What the Klinghoffers taught me — and the world

I first met Leon Klinghoffer’s daughters in 2004, shortly after my father and stepmother were murdered in a robbery.

Back then I was a TMI machine, telling my story not only to friends but also to anyone in my line of vision. One Shabbat, after going to the Village Temple in New York to say Kaddish, I approached the rabbi, Chava Koster, and told her, too. Unlike the sales clerk at Staples or the dinnertime telemarketer I had forced off script, Koster listened intently and offered to connect me with two of her congregants who had experienced something similar.

Lisa and Ilsa Klinghoffer’s father, Leon Klinghoffer, wasn’t just the victim of a random murder. He was shot and thrown overboard by Palestinian terrorists who hijacked the cruise ship on which he and his wife had been vacationing.

Klinghoffer, a 69-year-old man in a wheelchair, was the sole victim of the Achille Lauro hijacking. His murder — 30 years ago this month — prompted a dramatic U.S. military operation, and inspired books, made-for-TV movies and a controversial opera produced last year at the Met.

In honor of this year’s milestone anniversary of the attack, Lisa, 64, and Ilsa, 58, have donated their parents’ archive — comprising family photographs and stacks of condolence notes written by everyone from schoolchildren to Holocaust survivors to President Ronald Reagan — to the American Jewish Historical Society. The archive will be housed at the Center for Jewish History in New York, where the Klinghoffer sisters recently recounted onstage the story of the siege and its aftermath.

“When you read through [the letters],” which the sisters did on tough days in the beginning, and then every couple of years after that, “they are just amazing, inspiring, overwhelming,” Ilsa told me when we reconnected last week after more than a decade.

My own family tragedy was of the more mundane variety — mundane in that it happens every day to someone, if not to someone you love or even someone whose name you know. I was 24 when a methamphetamine addict forced his way inside my father and stepmother’s home in Sedona, Arizona, and killed them.

Most of my friends hadn’t lost parents, let alone known anyone who had been murdered. I was eager to connect with others who understood what it was like to lose a loved one to violence, who understood that if these kinds of things could happen on a cruise ship in the middle of the Mediterranean, where the Achille Lauro was hijacked, or in view of Sedona’s dramatic red rock formations, they could happen anywhere.

Lisa and Ilsa Klinghoffer understood.

There was something reassuring about meeting the Klinghoffer sisters. Here were two women who had endured something so hellish as young adults and gone on to lead lives so positive, productive and purposeful. In honor of their parents — their mother, Marilyn, died just four months after their father’s murder (and six weeks before Ilsa’s wedding day) — Lisa and Ilsa have long dedicated themselves to educating people about terror and its victims. They are a driving force behind what is now the Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer Memorial Foundation of the Anti-Defamation League, which leads conferences for law enforcement on combating terrorism, anti-Semitism and hate crimes.

If they could find happiness and meaning after what they endured, I reasoned, so could others. So could I.

Fast forward more than a decade, and the Klinghoffer sisters were at the Center for Jewish History on Oct. 8 telling an extended version of the story from which I had drawn inspiration. They painted a vivid portrait of their parents: their family Shabbat dinners, their Saturday nights on the town, their circle of friends who spent summers at the Jersey Shore (“the beach people”), the planning that went into what would be their final vacation.

“One thing that keeps us going is that we’re just a regular family and knowing that this can happen to anyone,” Lisa told me. “It’s one of the reasons we continue to speak out, so people won’t forget what happened.”

The Klinghoffer archive at the American Jewish Historical Society comprises Leon’s U.S. Army-issued Jewish prayer book, a menu from the Achille Lauro dining room on which a fellow hostage sketched composites of the captors, and the “Mr. & Mrs. Roto-Broil Cookbook.” Never heard of the Roto-Broil? It was a countertop rotisserie oven popular in the 1950s invented by none other than Leon Klinghoffer.

“We wanted people to know things that hadn’t been in the news — personal things, factual things,” Ilsa told me of their decision to tell their story publicly, and to donate to the historical society 15 boxes of their parents’ belongings. “The American Jewish Historical Society said to us, ‘We’re not just going to take these papers. We want to know: Who was Marilyn? Who was Leon?'”

The realization that Marilyn and Leon Klinghoffer were people like any other, that we are all just as exposed as the next person, can foster not only a resolve to fight terror, but empathy for victims of violence everywhere. It was a point that Marilyn Klinghoffer herself expressed before a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee in testimony delivered just three weeks after her husband’s murder and whose contents are preserved in the archive.

“I believe my husband’s death has made a difference in the way people now perceive their vulnerability,” Marilyn testified. “I believe what happened to the passengers on the Achille Lauro and to my family can happen to anyone, any time, any place.”

A Lamentation on the Destruction of the Temple

1.  The absence of Presence
The Romans are approaching. We wallow in callous pettiness. The city will fall soon.

2. The presence of Absence
They are despoiling the sanctuary. We wail in piteous grief. Sun and moon are eclipsed. Horror.

3. The presence of Presence
It’s all over now. The dew washes clean our punished world. A lilac is blooming.

Copyright © 2013, Jonathan Omer-Man. For more, visit omer-man.net.

