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This year is going to be different. It's in the stars. I'm not thinking about some cosmic force, but this has been declared the International Year of Astronomy - 'shnat ha'astronomia habeinleumit' - by UNESCO and the IAU (International Astronomical Union) and it's making a lot of people literally look up.
Schoolchildren who were just last year what we call around here 'astronautim' - spaced-out - are now reaching for the stars.
There's a difference of night and day ('hevdel shel yom valayla') in the way different countries are approaching the subject. New Zealand, for example, is taking the subject of light pollution very hard this year. Light pollution, 'zihum or', is the name given to the problem of the reflection of artificial light from Earth which is affecting the way we see the stars at night. The small town of Tekapo in the McKenzie Basin of South Island, for example, so wants to be in the dark, it last month declared city ordinances requiring all lights to be "constellation-friendly." (We might call this 'yediduti laconstellatzia', if we were to adopt the concept in Hebrew). The idea is to create a star nature reserve above the town that will attract what is being called astro-tourism.
It is obvious to anyone who has ever spent a night out in the desert, say in Mitzpe Ramon, under the stars - 'mitahat lashamayim' - that things that you see from there aren't related solely to your physical space ('merhav mihiya') but also something more heavenly ('shmeymi'). New Zealand seems light years away ('shnot or') from the Middle East, where problems such as stargazing are eclipsed by earthly concerns and the fact that our nearest neighbors aren't Australians. The sort of convicts Hamas and Fatah are seeking to have released will never in a million years build an Australian doppelganger in Gaza, but more likely a black hole, 'hor shahor'. Here we often seem to be living on a different planet - 'hayyim beplaneta aheret'.
The space year events, however, allow people everywhere to literally count their lucky stars and report how many they see from where they are in either city or countryside to help shed light on the situation.
In Israel, "Space Year" ('shnat hahalal') has one project which particularly interests this column. The Hebrew Language Academy and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have launched a mission ('mesima') to find Hebrew names for the two planets that still lack them - Uranus and Neptune. These two, linguistically, remain lost in space, or at least lost for lack of translation.
The six planets closest to the sun have Hebrew appellations: Mercury is known as 'Hama'; Venus is 'Noga'; Earth is 'Eretz'; Mars, 'Ma'adim'; Jupiter, 'Tzedek'; and Saturn is 'Shabtai'. Poor Pluto, out of its element, has been demoted and is no longer considered a full-fledged planet ('kochav lechet').
Nominations can be sent in, from anywhere in the galaxy - 'galaxia' - to www.astronomia2009.org.il by May 12, Lag Ba'omer.
The best suggestions will be chosen by a panel of judges and the final voting will be open to the general public. The project is nicknamed 'Kochav Nolad' - a star is born - after the TV reality show which tries to identify new singing talents looking for a meteroric ('meteori') rise to fame.
The academy has some directions ('kivunim') to help you choose appropriate kosher nomenclature. One guiding principle, perhaps more relevant with ancient stars, is to look back into biblical sources in the same way that Venus came to be called Noga, which means a type of light, and was used by the sages to describe the planet. The academy also notes that in Hebrew most words are constructed around 'shoresh' (root letters) and 'mishkal' (meter): 'Ma'adim', for instance, received its name on the basis of 'adom', red. There is also a useful Hebrew method of tacking on a suffix to an existing word turning, for example, 'sahar' (moon) into 'saharon' (half moon - and technically the correct word for a croissant). The academy also notes the "welding" of words or roots. Just don't get your stars crossed.
Although the year's activities are aimed specifically at children and youth looking for a stellar experience, inspired adults can also submit their suggestions.
Get into the beat with the Hebrew song "'Zodiac'" (my young son's favorite at this time in space) and get on your Milky Way. There's no better time than tomorrow, the spring equinox! You might not make a Big Bang ('mapatz gadol') but could get a sense of satisfaction. And the cost is the absolute opposite of astronomical ('astronomi').