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Jewish astronaut Jessica Meir aims for the moon

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(JTA) Since astronaut Jessica Meir returned to earth in April from the International Space Station, she, like all of us, has spent a lot of time indoors and cooped up.

While many of us have spent our confinement dreaming of future trips, Meir is working on travel plans to a singular destination: she wants to walk on the moon.

It’s not just a pipe dream.

Meir, the fourth Jewish woman (and 15th Jew overall) to travel to space, made the Guinness Book of World Records when she and fellow astronaut Christina Koch conducted the first all-female spacewalk – lasting 7 hours, 17 minutes – on 18 October 2019. Not long afterward, the pair did it again.

Named as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2020, Meir has an interesting Jewish story.

She grew up in Caribou, Maine, the daughter of a Swedish mother and an Iraqi-born father who immigrated to Israel as a child, fought in the Israeli War of Independence, and later moved to Sweden before ending up in the United States. Meir, the youngest of five, also has Swedish citizenship.

Meir, 43, was raised in a Jewish home, regularly attended synagogue as a child, and feels very connected to Israel. She last visited there four years ago, and she took with her to the space station a postcard from Yad Vashem with a painting by a Holocaust survivor, a medal coined in memory of late Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, and the Israeli flag.

“My father grew up in Israel, and most of my relatives from my father’s side still live in Israel,” Meir said. “I hope I can visit Israel soon. It’s a very important part of my life.”

We sat down recently with Meir for a Zoom interview to talk about her work in space, what it’s like to be a role model for girls and women the world over, and her Jewish connections. Meir talked to us from the NASA Space Center in Houston while wearing her iconic flight suit.

“There are some key moments in becoming an astronaut, one of which is when you first wear your blue flight suit,” Meir said. “This is such an iconic image. Throughout my childhood I associated the suit with my dream of becoming an astronaut. So, wearing this suit when I’m being interviewed here, or giving a lecture to children, I suddenly realise, ‘Wow, this is me now, I’m the person on the other side, I’m the role model.’ And I take it very seriously.

“It’s a very important part of our role as astronauts, to be in touch with the public, to communicate with people, and to educate them. This is one of NASA’s key mission statements. So even though it’s still a little hard to believe that I’m the one who inspires others to be like me, I think it’s my duty to continue making that connection and inspire the next generation of researchers.”

But Meir doesn’t take herself too seriously.

My two daughters joined me for the interview, and when my seven-year-old, Tuti, asked if there were any other creatures in space that were “human-like”, Meir answered enthusiastically.

“I was at the space station with a few other crew members, with American, Russian, and Italian astronauts. They certainly looked like humans,” she said. “Other than the astronauts and cosmonauts who were with me at the space station, we saw no other life forms or anything that looked like humans.

“I definitely believe that there are some forms of life in outer space – maybe there were in the past, and maybe they are there right now, or will be in the future. Statistically, if we look at the sheer size of space and the dimensions of space and time, it’s very unlikely that we are the only planet where any kind of life has evolved.”

Later, when my nine-year-old, Lihi, wanted to know what it felt like to be in space, Meir talked about how much fun it was.

“Ever since I was a child, even younger than you, I have always said I want to be an astronaut. Even the simple act of floating – when you’re in a state of constant weightlessness and floating around – it’s just so much fun,” she said.

“Everything is more fun when you’re floating, whether you have just finished eating or fixing something, or doing an experiment, you can just take a moment and float up and down or do some cartwheels in mid-air, or float around like Superman inside the space station. I think it allows us to feel like children again, to express this cheerfulness which sometimes we lose when we grow up and become adults.”

Aside from the Israeli items Meir took with her to space, she also brought some American Jewish totems with her, including a pair of socks with menorahs (for Channukah). In an ode to Jewish grandmothers everywhere, she also baked some cookies while in space, much to the delight of her 250 000 Instagram followers.

In first grade, when Meir was asked to draw what she’d like to be when she grew up, she drew an astronaut standing on the moon. At the age of 13, she enrolled in a NASA summer camp, and at her college graduation, her parents held a sign that read, “Congratulations, space girl!”

But though her path was supposed to lead her straight to aeronautics and space studies, Meir first earned a doctorate in marine biology. Her dissertation focused on the diving physiology of emperor penguins and northern elephant seals, including research expeditions in Antarctica and Northern California.