How to comfort and be comforted

Consoling people after they’ve suffered a loss, especially when it’s the death of a loved one, is never easy. No matter what we say, we can never bring back the beloved to this world. How often do we sit by the mourner’s side in awkward silence, feeling completely impotent in our inability to remove the pain.

Tisha B’Av is the day that commemorates not only the destruction of the two ancient Temples in Jerusalem, but also all our people’s national tragedies throughout Jewish history. The Shabbat after Tisha B’Av is called Shabbat Nachamu, because we recite the words of the prophet Isaiah (40:1): “Nachamu, nachamu, ami….” (“Be consoled, be consoled, my people….”) There will come a time, the prophet says, that your exile will end, and your future will once again be bright.

The seeming paradox is that on the very same Shabbat we read about the prophet’s consolation in the haftarah, we also read in the Torah portion about Moses’ personal tragedy, which seems to have no consolation. God tells Moses that although he’s faithfully led His people through the desert these past 40 years, and although the Jews are now standing at the very border of the Holy Land, Moses himself will never be allowed entry, and will die and be buried outside of Israel.

How is God’s refusal to Moses consistent with the theme of consolation on this Shabbat of consolation?

Moses was teaching the people a new form of consolation: Know, my brethren, that sometimes the answer will be “no.” Sometimes, God, in his infinite wisdom, must say no to our petitions. We may not understand how this can possibly be good, but I, Moses, assure you that it is ultimately for our benefit.

(Indeed, our sages on this passage go to great lengths to explain why it was in the Jews’ best interests for Moses not to gain entry into the land, which is a discussion that requires a separate essay.)

An additional lesson is contained in Moses’ words: When I asked God to enter the land with you, my brethren, it was because I had just succeeded in my latest mission of defeating those nations just east of the Jordan River. Perhaps, I reasoned, since we are so close to our goal, God will allow me to see it to its final stage and let me enter the land. But alas, even though I was so close, it was not meant to be. Sometimes, it may appear that we are so close to our goals, and then, at the last moment, our hopes are dashed and tragedy strikes.

Devastated though I may be, Moses continued, God did console me with one last wish: He is allowing me to go up to a mountain top where I will at least be able to see all of the Holy Land that you, my disciples, children and brethren, will inherit and enjoy. This, too, is consolation indeed.

In this light, Moses’ tale of tragedy is consistent with the consolation of the prophet. Sometimes, God’s answer must be “no.” But even when it is, God will find a way to give us a glimmer of hope for the future, that life will go on, our people will live on, and there will be a brighter tomorrow.

We have experienced, in our long national history, many misfires of messianic redemption and have heard “no” many times bellowing from heaven. We have witnessed, in our own generation, great hopes for peace in Israel, only to see those hopes dashed to pieces a short time later. But we mustn’t lose sight of the consolation contained therein: God is watching from heaven, and even when the answer is “no,” we are still provided with a vision, with a glimpse of what can yet still be. Imagine when the answer finally will be “yes,” how beautiful that “yes” will be.

There is no such thing as hollow consolation. The answer to one’s prayers might have been “no.” But when the mourner is embraced by his friends and family, when he or she is reassured that no one is ever alone and that life will go on with joy amid the pain, this is truly consolation.

Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin is rosh kehilla of Yavneh Hebrew Academy and director of synagogue and community services for the Orthodox Union’s West Coast region.

Jews Flop in Big Oscar Award Wins

The 76th Academy Awards brought much cheer to New Zealand, home of the 11 Oscar-winning "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," but little to ethnocentric Jews.

There was a dollop of consolation in the best actor win for Sean Penn, son of the late Jewish television director Leo Penn. The elder Penn was the grandson and great-grandson of rabbis and the son of Russian and Lithuanian immigrants, whose surname, Piñon, was anglicized at Ellis Island.

During an interview before his death, Leo Penn told Journal Arts & Entertainment Editor Naomi Pfefferman that he grew up near his father’s Jewish bakery in Boyle Heights. Leo Penn was married to Catholic actress Eileen Ryan and, according to reports, Sean and his two brothers were raised in a secular home.

Leo Penn was blacklisted during the McCarthy era, and there was some speculation that Sean’s leftist views and a prewar visit to Iraq might harm his Oscar chances for his dramatic role as a distraught father in "Mystic River."

Comedian Billy Crystal, returning for his eighth stint as master of ceremonies, was in top form, serenading director Clint Eastwood for his "’Mystic River’ as dark and murky as mom’s chopped liver."

Crystal also had some fun with the controversial "The Passion of the Christ," which opened last Wednesday, noting that the Academy Awards were being simulcast in Aramaic (a language resurrected for much of "Passion’s" dialogue).

At a later point, Crystal suggested that another best picture nominee, "Lost in Translation," was the favorite film of California’s Austrian-born Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

During the in memoriam segment, commemorating entertainment industry figures who died in 2003, the mention of Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s favorite filmmaker, was met with markedly sparse applause.

In the documentary feature category, which has been traditionally hospitable to Jewish and Holocaust themes, two nominees focusing on rather dysfunctional Jewish families lost out to the Vietnam War-era "The Fog of War."

"Capturing the Friedmans," which centers on a father and son convicted of child molestation, might have been hurt by charges brought by six of their former victims that the film had distorted important information about the case. The other entry, "My Architect," chronicled the professional triumphs and highly unorthodox personal life of American architect Louis Kahn.