A Shtick by Any Other Name: Being Jewish on Mars

The Jews of Alaska self-identify as “the frozen chosen.” It’s even their domain name.

Hilarious and awesome. Of course, now that I’m headed to Mars, I have to think of something else to call myself.


Like all issues – ALL ISSUES – inherent to being a member of a 5776-year-old religion, it’s a little bit complicated.

The first part of the problem is that, on sMars, I’m the only Jew on the planet.

The people of the book heavily define ourselves as part of a collective. As a result, we don’t need a member of the clergy to survive (though, if there isn’t one around to resolve arguments on random minutiae like whether or not to leave the tent lights on during high holidays, average life expectancy drops precipitously). To marry, bury, name and bless things, we only need nine others of our kind.

That bring us to the second problem. Among the chosen people, I’m not 100% in the club.

In his recent love song to long-lost, somewhat-rekindled spirituality, Oliver Sacks describes how, upon revelation of his sexual orientation, he was shown the metaphysical door. He found solace and a community in science, where we don’t check your affiliations – religious, political or sexual – with quite so much vigor.

Science: Are you smart?

Smart person: Why, yes. Yes I am.

Science: You’re in. Grab a t-shirt and go solve something.

Similarly, though no in nowhere near as potent a dose as Dr. Sacks, as a child I was constantly being escorted to the spiritual threshold. My crime? Rather mundanely, but just as effectively, being “half Jewish.”

No one in the history of time has been able to tell me what I should make of being half of anything of substance. You can be half baked, half mad, and half interested. One cannot be, as far as I have ever seen, half loyal, half trustworthy or half a registered member of a religious cabal.

As a small human, I felt very much like the hero of the Gilbert and Sullivan play Iolanthe. “I am fairy down to the waistcoat.” Given that all of me loves chopped liver, and none of me would have been spared by the Nazis in 1940’s Germany, which half, praytell, is allowed to stay and worship with ya’ll?

Such exclusionary tactics are PROFOUNDLY antithetical to the entire premise of most religions, but, interestingly, not Judaism. Our ancient and wonky religion has an emphasis, unspoken in most modern manifestations but still utterly palpable, on having inherited something “special” through the female bloodline. Those of us without a full serving of the special sauce weren’t always allowed to stay and play with the other Jewish children. Not even kidding.

Even for a religion, this sounds a bit strange, doesn’t it? Like their very own species, religions seek to proliferate themselves, to keep up their numbers. Ours is no exception. So, they make copies of themselves, or, in this case, people. As anyone who has ever been to Brooklyn knows, ours is no exception there, either. In Brooklyn, and everywhere else on the planet, people are born with operating instructions made from nucleic acids, weak forces, whimsy and, possibly, some special sauce. And in our religion, as with all other religions except for Quakerism and a few other minorities,  these same purposely-made people are subsequently booted for birth-related indiscretions like sexual orientation, or having had the exceedingly poor taste to choose a non-Jewish parent.

So like Dr. Sacks, when shown the door, I opened it. On the other side lay a lot of very nerdy people who couldn’t care less whether or not my mother had converted (none of your business), if I had gone to hebrew school (yes), had a bat mitzvah or chosen to marry another member of the religion that only kind-of, sort-of wanted me in the first place. I was smart, so I was chosen. I could stay.

As Malcolm Gladwell and many others are keen to point out, at all levels in science, there are a disproportionate number of Jews. Gladwell has his own rationale for it, but for my part, the seemingly obvious reason is that Judaism disproportionately favors inquiry above tacit acceptance. As a Jew – half- Jew, quarter-Jew, whatever – the path to spiritual fulfillment is a sort of cognitive washing machine. It involves asking a million questions (load machine); getting at least as many answers (add detergent); ordering sandwiches (fill with water); masticating the resulting ideas into a thick pulp (spin cycle); getting a cookie (soak); and then re-asking all the same questions again in a slightly different way (rinse!). If your goal is to solve the maximum number of problems (though not necessarily in a minimal amount of time) it helps to have a few such people around. Also, a LOT of sandwiches and cookies.

