Twenty years ago, I survived a suicide bombing while making a documentary about a live music bar in Tel Aviv, Israel. After midnight on April 30, 2003, two British Nationals affiliated with al-Qaeda and supported by Hamas attacked Mike’s Place, a popular hangout located next door to the U.S. Embassy on the Tel Aviv beachfront. I was six feet away from the bomber when his device exploded. I sustained serious injuries and have no idea how I lived while people near me died.
After coming back to New York City in June 2003, still on strong pain medication, my friend, British journalist Susan Crimp, who wrote a book about Mother Teresa, drove me uptown to the Bronx on a Saturday afternoon to meet with Sister Nirmala, the Superior General of the Missionaries of Charity order. Sister Nirmala had succeeded Mother Teresa in that position in 1997. Susan had told her about the terrorist attack and that I was in a coma.
Growing up in the Bronx, I’d never been to the neighborhood where the Missionaries of Charity lived in an unassuming house on a rough and tumble side of town. Sister Nirmala was waiting for us with two other nuns inside their kitchen. We sat with her at a table as she pointed to a world map on the wall where white pinhead tacks were stuck into several countries. “These are our missions around the world,” she said, “where we all prayed for you.”
Sister Nirmala explained that she considered me “One of Mother Teresa’s Miracles” and wanted my wife Franny and I to go to the Vatican for “Mother’s” beatification in October 2003, and perhaps meet with Pope John Paul II.
She then asked me if I’d like a tour of their home. Down a hallway, she opened the double doors. Inside, a dozen nuns lay on the floor prostrate, facing a life-size and very realistic crucifix of Jesus Christ on the cross. I was overwhelmed. Sister Nirmala said few outsiders had ever been in their prayer room. “Let’s stay in touch no matter what your decision is concerning Mother’s beatification in Rome.”
We left the Bronx with the two diminutive nuns who were with us in the kitchen. We were giving Sister Ann Therese and her Missionaries of Charity sister a lift back to their home convent in Brooklyn. Susan told them that I had been a choirboy at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. Sister Ann Therese asked me when was the last time that I had gone to Confession. I told her it was around 40 years ago. She said that since it was a Saturday, there was a church in Queens that was on our way where I could do my penance right now.
“I don’t think so, Sister,” I said. She then asked me if I’d accept Absolution without Confession. She said she could speak with the priest and was sure it could be arranged.
At the rectory of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs in Forest Hills, I took a seat on a bench as the three women spoke with the novitiate behind the desk. The young man said he was sorry, but Confession had ended for the day.
“May we speak with a priest?” said Sister Ann Therese. “Please, it’s very important.”
The novitiate explained that the priest was unavailable because he was getting ready to leave for the hospital to visit sick parishioners. Susan Crimp, in her authoritative British accent, took charge. “Apparently, you do not understand the gravity of the situation. We have a suicide bombing victim here who just survived a terrorist attack in Israel. Do you not see his arm in a sling? Have you not noticed his cane? We need to see the priest now!”
The young man immediately bounded up the staircase. A minute later the priest came down the steps, with his clerical collar unfastened and shaving cream still behind his ears. He asked that everyone wait outside the church while he spoke with me.
He inquired if I really wanted to make a confession, and I said I didn’t. Then he asked if I would receive the sacrament of Absolution so Jesus could forgive all my sins. “Okay,” I said.
Afterwards, as my eyes adjusted to the sunlight outside, I heard the familiar jingle of a Mr. Softee ice cream truck parked on the street. Sister Ann Therese was at the bottom of the church steps eating a vanilla cone. She asked if I got Absolution and I said I did.
“Oh, praise be to God! See, I told you it was not a big deal,” Sister Ann Therese said. “I go to Confession every week.”
I asked her what sins she might possibly have to confess that often. She took a bite of her ice cream cone, and looked up at me with a twinkle in her eyes. “Unholy thoughts,” she replied.
It was nighttime when we arrived at their convent in Brooklyn, in another neighborhood where I’d never be caught dead after dark. “Please wait for me,” Sister Ann Therese said. “I want to give you and your wife a gift.”
She returned and leaned inside the car window, handing me two plastic figurines of the Virgin Mary, each filled with a clear liquid. “This is holy water from Our Lady of Lourdes grotto in France. One is for you, and one is for your wife,” she said. “But don’t drink it. You should just apply it to the skin for your healing.”
A year later, August 26, 2004, to be precise, Susan Crimp drove Franny and I back to Brooklyn to attend a memorial mass to celebrate Mother Teresa’s birthday. The pews were packed with Missionaries of Charity nuns dressed in their white and blue striped sari habits.
After the mass, Sister Ann Therese escorted us for a stroll in their contemplative garden. She took my wife’s arm in hers and led us down a pathway of flowers and trees to a spot that completely muffled the city street noise.
“I know you are Jewish, and that you were married by a rabbi, but we would love to see you and Jack also married by a priest in a Catholic ceremony,” she said to Franny. “We could have the wedding inside the church and have the reception here in the garden. The Missionaries of Charity could be your bridesmaids!”
Franny’s eyes grew larger, she glanced at me and then stammered, “Uh, well, I really don’t know what to say right now. We’ll get back to you.”
I gave Sister Ann Therese a 1963 photograph of me in the Saint Patrick’s Cathedral choir loft, wearing cassock and cape vestments with my hands on a missel. I guess I wanted to impress upon her that I was once an innocent Catholic boy.
We decided not to have a wedding ceremony with the Missionaries of Charity as Franny’s bridesmaids. But as the years went by, we did stay in touch with Sister Nirmala. She would phone from Calcutta once a year, every year. On her last call to us, she said she was going to have important surgery in a few hours and asked us to pray for her. We did. Sister Nirmala died of heart disease in 2015.
One year later in 2016, Mother Teresa was canonized by Pope Francis after he had recognized the second miracle attributed to her, a requirement for sainthood.
In 2017, I began shooting The Last Sermon, a follow-up documentary to Blues by the Beach, the film my wife and I produced in 2004 about the Mike’s Place suicide bombing.
We started in Jerusalem and traveled throughout Europe on our way to England to try meeting with the families of the two terrorists who had attacked the bar in 2003. On our third day of filming, we were in Mother Teresa’s hometown of Skopje, Macedonia. I did an interview with a refugee aide worker outside the museum home there dedicated to her, but that segment didn’t make it into the final cut.
Susan Crimp and I remain friends and we meet occasionally for Sunday Mass at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. I spoke with Sister Ann Therese a year ago. She still has my choirboy photo and I still have her holy water from Lourdes.
I don’t know why I didn’t die that night in Tel Aviv. Maybe theoretical physics or supercomputer algorithms can explain it somehow. Or maybe it was a miracle. And if that’s the case, I have no problem giving Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity and the power of prayer their due credit.