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Waving to the Angel of Death

Ruminations on the 20th anniversary of the Park Hotel bombing on Seder night 20 years ago – and how the Haggadah helped me cope.

It has been 20 years since my family and I exited the bombed premises of a hotel in Netanya on Seder night, escaping with our lives.

For the first few years after it happened, I remember feeling nervous every time I entered a hotel lobby, insisting on sitting in a place where I could watch the door for entrances and exits. This was true of restaurants as well. But with the years, that has faded.

Not everyone in my family feels that way. When I suggested this past Purim that we might consider going to a hotel with the whole family for this year’s Seder, my son quickly answered: “You know our family can’t do that.”

I suppose he’s right. Even though I’ve made a special effort to forget the horror of that night, now and again things happen to remind me. For example, on March 28, 2011, Issa Karake, the Palestinian Authority minister of prisoners’ affairs, visited the family of Hamas suicide-bomb mastermind Abbas al-Sayed, awarding them with an official, festive plaque, in celebration of the anniversary of the massacre.

Being reminded causes certain scenes to unfold in my mind with shocking clarity: the phone call I made to the Park Hotel a week before Seder night and how the girl who answered repeated my question to someone I assumed was the owner/manager: “She wants to know what kind of security we will be having for Seder night,” I heard her say, and then the insultingly dismissive response: “Tell her three. Will three be enough for her?”

I remember the night we entered the Park Hotel’s lobby, myself, my husband, my youngest son and my recently married son and his new bride, who had both flown in from Boston especially to spend the holiday together with their grandparents – my in-laws Manny and Shirley, both Holocaust survivors – and how no one checked us at the door.

When I went to the front desk to ask about the “three security guards” the manager pointed to a man in an old-fashioned sweater sitting inside the lobby with his hands in his pockets, watching from afar.

I remember how the fear filled me at that moment as I seriously considered leaving. But there I was in a lobby full of women and children waiting for their fathers and husbands to come back from evening prayers. My mother-in-law was there, sitting next to my new daughter-in-law. How could I insist we leave?

I tried to calm myself down. What were the chances, I kept telling myself as I looked around, people talking and smiling, everything so perfectly normal. How insulted and dismayed my in-laws, our hosts, would be if I refused to stay. And besides, where would we go?

There was a woman in the lobby who caught my attention because she seemed to be in the same state I was in. I watched as she paced anxiously up and back through the lobby, finally asking her if everything was all right. “My children still haven’t arrived,” she said worriedly.

How ironic and tragic I find it now, remembering how I tried to comfort her: “They’re probably in a traffic jam. It’s a holiday. The roads are packed,” I said with a smile on the last day of her life.

For some reason, my mother-in-law’s sweater also sticks in my mind. It was white. But a blindingly clean white, the kind of white only my mother-in-law knew how to achieve. Everything Shirley and Manny Ragen possessed was at a level of cleanliness and order unique to them: their floors shone, their dishes sparkled, their clothes were immaculately maintained and cleaned and repaired.

After the bomb went off, we became separated. My in-laws were still downstairs in the bathrooms while the rest of us were already seated around our private Seder table upstairs. I admit I was the one who insisted we not wait for them and go on ahead. Seeing the security situation, it is clear to me now why I did it, but then I found it hard to forgive.

I remember the way the bomb went off. It wasn’t so clear at first what was happening. Just a rumble and the shaking of the table, as if it was placed on an uneven floor. And then my husband shouted: “Get down!” That was when the rumble turned into a roar that imploded all the windows around us, sending slivers of glass flying like something out of a cartoon.

The first blood I saw was the tiny scratch on my youngest child’s finger from the glass on the floor. But moments later, a waitress came up the staircase from the lobby. Watching her hold her blood-soaked hands against her blood-soaked clothes, my mind drifted to Shirley’s sweater.

My husband, very rightly, left us to go looking for his parents. He told us to stay put. But that was impossible to obey after someone said they thought they’d heard shooting. We needed to get out of that building as fast as we could. Our problem was that no one wanted to go down the staircase from which the young waitress had emerged.

A child – a member of the owner/manager’s family, the only other people upstairs with us – who was clearly familiar with the hotel explained an alternative way out. Later I learned that at that time the boy’s father was already dead, a fact that helped me to eventually find forgiveness and compassion over the years for the management’s security failures.

To this day I can honestly say I didn’t see anything at all as I made my way through that hell, because I was careful not to look. But I only felt the Angel of Death pass over my shoulder when I saw my mother-in-law standing outside the hotel, her white sweater still spotless and pristine.

