I do not know how to break the news of Ilan Ramon’s death and the Space Shuttle crash to my five-year-old son, Gilad. Like all Israeli school children, Ilan had become his hero.
Sixteen days ago, Gilad came home with the number 5:40 written on his hand.
When I asked him what it was, he said his kindergarten teacher had written it on all the children’s hands to remind them of the time when Ilan would be taking-off in the Space Shuttle that day. He explained to me how he was supposed to count (in English with his Israeli accent) “10, 9, 8,… lift-off” so Ilan would know that all the Israeli children were with him in spirit as he left the earth. Throughout the sixteen days of Ilan’s tour in space, he regularly cut out articles and pictures of Ilan from the newspaper. He had no trouble finding material because Israeli newspapers covered the details of the Shuttle Columbia in great depth. Just yesterday, on our way to kindergarten, Gilad told me that if he worked really hard in school, then he could become an astronaut like Ilan.
The entire Israeli public felt great excitement and pride as Ilan took-off into space. My older son skipped his sports class, my older daughter skipped her drama class, and my husband came home early from work in order to watch the take-off of Shuttle Columbia on the television. Shuttle Columbia’s launch was covered live by all Israeli television stations and made headlines on all Israeli newspapers.
Ramon was an Israeli hero. A colonel and former fighter pilot in the Israeli air force, he saw combat experience in the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and the Lebanon War in 1982. Ramon was also one of the pilots that bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981.
Ramon, 48, was the son of a Holocaust survivor. He took a special drawing, from Israel’s Holocaust Museum Yad VaShem, with him into space. The drawing was created by a 14-year-old boy named Petr Ginz, who draw and wrote a good deal about science, while he was in a Nazi work camp and before he was killed in Auschwitz in 1944. The pencil drawing, entitled Moon Landscape, shows a view of the earth from the surface of the moon, as imagined by the boy. Given the tragic end to Columbia, the haunting words of one of Petr’s unfinished short stories comes to mind. In “Crazy August” Petr wrote: “The compartment was illuminated with great brilliance, and in the flame of the great explosion Petr saw a trace of the great merger.”
While Ramon was not a religious Jew, he asked for kosher food aboard the shuttle and he observed the Jewish Sabbath, day of rest, in space. Ramon represented to the Israeli public just how far the Jewish people have come in two generations – from the depths of the Nazi gas chambers to the heights of space.
Israel is a depressed country these days. The 2.5 year long conflict with the Palestinians has included more than 80 suicide bombings that have injured thousands and killed over 700 (the equivalent in percentage terms of losing more than 35,000 a.m.ericans). The country is suffering from a socio-economic crisis, partly due to the world-wide hi-tech crash and partly due to the conflict with the Palestinians. And Israelis are anxiously waiting for the possible outbreak of a war with Iraq; the last such conflict had Israelis putting gas masks on their children and sleeping in bomb shelters. In this sea of bad news, Ilan Ramon’s lift-off into space was a morale boost. Now that ship has sunken, and all Israelis are in mourning.
This morning, the morning after the tragedy, I awoke to Memorial Day songs on the radio. In between the songs, the radio host instructed parents on how to break the news of Ilan’s death to their children. We should show them the pictures in the newspaper, explain to them exactly what happened to the space shuttle, and tell them that sometimes accidents like this do happen. We should have them make pictures and write letters to Ilan’s family. And we should tell the children that Ilan was able to achieve the dream of his life by going to the stars.
This and other articles written by Lisa Katz can be found online at judaism.about.com