Tears, smiles at dedication of Marla Bennett garden

Marla Bennett was not a good driver. No, check that, she was a terrible driver, recalled her father, Michael, a wan smile offsetting his reddened eyes.

At one point, she busted both rearview mirrors off the family car. Later, she ran a red light immediately after a cop pulled her over for running a red light. And then there was that incident with the school van.

Michael Bennett laughed when he recalled his daughter’s foibles behind the wheel. Overall, however, the dedication of a peace garden at Berkeley Hillel in honor of his younger daughter was difficult day for him. But not the most difficult.

Marla Bennett was one of seven people killed when a suicide bomber transformed a Hebrew University cafeteria into a scene of horror in July 2002.

Bennett was a 24-year-old U.C. Berkeley graduate and pillar of the university’s Jewish community. She had been studying at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem and had been mulling over the notion of becoming a cantor.

At the Sunday, May 9, dedication of the Marla Bennett Memorial Peace Garden, many of her friends and family members traded stories about what made her tick.

Lev Metz recalled how every meal she cooked at the Berkeley Bayit Jewish co-op house ended up resembling a breakfast.

Adam Weisberg, Hillel’s executive director, remembered how Bennett always took notes in different colored pens, guided by her own complex, color-coded key.

David Sobel simply recalled her smile.

“Her smile could just light up a room,” said Sobel, a U.C. Berkeley graduate student and contemporary of Bennett’s.

“I was a close friend of hers, and I had a crush on her at one point. A lot of guys did. I think having a garden here at Hillel would really mean something to her.”

Roughly 50 people squeezed into the cramped, L-shaped space behind Berkeley Hillel for the solemn ceremony.

A brightly colored square tile table created by artist Jodi Gladstone and adorned with images near and dear to the slain student sits just to the right of the garden.

The name Miriam (Marla’s Hebrew name) is in the center of the table, surrounded by the Hebrew alphabet, a nod to the energy and devotion Bennett brought to her position as a Hebrew teacher and Jewish educator.

A Torah, hamsa, even Winnie-the-Pooh, float across the tile table.

Bennett’s parents, Michael and Linda, smiled stoically through the tears during the hourlong ceremony. Both were extremely appreciative of the gesture, noting it was just the sort of project their daughter would have pitched in with.

“I think 10, 15, 20 years from now, people will come out and see her name and [discover] who this was,” predicted Michael Bennett.

Still, “This would be great 70 years from now for someone who gave their life to Jewish education, not someone who was cut down at 24.”

The sight of dozens of Marla’s admirers at the dedication brought a smile to Michael Bennett’s face, and he noted that, in 24 years she amassed more friends than he has in 62. But, even two years after Marla’s death, “you can’t really take away someone else’s pain.”

At one point, he asked his rabbi if Marla’s death was “part of God’s plan. I’m not sure I believe in that. But did Marla do all she needed to do here?”

Michael Bennett reflects quietly for a moment. He stares at the ground.

“And he said, ‘No. No. Marla had a lot more to give.'”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.