She described how that experience connected to her space work.

“The topics I was drawn to, the physiology of animals in extreme environments, required work in isolated places such as Antarctica, and were driven by curiosity and the need to explore,” Meir said. “I felt satisfied and made it my career, and it led me to fulfil another dream – reaching outer space.”

Prior to joining NASA, she participated in a joint mission of the space agency and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This time, she and her friends were themselves the subject of an experiment: as part of their mission, she and a number of other crew members spent six days underwater in a state of saturation diving.

Meir also spent a lot of time researching the physiology of animals in extreme environments, such as penguins, seals, and birds that live at high altitudes.

“At that point I was the scientist and researcher – and the animals were the subjects of my research. Now I’m the ‘animal’ being experimented on,” Meir said. “I think it’s a natural role we play as astronauts.

“On my mission, the studies in which I was the subject examined how space flight and a micro-gravity environment affect the human body. Understanding these things will allow us to monitor astronauts’ health and will be even more relevant to missions that require a longer stay in space, for example, when we return to the moon and eventually travel to Mars.”

Meir says that being Jewish is an important part of her identity. While in space in March, she tweeted a photo of Tel Aviv that she took from space. Earlier in her mission, Meir tweeted a Channukah greeting that included a photo of her menorah socks with Earth seen through a window in the background.

This article is part of a joint project of Onlife, the Gesher Leadership Institute and JTA, featuring some of the most influential Jewish women from around the world.

  • Shani Tsur contributed to this article.

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World news in brief

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Antwerp mayor warns rule flouting triggers antisemitism

The mayor of Antwerp, a city in Belgium where about 15 000 haredi Orthodox Jews live, warned that their failure to comply with COVID-19 measures has triggered some antisemitism, and it could turn into a wave.

“In the Jewish community, not everyone realises this, they have their own logic, but the backlash of public opinion that I see in my inbox, it’s terrible,” Bart De Wever, a right-wing politician who has enjoyed good relations with his city’s Jewish community, told the ATV station on Sunday, 24 January. “If we really want to move towards a wave of antisemitism, this is the way to go.”

His statement followed the two-week shutdown of a Belz synagogue by the Hasidic sect’s leaders in Antwerp. Police had determined that the shul on Van Spangen Street was twice in violation of emergency measures that forbid group prayer but allow individual worship.

Antwerp police have tolerated minyans, but have intervened when they were exceeded.

Legislators criticise Israel for not vaccinating Palestinians

Joaquin Castro, a top foreign policy Democrat in the United States House of Representatives, has joined a handful of other Democrats in criticising Israel for not supplying Palestinians with the coronavirus vaccine.

“I commend Israel for leading the world on vaccinating its people, but I’m disappointed and concerned by its government’s exclusion of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation from these vaccination efforts, despite making COVID-19 vaccines available to Israeli settlers in the West Bank,” Castrol, of Texas, told Ha’aretz this week.

A number of other Democrats, including Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Jamaal Bowman of New York, and Marie Newman of Illinois have also criticised Israel for excluding the Palestinians.

Israel says it isn’t required to vaccinate West Bank Palestinians under international law and prior agreements with the Palestinians.

Israeli museum accused of smuggling artifacts out of Warsaw

The City of Warsaw has accused an Israeli Holocaust museum of smuggling Jewish prayer artifacts out of Poland that the museum said were found inside an old bunker in the Polish capital.

The Shem Olam museum near Hadera announced this week that it had obtained 10 sets of tefillin found by construction workers in Warsaw near the entrance to a bunker dug by Jewish fighters in preparation for the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

The City of Warsaw has no knowledge of the find, said spokesperson Karolina Gałecka. If Shem Olam was telling the truth about what it obtained and where, “a crime has occurred” because Poland requires anyone who finds archaeological items to report their discovery to the authorities.

Rabbi Avraham Krieger, Shem Olam’s director, said Judaica artifacts, including from the Warsaw Ghetto, are widely available for sale in Polish antique stores and online.

Leifer finally extradited to Australia

Malka Leifer has boarded a plane from Israel en route to Australia where she faces 74 charges of child sexual abuse.

