Sunday, September 13, 2009

Assaf Ramon z"l

The awful news of the death of Assaf Ramon has hit Israel by storm.

He was the eldest son of Ilan Ramon, Israel's only astronaut (and a pilot who bombed the Iraqi nuclear plant in 1976) who was killed so tragically before our eyes in the explosion of the Space Shuttle Columbia. We all watched on with tears in our eyes, how he wore his father's NASA jacket at his father's funeral. we watched with tears in our eyes as he graduated the pilot cadet course just a few months ago. And now, his plane has crashed. What a terrible tragedy for the family.

It is amazing how Ilan Ramon touched all of our lives. I wrote this at the time of his death, some 6 years ago:

The news that has occupied Israel over the past 24 hours is
the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia and in particular,
our astronaut, Ilan Ramon. Israel has been overwhelmed with
a feeling of national sadness today. Despite the intifada
and the economy, Ilan Ramon struck a deep chord and his loss
has been devastating on a National scale. There has been
nothing else on the radio. All sectors of Israeli society
are subdued with this tragic news.

What particularly impressed me, and drew me to admire Ilan
Ramon, was his unusual sense of Jewish pride. He knew that
he was the first Israeli astronaut. Despite the fact that he
was not personally shomer mitzvot, he decided to eat kosher
on the space shuttle, to commemorate Shabbat by making
Kiddush, to recite Shema Yisrael as he passed over
Yerushalayim. He clearly had a deeply religious soul. In
addition, as a child of Holocaust suvivors, he took symbols
of the Holocaust, amongst them a Sefer Torah that was kept
in secret through the Shoah. This man understood that at the
heart of Jewish identity, is Shabbat, Kashrut, Sefer Torah,
Sh'ma; all this as an expression of Judaism, Holocaust and
Medinat Yisrael. For him there was no difference between
Jewish and Israeli. We did not simply have an astronaut in
space. We lost a precious person who represented so many
Jewish truths.

Today I heard a story that typifies his Jewish approach to
his Israeli-Jewish identity. The Chief Commander of the
Israel Air Force asked Ilan Ramon if there was anything that
he would like to take to Space to represent the IAF. Ramon
responded that he would like to carry to Space the Mezuza
from the IAF headquarters. Every connection had a Jewish
rootedness, certainly a very unusual trait to find.

May his family find comfort amongst the mourners of Tzion
and Yerushalayim. Today all of Tzion and Yeriushalayim was
mourning together with them. Tihye Nishmato Zerura Bitzror

At the time, my son was just in first grade. The entire school had been following the Space mission. These little boys were all recommended to watch the launch of the Shuttle. And there was a huge picture of Ilan Ramon, saying "Ilan will be coming home in X days!" His science homework was to watch the live TV feed from the Shuttle. Ilan became every little Israeli boy's hero. And then on Motzaei Shabbat after Havdalla, when the shuttle crashed and we were watching it on live TV, I cannot even begin to tell you how my little son was crestfallen, in tears, besides himself. I recall quite clearly how he simply didn't know how to react. In the end, he sat down and drew a picture of a Space Shuttle eneveloped in fire. I kept the picture. It expressed the only way that my son could deal with his disappointment and sorrow.

I cannot forget the story of how each astronaut would get woken up one day of the mission with their favourite music. Ilan Ramon's wife Rona, woke him up with a famous Israeli love song. I must be honest that I cannot hear that song anyomore without tearing up and thinking of him. The words are:

זֶמֶר נוּגֶה

הֲתִשְׁמַע קוֹלִי, רְחוֹקִי שֶׁלִּי,
הֲתִשְׁמַע קוֹלִי, בַּאֲשֶׁר הִנְּךָ –
קוֹל קוֹרֵא בְּעֹז, קוֹל בּוֹכֶה בִּדְמִי
וּמֵעַל לַזְּמַן מְצַוֶּה בְּרָכָה?

תֵּבֵל זוֹ רַבָּה וּדְרָכִים בָּה רָב.
נִפְגָּשׁוֹת לְדַק, נִפְרָדוֹת לָעַד.
מְבַקֵּשׁ אָדָם, אַךְ כּוֹשְׁלוֹת רַגְלָיו,
לֹא יוּכַל לִמְצֹא אֶת אֲשֶׁר אָבַד.

אַחֲרוֹן יָמַי כְּבָר קָרוֹב אוּלַי,
כְּבָר קָרוֹב הַיּוֹם שֶׁל דִּמְעוֹת פְּרִידָה,
אֲחַכֶּה לְךָ עַד יִכְבּוּ חַיַּי,
כְּחַכּוֹת רָחֵל לְדוֹדָהּ.

Will you hear my voice so far away from me
Will you hear my voice where ever you are
A strong voice,
praying silently
And beyond time, it sends a blessing

This land is large and has many paths
We meet for a moment and separate for ever
A man tries, but his legs fail
He will never find what he has lost

My final days are very close
Near is the day of good bye tears
I will wait for you until my life will end
Like Rachel waited for her lover

I always find it so ironic that this classic Israeli love song, became so true with Ilan Ramon. Like an epitaph.

And now, his son, who chose to follow in his father's footsteps - a boy who everyone says was quite an exceptional young man filled with idealism - is dead, also finding his death in the air.

Words cannot quite come to grips with the depths of tragic emotion in a story like this.
As the Sephardi consolation line reads:
מן השמים תנוחם

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