Jewish astronaut Jessica Meir wants to be the first woman on the moon
Reprinted from JTA on 12/2/2020
Hadas Ragolsky Chrissy
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 her own 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 Oct. 18, 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 holds 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 the 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 is 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 with 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, which all 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 realize: ‘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 is 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 7-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.”
She added, “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 is very unlikely that we are the only planet where any kind of life has evolved.”
Later, when my 9-year-old, Lihi, wanted to know what it felt like to be in space, Meir talked about how 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 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 midair, 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 Hanukkah). 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, Meir drew an astronaut standing on the moon. At age 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 connects 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. “In the end, even though it didn’t seem like the traditional route to becoming an astronaut because I did what I loved I excelled and I was happy. I felt satisfied and made it my career, and it led me to fulfill another dream – reaching outer space.”
Prior to joining NASA, she participated in a joint mission of the space agency and the U.S. 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 am 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 Hanukkah 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.
2021 Grammy Awards: All the Jewish nominees, from Haim to an orchestral “Diary of Anne Frank” adaptation
Reprinted from JTA on 11/25/2020
(JTA) — This year’s Grammy Awards will almost certainly be different from past years, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. But despite the lack of details surrounding the ceremony, it’s still taking place, and as usual, several Jewish artists made the nominations list, which was announced Tuesday. Ranging all the way from the sister rock band Haim to comedian Tiffany Haddish, these are the Jewish artists who made the biggest impact on the recording industry this year.
The big awards
Leading the way are the Jewish Haim sisters — Alana, Danielle, and Este — who are nominated for album of the year for “Women in Music Pt. III,” and for best rock performance for their song “The Steps.” The album, which is their third, was released in June to rave reviews.
Jack Antonoff — the Jewish musician who has become a go-to producer for some of the industry’s biggest pop stars and often wears a Star of David in public — is up for producer of the year, for his recent work with Taylor Swift, The Chicks (formerly the Dixie Chicks), FKA Twigs and Sia. He received another nod for his work on Taylor Swift’s album “folkore.”
Also nominated for producer of the year is Jewish musician Dan Auerbach, the frontman for the rock band The Black Keys, for his work on music by CeeLo Green, Early James, Marcus King and others. His father is of Polish Jewish heritage.
Breakout Jewish rapper Doja Cat (real name Amalaratna Zandile Dlamini) had a standout 2020 after going viral on TikTok and is nominated for best new artist. Her hit song “Say So” also received nominations for record of the year and best solo pop performance. She was born to a Jewish mother and non-Jewish South African father in California.
Daniel Maman, better known by his professional moniker The Alchemist, shares a nomination for best rap album with Freddie Gibbs for their record “Alfredo.” The prominent hip-hop producer, who has worked with dozens of rappers, from Eminem to 50 Cent, has a father with Israeli heritage.
And singer J.P. Saxe shares a nomination for song of the year along with Julia Michaels for their hit ballad “If the World Was Ending.” Saxe’s grandfather was Janos Starker, a renowned Grammy-winning cellist and Hungarian Holocaust survivor.
Jewish comedians, of course
Two Jewish comedians are up for best comedy album: Jerry Seinfeld for “23 Hours to Kill” and Tiffany Haddish for “Black Mitzvah.” Haddish celebrated her bat mitzvah on the same day the Netflix special premiered.
“When I came up with the concept for my special,” Haddish explained to Alma, “I was trying to figure out a way to tell my truth, my experiences in life, and also maybe open other people’s eyes to the fact that in African American culture, there is nothing that says, ‘Okay, you’re officially a woman,’ or, ‘You’re officially a man.’ There’s no ceremony. There’s no rite of passage.”
Musicals and movies
Stephen Schwartz’s West End adaptation of “The Prince of Egypt” received a nod for best musical theater album. The recording was released shortly before Passover, fitting for a production that tells the tale of Moses and the Exodus story.
“A lot of times you put stuff out there and don’t know how it’s being received. So if people have found something inspiring or comforting, there’s just no greater gift a writer can ask for,” Schwartz told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Schwartz will be competing against a Jewish superstar pair: Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. The new off-Broadway cast recording of composer Menken and lyricist Ashman’s “Little Shop of Horrors” was also recognized in the musical category. The two of them also worked on “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin.” Ashman passed away in 1991 at age 40.
In the film soundtrack category, Jewish composer Thomas Newman received a nomination for his score for “1917.” If he wins, this would be Newman’s seventh Grammy. “Jojo Rabbit,” the Taika Waititi-led Holocaust satire, received a nomination in best compilation soundtrack.
For best music film, Spike Jonze’s “Beastie Boys Story” received a nomination. It’s a documentary that premiered on Apple TV earlier this year telling the tale of the pioneering rap group — whose three members were all Jewish. Jonze, known for directing the movies “Her” and “Where the Wild Things Are,” is also Jewish.
And while superstar Beyoncé is not Jewish her visual film “Black Is King,” which adapts the story of Moses, also received a nomination in that category.
An orchestral Anne Frank adaptation
Nominated for best classical compendium is an orchestral adaptation of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” narrated by Isabel Leonard and conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas for the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. Thomas produced the work back in 1990 with the help of Audrey Hepburn, who originally read Frank’s words in performance.
Israeli cellist Matt Haimovitz is also in this classical compendium category, for “Woolf, L.P.: Fire And Flood.” His last nomination was a decade ago, in 2010.
Other notable nominations
Black Jewish rapper Drake added three Grammy nominations to his long list of accolades — for best music video, for the accompaniment to the track “Life Is Good,” and for best melodic rap performance and best rap song for “Laugh Now, Cry Later.”
Leonard Cohen, who passed away in 2016, received a posthumous nomination for best folk album for “Thanks for the Dance.” The record, his fifteenth and final studio album, was finished by Cohen’s son Adam.
And Joanie Leeds‘ “All the Ladies” is up for best children’s album.
The Grammys are set to air on Jan. 31 on CBS, hosted by Trevor Noah of “The Daily Show.”