Losing Marla: 5 Years Later

by Brian on August 2, 2007

in Living Through Terror

It’s hard to believe that it’s been five years since our cousin Marla was killed in the July 31, 2002 suicide bombing at Hebrew University. Marla Bennett had just sat down to lunch at the university’s Frank Sinatra cafeteria when a terrorist detonated the bomb he had planted in a backpack at an adjoining table. 7 people were killed, including Marla’s classmate at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Ben Blutstein.

After Marla died, I wanted to do something to honor her memory. One action was to start this blog, which began immediately following and was in large part a reaction to her death. Since my craft is my words, I also proposed to Marla’s parents that I write a book or a long magazine-length article on Marla’s life. Marla’s parents gave me access to the hundreds of articles, letters, and eulogies they had received in the days and weeks following her death.

I never wrote that book, but I still have much of the source material that I photocopied during visits to Marla’s home in San Diego. I wanted to share some of that with you on this anniversary.

The front page of the August 9 edition of the San Diego Jewish Press Heritage summarized the enormity of Marla’s loss for her friends and extended family. The headline read “Community mourns a martyr for peace: 1500 attend funeral for Marla Bennett.” The coverage continued for 13 difficult pages, quoting Marla’s oft-repeated article where she proudly declares there was nowhere else she’d rather be in the world than Israel. Her words “I have a front row seat for the history of the Jewish people” are as poignant today as they were when she wrote them, months before her death. The publication culminated with two pages of news that sounds like it could be taken from today’s papers; one article was titled “Hamas intensifies bombing campaign.” Sound familiar?

Beyond the headlines, perhaps the most poignant memories of Marla I collected for my book project were a series of letters between Marla and her father written during Marla’s 1998 trip to Israel as an overseas student at Hebrew University. The letters themselves are nothing extraordinary – more recanting of daily activities than sharing of deep personal insights. “Yesterday we had a night hike and picnic with cheese, wine and olives,” Marla wrote in one. “I got a B+ on my Hebrew midterm…I plan to kick ass and ace every test from now on,” she wrote in another. Upon hearing that her parents were planning a trip to visit her in Israel, Marla wrote “if you have extra room in your bags, could you bring lots of gum, a bottle of honey (it is expensive here), and Kraft macaroni and cheese.”

Yet it’s the very ordinariness of these letters that is perhaps the most heartbreaking: Marla was just a regular girl, a young adult filled with promise and typical post-teenage concerns. Marla wasn’t a superwoman who wrote deep Kafka-esque manifestos. She was just like any of us except she found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Then there were the letters written to the Bennett family from Marla’s scores of friends who reflected on what Marla meant to them.

Dipti Barot remembered Marla’s “chameleon camouflage eyes, which looked brown or gray or green or any color in the sea depending on what shirt or blouse she put on that day.” Dipti, whose family came from India, marveled at how Marla introduced her to “the beauty of the Jewish faith and the strength of the Jewish people. She made me sign up for Jewish folk singing at Hillel. And so I went, and I loved it. I was this Hindu, sitting up in Hillel, singing Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu with the best of them. I was officially an honorary Jew now.” After Marla visited Israel, Dipti says she knew she “felt happiest and whole there.”

Marla’s childhood friend Emma agreed. “She really felt at home in Israel…her life was more fulfilled than ever before,” Emma wrote in a eulogy delivered before a gathering of the American Friends of Hebrew University. Marla was what Emma called “a professional friend. She never missed an opportunity to send a card, not just on the holidays but on the half birthdays too.” Emma shared details that might seem slight but make all the difference in understanding who Marla was. “Marla really liked elbows. She would come up from behind you and take hold of the extra skin and just play with it for a second while she greeted you. She loved that she could squeeze that little part of your body and you couldn’t even feel it.”

