lost in space

First Torah reading in orbit and other fun facts


The Torah tells how G-d created the earth and the heavens, although the stories that follow tell us more about the former than the latter. A new exhibit doesn’t quite answer theological questions about space, but it does show the ways in which Jews have looked at, written about and traveled into the final frontier.

“Jews in Space: Members of the Tribe in Orbit,” named after a Mel Brooks gag, is an exhibit organized and on view at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan. It features both Yiddish and Hebrew books on astronomy and astrology, science fiction works created by Jews and sections on the history of Jewish astronauts.

During a tour given by Eddy Portnoy, YIVO’s senior researcher and director of exhibitions, who curated the collection with Melanie Meyers, JTA learned some unusual things about the relationship between Jews and the cosmos.

A book of horoscopes written in Yiddish.

Published in 1907 in Odessa, Ukraine, “The Revealer of That Which Is Hidden: A New Practical Book of Fate” gave Yiddish readers a view of astrology. Much like a modern-day horoscope, the book offered predictions based on the reader’s zodiac sign. Similar books existed both in Yiddish and Hebrew during the time period.

The first Jewish American to go into space was a woman.

Judith Resnik became the first Jewish American and second Jew (Soviet astronaut Boris Volynov was the first) to go into space when she flew on the maiden voyage of the Space Shuttle Discovery in 1984.

Born in 1949 to Jewish immigrants from Ukraine who settled in Ohio, Resnik worked as an engineer at the Xerox Corp. before being recruited to NASA in a program to diversify its workforce. She died in 1986 along with the rest of the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger when the spacecraft broke apart shortly after takeoff.

In 1985, a Jewish-American astronaut read from the Torah in space.

Jeffrey Hoffman, the first Jewish-American man to go into space, consulted a rabbi on how to observe Judaism in space. Hoffman, a Brooklyn native who was born in 1944, brought with him a scaled-down Torah and did the first Torah reading outside of Earth. He also had a set of Jewish ritual items specially made for his trip, including a mezuzah with a Velcro strip that he would attach to his bunk and a prayer shawl with weights to keep it from floating away in zero-gravity. He also brought a menorah to celebrate Chanukah, although he was never able to actually light it aboard the spacecraft.

The Vulcan salute on “Star Trek” has Jewish origins.

Actor Leonard Nimoy used an unlikely source of inspiration for his character Spock’s iconic Vulcan salute, which consists of a raised hand with the middle and ring fingers parted into a V. The gesture looks just like the one kohanim do during the Priestly Blessing. In his autobiography, Nimoy explained that he had copied the Jewish gesture, which he had seen in a synagogue as a child. The Vulcan salute, which is accompanied by the phrase “Live long and prosper” (the kohanim’s blessing begins “May G-d bless you and guard you”), became so iconic that the White House mentioned it in a statement issued on Nimoy’s death in 2015.

A Jewish immigrant to the U.S. helped popularize science fiction. Hugo Gernsback, who arrived from Luxembourg, is sometimes called “The Father of Science Fiction” for publishing a magazine that helped popularize the genre.

Launched in 1926, “Amazing Stories” featured tales of aliens, robots and other beings, including ones written by Gernsback. His magazine brought science fiction — a term he coined — to the mainstream and inspired many writers, such as Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the Jewish-American duo that created Superman. Gernsback left “Amazing Stories” in 1929, although it held on in one form or another until 2005. Among the Jewish writers who had their first stories published in the magazine were Isaac Asimov and Howard Fast.