San Diego came to Jerusalem a few weeks ago. A mission coordinated by the San Diego Jewish Academy and the United Jewish Federation of San Diego County spent a week in Israel. As part of their visit, they visited the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies where Marla studied. A short memorial service was held. Jody and I spoke, as did a number of Marla’s friends and teachers.
Two tributes stood out and I wanted to share them with you. Appearing below is a moving, straight from-the-heart short story by Marla’s closest companion, her boyfriend Michael Simon. Entitled “Our Bench at Ma’alei Gilboa,” it had many in the room reaching for tissues. The second is a gut-wrenching poem by Amanda Pogany, Marla’s best girlfriend in Israel. You can read it by clicking this link. Both are reprinted here with permission by their authors.
"Do you want to keep walking?"
Marla asked me this question late last October, as we stood with a group of Pardes students at the conclusion of our tour of Kibbutz Ma'alei Gilboa, on the top of Mount Gilboa, overlooking the Beit She'an valley in central Israel.
I had spent nearly 8 weeks hoping for an opportunity to spend quality time with Marla Bennett. From - literally - the first moment I saw her, at the entrance to Pardes, I had wanted to go out with her, or at least to get to know her better. I had even asked her to coffee a few times, but on each occasion circumstances had prevented her from spending time with me outside of Pardes
So, when she asked, "Do you want to keep walking?" I did not hesitate.
"HELL, YES!" I thought. "Sure." I said.
We walked around the rest of the kibbutz, to areas we had not visited on our tour. We stopped by the cow shed, and I attempted to engage a few of the cows in conversation. My "moos", which seemed (to me) quite authentic, elicited no response from the cows. They elicited little response from Marla. I'm still not sure whether she was amused, entertained, or just wondering, "Why did I ask this guy to keep walking with me?"
We kept walking, and along the way we began to talk about our feelings toward Israel and our experiences there during this difficult time. About the possibilities, or likelihood, of one day making aliyah. Marla said she was not sure about it, but she told me about her cousins (Jody and Brian) who live in the Baka neighborhood of Jerusalem. They met at Pardes, got married in the States, had children, and then moved to Israel. She could imagine, or dream, a similar future for herself.
She told me that she wanted to have four children. I told her that I thought three was a good number.
We stopped on a bench overlooking the valley and sat there for the rest of the afternoon. Marla told me about San Diego, about her Mom and Dad, her sister Lisa, and her beloved Grammee. She talked about Berkeley, and I told her about Stanford, and we teased each other for the first time (of many) about our college rivalry. We discovered that we both loved the Bay Area and hoped to live there again sometime.
I told her about my brother, and sister-in-law, my nephew Benjamin, and my niece Devorah -- and how I adore them all. About my dream of being a father and having my own family.
She sat on the bench and told me that, one day, when she has her own house, it would have a kitchen with lots of light. It has to be filled with light. I would later learn that Marla loved to, as she put it, "decorate little worlds in my mind."
I listened - with rapt attention - to everything she said. But the whole time I was sitting on that bench, watching beautiful, smiling, radiant Marla Ann Bennett, listening for the first time to her stories and her hopes and her dreams, I kept thinking, "I could marry this woman." I had never before heard those words in my own mind and heart.
Two weeks later, we went on our first date.
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 just 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 know," 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 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.
The ending of this story was supposed to go something like this: A year after our first visit to Ma'alei Gilboa, Marla and I return there for Shabbat in late October. On Shabbat afternoon, I ask Marla to go for a walk, and we visit the cows, and walk around the kibbutz, and then end up back at our bench. In the place where she first told me her dreams for the future, I drop to one knee and, with Grammee's ring in my hand, I tell Marla that I believe that she is my soulmate, and that I am hers, and I ask her to bind her future together with mine.
The real ending of this story goes like this: A year after our first visit, it is a beautiful October Shabbat afternoon on Ma'alei Gilboa. As the sun sets and Shabbat fades away, our bench, with its sweeping view of the Beit She'an valley, is empty.