My father-in-law stood next to her, his face flooded with relief as he saw us emerge. “If anything had happened to you, I would never have forgiven myself,” he told us. I have been grateful all these years that he lived into his 90s without another terrible loss.

I remember the surprise on the face of the reception clerk at the Four Seasons hotel when we all walked in and asked for another room. Even though I could see that their television set was on, they simply had not yet connected the dots. But in the middle of searching for a room for us, there “was a news flash. I saw the girl’s face suddenly pivot back to us, filled with compassion. She arranged everything quickly after that. “And please make reservations for all of us for the Seder,” I told her.

HEARING THIS, some in the family were incredulous. Could we just go on? Read the Haggadah? Drink the wine? Eat the matzot? Had we not already eaten the bread of affliction? Did we need wine, symbolizing blood, when we had already seen the real thing?

As for myself, what I remember very clearly is the stubborn, perhaps even irrational, urgency of my need to participate in the Seder that night. It was not just a religious obligation; it was a moral and emotional imperative.

The depth of emotional impact in reciting the ancient and familiar words of the Haggadah in the shadow of that experience, I must leave to your imagination:

“Blessed art thou King of the Universe who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to enjoy this festive season… For not just one man has risen up against us, but in every generation there are those who rise against us to destroy us. But the Holy One, blessed be He, has delivered us out of their hands.”

While all of us had initially taken seats at this new Seder table, as the recitations went on, some had drifted off, in tears, shaking with emotion and aftershock. We let them go. Those left behind, finding comfort and strength in the words, continued, including the elderly survivors who had lost a wife, two children, parents and siblings in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, and now had to face the unspeakable evil of a pitiless enemy determined to cause them further tragedy.

I imagine that for them, and certainly for myself, the words of the Haggadah were therapy, bringing us from a terrible past into a hope-filled future even as it acknowledged the terrifying, unthinkable present.

It was not only our forefathers that the Holy One Blessed be He redeemed from Egypt, but also ourselves. So let us thank, praise, laud, glorify, exalt, honor, bless, extol and adore Him who did all these miracles for our fathers and for ourselves. He brought us out from slavery to freedom, from anguish to joy, from mourning to holiday, from darkness to great light…

Strangely, I still remember how reciting those words did the impossible that night, filling me with a sense of unutterable joy that I and my family had miraculously walked out alive and physically uninjured from that maelstrom of evil.

For those few moments, I allowed myself not to think about those who had not been so fortunate; those for whom Seder night would never again be just a religious ritual celebrated by a gathering together of the whole family because their families would never be whole again.

Over the past 20 years I have hardly given a thought to suicide bomber Abdel-Basset Odeh, who came from a Hamas terror cell in Tulkarm to detonate a huge device packed with explosives and shards of metal among unsuspecting Jewish families gathered in the Park Hotel to celebrate a sacred family ritual.

The blast killed 22 people outright, with eight more succumbing to their wounds after untold suffering, despite the desperate efforts of doctors to save their lives; and injured 140, 22 of them seriously. There were only 250 guests in the hotel.

This nightmarish and evil event had been planned by al-Sayed down to the smallest detail, including checking the bomber’s explosives belt and making a video of him reading a will al-Sayed had helped to write.

In the beginning, I joined the families of the murdered and injured, among them the Korman and Vider families, as we made a reckoning of the political considerations, the financial expediency, and the sheer laziness and incompetence that had facilitated the rushed entry of a hate-filled Muslim fanatic, badly disguised in a wig and a dress, into our midst.

But then a reporter contacted me, asking me if I knew that the terrorist had had a partner who had intended to blow himself up on the second floor, by our table. It didn’t happen because the man had woken up with terrible stomach pains that morning. Apparently, he’d felt too sick to blow himself – and my family – up.

After that, I stopped meeting with the families of the victims. As much as I sympathized and wanted to help, I was not one of them.

And so, for the last 20 years, incredible as it might sound, instead of carrying an indelible physical or emotional scar from that night, the strongest remnant of having been in that place, at that time, is the memory of reading the words of the Haggadah with a feeling of love and gratitude to God so deep, so sincere and so heartfelt it has never thus far been duplicated.

It has also taught me the lesson that whatever dreams politicians might pander to gullible audiences, each must undergo the true test: will it add to the security of our people in our land? If it fails that test, it is supportive of our enemies, whatever form it might shape-shift to take in order to curry favor with current trends, especially those abroad.

And each year, I wait for the prick in my heart when I get to the following words: For thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from falling. I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living.

Chag Sameach.

This article was originally published in the Jerusalem Post.

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