Marla influenced and affected so many people. Michelle met Marla while they worked together at Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu, CA. When Marla learned that Michelle had never had a bat mitzvah, wrote Michelle, “Marla began meeting with me to discuss Jewish identity and to help me to study my Torah portion. She was completely committed to the idea of my becoming a bat mitzvah and she arranged for me to read from the Torah on the last Shabbat of the summer at camp. Completing my Torah portion was one of the most thrilling experiences of my life. As I danced in celebration afterwards with Marla, I realized how lucky I was to be part of a community in which someone as special and dedicated as Marla could make something I’d dreamed about a reality.

Michelle added: “Marla knew that every trivial decision she made on a daily basis could be the difference between life and death. But her resolve to stay in Jerusalem, to not leave out of fear, to stand in solidarity with Israel, demonstrates to us all that Marla did not die in vain.”

Marla herself reflected on what it meant to stay in Israel at a time when many others were leaving. In a letter to her friend Ricki, she admitted that “Israel is really scary right now. But I still feel so strongly about being here, I am happy here, even now, despite everything that is going on. I still feel I can remain (mostly) safe by making smart choices about where to go and what to do. I do not live in Ramallah. No one is invading my home. Don’t worry too much.”

Marla left behind a devastated community. Her boyfriend Michael shared the following story:

“Six months after our first date, Marla was brushing her teeth and I was standing nearby. Suddenly she put down her toothbrush and said, ‘There’s something I think you should know.’ ‘OK….’ I said, wondering whether this was going to be a good ‘something’ or a bad ‘something.’ ‘You should know that when I get engaged, it’s going to be with Grammee’s wedding ring.’ (this was definitely a good ‘something.’) I said ‘And I should just know this because…?’ ‘It’s just something you should now,” she said, flashing a cute little grin. So in August, during my visit to San Diego, I had planned to ask Grammee for that ring. And I had planned to ask Michael and Linda (Marla’s parents) for their blessing and permission to marry their daughter. Instead, in August I flew from Israel to Southern California accompanying Marla’s body and I met Grammee on the day of Marla’s funeral. As I hugged her, I told her what Marla had told me about the ring and Grammee held up her hand. ‘It’s this ring, kid.’ She was wearing it for Marla.”

To nearly everyone she met, Marla was an inspiration: Her friend Lesley was debating whether to get involved with Hillel when she started school at UC Berkeley. “Though I had been informally Jewishly involved, I hadn’t been inspired by my synagogue’s youth group in high school, and was unconvinced that Hillel would be different,” Lesley wrote. “Marla repeatedly coaxed me into going to Hillel at the start of freshman year and soon I was hooked. I currently work for Berkeley Hillel as the organization’s programming coordinator. Without Marla, I never would have been drawn to this field that I so enjoy. I now it sounds trite, but Marla genuinely changed the path of my life.”

Marla’s friend Ari wanted to “grow old living next door” to Marla. “I wanted our kids to play in little league and soccer and go to camp together. Marla was the person I turned to when something was not right. She cared, not because some law, some rule, some God told her to, but because she genuinely cared.”

In August 2002, after Marla died, I tried to cope with Marla’s death in my own way. “A tragedy such as this puts into perspective our relationship as individuals vs. the national history of the Jewish people,” I wrote at the time. “Too often, in the face of difficult times such as those we are experiencing now in Israel, we tend to bury our heads, hoping it will pass over us and our immediate family will get through this on the way to ‘better’ times. But when someone in your family is targeted because she is a Jew, you are instantly thrust into part of the collective Jewish narrative. Your story of tragedy – and also in entirely different circumstances a story of joy or success – becomes part and parcel of the Jewish totality. You can no longer see yourself as just individuals. In this way, Marla is not alone, none of us are alone. Our struggle is collective.”

Marla knew that intrinsically, I think. In her widely reprinted essay, written originally for the Avi Chai Foundation, she wrote “I’ve been living in Israel for over a year and a half now and my favorite thing to do here is go to the grocery store. I know, not the most exciting response…but going grocery shopping, 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.”

We love you Marla. We miss you daily. We will never forget you.

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