JERUSALEM (RNS) -- From the first minutes of the space shuttle's launch onJan. 16, Israelis had followed Columbia's mission to the moon with the kindof national pride and awestruck fascination that was reminiscent of earlierchapters of American space exploration.

After all, Israel's first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, the son of a Holocaustsurvivor and a crack Air Force pilot, was aboard this shuttle flight. He wasthe nation's John Glenn and Neil Armstrong, carrying a Hebrew Bible with himinto space.

On Saturday, when the shuttle broke up into pieces just 16 minutesbefore its scheduled landing, the sense of national pride turned to despair,and awe to mourning. Political commentators and young school children gropedawkwardly for meaning in what is, for war-hardened Israelis, a new anddifferent kind of national tragedy.

"With a defiant patriotism and a boy-scout naivete, our guy took withhim into space a small Torah scroll that survived the Holocaust and adrawing of earth made by a small boy murdered in Auschwitz," wrote politicalcommentator Arye Shavit, in the Israeli daily, Ha'aretz.

"For 16 days we had one of our guys in space. And this country, soaccustomed to cynicism, looked up to its man in space. This country, so usedto looking down on itself, held its breath at the prospect of a differentreality, that of a country that can defy the gravity of its fate."

In the wake of the tragedy, much was said about how Ramon died at hisbest moment. He was eulogized both as the son of a Holocaust survivor whohad asserted his Jewish identity even in the space shuttle, requestingKosher food even though he wasn't religiously observant. And Ramon was alsoremembered as the unsung military hero who had played a strategic role inIsrael's 1981 bombing of Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor.

"He was both a proud representative of Judaism and of the land ofIsrael," said Israeli Chief Rabbi Yisrael Lau.

But for the majority of Israelis, who are ardently secular, nobledeclarations by religious figures could not quite touch the deeper chord ofloss. Conventional religious ritual could barely express the mystical senseof irony that was somehow entwined with the story of Ramon's space flight.

"There was no way to translate the depth of the shock and grief inIsrael, a country where shock and grief, and the obscene ironies of tragedy,are such second nature that they are built into daily speech," saidIsraeli-American Bradley Burston, also writing in Ha'aretz.

"How were Americans to comprehend a language ... a sweepingly tragichistorical tradition, in which the Hebrew word for space, or `hallal,' canalso mean a slain individual and ... an immense, crushing emptiness." He was indulging in what is a popular pastime here -- finding spiritualmeaning in the plays on words of the ancient Hebrew language.

But it was in the streets and in schools, rather than synagogues, wherethe central ceremonies of mourning took place.

At the Himmelfarb Comprehensive Secondary High School, in the dustyNegev desert city of Beersheba, Ramon's childhood friends gathered in theassembly hall of their old alma mater to bid the astronaut farewell. Ratherthan hymns, they sang bittersweet old Hebrew folk tunes, accompanied byguitar.

Candles placed around simple displays of flowers were the incense ofprayer in impromptu street memorials established in Ramon's name from TelAviv to New York and Houston. They were memorials raised both by Israelisand Americans, many of whom, passing by to pay tribute, said the Columbiatragedy had strengthened the bond between the two countries on earth as wellas in outer space.

"He (Ramon) was a person who healed Israel at a time when it so badlyneeded someone to bring people together," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executivevice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American JewishOrganizations."

"Throughout the community there is a profound sense of loss with all theastronauts. Each one of them was a hero, all people who were really truerole models."

Jewish survivors view it as a sacred duty to collect any human remainsfrom a tragedy like that of the space shuttle so that they can be interred,said Rabbi David Rosen, a senior official in the American Jewish Committee'sJerusalem office.

That explains why Israel was particularly interested in having arabbinical observer join the NASA-guided search parties now scouring Texasfor remains of the doomed Columbia mission.

"Even though the body is just a vessel of the soul, which is the eternalpart of the human person, it is a receptacle for that holy essence. And soit has to be treated with reverence," Rosen said. "You have to make everyeffort to find every part of a deceased body in order to bring it to burial.

It is not that success in such a mission will somehow affect the eternalsoul of the victim. But this is the obligation of the living to show theirrespect for the deceased."

"The fact that `hallel' means space and also means a dead body is astrange linguistic irony," he said.

Indeed, mystical rabbinical commentators have often noted the body isthe earthly "container" for the sacred soul just as the hollowed"nothingness" of the universe might be seen as the `hallal,' or vessel,filled by the divine infinity.