April 2015 Commentary Message

“Being Jewish is a gift, not a burden…” Leonard Nimoy

On February 27th, we learned that actor Leonard Nimoy died at the age of 83. Mr. Nimoy was most famous for playing the role of Mr. Spock in the 1960’s television series “Star Trek.” He reprised this role in the “Star Trek” movies and served as director of several of those films. Mr. Nimoy also directed 1987’s highest grossing film “Three Men and a Baby.”

As I shared with the congregation at worship services on March 6th, I attended a program in Ann Arbor in 1997 entitled “Celebration of Jewish Arts.” I was privileged to hear Leonard Nimoy speak on the topic of “Spock in the Diaspora.” For about an hour Mr. Nimoy regaled the audience with stories from his childhood and from his professional life. Throughout his speech, Mr. Nimoy noted how his Jewish background influenced and affected him.

Nimoy’s parents came to this country from the Ukraine in the early part of the last century. His family, which included his older brother Melvin, was a very close-knit, Yiddish-speaking family. He grew up in predominantly Catholic Boston and felt the isola- tion of being part of the minority.

Mr. Nimoy spoke at great length about the half-Vulcan, half-human Mr. Spock. He noted that there are some parallels between Spock and what he called “the classic diaspora image of the Jew”:

The diaspora Jew is someone outside of his own culture, always being an alien in somebody else’s country, in someone else’s society… The original concept of Mr. Spock was that he was a sort of chosen alien, the outsider; he was the one who was not at home, the one who was half-Vulcan. He is not totally at home on his own planet because he is half-human and he is not at home on the Star Fleet ship because he is half-Vulcan. He has to find his own identity. In that sense, he is a diaspora character. [“Spock in the Diaspora,” January 29, 1997]

Because of his own personal background, Nimoy felt particularly close to Spock and even added one specifically Jewish symbol to Spock: the famous Vulcan hand sign.

When Mr. Nimoy attended synagogue as a young child, he was fascinated by the kohanim, the members of the priestly tribe, as they would drape their large tallitot (prayer shawls) over their heads and offered the threefold blessing, which comes from the Book of Numbers, as they raised their hands. Leonard Nimoy’s father always told him that he was not allowed to look at the kohanim as they blessed the congregation, but of course he did. He used to go home from the synagogue and practice this symbol in his bedroom, over and over again.

Mr. Nimoy spoke that day in Ann Arbor of the many different roles which he had played during the course of his career. For instance, did you know that he was the skinniest Tevye ever in a version of “Fiddler on the Roof”? He played a variety of Jewish characters, including Golda Meir’s husband in “A Woman called Golda,” a Holocaust survivor in the Turner Network’s “Never Forget,” and the prophet Samuel in a production entitled “David” (the story of King David). Mr. Nimoy noted that at least one director did not want to work with him because the director felt that Nimoy couldn’t portray a Jew! Of course, that director only knew Nimoy as Mr. Spock. The director didn’t know that Nimoy considered being Jewish his “secret weapon.” It gave him an understanding of these characters that other actors did not have.

One thing that particularly struck me about Leonard Nimoy’s speech, and which has stayed with me throughout the years, was his comment that he looked for opportunities to portray Jewish characters. He said, “I carry my Jewishness with me.” It was   part and parcel of who Leonard Nimoy was. Even those characters, like Mr. Spock, who were not Jewish characters, were imbued with Jewishness by the actor. The qualities which he learned as a young boy growing up in a Jewish home were the qualities he looked for in his roles: characters who are ethical, responsible, and hard-working. The values that his parents taught   him, while they may not be exclusively Jewish values, Nimoy noted, are values that are reflected in Judaism.

I carry my Jewishness with me…,” said Leonard Nimoy. “Being Jewish is a gift, not a burden [and] I treasure that identity.” Who would have thought that Mr. Spock could teach us such an important lesson?!

Zikhrono livrakhah – May Leonard Nimoy’s memory be a blessing. May their memories of him be of comfort to his family and may our memories of him remind us not only of his talents, but also of the lessons he taught through word and deed.