Every year on the fifth of the Hebrew month Iyar (that day falls this year on May 7), Israel celebrates Israeli Independence Day to commemorate the founding of the State of Israel in 1948. Parties and parades are held all over Israel and the United States. Yom HaAtzmaut comes after the close of Yom HaZikaron, which is a day of remembrance and mourning for those who died fighting for the Israel. These days, we also remember those who have died in terrorist attacks. After the serious and sad activities of Yom HaZikaron, the mood changes from sorrow to celebration with the onset of Yom HaAtzmaut.

Moments of Silence

There were a lot of moments of silence this week.

There was the one early Saturday morning when you firstheard the news of the space shuttle Columbia’s disappearance. Whoever told you,whomever you told, there was that instant of disbelief, that moment when wordsfailed you.

As the reality hit, the white noise of wall-to-wall newscoverage filled our cars and living rooms. But off the air, the rest of us hadfew words to say.

The tragedy, which would have been awful under anycircumstances, stung Jews especially deeply. Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli inspace, was also the first Israeli to die in space.

As rabbis and their congregants filtered into synagogues forShabbat services Saturday morning, they entered shaking their heads, ready tocry, unable to express the sadness and loss. Synagogue turned out to be aperfect place to be.

A full-to-bursting schedule of planned events this pastweekend brought Jews together, where they could, among other things, be silenttogether.

Saturday night, just hours after the tragedy, Israeli ConsulGeneral Yuval Rotem and his wife, Miri, were honored by Pressman Academy Jewishday school at a ballroom dinner dance. It was a celebration singed with sorrow.

Organizers, said Rabbi Joel Rembaum, debated whether tocancel the music and dancing. They decided that, in the end, strength came fromboth mourning and celebrating. Rotem delivered a powerful eulogy for Ramon (seepage 9), whose picture stood propped up on the stage above a row of yahrtzeitcandles. There was a moment of silence, then, as the dancing began, PiniCohen’s band shared the stage with the smiling image of the astronaut.

Wherever Jews gathered this week, the rituals were similar.Sorrow, then business. Sorrow, then celebration. The image of Ramon — hispromise, his courage, his achievement — orbited each gathering.

At the annual meeting of the Jewish Historical Society ofSouthern California, held Sunday at the Japanese American National Museum, thehundred or so people gathered to honor Jerry Freedman-Habush began theirprogram with a moment of silence.

At a dinner Sunday evening for the University of Judaismhonoring Ruth Zeigler, UJ President Robert Wexler called for a moment silence.

Some 500 people attended the memorial service for theastronauts on Sunday at Adat Shalom synagogue in West Los Angeles. “It wouldhave been a tragedy even if Ilan Ramon wasn’t on board,” Rabbi Michael Resnicksaid. “We would have done something anyway. At difficult times we cometogether, we reach out for strength, for optimism.”

Resnick reminded the gathering of Ramon’s view from theColumbia. “There are no lines, there is just the world,” he said. “It becomesso clear that from space that we are one.”

At the home of Jean and Jerry Friedman, an elegant dinnerreception Sunday evening for some 200 major donors to Jewish education fromaround the country began with a moment of silence. And at a high-spiritedMitzvah Day organized by The Jewish Federation/South Bay Council, 500 peoplestopped to remember the astronauts.

One simple reason Ramon’s death provoked such deep reactionis that many people here knew him, and even more people felt as if they did.

Ramon’s death broke the hearts of students at ShalhevetSchool, who had sent Ramon a letter on Jan. 13, while he was still in orbit,thanking him for his achievement. “May you reach a clearer understanding of theuniverse through your unique vantage point on God’s creation,” they wrote.

Rabbi Mark Blazer of Temple Beth Ami in Santa Clarita was aclose friend who celebrated this past Thanksgiving with the astronaut and hisfamily. At the end of the meal, Blazer had wished Ramon, “Nesiya tova,” Hebrewfor bon voyage. “I realized this was the first time I had ever said these wordsto someone going up into space,” Blazer wrote in The Daily News.

“It’s just terrible,” said William Elperin of the “1939”Club. “I couldn’t get him out of my mind all weekend. We were at his home inHouston and spent time with his wife and four children. He was such a wonderfulman.”

The “1939” Club honored Ramon in October 2000, presentinghim with a barbed-wire mezuzah symbolizing the Holocaust. The son and grandsonof Holocaust survivors took the mezuzah into space with him. 

Ramon’s picture adorned the walls of many Jewish schoolclassrooms. At Pressman Academy, educators added a prayer for peace and otherreadings in memorial of the astronauts, and students of all ages wrote e-mailsto the Ramon family to express their concern and thoughts. 

It was exactly a year ago that Kol Tikvah religious schoolstarted a letter-writing campaign to Ramon, sending him letters of support,following his progress and awaiting his visit after landing. Instead, studentswrote condolence cards.

At Universal Studios theme park, where Ramon went with hisfamily as a guest of honor during the park’s 2002 Chanukah celebration,employees remembered how Ramon had been scheduled to sign autographs for ahalf-hour. As the line grew, he refused to leave or even accept lunch untileveryone had a signed poster, nearly three and a half hours later. Ramon vowedto return after his flight so he could experience the park with his children.

