Everyday life in an extraordinary place.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Ilan Ramon z"l

(c) AP Photo/NASA

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 1 February 2004.

In Hebrew, the word "astronaut" (pronounced as-tro-now-t) is used the same way the word "airhead" is used in English. In fact, Ilan Ramon z"l* once said that when he was first asked if he would like to become the first Israeli astronaut, he thought someone was playing a joke on him. It was no joke; instead this man who was already an Israeli hero went on to become a symbol of hope and pride for the entire country.

At the time of the launch of that final Columbia mission, Israel was battered and bleeding from a seemingly never-ending wave of terrorism. Things have really not changed all that much in one year's time. Except for one thing: then, we had Ilan.

To live in Israel is to be constantly confronted with bad news. Perhaps that can be said of any other country in the world, but here in our small country we take each death personally. At the time of the final Columbia launch, Israelis gratefully turned to the extensive television coverage of the mission, the entire crew, and especially of "our boy" Ilan Ramon. Here, at last, was something positive, something exciting and uplifting. We soaked up every detail of his life, his family, and the mission itself. We watched the broadcasts from Columbia every day, we learned which "wake up" song his wife Rona had selected to be played for him. We read excerpts from the e-mails he sent, saw interviews with his brother and father. We saw him converse with the Prime Minister, and deliver messages to us from space. We were literally thrilled by the whole experience.

It is hard to describe what it was like, to wake up each day filled with anticipation of what the day's events in space would bring. It was a time of national pride and enthusiasm. There was a feeling in the air unlike anything I had ever experienced here before. I realize now that it was optimism; something all too seldom felt here. If Ilan could achieve the dream of participating in a NASA space mission, surely anything at all, even the dream of peace, must be possible.

In the days following the Columbia disaster, Israelis were numb. The deaths of Ilan Ramon and the other Columbia astronauts were shocking on so many levels. No one had really imagined that another shuttle disaster was possible. I am sure many Americans felt the same. But on top of that was the crushing sense that perhaps dreams really can't come true after all.

But of course Ilan Ramon wasn't just a national symbol; he was a husband and father, a son and a brother. In her first interview with the Israeli press after the Columbia tragedy, Rona Ramon shared with us the words her young daughter Noaa spoke as the Columbia left the launchpad, "I've lost my Daddy!" Somehow, Rona said, little Noaa knew.

* In Jewish tradition, when mentioning the name of someone who has died it is customary to include the letters z"l after the name. They stand for the Hebrew words "zichrono l'vracha," which can be translated as "of blessed memory" or "may his memory be blessed."

If you are interested in learning more about Ilan Ramon z"l, visit Jacob Richman's website.

(c) Amy Samin

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