He Lived Long, Prospered… And Spoke Yiddish

Nimoy as Spock. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Like so many others, I was very saddened to hear about the passing of Leonard Nimoy last week.

One of my friends, an avid Star Trek fan, felt the loss more deeply. He grew up with Mr. Spock, Nimoy’s legendary character. He is one of many fans: reading through the copious amounts of tributes, it’s clear that multiple generations were profoundly shaped by Mr. Spock, a half-human/half-Vulcan man who strived to follow the Vulcan philosophy of logical discipline and emotional control but also wrestled with pesky human emotions.

Nimoy’s performance as Spock was a wonder of sensitivity and nuance, and it aptly reflected the struggle we all must face as humans: how to balance hopes of the heart with matters of the mind. Over the years, Nimoy made Spock a surprisingly relatable character because of his empathetic impulses. In so doing, Spock, and Nimoy for that matter, will hold a lasting legacy in the American psyche.

Many people might not realize this, but Nimoy drew from his own Jewish background to play Mr. Spock. A lot of people might be aware that the Vulcan salute, created by Nimoy, has Jewish connections and is even said to have originated from the kohanim blessing. But you might not know that the Jewish influences on Spock didn’t end there. Born into an Orthodox Jewish family, Nimoy was subject to anti-Semitism in his hometown of Boston. By Nimoy’s account, the experience of being a minority in an Irish-Catholic enclave helped him to better identify with Spock’s marked sense of alienation from both the human and the Vulcan world. Though Boston has a sizeable Jewish community, Jews were still always a minority – a relatable reality for those of us in smaller towns, in the South and elsewhere.

His Jewish identity did not just help him with bringing Mr. Spock to life. Nimoy actually credits his Jewish upbringing with getting him into the acting business. Nimoy became interested in pursuing professional acting after appearing in the play Awake and Sing (a play that chronicles the hardships of a Jewish family during the Great Depression). He told Abigail Pogrebin in Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk about Being Jewish that he ended up finding “a home in a play about a Jewish family just like mine.”

As an adult, Nimoy continued to participate actively in Jewish causes. In 1992, he produced and starred in Never Forget, a television movie based on the story of a Holocaust survivor who sued a neo-Nazi organization of Holocaust deniers. Because his grandmother spoke only Yiddish, he became fluent and supported the Yiddish Book Center in their efforts to preserve the Yiddish language. He also participated in the Center’s Wexler Oral History project with them.

Like so many others, I will always cherish Nimoy for his portrayal of Mr. Spock. Turns out, Nimoy’s parents weren’t huge fans of the show. (Although, funny side note: His father, a barber, did offer Spock-style haircuts for some time.) Even if they didn’t appreciate Mr. Spock and the strange new worlds of Star Trek, I would like to think that Nimoy’s ancestors would be proud to know that their Jewish heritage helped to produce both a man and character that made a difference to so many people.

His last tweet brings the message of Nimoy’s life and legacy home: A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory.

Thank you, Mr. Nimoy. May your memory be a blessing.

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Posted on March 3, 2015

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What’s Your Number?

files

Records of records

I’ve been thinking about numbers lately. Not in a Jewish, gematria-type way, but in a way that kinda makes me wish I had developed my quantitative reasoning skills. If I had, I’d be a bit better prepared for life moments like this…

When I was at Brandeis, I was required to take a course for “Quantitative Reasoning,” which ended up being something about the history of scientific innovation. In other words, it was a course designed for people like me, who got itchy thinking about integers.

But when the organization you’ve been employed by for the last seven years turns 15 years old, you start to consider a lot of numbers. The number of programs and services delivered, the number of partners in our region, the number of staff over that number of years. In an organization that has grown so much, in a region that is so large.. well, all that number-crunching is what I like to call a “special project.”

So where to start?

Well, where would you start? Think about your own workplace- who’s keeping up with the daily ins and outs of your organization? Who in your family or among your friends is keeping records of important life moments? Do you have someone that holds all the institutional memory?

Most of us rely on digital assistance these days — large archived email lists, folders of uploaded photos. But collecting all this data for work has gotten me thinking about the importance of archives! (Hey, I’m a museum professional, what did you expect?)

Our museum collection is filled with records from Southern congregations. These records are incredible resources for looking back into the everyday lives of Jewish communities. Minutes from sisterhood meetings, confirmation photos with names carefully handwritten on the back, ledgers with all the members and when they paid their dues, newsletters that include gems like the rabbi’s sermons and welcomes given to guests to town. Groups that have a designated secretary often embody record keeping at its finest.