Leifer fled to Israel from Australia in 2008 amid allegations that she had sexually abused students when she was the principal at the Adass Yisroel School in Melbourne. In 2014, Australia filed a formal extradition request, but Israeli authorities deemed her unstable and unfit for extradition.

After an investigation showed she was living a normal life, she was rearrested in 2018, and last year, an Israeli panel cleared her for extradition.

Leifer’s departure from Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport came shortly before the country was due to ground all flights for at least a week to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Israelis torch bus in protest against COVID-19 restrictions

A mob of Orthodox Jews torched a bus in Israel after beating the bus driver amid ongoing riots protesting the country’s COVID-19 restrictions.

Police officers in other cities were also injured during riots in Orthodox neighbourhoods, where COVID-19 rates have spiked but residents object to lockdown restrictions.

The bus burning in Bnei Brak on Sunday, 24 January, a largely haredi or ultra-Orthodox city near Tel Aviv, came days after rioters there injured seven police officers in clashes last week. Police have sought to close haredi schools and other institutions, which has sparked a violent backlash from protesters.

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Index cards of Dutch Holocaust victims to be made public

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(JTA) Sonja Levy was a positive person who made an excellent first impression and whose important position exempted her from deportation, according to the personal card that the Jewish Council of Amsterdam made for her during the Nazi occupation.

But the accolades on the card weren’t enough to save Levy, a kindergarten teacher who was in her early 20s when the Germans invaded.

Like more than 100 000 Dutch Jews, she was eventually put on a train to the death camps in occupied Poland, and murdered there in a gas chamber.

On Monday, the ownership of her personal card – it turned out to be her first epitaph – was handed over to the main museum of the community to which she belonged.

Ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Wednesday, 27 January, the Netherlands branch of the Red Cross has transferred to the Jewish Cultural Quarter of Amsterdam ownership of more than 140 000 personal cards of Dutch Jews that are to be displayed to the public for the first time. The Jewish Cultural Quarter is an umbrella organisation of several Jewish institutions including the National Holocaust Museum of the Netherlands.

The entire index of the Jewish Council of Amsterdam, a body that the Nazis set up to have Jews oversee preparations for the extermination of their own minority throughout the Netherlands, is among the most comprehensive and best-kept registries of its kind anywhere in Europe.

It’s unusual in that it includes references to status and personal traits, reflecting how this registry, unlike most other Nazi lists, was made by for Jews by Jews.

In more than 75% of the cards, the Red Cross after World War II added the date of deportation in red ink, a rare tangible reminder of how in the Netherlands, the Nazis achieved their highest death rate anywhere in occupied Western Europe. Of about 110 000 Jews deported, only a few thousand survived.

The Red Cross has transferred its entire wartime archives to the Dutch National Archives, except for the Jewish Council’s index card archive. On Monday, the Red Cross transferred ownership of the archive to the National Holocaust Museum, which is undergoing renovations. The index will go on display next year when the museum reopens, the Red Cross said.

The index “is of great value not only as an archive, but also as a museum monument and a tangible reminder of the Holocaust”, the Red Cross wrote.

The cards were digitised in 2012, and made available for viewing online upon request for a name or other identifying details. But browsing the cards hasn’t been possible. The National Holocaust Museum of the Netherlands is now designing the cards’ display ahead of the reopening, but they will be visible for all to see, according to Emile Schrijver, the director of the Jewish Cultural Quarter.

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Bernie Sanders has his most viral week ever

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(JTA) Bernie Sanders was everywhere on James Corden’s late night show set on Thursday, 21 January.

Life-sized cardboard cut-outs of the Jewish senator in his now famous inauguration ceremony pose – hands and legs crossed, slightly crumpled in his chair, wearing a pair of fawned-over mittens – sat behind a synthesiser next to the house band, behind the bar for guests, and scattered throughout the practically non-existent audience.

“Speaking of breakout stars of the inauguration, we have another one with us in the studio,” Corden said, barely holding in his laughter.

It was a fitting indication of just how ubiquitous Sanders’ image was in pop culture and for the eyeballs of social media this week. No regular Instagram or Twitter user could have scrolled through their feeds since the presidential inauguration on Wednesday, 20 January, without seeing the mittened Sanders, usually in meme form, with humorous accompanying text, often comparing him to cranky relatives and the like.

