Jews in Space

Published January 24, 2003, issue of January 24, 2003.
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The liftoff of Israel’s first astronaut, Colonel Ilan Ramon, has Jews around the world going space-crazy. Synagogues, Internet sites and Chinese restaurants from coast to coast are abuzz with nonstop Ramon-mania. Ramon, though not personally observant, has decided to keep kosher in space. He asked Israel’s national Holocaust authority, Yad Vashem, to give him a memento to take aloft, and was presented with a moonscape drawn by a Jewish boy at Terezinstadt. He even asked, in a live broadcast to supporters of the Jewish National Fund, that every Jew in the world plant a tree in Israel during the coming year, so that 14 million new trees might be visible from the heavens. What’s not to like?

And indeed, it’s hard not be moved at Ramon’s display. At the same time, watching the response from American Jews, one might conclude that Ramon is the first Jewish astronaut. He’s not. That honor belongs to the late Judith Resnik, who first lifted off in the shuttle Discovery in 1984, and was killed two years later on board the ill-fated Challenger. Others have followed. One was Jeffrey Hoffman, who has written movingly about the new meaning he found in Judaism after traveling toward the stars. Another was David Wolf, who was not only the first Jew to celebrate Chanukah in space, in 1995, but was also the first to address a General Assembly of Jewish federations in a live broadcast from on board the space shuttle in November 1997.

Given all that history, it’s curious to witness the passion that’s been poured into Ramon’s flight during the last week, not just by his fellow Israelis but by Jews in this country. You might have thought our community would have gotten used to the idea of Jews in space by now. Yet the outpouring is enormous, seeming to dwarf even the reception given to astronauts from our own community.

It might be that the mania for Ramon is a reflection of the embattled feeling shared by many Jews due to the continuing violence in Israel and the territories, and the open hostility toward Israel and Jews that appears to be mounting in many corners of the world. The pride radiated by Ramon, and the affirmation given to his homeland by the United States in its decision — at this moment in history — to send an Israeli aloft, seem to put a new spring in the step of many Jews, particularly the most vocally identified among us.

At the same time, it’s hard not to see Ramon-mania as a reflection of a sadder phenomenon: the inability of too many American Jews to take their own Jewish lives seriously. Jewish life, for many of us, is more real when it’s lived across the ocean in Israel. Yes, our community has produced its share of space pioneers, including some who wore their Judaism proudly on their insulated sleeves and one who lives in history for her heroism. But, per Groucho Marx, American Jews get no thrill from belonging to a club that would have us as members.

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