Ground control to Major Tzvi? Get ready to take one small step to the Jewish Museum of Maryland for its new exhibit: “Jews in Space: Members of the Tribe in Orbit.”
The exhibit is currently open to the public and runs until April 11, 2021.
“Jews in Space” aims to shed light on the prominent yet not always recognized impact that the Jewish people have had on the study, exploration and fictionalization of that vast, cold, inky void that envelops our world. According to Marvin Pinkert, executive director of the Jewish Museum of Maryland, though composing just 2% of the American population, Jews have contributed 4% of the astronaut corps (14 astronauts in total), giving the Jewish community an outsized influence on outer space.
“Whereas medicine and scrapyard are fields where you expect to find … a lot of prominent Jewish figures, less expected is the field of space,” Pinkert said. “And that is part of what attracted us to this project when we first saw it in New York.”
According to Pinkert, the exhibit can be roughly divided into four different areas of interest: the longstanding Jewish interest in astronomy, the exploration of space by Jewish astronauts and cosmonauts, Jewish influence on the genre of science fiction, and the contributions of Maryland and its people to space exploration.
Tracie Guy-Decker, JMM’s deputy director, said the tone of the exhibit was a bit “tongue-in-cheek,” but it “does not shirk on intellectual rigor.” As an example, toward the end, the exhibit features a timeline of notable events in Jewish history related to space, including a listing of the date the Soviet Union first sent dogs into orbit. “It says, in the timeline, ‘To our knowledge, neither dog was Jewish,’” quipped Guy-Decker.
From New York to Baltimore
The exhibit was originally the joint creation of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and the Center for Jewish History in New York City, according to Eddy Portnoy, YIVO’s director of exhibitions.
The inspiration for the exhibit came when Portnoy was working with Melanie Meyers, a librarian at the Center for Jewish History. “[M]y husband, William, had suggested while we were watching ‘Star Trek’ that CJH should do an exhibition about Jewish contributions to science fiction,” Meyers said via email. “At first, I was skeptical, but then I started thinking about it and really got into the idea.” At the time, Portnoy had been researching some rabbinical texts that related to astronomy, and when Meyers came to him with her idea, he realized that Jews had been interested in space since at least the 16th century.
Portnoy decided that an exhibit with a broader theme, Jews and space, was actually very doable.
Meyers wanted to call the exhibit “Jews in Space,” a reference to the parody from the Mel Brooks movie, “History of the World: Part I.” In the movie, Star of David-shaped space vessels, armed with laser turrets, are piloted by a pair of men with beards and wearing tallit. The Jewish vessels fend off an attack to the background tune of “We’re Jews out in space! We’re zooming along protecting the Hebrew race!”
JMM first learned of the exhibit when Joanna Church, the museum’s director of collections and exhibits, traveled to New York, said Pinkert. The museum likes to keep abreast every two years of what other museums are doing. Seeing it at the Center for Jewish History, JMM realized it would be a great exhibit for the local audience, and persuaded the center and YIVO to take their show on the road.
Jews and astronomy
The historical Jewish interest in space is closely connected to the Jewish faith, according to Guy-Decker.
“The reason that Jews have been involved in astronomical sciences forever is because of the way that our calendar is determined,” she said. “So all of our liturgical moments are determined by a combination of the sun and the moon.”
Precise calculations based on the movements of the heavens were crucial for determining the correct time to light holiday candles.
“Very early, there were Jewish astronomers in the Middle Ages who were starting to estimate the size of the universe in terms that were actually, we believe, relatively accurate,” Guy-Decker said. She explained that these astronomers were able to predict phases of the moon far into the future, and developed the Metonic calendar system to allow for the leap month of Second Adar, which helps ensure Passover always occurs in the same season of the year.
The part of the exhibit that covers the Jewish interest in astronomy features an announcement board with a clock face that informs onlookers of the correct time to light candles.
“It’s both about time, and also sort of an artifact from back in time, that was really fun for us to include,” Guy-Decker said.
While it’s all well and good to study space from a telescope on the ground, exploring it in person takes things to a whole other level. Included among the outer space explorers covered by the exhibit, said Pinkert, is astronaut Judy Resnik, who in 1986 became the first Jewish woman in space during the ill-fated final voyage of the space shuttle Challenger. Pinkert noted that one of Resnik’s graduate degrees was from the University of Maryland, and that her surviving brother lives in the state. Portnoy also spoke of Ilan Ramon, an Israeli astronaut who was killed in the 2003 Columbia disaster.
On a less solemn note, Portnoy also mentioned some success stories among the Jewish astronauts. There is Jeffrey Hoffman, the first Jewish astronaut known for spinning a driedel in space. He also brought a small Torah and a mezuzah with him into orbit, Portnoy said. The very first Jew in space was Boris Volynov, a Soviet cosmonaut who rocketed through the stratosphere in 1969.
Jews and science fiction
It should not come as a surprise if the most entertaining part of the exhibit is the one dealing with the subject matter specifically designed for mass entertainment: Jews and science fiction.
One part of the exhibit features a “measure yourself in Asimovs” display, Pinkert said. This entails a seven-foot-tall stack of books by Jewish science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, against which visitors are encouraged to measure themselves.
In addition to members of the Jewish community who have written science fiction, there have also been those who have portrayed Jewish life in a galaxy not so far away. For example, actor Theodore Bikel, who, while perhaps best known for playing Tevye in the Broadway show, “Fiddler on the Roof,” also played the foster father of Worf on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and a rabbi on “Babylon 5.”
One part of the science fiction section covers a planet-sized, tentacled alien being called Yivo from the television program “Futurama,” Portnoy said. Interestingly enough, the writer who created the character, Eric Kaplan, had previously been friends with a high school student (now a professor at Bard College, Cecile Kuznitz) who would later do her dissertation on the YIVO Institute. “I don’t think the naming was specifically in honor of my dissertation,” Kuznitz said via email, “but [Kaplan] knew that I had worked at YIVO in the 1990s.”
In addition to contributing to science fiction, it was also a Jewish publicist named Hugo Gernsback who coined the term itself, said Portnoy. A Jewish immigrant from Luxembourg, Gernsback created Amazing Stories, a science fiction magazine. Originally, Gernsback referred to the new genre as “scientifiction,” though apparently this didn’t quite catch on.
Maryland in space
One part of the exhibit that is largely JMM’s own creation deals with Maryland’s role in space exploration. This includes a tabletop display of Maryland institutions that have contributed to the space program, Pinkert said, and video of the Hubble Space Telescope. “Hubble is not only a project that began in Maryland,” Pinkert said, “but it also has behind it several prominent Jewish Marylanders, including Adam Riess who won the Nobel Prize in Physics and works at Johns Hopkins.”
Visiting the exhibit
For those who wish to see the exhibit in person, the museum is currently open on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays (except on Jewish holidays), with tickets available for reservation at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. In order to comply with COVID-19 safety standards, ticket sales will be limited to 20 a day. Everyone will be required to wear a mask, and the public areas of the building will be cleaned between noon and 1 p.m.
Pinkert speculated that there was something intrinsic to the Jewish experience that naturally caused Jewish people to gravitate toward an interest in space and science fiction.
“It’s pretty clear that where there are aliens, there are Jews,” he said. “That part of the attraction in terms of science fiction is the fact that the notion of benign aliens is really critical to a population that identifies strongly with its immigrant roots and with being outsiders.”