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A new exhibition in New York tells the story of Jews in space

The exhibition, “Jews in Space: Members of the Tribe in Orbit”, taps into a Jewish fascination with the stars that goes back many centuries.

    A new exhibition opening in New York on Monday promises to go where no exhibition has gone before: outer space for Jews.

    “When people think of Yiddish they don’t tend to think of science fiction,” said Edward Portnoy, curator of Yivo, the Yiddish cultural institute.

    The exhibition, “Jews in Space: Members of the Tribe in Orbit”, taps into a Jewish fascination with the stars that goes back many centuries.

    Astronomy, mathematics and other sciences appeared frequently in books by rabbis and scholars in Hebrew and other languages between the 17th and 19th centuries.

    The idea for the event came to Mr Portnoy while he was working on another exhibition relating to Vilna’s famous Strashun library, when he noticed a number of Hebrew and Yiddish tomes dealing with astronomy.

    “The Jewish relationship with celestial objects has much to do with the Hebrew lunar calendar,” he said.

    “The rabbinical material shows when the moon will appear and how to calculate the holidays.”

    This exhibition takes great strides to explore not just Jews’ understanding, but also their exploration of the final frontier.

    Its name comes from Spaceballs, a much-loved Mel Brooks film that features a spoof film trailer called Jews in Space, and there are plenty of pop culture references to the likes of Star Trek, whose main characters Captain James T Kirk and Mr Spock were played by the Jewish actors William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy.

    In the early 20th century, Jewish inventor Hugo Gernsback coined the term science fiction and started a series of magazines – the first of which was called Amazing Stories – that kicked off a whole literary genre.

    A number of Jewish sci-fi writers such as Issac Asimov are represented, as well a colourful science-fiction story written in Yiddish in 1929.

    “It is a story about a mad scientist who has created a death ray,” Mr Portnoy explained.

    “It’s really an amazing story that intertwines modern science fiction with Jewish folklore.

    “And it’s in Yiddish.”

    Dr Jonathan Brent, Yivo's chief executive, added: “Jewish culture of Eastern Europe and Russia produced some of the most dynamic and future-oriented thinkers, writers, artists, and musicians in the world.

    “From rare rabbinical works on astronomy and Yiddish science fiction to the other worlds of Jewish folklore and stars of the Yiddish stage, Yivo’s archives contain the universe of this great flowering of Jewish civilisation.”

    There is a stellar array of 50 artefacts on display, including a collection of Judaica that was taken into orbit by Jeffrey Hoffman, the first American Jewish astronaut.

    “Dr Jeffrey Hoffman lent us a quite a few objects from his own collection, and they are all beautiful, but my favourite is the dreidel he spun in space,” said Melanie Meyers, the exhibition’s co-curator.

    “It’s wild to hold something like that in your hand and think on the fact that it went to outer space.”

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