The Torah tells how God 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 in New York City at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and the Center for Jewish History.
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.
Eddy Portnoy is YIVO’s senior researcher, director of exhibitions and co-curator of “Jews in Space.” In a walk around the exhibit, he provided some unusual and unexpected facts about Jews and the cosmos.
1. Your horoscope 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 way to learn about their futures by way 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, but rabbinic authorities were not thrilled, since astrology is banned by Jewish law (although zodiac symbols have shown up as synagogue decorations for at least 1,500 years).
Despite that, Jews at the time continued to read horoscopes as well as seek other ways of predicting the future, such as by going to psychics and reading tea leaves.
2. First U.S. Jew in space: Judith
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 before being recruited to NASA in a program to diversify its workforce. The person who recruited her was “Star Trek” actress Nichelle Nichols (Uhura), who worked for NASA as a recruiter of new astronaut candidates, many of them women and minorities, for about 10 years.
Resnick died in 1986 along with the rest of the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger when the spacecraft broke apart shortly after takeoff.
3. Off-the-planet Torah reading
Jeffrey Hoffman, the first Jewish American man to go into space, consulted a rabbi on how to observe Judaism on his first trip, in 1985. 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 Hanukkah, although he was never able to actually light it aboard the spacecraft.
4. Vulcan salute is Jewish?
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 in synagogue 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 (it also appears on tombstones of kohanim, the Hebrew word for priest used to describe Jews who are direct descendants of Moses’ brother Aaron).
The Vulcan salute, which is accompanied by the phrase “Live long and prosper” (the kohanim’s blessing begins “May God bless you and guard you”), became so iconic that the White House mentioned it in a statement issued on Nimoy’s death in 2015.
5. Backstory on “Futurama” character
Some might think it a coincidence that the institute shares a name with a bizarre extraterrestrial in the animated science fiction comedy series. In a 2008 direct-to-video film based on the TV series, Yivo (voiced by actor David Cross, who was raised Jewish) is a tentacled being who uses his many limbs to have sex with every living being in the universe.
Turns out the screenwriter, Eric Kaplan, is friends with Cecile Kuznitz, a professor at Bard College who has done extensive research on the institute. He decided to, um, honor her by naming the character after the topic of her work, the archive and research center on Eastern European Jewish life founded in Vilna in 1925.
6. Father of science fiction
Hugo Gernsback, a Jewish immigrant 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 himself.
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. The Hugo Award, one of science fiction’s most prestigious prizes, is named after him (winners include such sci-fi and fantasy luminaries as Ursula K. Le Guin, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Neil Gaiman and Isaac Asimov).
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 Asimov and Howard Fast.