Leon Klinghoffer entered my life on October 7, 1985. I was a Brown junior; he was an elderly vacationer from New Jersey who happened to be on board the Mediterranean cruise ship Achille Lauro when it was hijacked by Palestinian liberation fighters. That autumn day, Leon was liberated from his wheelchair by the hijackers and launched overboard into the sea, where he drowned. In this way he became one of the best-known terrorism victims of all time, and a kind of doppelgänger for me.
I had never met the man or even heard of him until shortly after his death, when an elderly great-aunt telephoned me in my little basement room by the furnace in Andrews Hall. Sobbing (though she’d never met him either), Aunt Violet informed me that our cousin Leon Klinghoffer had just been murdered. Actually, as she explained, Leon was to me something like a fifth cousin thrice removed. But however distantly we were related, I can never quite forget about him.
Not because of the shocking cruelty of his final moments, which inspired an avant-garde opera by the composer John Adams, The Death of Klinghoffer. No, I can never forget about Leon because the world won’t let me: fourteen years later, not a week goes by without someone asking me, often in public, whether I am related to Leon Klinghoffer. It generally happens a minute or two after we have been introduced. My new acquaintance will say: "Oh, wasn’t there a guy called Klinghoffer who got killed by terrorists? Leon Klinghoffer, maybe?" Or, "Hey, any relation to the famous Klinghoffer? The one on the boat?" Or even just, "Oh, any relation?"
Obviously it is Leon’s two daughters, whom I have also never met, who must have the genuinely anguishing problem with rude interlocutors. They too must also be asked every week or more, "Hey, any relation to the famous Klinghoffer?" Each time, unless they’ve developed an evasion strategy, they must have to go through the same routine: "Yes, he was my father." "Oh! I’m so sorry! That was tragic, just tragic!" And so on.
Thoughtless questioners haven’t caused me any real trouble, but the coincidence that links Leon Klinghoffer and me has resulted in misunderstandings. I once briefly dated a girl named Lisa. After the relationship had run its course, we remained friends, and a year after we’d met she broached the topic: "David, I hope you won’t be offended, but I have to ask you this. What’s it like to be Leon Klinghoffer’s grandson?"
It turned out that the night we’d met, a friend of mine who’s a practical joker had told Lisa that Leon was my grand-father. She had spent the intervening period imagining me as a haunted proxy-victim of worldwide terrorism. A sensitive girl, when in my company she would even go out of her way to avoid men-tioning boats or anything at all to do with large bodies of water. I set her straight, and she was glad to know that both my grandfathers had met natural deaths.
This all happened in New York City, and I had the impression that Leon’s memory burned so brightly there because New York is such a Jewish town. After all, his murderers picked him out of the passenger list because he had a Jewish last name. Then, several months ago, I moved to Seattle. Unlike New York, my new home has a very small Jewish community. But the inquiries still come at me once or twice a week.
"Oh," said a new neighbor upon introducing himself, "that’s a familiar name. Wasn’t there a fellow by that name who got shoved off a boat?" When I was dunned for failing to pay a cable bill, I called up the collection agency in York, Pennsylvania, to say the check was in the mail. The man who picked up the phone thanked me, then paused:"Wait a minute...Klinghoffer, Klinghoffer....The guy who was killed by terrorists on that cruise ship. Any relation?" Just the other week, when I got together with some professors at the University of Washington, the professor who was doing the introducing made clear what was on his mind: "And," he said, gesturing to me, "now I’d like to introduce you to a new friend, Leon Klinghoffer."
Recently it occurred to me that, when the Leon Klinghoffer question comes up, I am actually under no ethical obligation to answer truthfully. Realizing this came as a kind of liberation. Now, sometimes I’ll just deny that there is any relationship at all. Or I’ll pretend I never heard of Leon. "A terrorism victim called Klinghoffer?" I will say. "I had no idea! That’s shocking! Tell me more." Especially when I’m asked the question in front of a group of people, I am tempted to embarrass my questioner by saying in an anguished voice, "Yes, he was my father," and turning around as if to hide the tears.
But that would be rude.
David Klinghoffer is a contributing editor at National Review and the author of The Lord Will Gather Me In: My Journey to Jewish Orthodoxy (Free Press).