With the tragic blow of the death of Rona Ramon, a blanket of great sadness fell upon all of Israel.
It all came rushing back . . . watching the heartbreaking, live news after a euphoric two weeks of witnessing Ilan Ramon in space.
The past few days I can’t get out of my head the beautiful song of the Israeli 1970s troupe High Windows, called “Hatishma Koli, Can You Hear My Voice?” In fact, I have the 1968 live in Paris recording playing as I write this. After Ilan Ramon sang and played this poignant song for his beloved wife Rona from space, it became the theme song of the Ramon family. I believe it was, sadly, then played at Ilan’s funeral. Ever since, whenever I hear or sing this song, it has always meant Ilan and Rona Ramon. I had never heard this stunning but painful love song before until Ilan was in space.
It’s such a touching song, but what opened my heart to it was how I learned of it. To hear a love song in Hebrew, sent from a humble Jewish giant to his wife down here on earth, and then to think of its themes: distance, separation, departure . . . it’s almost mythical. Yet it’s true. It happened. In my lifetime. Yours and mine. We all lived through it.
A part of it became a theme song for all of us who, as a nation, fell in love with Ilan Ramon and all he symbolized, and then lost him in such a ruptured departure, as we awaited his return to earth.
Maybe it was because of living through the initifada that was raging at the time. Israel was gripped with terrible pain, fear, anxiety and loneliness. Suicide bombs, exploding cafés and buses, everywhere.
Then, suddenly, within this darkness, a stream of light arose.
Even before lift-off, before following him so closely on his 16-day mission, he emerged as such a source of inspiration during his preparation for his launch.
Ilan and the Columbia shuttle became our obsession. I recall attending a scholarly seminar of a fellowship I was participating in at the time, and somehow it turned into a conversation about our pride in Ilan Ramon. Israeli news and newspapers followed this story so closely. Each morning I couldn’t wait to go to my local grocery across the street and buy the paper and read that day’s news about Ilan Ramon out in space. We lived and breathed it. Of course, it was a central news story for the historic significance of Israel marking another horizon of accomplishment: the first Israeli in space. But it was so much more than that. Because Ilan Ramon made it so much more than that. The Jewish pride he inspired and engendered was sheer joy.
We were proud to be represented by him. To me, he embodied a boyish Michael J. Fox-ish quality. He was someone so brilliant yet so humble; someone who strove for excellence, literally reaching for the stars, yet one whose character was firmly grounded in reality; someone so disciplined, hardworking and cerebral, yet one who exuded such charm, warmth and kindness.
He touched our collective hearts and opened them up during such a dark time in ways only he could.
I, along with all of Israel, was transfixed by and with Ilan Ramon.
The way he saw his role as not only an Israeli, or even an Israeli Air Force pilot, reaching space, but as a Jew who simultaneously represented the burden and the glory of Jewish history; one who was ascending with thousands of years of our Jewish past upon his shoulders, was nothing short of inspirational.
The fact that he was officially secular, yet understood he was representing not just himself but an entire Jewish nation, heightened it all.
He went to the effort to determine what time Shabbat began space. He insisted on kosher food in space. He brought along a kiddush goblet with which to consecrate Shabbat. I will never forget seeing that floating kiddush goblet! Of course, he brought the Israeli flag. He even went so far as to ascend to space with a tiny Torah scroll. Symbolically, he chose a sefer Torah that had survived the Holocaust.
This was the item that Ilan found the most emotional of all “because it is what connects us to each other, and stands as witness that we as a people can overcome even the worst of crises and breakdowns.” Ilan made note of the fact that the Shabbat he departed earth was parashat Beshalach.
For 16 days, in a tremendously tense country, we all lived the reprieve and elation of following Ilan Ramon. While he was floating out there in space, we were like walking on air down here on earth.
As one who came of age in the generation of the Challenger disaster, I had butterflies about the launch of the Columbia and watched it holding my breath. As we watched a successful launch and then the ensuing 16 days of Ilan Ramon in space, there was a palpable sense of “mission successful.”
I felt an attachment to this mission, to Ilan Ramon and all he represented. Like so many others, I arranged to watch the live broadcast of the landing of the Columbia. I will never forget it. Watching the news live, starting off with such anticipation and excitement to witness the return to earth of our Israeli Jewish pride, Ilan Ramon, and his reunion with his beloved Rona, who we came to know just a bit at that point.