Sarit Finkelstein-Boim had just seen Ramon when he served asone of the Executive Honorary Committee members for her installation aspresident of B’nai B’rith Shalom Unit. Her husband, Nahum, an aeronauticalengineer, was a friend of Ramon from the air force.

Carol Koransky remembered seeing Ramon at the GeneralAssembly of Jewish federations in Philadelphia this past December. Ramon satgood-naturedly through a program that ran on until midnight. When finallyintroduced to a much-dwindled audience, he came to the podium and said, “Goodmorning.” Then, Koransky said, he proceeded to astonish the audience with aheartfelt explanation of what his trip would mean to him as an astronaut and asa Jew.

For so many, Ramon was the poster boy for the ideal Jewishidentity. Two recently released surveys of American Jewish opinion found that66 percent of Jews believe anti-Semitism is the “greatest threat” to Jewishlife, 73 percent of Jews said caring about Israel was important. Half saidbeing Jewish is “very important” to them, while 41 percent said “being part ofthe Jewish people” defined their identity.

Here was Ilan Ramon to fill all those roles at once — awarrior, an Israeli, a proudly self-identified Jew who took a Torah and kiddushcup into space, a real-life mensch and a textbook hero.

The imagery of the catastrophe and its aftermath could havebeen a chapter from mythology. The heroes soaring through the heavens, theirfirey deaths as they sought to bring the secrets of the cosmos back to those ofus on Earth, the few sacrificing themselves for the many.

Not surprisingly, the memorials held in their honorthroughout the week, like President Bush’s initial announcement of thedisaster, shuttled effortlessly between the sacred and the mundane.

Ramon’s death was marked and mourned with such intensitybecause of how he lived his life, and because of how we dream of living ours.He asserted the importance of his Jewishness to his life’s mission,understanding that in serving his faith and his people, he was serving all ofhumanity; and in serving all humanity, he served his people.  

The Grief Counselor

In second grade, my alternative San Francisco elementary school gathered all the students together for a "share" session. It was a tiny school. We crowded into the library, where a teacher calmly announced that there had been a tragedy over the weekend.

A girl a few grades above me had lost her father in a freak accident. For some reason, I remember that this accident happened in Mexico, that the body was being shipped back. We were asked to be respectful and kind in this girl’s time of grief.

At this point, the only being I had ever lost was my tabby, Gobbles. This news, the thought of this girl never talking to her father again, how unfair it all was, just shorted out my 8-year-old mind.

I remember sitting in class saturated with sorrow for this shy girl I hardly knew and her father, a hazy image I created of a dead man stowed away as cargo on TWA. Biting my nails, feeling a clenched fist take hold of my stomach, I knew I had to take action; I had to do whatever I could to let her know how sorry I was.

And that’s where things went wrong.

My mother loved homemade cards. That’s all she ever wanted as a gift for any holiday, a card and maybe a poem. On her birthdays I usually got out the crayons and markers to draw a cake motif for the card’s cover. Valentine’s Day was a heart; Chanukah was a menorah. You get the idea. All at once, I had a solution, a way to communicate my condolences to this girl whose plight had me unglued. I did the only thing I knew how to do: I made a card. The only thing I couldn’t figure out was what to draw on the cover.

Staring at the nicked top of my wooden desk, I got an idea. I would render a tombstone with the letters "R.I.P." This I did, lovingly drawing in weeds around the base of the tombstone and perhaps a crow flying overhead. I was only 8. That was the only image in my death file.

By the grace of some power far beyond me, a teacher intercepted the card. She was kind enough not to shame me; she just swiped the card off my desk to some secret teacher place on her person, and it was never seen again.

All this is to explain why it’s been so difficult for me to write anything since Sept. 11. What if the way I express a sense of sadness and loss comes out all wrong? Experts say everyone grieves differently, but let’s face it, with this much tragedy in the air, there’s not much room for error. I’m afraid of being one huge talking crayon R.I.P. card — my heart in the right place, but my ability to project proper human behavior sorely out of tune.

I’m not an expert on anything, least of all the affairs of terrorists and their plots or the history of conflict in the Middle East. Over the past few weeks, I’ve heard brilliant oratories on heroism, on restraint, on national unity. I’ve also tuned in to a trio of DJs — let’s call them Flaky, Drippy and Johnny — giving the tragedy the "morning zoo" treatment: two parts uneducated cliché-mongering, one part trumped-up gravitas. The last thing anyone needs is for me to add my own uninformed cliché chain to the slag heap.

I’ve never been much good at talking about the big things. I usually don’t feel I have the right, especially in this case, because I didn’t lose anyone I knew personally, and so many people did. This leaves me only what follows.

The day after the towers came down, I saw a bus come to a stop in the middle of the street. A burly driver got out so he could move an injured pigeon from the road, cupping the bird in his big hands. A lemonade stand materialized on Larchmont Boulevard, manned by three girls not much older than I was when I drew that awful card. A crayon sign announced that they were raising money for the Red Cross.

Cars slowed down to let me cut in front of them. Merging on the freeway was graceful.

My elderly Japanese neighbor stopped by to show me her new American flag. "You don’t know what I’ve been through," she said suddenly, shaking her head and thinking back to her days in Japan during the war. I froze with the old panic of not knowing what to say. She began to cry, looking at her slippers, at my rug. I bent down to hug her in my doorway, not saying anything. I let her hug me until it was awkward, until it was her idea to let go.