September 22, 2019

Israeli astronaut’s story highlights Jewish film fest

The Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival returns to town for the sixth year May 5-12 with a diverse menu of 26 feature movies, documentaries and shorts.

“Our films are not just selected, they are chosen,” festival director Hilary Helstein said. Her picks cover such themes as tradition and identity, conflict and issues, history and legacy, and inspiration.

Screenings will be offered at 10 different venues, ranging from the Westside, Beverly Hills and mid-Wilshire to the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys and Thousand Oaks.

The opening-night red-carpet gala at the Writers Guild of America Theatre on May 5 will present “An Article of Hope,” which chronicles the brave life and tragic death of Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first, and so far only, astronaut.

The date of the screening is symbolic in itself as May 5 marks the 50th anniversary of the first American launch into space.

Israel could not have picked a better representative of the Jewish state than Ramon. His mother and grandmother were “graduates of Auschwitz,” whose recollections gave Ramon a deep awareness of the threats facing Jewish life and Israel, and the imperative to defend both.

From boyhood, he dreamed of flying, and, after joining the Israel air force, he became the youngest pilot in the daring 1981 mission to destroy Iraq’s nuclear reactor.

He was a natural to be picked as the Israeli payload specialist to join four men and two women on the space shuttle Columbia mission, set for January 2003.

Among the intimate footage are scenes of intensive training and lighthearted breaks, including an interlude in which Ramon leads his American comrades in a peppy round of Israeli cheers.

According to all the testimony, Ramon was that rarity, a modest man of action, “quiet on the ground, a fighter in the air,” as one of his Israeli superiors put it.

The film includes detailed scenes of the space shuttle flight and technology, but its heart lies in Ramon’s personal story, exemplified by the items he took with him into space as his very own payload.

Included were a barbed-wire mezuzah, a gift from the local “1939” Club; a pencil sketch of “Moon Landscape” drawn by a 16-year-old boy killed at Auschwitz; a dollar from the Lubavitcher rebbe; and a miniature Torah scroll, the size of a man’s hand, a gift from a Holocaust survivor.

“Ilan saw himself as the representative of Israel and of all the Jewish people,” his widow, Rona, said.

On the 16th and last day of the Columbia mission, 16 minutes before the scheduled touchdown at Cape Canaveral, the space shuttle disintegrated during its entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

Scraps of Ramon’s diary were recovered, but not the tiny Torah. On the next mission, Canadian astronaut Steve MacLean carried a replica into space in memory of his friend Ilan.

Following the 8 p.m. screening on May 5, director Dan Cohen will participate in a discussion of “An Article of Hope.”

Other highlighted festival films include:

“Strangers No More,” a short documentary on the children of the Bialik-Rogozin School in Tel Aviv, who have come to Israel after fleeing poverty and political strife in their homelands, which won an Oscar this year.

“Precious Life,” which explores Israeli-Palestinian relations through the story of an Israeli doctor and Palestinian mother who attempt to get treatment for her baby.

“Jews and Baseball: An American Love Story,” which traces the Jewish love affair with the great American game, especially when the likes of Hank Greenberg or Sandy Koufax are in the lineup.

The closing presentation, on May 12, is “Who Do You Love,” a fictionalized bio-pic about Leonard and Phil Chess, two Jewish immigrant brothers from Poland who helped transform rhythm and blues into classic rock ’n’ roll.

For ticket and other information, visit, phone (800) 838-3006, or buy in person at the Westside Jewish Community Center.