Living without a television, I made plans to go elsewhere to watch this historic moment of Jewish-space history reach its joyous conclusion. I thought the worst that could go wrong was in the launch and that the moment of anything ominous had passed. I thought the shuttle was out of it’s danger zone. I expected Ilan Ramon’s return.
And so did the rest of Israel.
The news anchor was reporting live from Florida, where the Columbia was meant to land, In the usual build up to a big news moment he was explaining pertinent facts, in this case, the various differences in our clocks, something about a lag time between earth and space; I don’t remember exactly. I just wanted to see the actual landing already. Ilan’s dad was there being interviewed and 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, and since he had just been talking about a slight time lag, I didn’t think much of it. Then the minutes were drawing out. The news anchor had no news. The next thing we knew CNN took over. At the end of one of the segments you even heard an American in the newsroom quietly say, “we lost them,” but I took it to mean: we lost contact. My heart was beating. There was a sense of growing agony. It felt like something had gone wrong . . . but somehow there was still hope . . . when suddenly the somber words came on, and I shall always remember them: “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 were all hurting for the pain of the Ramon family and its bitter fate. Suddenly, it felt they had become our family. Rona Ramon and their children, our broken hearts went out to them all. And to Ilan’s dad, whom we had just seen, yet again interviewed on television. “Hatishama Koli, Can You Hear My Voice” played non-stop on the radio as we all silently grieved this national loss and knew that the departure of Ilan from Rona was final. She would never hear Ilan’s voice again.
Neither would we.
With that, Rona Ramon took on the identity of “Ilan’s wife.” I followed interviews with her. I recall an inspirational interview at the time of Ilan’s fifth yahrtzeit, on which she spoke of how she has chosen to live life fully, and that she rises each morning with joy in her heart for the upcoming day. She spoke of Ilan still being her rock and her strength, and of living by his ideals. She spoke of shreds of Ilan Ramon’s journal from space miraculously found among the rubble of the shattered shuttle, and even more miraculously of how these shreds were somehow regrafted into their original form.
I went to see this sacred witness for myself when it was on display at the museum. He kept inspiring, even from the beyond. I remember how with a smile Rona said something to the effect of “I am still in contact with Ilan. I will always be in contact with Ilan.”
Then, a year later, six years after the Columbia explosion, the unthinkable happened. Shockingly, it felt like lightening had struck twice. Ilan and Rona Ramon’s eldest son Assaf, like his dad, a young man with tremendous gifts and promise, a newly minted Israel Air Force pilot, was killed in a flying accident. It was beyond devastating. Everyone wondered, how could so much pain be visited, and so publically, upon such an incredible family that had already given the Jewish people so much? Her two precious loved ones, twice taken by the heavens, by the skies. It was a terrible blow to the country all over again.
A promising young pilot, the son of one of Israel’s greatest scientists, pilots and warriors (Ilan Ramon was part of the IDF’s secret mission that destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981), now gone. One national, beloved family, hit so brutally, twice. Yet again, bereaved.
If until that point, Rona stood for being Ilan Ramon’s wife, now she was also the bereaved mother of her eldest son, Israel Air Force pilot Assaf.
While such crushing pain would debilitate anyone, Rona remarkably transformed her tragedy and pain into action, and emerged as a persona in her own right, embodying heart-stirring resilience. Her internal resources ran so deep. After Assaf’s death, Rona somehow picked herself up and with a measure of incredibly optimistic energy initiated joint projects in both Ilan and Assaf’s memories, writing an MA thesis about coping with loss, and working with thousands of Israeli youth. In doing so she inspired a nation.
In 2016, when Rona presented a class illuminating the Biblical Job at the President of Israel’s residence, 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 left instructions for her body 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.” I’m not sure how that prevents her children from living through the pain of her loss, but none of us who have not walked in her shoes can ever understand. A friend of mine insightfully commented: Subconsciously it must somehow be linked to the fact that Ilan Ramon himself has no burial place and perhaps she felt guilt at having one when he did not.
While what might have been Rona’s tortured emotional world will forever remain a mystery, her legacy in memory of Elan and Assaf will never be stilled, and certainly the legacy of Ilan Ramon, one of Israel’s greats, will live on in the annals of Jewish history.
We shall never forget this very dear family.
Can you hear my voice?
Ilan and Rona, we shall always hear your voice. Always.
Copyright © 2018 by the Intermountain Jewish News