Many employed Jewish humour along the way.

Then came the photoshop phenomenon. Social media users began splicing the Sanders’ silhouette into other photos of people and places all over the world, even into screen shots from movies and TV shows.

Our sister site Alma, not content with one long slideshow of Bernie memes on Instagram, posted three sets of Bernie photoshopped into everything from Fiddler on the Roof to When Harry Met Sally, to a Haim music video.

The meme deluge became so unrelenting, some were fatigued with the image by Friday.

An entire market of merchandise inspired by the image has quickly sprouted. The National Museum of Jewish History in Philadelphia is hawking “bundled up Bernie mugs” and more. Designers are incorporating it into their work on Etsy. Sanders’ own online store is now selling a sweatshirt with the image, and donating all of the proceeds to Meals on Wheels Vermont. Even the progressive magazine Jewish Currents has its own “Bernie merch”.

“The mug for a bris, a shiva, a long line at Zabar’s, a protracted and infuriating call with your insurance provider. This isn’t an endorsement of anything other than sitting like this,” the magazine tweeted.

As with most random internet phenomena, there’s no firm answer as to why the image went viral. Sanders has been a social media star before, most notably for the memes based on his December 2019 presidential campaign advert, in which the progressive legislator asks his supporters “once again” for donations.

But this photo seemed to capture the essence of Sanders’ public persona as the nation’s grumpy grandfather – and a Jewish one at that, with Ashkenazi features and an unmistakable Brooklyn accent. His homemade wool mittens, a symbol of Sanders’ Vermont style and his repudiation of anything fancy, also fit just a little too perfectly with a senator known for his rants about income inequality. (The gloves have a heartwarming backstory involving a public-school teacher that only helped fuel the fire.)

The intensity of the political moment, charged into a new gear after the deadly insurrection at the Capitol – especially for Jews, newly frightened by the display of antisemitism at the right-wing riot – probably had something to do with it too. The country, one could argue, was primed for a feel-good meme sensation. As a Refinery29 writer put it, the inauguration was, for the majority of liberal-leaning America, a “sigh of relief”.

Alma’s Emily Burack wrote, “As an Ashkenazi Jew with grandparents from Brooklyn, it’s hard not to feel a kindred spirit in Bernie. And in a year – well, in the past four years, really – when we’ve dealt with a rise in antisemitism, the worst antisemitic attack in American history, and an emboldened faction of white supremacists, the undeniable grumpy Jewishness of Bernie offers a real sense of catharsis.”

Writer Amanda Silberling tweeted that the memes “offered American Jews a chance to heal from the rampant antisemitism in the news cycle”.

A large part of Sanders’ appeal to his progressive fans has always been his stubborn focus on substantive policy debate and his impatience with the fluff of pop culture. As Refinery29 continued, the cross-legged Sanders photo captured that ethic perfectly.

“He has things to do and places to be. His demeanour is unsentimental, unmoved, and largely unbothered,” Michelle Santiago Cortes wrote.

Sanders’ comic response to the phenomenon was a TikTok video that expressed just that. Its caption, “Fashion? Let’s get to work.” The video showed a clip of him responding to a question about the photo on a news show and what he had “in mind” at the time of the shot.

“Two thousand dollars per adult. That’s what the Senate has got to do,” he replies, referring to the debate over how much money the next COVID-19 stimulus relief should include.

But Sanders eventually did have some sense of humour about the whole thing. The timing of the shot, taken as the country watched Joe Biden become president, prompted inevitable musings as to whether Bernie truly was cranky about the event, especially after coming so close to winning the Democratic nomination last year. Sanders, a long-time friend of Biden’s, dispelled those thoughts in an appearance on Late Night With Seth Meyers on Thursday night.

“I was just sitting there, trying to keep warm, paying attention to what’s going on,” he said to Meyers with a smile.

As the Biden era begins without the prospect of a President Sanders and subsequently no pressing need for Larry David to portray Sanders on Saturday Night Live, could this be the end of Sanders’ pop culture stardom?

As one Twitter user wrote, “If @nbcsnl doesn’t have Larry David dressed as @SenSanders in the background of every skit this weekend … then I don’t want it.”

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