Carl Sagan dies, his views on Judaism still a mystery

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Carl Sagan's love of science was well known throughout the cosmos. But his feelings about his own ethnicity were almost painfully private.

The Bensonhurst, Brooklyn-born astronomer died Dec. 20 from pneumonia, a complication of a bone marrow disease called myelodysplasia. He was 62.

Sagan, who attended P.S. 101 on Benson Avenue as a child, was Jewish, though it is not clear what he thought about Judaism.

"He thought of himself as a Jew," said longtime colleague Lawrence Slobodkin, a professor of ecology at the State University in Stony Brook.

But what that meant, Slobodkin could not say.

Rabbi Steve Shaw, director of community education at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan, said that in recent years, Sagan, best known as the host of the popular 1980s PBS series "Cosmos," came to see JTS Chancellor Ismar Schorsch as his rabbi.

"They had several conversations," Shaw recalled. "[Schorsch] had the feeling that Sagan was open to changing his mind about religion, that somehow he identified with the kind of Judaism he saw personified at the seminary."

Shaw several years ago sent the Pulitzer Prize-winning Sagan a copy of the critically acclaimed Bible edited by Reform Rabbi Gunther Plaut.

"He wrote me back a lovely letter. It was something he was not exposed to before."

In fact, Sagan is credited with helping found the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, which brings together scientists and theologians to fight for environmental protection.

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement's Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C., said he knew Sagan for about 10 years, when they both worked on the nuclear arms issue.

"He believed that religious leaders and scientists had a great deal to say to each other," Saperstein said.

When Sagan was working on his last book, "Demon Haunted World," a treatise against New Age beliefs overpowering science, he sent a draft to Saperstein.

"He wanted to know how I as a Jewish leader thought about it. I sent him a 20-page memo talking about the history of Judaism and science. He read it all and called me to talk about it. He was intrigued about the Jewish ideas."

Yet Sagan remained mum about his own personal views on his Jewish heritage. "He was never comfortable talking about his own past," Saperstein said.

It will remain another mystery in the universe.