Records from passover seders in Median, Mississippi in 1899 and 1906 listing the guests in attendance, weather that day and notes about the "amusements of the phonograph".

Records from passover seders in Meridian, Mississippi in 1899 and 1906 listing the guests in attendance, weather that day and notes about the “amusements of the phonograph”.

The primary source documents are precious — and the documentation that goes along with preserving everything in an archive is just as important as the items themselves. As a museum registrar, I’ve got filing cabinets filled with records about records, digital files and images on all the objects in our collection.  Collections management is essentially that fine balance of not only preserving objects but also creating and  maintaining documentation to provide accessibility and accountability to the interested public, and to ensure that their meaning and origin is not lost.

All that to say, because the ISJL  provides such a wide range of services to a variety of audiences, each department has been maintaining data in their own unique way. To commemorate our 15th year,  I’m starting on a project to develop a common institutional memory, a system where we can access when we had programs in Montgomery, Alabama over the last 15 years, whose weddings were officiated by ISJL rabbis, and how many people have attended Jewish Cinema South Film festivals. I’ll be looking through old CIRCA magazines, trip reports, conference rosters, digital folders on our common drive… and figuring out the best ways to quantify our impact on this region.

So invite you to join me in this journey into numbers and impact. Take a minute and reflect on what you’ve got archived from the last 15 years of your life. What would your numbers be? How would you quantify the impact of your life? And how do you quantify your personal Jewish impact? Number of d’vrei torah given, number of matzoh balls made, or number of blog posts written? Looks like I’m already working on my own numbers, and not just my colleagues’ collective contributions!

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Posted on February 25, 2015

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Christians and Jews Sharing Shabbat in the Delta

My family lives in Greenwood, Mississippi. Nestled in the heart of the Delta, we are proud of our small-but-vibrant shul; even when only a dozen or so folks fill the pews, time spent in our building is meaningful. However, recently we saw our sanctuary overflowing with guests for the first time in years—and we were honored to host an event that led to powerful connections and conversations with our Delta neighbors.

A full sanctuary at our shul

A full sanctuary at our shul

We had two special visitors drawing the crowd in that night: Dr. Amy-Jill Levine (or AJ, as she prefers), and Rabbi Jeremy Simons of the ISJL. Rabbi Simons led a beautiful Shabbat service, warmly welcoming everyone and putting all attendees at ease immediately. I was so proud to have him representing the Jewish faith and standing up there in front of so many, leading everyone in a shared experience of Sabbath peace.

Then, AJ took the stage. AJ is the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, Department of Religious Studies, and Graduate Department of Religion. She’s a Jewish woman who studies and teaches about Christianity—and thereby she possesses a rare ability to speak the language of both Christians and Jews. She can represent both viewpoints fairly, and help us understand each other. Her opening line was something like: “Faith is more like love than Sudoku. Sudoku only has one correct solution. Love is subjective rather than right or wrong—you can’t control who you love and different people will have different preferences.”

People came from all over to hear her speak; Christians were challenged and enriched by her teachings on Christianity, and Jewish attendees were similarly riveted by her approach to scholarship and religious studies transcending both religions. Though the program took place in a synagogue, AJ knew her audience was primarily Christian. She addressed all equally, and encouraged all to be open to challenge and new notions. As local bookstore employee and program partner Steve Iwanski noted in his wonderful blog following AJ’s presentation: “…she sought to bring light to the parts of Jewish faith that may be unfamiliar to the typical Christian.

The crowd lingered for a long time afterward, and one could pick up smatterings of conversation that sounded exactly like the kind of interpretive dialogue Dr. Levine had implored us to engage in.” Having Rabbi Simons and Dr. Amy-Jill Levine lead and teach from our synagogue’s pulpit to a completely full house was an incredible delight. Everyone there shared in learning, in listening, in strengthening our own individual understanding and also our collective understanding of one another.

As an Ahavath Rayim member, an ISJL board member, a Greenwood resident—I could not have been more proud. It was not just a night of academics, but of spiritual moments. My 86-year-old mother-in-law, Ilse Goldberg, kindled the Shabbat candles and recited the blessings, which was such a moving moment. A lot of planning goes into bringing an event like this together, but moments like this are so precious that all the planning is worth it.

That night, I felt the pride of our ancestors – Ilse in the room, and others no longer with us. If they could have seen the full pews and felt the support and investment of our neighbors, I know how proud the previous generations of the congregation would be. I’m just honored that I could be part of such a wonderful communal experience, and grateful to see our shul stuffed to the gills with long-time supporters and first-time visitors. I hope to see our friends and neighbors joining us in fellowship many more times in the future.

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Posted on February 20, 2015

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy