NEW YORK (May. 20)
A mezuzah that has orbited the earth 109 times came to rest Monday at the Jewish Museum here. Astronaut Dr. Jeffrey Hoffman, who took the mezuzah into space two years ago on the shuttle Discovery, made the presentation of the unearthly mezuzah to the Jewish Museum.
Hoffman, an identifying Jew and active member of a synagogue in Houston, Texas, said he “wanted to make this special,” referring to the tradition of taking personal possessions into space to be brought back as unusual mementos.
Other astronauts have brought with them flags, school banners and rings, all manner of souvenirs that become touched with a sense of infinity as they pass through the earth’s stratosphere and circle the heavens.
“I did something else,” said Hoffman, as he presented the handsome mezuzah to the museum. “Being a Jew and making my first trip into space,” Hoffman said he was aware of the Jewish history of traveling, of moving from place to place. He even joked about one day establishing a synagogue in space.
CARRIED JEWISH CIVILIZATION INTO SPACE
“As we go into space, we carry our civilization and culture with us. Being a Jew is part of that,” Hoffman said as he handed over the mezuzah, mounted on a framed collage of his voyage, which includes a drawing of the Discovery circling the earth, the American flag trailing the craft, its red and white stripes coming around the globe nearly full circle. The names of the crew are embossed onto a NASA insignia with the name “Discovery” running vertically down the board, the flight number, 51-D, H-19 and date, April 1985, at the top.
The cobalt navy blue ceramic mezuzah, looking somewhat like a model car, is mounted on the left side of the tableau. Around the mezuzah runs a Hebrew phrase painted in 23-karat gold: “When I consider the heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou has ordained.” The verse is from the Book of Prophets, 8:4.
“This is one of the most unusual objects we’ve ever received,” said Joan Rosenbaum, museum director, as she accepted the gift.
Rosenbaum was flanked not only by museum staff members but by several members of the family of mezuzah craftswoman Marsha Penzer, who was asked to create several mezuzahs for Hoffman by the J. Levine Company, the well-known purveyor of Judaica located on New York’s Lower East Side.
“It was wild,” Penzer told JTA when asked how she felt two years ago when she stood at Cape Canaveral with her family and watched her handicraft launched into space. Penzer spoke about Hoffman’s extreme thoughtfulness in inviting her, her children and parents to the lift-off. Since then, he sent her a tape of a radio interview he gave after the voyage which included a tape he made aboard the Discovery in which he described his personal feelings and experiences.
Hoffman was also kind enough, said Penzer, to personally call to invite her to the museum for the personally call to invite her to the museum for the presentation of her mezuzah.
Penzer was contacted by J. Levine in June 1984, after Hoffman’s rabbi in Houston, Arnold Stiebel, met people from the Judaica house while in New York. Stiebel said that Hoffman had insisted that the parchment containing the “shma” be kosher. He was also asked by Hoffman to write a prayer for him to say when he circled the earth, as no prayer yet existed to be recited by an astronaut.
Stiebel, a Reform rabbi at the Conservative congregation, Shaar Hashalom, fashioned a short prayer for Hoffman with the words “Blessed art thou . . .” preceding the last verses of the “Aleinu” prayer: “Praised art thou, Lord our God, ruler of the universe, who stretches forth the heaven and lays the foundation of the earth, whose glory is revealed in the heavens above and whose might is manifest in the loftiest part.” The prayer was recited in Hebrew and followed by the traditional “Shehecheyanu,” said when experiencing something for the first time.
Hoffman told JTA he recited the prayer when awake at night after the other four astronauts and Sen. Jake Garn (R. Utah) who accompanied them had gone to sleep. Although it was his time to sleep, as well, he said he just wanted to silently watch the magnificent celestial display taking place all around him. He was inspired to say the prayer as he watched the beauty of the earth below him and thunderstorms swirling around the skies.
ACTIVE MEMBER OF HIS SYNAGOGUE
The 42-year-old astrophysicist, originally from Scarsdale, in Westchester County just north of New York City, is an active member of his synagogue in Houston, serving on the education committee and the men’s club. He has already presented another of the four mezuzahs he took with him to the synagogue, where it is displayed in a case in the sanctuary.
Hoffman is married to an Englishwoman, Barbara, whom he met while working in England. They are the parents of two sons, Samuel, 12, and Orin, 8. Barbara has been president of the synagogue sisterhood, and the boys attend religious school.
The soft spoken astronaut said that as a result of “a certain amount of publicity” he received when he was selected for the flight, he was contacted by synagogues for interviews. It was then he realized that “it meant a lot to them. That got me thinking that it was more than me that was going. It meant something for other people as well.”