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

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

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

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

"For 16 days we had one of our guys in space. And this country, so accustomed to cynicism, looked up to its man in space. This country, so used to looking down on itself, held its breath at the prospect of a different reality, 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 his best moment. He was eulogized both as the son of a Holocaust survivor who had asserted his Jewish identity even in the space shuttle, requesting Kosher food even though he wasn't religiously observant. And Ramon was also remembered as the unsung military hero who had played a strategic role in Israel's 1981 bombing of Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor.

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

But for the majority of Israelis, who are ardently secular, noble declarations by religious figures could not quite touch the deeper chord of loss. Conventional religious ritual could barely express the mystical sense of 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 in Israel, a country where shock and grief, and the obscene ironies of tragedy, are such second nature that they are built into daily speech," said Israeli-American Bradley Burston, also writing in Ha'aretz.

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

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

At the Himmelfarb Comprehensive Secondary High School, in the dusty Negev desert city of Beersheba, Ramon's childhood friends gathered in the assembly hall of their old alma mater to bid the astronaut farewell. Rather than hymns, they sang bittersweet old Hebrew folk tunes, accompanied by guitar.

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

"He (Ramon) was a person who healed Israel at a time when it so badly needed someone to bring people together," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations."

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

Jewish survivors view it as a sacred duty to collect any human remains from 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's Jerusalem office.

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

"Even though the body is just a vessel of the soul, which is the eternal part of the human person, it is a receptacle for that holy essence. And so it has to be treated with reverence," Rosen said. "You have to make every effort 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 eternal soul of the victim. But this is the obligation of the living to show their respect for the deceased."

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

Indeed, mystical rabbinical commentators have often noted the body is the 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.

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