Suffice it to say, when I was still a practitioner of the hard sciences, I ran into a LOT of Jews – well more than I have as a physician. Many of the members of the department of astrophysics at Berkeley were Jewish, and quite observant at that. The evolving superstructure of the Universe, was named, no kidding, “The fingers of God.”  Even the non-Jews tended towards the spiritual. Having described what happened the first 1/100th of a second after the Universe came into existence, my Introduction to Astrophysics professor Frank Shu threw his well-tanned, sinewy, chalk-covered arms in the air and cried, “And what happened before that? NO ONE KNOWS! I’m willing to chalk it up to god – how about you?” before the passionate need to write in linear algebra overtook him once more.

So it’s not that science and faith aren’t in the same boat, people. The passengers are, in fact, identical. It’s just that when religion throws someone overboard, that person can always swim towards science’s solidly rational archipelago. Lying prone on the beachhead, breathless and drenched, you can recover undisturbed by questions about who your parents were or your lovers are. Other questions, many other questions, will tug at you cyclically, insatiable and insistent, but not those questions.

So how, you ask, was it that I came to inquire about how to be Jewish on Mars?

You’ve read this far. You cannot POSSIBLY be surprised that I asked this question. What should surprise you even less is that I was not the first person to ask this question. In fact, there are papers already written on HOW TO BE JEWISH IN SPACE. No. Kidding.

One of them was written by a friend of mine. Quoth Rabbi Josh:

The past fifty years have seen the beginning of humanity’s long process of expanding

into space. To the Jews, a people who have existed in the Diaspora for generations, the

idea of moving beyond one’s traditional home is nothing new. But many of the religious

issues facing a successful migration to extraterrestrial environments are complex in the

extreme. When considering extraterrestrial halacha, this paper will work from the center

outward; from near-Earth environments to other celestial neighborhoods.

Rabbi’s Josh’s paper goes on to tackle such astronomical challenges as:

Q1: When you’re in a space station that circles the Earth every 90 minutes, experiencing multiple sundowns daily, when, precisely, do you get your Jew on?

A1: If your station is in a non-geosynchronous orbit above a planetary body, apply the Arctic rule.*

Q2: A lunar day lasts 30 Earth days. When do I mark the Sabbath on the Moon?

A2: Light the candles at the same time as Ground Control.

Q3: When should we celebrate Shabbat on Mars?

A3: Well, it depends.

Oh, God. Here we go.

Martian days are longer than Terran days by 40 minutes. That doesn’t sound like much, but it adds up quickly. Every month, Martians have 20 more hours on the clock. By the end of the year, Jews on Earth and on Mars are celebrating the Sabbath on different days of the week.

Next question: is that a problem?

This is only a problem if you think that Earth is, metaphysically, the center of the Universe. Which…I can’t quite see, and neither can Rabbi Josh:

Mars is a planet in its own right, with a day/night cycle completely valid to the religious life its colonists. There is every reason to conclude that a Martian day would be an acceptable religious interval for Jews living on Mars.

The alternative would be to try and keep time with a city on Earth, which, assuming you stayed on Mars between launch windows, would result in celebrating Shabbat at noon, midnight and various times in between for a year (WAKE UP, DAVE. IT’S TIME TO BE JEWISH!)

Throughout the span of a human lifetime, spirituality waxes and wanes. Dr. Sacks is coming upon a time when coming home, metaphysically, before moving on into the next life, feels good. And when he knocked on that door, it was opened for him, with wonderful results. His people chose him again, and he them.

It’s hard to be a Jew in a vacuum. Even with a spacesuit on. It’s made infinitely easier by the fact that my crew chose me. We voted on who we wanted to be with us on this journal to sMars. I think, for now, that’s more than good enough. With any luck, they won’t be escorting me to the airlock. My secret plan to prevent this involves sandwiches and cookies.

Martian Medi-Jew, signing off.


* Because there’s no sun to be had sometimes, and no sunset at others, the frozen chosen and others at extreme latitudes mark the Sabbath by looking towards the nearest city that HAS a sunset and using that time.

2 Replies to “A Shtick by Any Other Name: Being Jewish on Mars”

Leave a Reply