v’kol kallah.”
(Once again may there be heard in the cities of Yehuda and in the streets of Jerusalem the voice of gladness and the voice of joy, the voice of the groom and the voice of the bride.)

This October, b’ezrat Hashem, that song will be sung for me and my kallah, Claire. We met almost exactly two years ago, just before Tisha B’Av, in the hallway just outside these doors.

When I step on the glass under our chuppah, I will think of Yerushalayim.
And I will think of Marla.
And then, I will dance.


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