It would be hard to mistake a space shuttle for a synagogue or the International Space Station for your local Judaica store. But over the years, Jewish astronauts have spent days, weeks and even months in the heavens. Since no Jewish home would be complete without some basics, these astronauts have not disappointed. Here’s a look at their extra-terrestrial Judaica.
Astronaut Jeff Hoffman spins a dreidel in zero gravity (courtesy NASA)
1985: Jeffrey Hoffman – mezuzah and dreidel
Jeffrey Hoffman was a mission specialist aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery during Passover in April 1985. Hoffman asked if he could take matzah with him into space. He was told that it could flake and cause injuries or damage to the spacecraft’s delicate equipment. So he went for something less hazardous, a mezuzah which he Velcroed to his sleeping bunk “You can’t nail a mezuzah to the door of a space shuttle,” the astronaut told Chabad.org.
Hoffman later presented his space mezuzah to New York City’s Jewish Museum. It is adorned by a verse from the Book of Prophets, 8:4. “When I consider the heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the moon and the stars which Thou has ordained.”
1993: David Wolf and Martin Fettman – a dreidel, shofar and mezuzot
“I probably have the record dreidel spin,” said astronaut David Wolff. “It went for about an hour and a half until I lost it. It showed up a few weeks later in an air filter. I figure it went about 25,000 miles.” (It should also be noted that with Wolf and Fettman aboard the same vehicle, their space shuttle was only eight Jews shy of a minyan.)
1996: Jeffrey Hoffman – Torah
Hoffman upped the ante when he returned to space with a “Space Torah“ along with a yad (hand pointer) and Torah breastplate. “The idea of taking these Jewish objects with me into space for me represented a kind of interesting confluence of a very ancient tradition of Judaism with the future of humanity.” Hoffman unrolled the first seven columns to display Breishit and used clamps to hold the Torah in place, and began to recite it. The scroll was wrapped in his grandfather’s tallit katan. “Wherever Jews have wandered, they have taken the Torah with them,” he said.
2003: Ilan Ramon – a drawing from the Theresienstadt ghetto and a Torah
Ramon, whose mother survived Auschwitz, contacted the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem and requested a Holocaust-related item to take into space. Yad Vashem chose the drawing “Moon Landscape“ which was created by Petr Ginz, a 14-year-old Jewish boy, during his incarceration in the Theresienstadt ghetto. Petr Ginz died in Auschwitz in 1944.
Ramon explained the importance of taking Ginz’ art into space. “I feel that my journey fulfills the dream of Petr Ginz 58 years on. A dream that is ultimate proof of the greatness of the soul of a boy imprisoned within the ghetto walls, the walls of which could not conquer his spirit. Ginz’ drawings, stored at Yad Vashem, are a testimony to the triumph of the spirit.”
Ramon also took with him another artifact of the Shoah, a Torah scroll measuring only four-and-a-half inches tall. The miniature Torah had been smuggled into the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and used for a secret Bar Mitzvah ceremony for a youngster named Yoachim Joseph. Joseph was given the Torah by fellow prisoner Rabbi Simon Dasberg in the hope that he might tell the story of his Bar Mitzvah if he were to survive the war, which he did. Joseph moved to Israel where he eventually studied atmospheric physics and made the acquaintance of Ramon. Ramon was deeply affected by Joseph’s story and asked permission to take the Torah into space.
After the Columbia catastrophe, Joseph said, “I feel now that I was finally able to fulfill by promise to Rav Dasberg of more than fifty years ago, and on a grand scale. I’m very grateful to Ilan for making it possible. I’m sorry that it’s gone. It did what it was perhaps destined to do.”
2008: Gregory Chamitoff – bagels
Everyone knows that a bagel isn’t a bagel without a space in the middle. But what about space without a bagel? When Montreal-born astronaut Gregory Chamitoff was asked what food item he wanted to take aboard the space shuttle Discovery, the answer was simple: 18 Montreal bagels from cousin Rhonda Shlafman, owner of Fairmount Bagel.
Of course, the burning question is what kind of bagel? Sesame seed. Said baker and and cousin Rhonda, “His favourite is the garlic bagel, but I didn’t dare send garlic bagels – they would have stunk up the whole place.”