In the lobby of Rubin Hall, the Yeshiva University dormitory through which Joshua Bender surely exited on his final journey, alongside a photocopy of his student card duplicated in poster-size is a printed Torah lesson.
“The Talmud states that Rabbi Akiba’s students did not show honor to one another,” it says. “The Talmud [doesn’t say] they did not act honorably, implying that they were disrespectful. But they did not show honor, meaning they did not exert themselves in order to show honor.”
Perhaps, in the search for Bender, the Jewish community found itself. So-called “insular” Satmar chasidim joined with bare-headed Jews in jeans, and others, because they shared a fundamental Jewish belief, more tattered than the flag at Fort McHenry, that all Jews are family. They searched
for someone most of them knew next to nothing about — except he was a Jew and in trouble.
But while Michael and Gitty Bender spent Memorial Day burying their son, and beginning shiva, there exists one Jewish family in New York that to some extent actually envies the Benders: the family of Etan Patz, the 6-year-old who vanished May 25, 1979, three blocks from his SoHo home, and has never been seen again.
Etan’s last sighting and Bender’s yahrtzeit are one and the same, Iyar 28, the 43rd day of the Omer. But unlike the Benders, the Patz family still awaits closure, shiva, kaddish, yahrtzeit. Etan would turn 26 in October, should he return like a Joseph in Egypt, another Jew presumed dead for two decades.
On May 20, Stuart Grabois, a U.S. attorney who investigated the disappearance for eight years, said he concluded that Etan is dead.
Grabois was coming forward because the main suspect in Etan’s presumed death, Jose Ramos, is soon eligible for a parole hearing in the Pennsylvania jail where he is serving 20 years for molesting a young boy, unrelated to the Patz case. Grabois says Ramos admitted to him, in 1988, that on the day Etan disappeared, Ramos — the boyfriend of Etan’s baby-sitter — took Etan to an East Village apartment, where the boy rebuffed sexual advances. Ramos says he then put Etan on the subway up to Washington Heights to visit an aunt. The Manhattan District Attorney’s office said there was insufficient evidence to prosecute.
There was a substitute bus driver on Etan’s route that morning, a substitute who wouldn’t have known whether Etan got on or not. The stop was the northwest corner of West Broadway. Many trucks were parked diagonally on the street, obscuring vision. Etan had asked his mother if he could walk to the bus stop himself that day. It was the first time she ever let him. She watched Etan until she couldn’t see him any longer.
Years later there was a taxi driver who said there was a man and a boy in his cab around that time, and the man was fighting with the boy. They went about 100 yards and exited.
On this Friday of another Memorial Day weekend, one of Etan’s cousins, who at the time of Etan’s vanishing was 9 years old, remembered “the panic, people unnerved all over the house. There was a lot of being a child while adults sat around talking.”
When did it become normal again? “I don’t know that it ever did become normal again,” said the cousin.
Etan’s uncle, Rabbi Norman Patz, remembers the children “were just infinitely sad. Everything was very muted. When Etan’s younger brother turned 7, he said to his father, ‘Now I can live.’ He made it past 6.”
Rabbi Patz of Temple Sholom in Cedar Grove, N.J., says, “It doesn’t go away. And until they discover a body, there’s no closure.”
When Etan’s grandmother died a few years ago, Rabbi Patz recalls that part of writing the eulogy was to list the survivors. “I asked my brother, how do you want to list Etan? And he said, ‘Probably no longer alive.’ That’s the first time we ever spoke that way, and that’s 17 years into it.”
The problem, Rabbi Patz says, “is the attenuation of feelings. You’re just strung out, strung out. I never know when someone is going to say to me, ‘Hey rabbi, what about that nephew of yours?’
“As a rabbi I’m used to being a public persona. But my brother and sister-in-law, well, they’ve learned to protect themselves. This week comes, they shut the phone off.
“You go on a roller-coaster of emotion, every phone call, every possibility you grab at. And the weirdoes come out of the woodwork.”
Maybe because it was a Memorial Day weekend and there wasn’t much other news, or maybe because the pictures of Etan were so beautiful, the Patz case became the lodestone of all missing person cases in New York. And what can a family do?
“Either we go on,” Rabbi Patz says, “and do what we can, or I can fold up my tent. So I do what I can do: I try to be a good father, a good husband, a good rabbi. But when we hold our little grandchild and think about how precious life is, it gets all the more painful.”
Parents come to him for a rabbi’s counseling in times of tragedy, “and when the parents ask me, ‘What did I do wrong?’ I always have to say, ‘You did nothing wrong. There are things we don’t understand.’
“We’re looking at this from just one side. Our faith has to be that there is another side.”