With the death of Rona Ramon, a blanket of great sadness fell upon all of Israel.
It all came rushing back … the heartbreaking news after a euphoric two weeks of witnessing Ilan Ramon in space.
The past few days, I haven’t been able get out of my head the 1970s Israeli song Hatishma Koli, “Can You Hear My Voice?” After Ilan Ramon sang and played it for his wife from space, it became the family’s theme song. And it became a theme song for all of us who, as a nation, fell in love with Ilan Ramon, and then lost him as we awaited his return to earth.
Maybe it was because of the intifada that was raging at the time. Israel was gripped with terrible pain, fear, anxiety and loneliness. Suicide bombs, exploding cafés and buses, everywhere. Then within the darkness, a stream of light arose.
Even before lift-off, he had emerged as a source of inspiration. The Columbia shuttle became our obsession. Israeli news followed the story closely. Of course, it was historically significant for Israel, but it was so much more than that — because Ilan Ramon made it so much more than that.
We were proud to be represented by him. He saw his role as not only an Israeli, or even an Israeli Air Force pilot, reaching space, but as a Jew ascending with thousands of years of our past upon his shoulders.
He was not religious, but he understood that he was representing an entire nation. He determined what time Shabbat began in space. He insisted on kosher food. He brought along a Kiddush goblet. He brought the Israeli flag. He even went so far as to ascend to space with a tiny Torah scroll, one that had survived the Holocaust.
For 16 days, we lived the elation. While he was floating in space, we were walking on air.
Like so many others, I watched the live broadcast of the Columbia’s landing. I thought the worst that could go wrong was in the launch and that the shuttle was out of danger. I expected Ilan Ramon’s return.
And so did the rest of Israel.
The news anchor was reporting live from Florida. Ilan’s dad was being interviewed. It felt like we were all one family, when suddenly, the anchor said: “We lost contact with the Columbia.”
He said it so matter-of-factly that I didn’t think much of it. Then the minutes were drawing out. There was no news. Then CNN took over. We heard an American in the newsroom quietly say, “We lost them,” but I took it to mean they had lost contact.
There was a sense that something had gone wrong, when suddenly the somber words came on: “ha-ma’abara hitparka, the shuttle fell apart.”
Tears began streaming down my face. The whole country was gripped in mourning. It was personal. It was Ilan Ramon who we had all fallen in love with.
We all felt the pain of the Ramon family. Rona, the children — our broken hearts went out to them all, and to Ilan’s dad, whom we had just seen on television. Hatishma Koli played on the radio as we all grieved this national loss. Rona would never hear Ilan’s voice again.
With that, Rona Ramon took on the identity of “Ilan’s wife.” In an interview for Ilan’s fifth yahrtzeit, she spoke of choosing to live life fully, of rising each morning with joy in her heart. She spoke of Ilan being her rock and her strength, of living by his ideals. She spoke of his journal from space miraculously found in the rubble. With a smile, she said, “I am still in contact with Ilan. I will always be in contact with Ilan.”
Then, a year later, six years after Columbia, the unthinkable happened. Lightning struck twice. Ilan and Rona Ramon’s eldest son Assaf, a newly minted Israel Air Force pilot, a young man with tremendous promise, was killed in a flying accident.
How much pain could be visited, and so publicly, upon such an incredible family that had already given the Jewish people so much? Two precious loved ones, twice taken by the heavens. It was a terrible blow to the country all over again.
If until that point Rona had been “Ilan Ramon’s wife,” now she was also “Assaf’s mother.”
While the crushing pain would have debilitated anyone, Rona transformed her tragedy into action and emerged as a persona in her own right. After Assaf’s death, she somehow picked herself up and initiated joint projects in both Ilan and Assaf’s memories, wrote an MA thesis about coping with loss, and worked with thousands of Israeli youth.
In 2016, at a class on the Biblical Job, she shared: “We are constantly living in a process of longing and of missed opportunities. Within this dialectical tension one must maintain constant balance between what was, what is gone, and what is present, to choose to somehow grow from within the darkness, to remember that the pain is forever; and at the same time to realize that there is also a path forward to be found from a place of emptiness, of absence — to live life to the fullest.”
Last week, after Rona died, it was hard to hear that she had asked to be cremated. Harder still was her reason, “to prevent her children from needing to endure a third funeral for a member of their nuclear family.” None of us who have not walked in her shoes can understand. A friend of mine commented that perhaps since her husband had no burial place, she felt guilt at having one when he did not.
Her legacy and memory of Ilan and Assaf will never be stilled, and the legacy of Ilan Ramon, one of Israel’s greats, will live on in the annals of Jewish history. We will never forget this dear family.
Ilan and Rona, we will always hear your voice.
Copyright Intermountain Jewish News