For Israelis, the last flight of a quiet hero was at once inconceivable and all too familiar - the unbearable juxtaposition of the Holocaust and the nascent, tensely nurtured hopes of millions dashed without so much as the promise of a grave to grieve upon.
The tragedy struck Americans and Israelis at the same endless moment. But there was no way to translate the depth of the shock and grief in Israel, a country where shock and grief - and the obscene ironies of tragedy - are such second nature that they are built into daily speech. How were Americans to comprehend a language, an entire culture, a sweepingly tragic historical tradition, in which the word for space, hallal, can also mean a slain individual, and an immense, crushing emptiness.
Until the fiery contrails began to seize and hold their televisions sets, many Americans had been unaware that the shuttle was aloft at all, so routine and seemingly dependable had space flight become in the 17 years since Americans had mourned for the Challenger crew.
For Israelis, however, there was nothing humdrum about the flight - down to the kosher food that had been specified by Ilan Ramon, a secular Jew who felt his allegiance belonged to his people at least as much to the credo of the Right Stuff, a tradition that might well have looked askance on deviance from the American norm.
Neither was there anything the least common about his decision to take aboard a picture drawn by a star-struck boy later killed by the Nazis in Auschwitz, a place that Ilan Ramon's mother had somehow survived. The picture, dark and dreamy, showed the earth as seen from the moon.
Nor was there anything in the least ordinary about the fact that unbeknownst to him, the little boy's sister survived the war and moved to Be'er Sheva, where the little boy's niece was in Ilan's high school class. "My brother is finally getting a chance to go into space," said the slain artist's sister, as Columbia lifted off last month.
For many in Israel, the cruelty of the tragedy slammed home with a force that seemed even more overwhelming than the tides of terrorism that had set cities aflame and claimed hundreds of deaths over 28 months. An uncommonly beautiful day turned without warning into a hell of waiting for good news that never came.
"We've known so many losses throughout this period, loss of life through terror and fighting, as well as loss of hope, and suddenly Ilan Ramon comes forward as a new hope for Israel, a symbol of the capability that we could feel again," clinical psychologist Yael Magal-David said Sunday.
The astronaut had also reminded Israelis of an Israel that itself seemed all but lost. In such gestures as listening in space to a poignant song by the pre-state poetess Rachel, Ramon displayed a respectful innocence that harkened to earlier, less disillusioned times.
"Flying into space, Ilan Ramon made childhood wishes come true for all of us - a piece of all of us traveled with him," Magal-David said. At the same time "he very much strengthened our sense of unity and belonging, both in his actions and in the symbols of Jewish and Israeli heritage that he took with him to space," she said, using the untranslatable expression melach ha-aretz, connoting a quietly wonderful son of Israel's soil, to describe the fallen astronaut.
"He went in search of a better world," his widow was quoted as telling the prime minister late Saturday. In fact, he found it, and through him, his countrymen found it as well, in his poetically modest depictions of watching a little country of uncommon beauty that, from that vantage point, he was the first Israeli ever to see.
And Israelis watched him as well. For three days last month, children across the country rose before dawn to turn to the southeastern sky for a glimpse of what appeared to be a silver arrow poised above the Mediterranean - a tiny spaceship big enough to carry the dreams of a million children.
"When those rockets fire, we're going into space, I as well as all of you," Ramon said in his last interview to the uncustomarily exhilarated Army Radio interviewer Rafi Reshef, who confessed to an equally unexpected envy.
The envy was shared by many, along with the close identification with the flight - a state of affairs that made the fiery end of the shuttle mission that much harder to bear.
"My 14-year-old daughter always really wanted to be an astronaut, that's what she always said," a Rishon Letzion resident named Riki told a television call-in show Sunday morning, during a segment devoted to counseling parents of children distraught over the shuttle disaster.
"She was glued to the [shuttle] liftoff, and every day was so interested and watched all the broadcasts on the flight. She envied Ilan Ramon so much. Yesterday, she was on a picnic, and after she heard the news, she called us up, and said it had happened because of her, because of her envy. Until 11 o’clock last night, she simply could not stop herself from crying."
"This country, so accustomed to cynicism, looked up to its man in space," Haaretz commentator Ari Shavit wrote in Sunday's paper. "This country, so used to looking down on itself, held its breath at the prospect of a different reality, that of a country that can defy the gravity of its fate."
The white contrails that signaled the disaster, Shavit concluded, came to symbolize "this hope that keeps shattering, the hope of freeing ourselves from our gravitational destiny, of floating in some weightless normalcy in utter disregard of the gravity of our existence."
Psychologist Magal-David noted that the grief was also influenced by the fact that Ramon - in 1981 the F16 pilot last to attack the Iraqi nuclear reactor and thus the most vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire - had been killed in an American craft. Israelis could therefore cast their anger elsewhere.
"We don't have to feel that we didn't do enough to prevent this. We are, therefore, left with our feelings of grief and loss," she said.
The tragedy "goes against every single thing we were taught at home and in the gan [kindergarten]," said a Jerusalem-area woman, an Israeli-born daughter of Holocaust survivors who grew up in the United States and for whom the shuttle launch had rekindled memories of the fevered excitement that space flight had generated in the otherwise gravely troubled America of the 1960s.
"We were told that under no circumstances do we leave the bodies of the fallen in the field. When did we last leave people going up in flames in a metal box that belongs to someone else, where they turn into ashes? In Auschwitz. I thought we didn't do that anymore. That's what they told me. That's why I'm here. Because we don't do that anymore. So how could something like this have happened?"
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