Comment: A nation grieves

Assaf Ramon was destined for greatness; he was a hero in the making. He was a Top Gun.

assaf ramon 2003 248 88 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
assaf ramon 2003 248 88 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The day after space shuttle Columbia disintegrated on reentry under a blue Texas sky in 2003, editorial cartoonist Mike Keefe from The Denver Post drew six stars and one Star of David on a black canvas, representing the seven astronauts lost in the disaster. Today we add an eighth star, another Star of David, to that cartoon, in honor of Assaf Ramon. In our national narrative, Assaf was always going to be our second astronaut. And so we don't just mourn the death of a young, promising pilot cadet, we mourn the sudden death of a national dream rekindled, of a promise unfulfilled. Assaf was the eldest son of Ilan Ramon, Israel's first astronaut. Ilan, and Assaf after him, represented our finest, our "best of the best." As the youngest member of the squadron that carried out the daring bombing raid on Saddam's Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, Ilan Ramon was more than just an ace pilot. He was what many young men, then and now, aspire to be. To many, inside and outside the country, he was the manifestation of the new Jewish warrior, determined never to let evil men attain weapons that could annihilate us. When Ramon, son of a Holocaust survivor, took an artifact from the Theresienstadt ghetto with him into space, Jewish hearts all over the world filled with pride. "I was born in Israel and I'm kind of the proof for them, and for the whole Israeli people, that whatever we fought for and we've been going through in the last century (or maybe in the last two thousand years), is becoming true," he said. Ilan Ramon was "our astronaut," our national pride. When he was chosen by NASA, we walked a little taller. We had our very own astronaut - very few countries in the world could boast of that. For a precious few days, when we saw video footage of him floating through his space ship, we floated a little above the ground, too. When we heard Hebrew songs being played in space, we sang them here on Earth. When he looked down at us through his ship's window and said that little Israel looked so beautiful from space, we felt a little more beautiful, a little bit more special. Every day he was up there was a gift for Israel. He made us feel better about ourselves, and we loved him for that. He shared his experience with us fully, through video, phone calls, pictures, radio interviews, and, letters to his wife and children. He showed us a place where time and space weren't dotted with the debris of war, twisted metal and tears. He showed us how high Israelis could one day reach. When we gathered around the TVs to watch his imminent landing, our hearts pounded with excitement. When contact with Columbia was lost, we bit our nails, in denial, tortured in disbelief. Our anxiety slowly turned into angst, our hopes dashed, our hero fallen. In real time, we all watched our dream shatter into tiny pieces across the Texan sky, over a town called Palestine. When Columbia's hull scattered, our hearts broke into tiny pieces, and we didn't walk so tall for a while. And then came Assaf. Smart, strong, confident, just like his father. As a teenager in a Texas high school, it was clear Assaf was Ilan's son through and through. His grades in mathematics, geography and physics were near perfect. In 2006, we saw Assaf enter the IAF pilot's course. He was following in his father's footsteps, and we dared to dream again. A little glimmer of that light that went out with Ilan sparked within our hearts. When we heard news that Assaf had skillfully maneuvered his training jet out of a dangerous, spiraling descent, barely saving his skin but managing to control the massive machine, the glimmer of light grew brighter and warmer. He was destined for greatness; he was a hero in the making. He was a Top Gun. And on that sunny day just three months ago, when Assaf graduated as the most outstanding cadet in his pilot's class, we collectively burst again with pride. See, we said to each other, the dream is still alive. The son is taking his father's place. He could take us all the way to the top again, and who knows, maybe he'll go into space, and the whole world will hear our music again. Assaf fit so naturally into the narrative we had written for him. So when rumors started spreading that the pilot killed in a training crash on Sunday morning was Assaf Ramon, our first reaction was one of adamant disbelief. Surely not. Not Assaf Ramon. Not again. We desperately wanted the rumors to be false. And when confirmation finally came, the old wound reopened. We were mourning Ilan Ramon all over again. For more of Amir's articles and posts, visit his personal blog Forecast Highs