Jews have always been travelers. Abraham left home after G‑d gave him a spiritual passport, Moses lived abroad among the Midianites, the Israelites roamed around Sinai for a few decades, Benjamin of Tudela set off to see the world in the l2th century. But no Jew ventured as far as Dr. Jeffrey Hoffman. The tall, graying, gentle Professor of Aerospace Engineering at M.I.T. left the planet, and ventured into space. When he spoke recently at the tenth anniversary celebration of Chabad in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Hoffman was introduced as "The Jewish Astronaut," and the crowd of kosher food eaters looked up from their plates and roared with approval.

The Hubble mission occurred during Chanukah, and in addition to a mezuzah and other small Jewish objects, Hoffman took along a draidel .

Hoffman was hooked on space since childhood, in the age of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, before the Space Age heavyweights like Yuri Gregarin became weightless in space. He grew up, got married, and one night his wife read aloud a passage in a book that said that Jews in New York City are so diverse that they can't be stereotyped; the only valid generalization is that no Jew has ever been an astronaut or will ever be an astronaut. Hoffman decided to prove that wrong, and to honor his Jewish heritage in space.

He moved to Houston, became the first astronaut to log over 1,000 hours in space, and went up into the firmament five times, including a mission to fix the Hubble telescope.

Hoffman proudly shows film footage of his space flights to excited audiences. He was one of the few humans to have been suspended between heaven and earth, walking out into the unknown. He was fascinated by the rapid growth of complex modern space technology, ancient Jewish traditions and the interaction between the two.

He was in medical quarantine before his first flight, and it was Passover. He asked if he could take matzah with him into space, and was told that it could flake and cause injuries or damage to the delicate equipment. So he took a mezuzah along, and velcroed it on the sleeping bunk the astronauts used in rotation. "You can't nail a mezuzah to the door of a space shuttle," the astronaut explained with a grin.

Dr Jeffrey A. Hoffman
Dr Jeffrey A. Hoffman

Hoffman showed images of a subsequent flight when he went up 400 miles at a speed of 18,000 mph—with six other crew members—to repair the Hubble in September 1993. He described the cramped spaceship quarters, the two-hour process of suiting up, the meticulous work of repairing the telescope with power tools ("It's a little like working on your car"), free-floating in space, going from day to night every 90 minutes, looking back at the colored marble that is planet Earth. It was an essential mission, because if the Hubble were not repaired, it could not have sent back the amazing images that have altered our knowledge of the universe. "When we floated away from the Hubble," said Hoffman, "we were sorry to see it go."

Hoffman described seeing Tel Aviv and Jerusalem at night from his spacecraft and watching a meteor enter the earth's atmosphere like a fast-moving ping pong ball.

Once again, during the Hubble mission, Hoffman's Judaism figured prominently. The flight occurred during Chanukah, and in addition to a mezuzah and other small Jewish objects, he took along a draidel (a Chanukah top). He tried to keep a low profile about it, because Apollo 8 had made a big deal about reading the Bible in space and had gotten heat for it; wasn't there supposed to be a separation between government and religion?

But when Hoffman took out his draidel, images were sent back to mission control and the public could see them. So he decided to explain what a draidel was. He went on TV, talking about Chanukah and spinning the draidel to demonstrate the game. The little top floated magically in the cabin, suspended in mid-air. Then he showed the cameras—and the world—a small portable menorah he brought along, but of course there was no candle lighting.

On another flight, he took along a miniature Torah scroll that was completely kosher and a yad (hand pointer) and Torah breastplate. "Our religion has proved to be extremely portable," he said. The entire Torah was too big to open in the cabin, so he unrolled the first parchment—Genesis—and showed the cameras the seven columns of print. Then he used special clamps to hold the Torah down, and began to pray. "I wore shorts," he explained, "even though I would never wear shorts to synagogue. But I had to make some adjustments."

When people ask Hoffman what his five extraordinary space experiences mean to him, he says that astronauts take many objects into space and they become souvenirs—like an Amherst banner that was brought back to Amherst and became very special. "But you can't make the Torah more special," he said. "I thoroughly hope that when humans go to settle Mars, Jews will go too and bring their Jewishness. It's part of what makes the world holy and we should bring it wherever we go."

When he finished speaking, Rabbi Berel Levertov presented him with a set of Tefillin that had been assembled by the Rabbi's deceased father. "Please cherish it," the Rabbi told the astronaut.

"I can't promise to use it every day," said the astronaut, "but I promise to cherish it."