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.
My family flew to Los Angeles two weeks ago to attend the funeral of my father-in-law, z’’l. We had been with him for a visit in December, and we are grateful for these good and recent memories. He was truly a wonderful man. Throughout this journey to Los Angeles, many emotions flowed through us. We were relieved that he’s no longer suffering, sad that he won’t be here for so many lifecycle events and moments with the grandchildren. I was expecting to feel those emotions. I was unprepared for some of the others that came up while we were there.
My husband grew up in the L.A. area, and his parents and his brother and extended family still live there. We are the ones who don’t – the “family that lives in Mississippi.” At the shiva house, as people chatted after the service, I received an odd comment, from a woman I did not know. The woman said: “I noticed your children seemed to be able to really participate in the service with the Hebrew… and you’re from Mississippi? That’s wonderful.”
In that moment, I think I was in shock, so being the “polite woman from Mississippi” I simply responded by saying thank you and moved on to the next person. However, two weeks later, it’s still bothering me – it’s that itch that’s in the middle of your shoulder blade that you just can’t reach so it just keeps irritating.
I’m sure this woman felt like she was complimenting my children, but the implication that they would be Jewish illiterates because we live in Mississippi is infuriating and ridiculous! Yes, it’s wonderful that my children are from Mississippi and have learned Hebrew, attend religious school, participate in youth group, and so on. But it shouldn’t be shocking, and I imagine there are others who share this woman’s sentiment.
Raising Jewish children anywhere can be a challenge. You have to work at participating in the Jewish community. It’s very easy to sit at home and not get involved. We have been active in our synagogue and involved in Jewish organizations. We go to Shabbat services, religious school, holiday celebrations and programs at the synagogue. We have a Shabbat meal together, and our children are enriched by going to Jewish summer camp. Two of our children have gone on a NFTY-in-Israel program, and our third will go once he turns sixteen.
We enjoy a fulfilling Jewish life here in Jackson, Mississippi. We don’t enjoy it “in spite of where we live”—we enjoy it because we seek it out. We participate. We make the effort. You can live in Los Angeles and do nothing Jewish beyond going to a good deli and eating fresh lox. And you can live in Mississippi and do something Jewish every day. It’s not about where you live—wherever you live, it’s about the choices you make.
The legacy that my husband’s parents gave him, raising him in Los Angeles, and the legacy my parents gave me, raising me in Mississippi, is a shared one: we are committed to being active participants in the Jewish community. It is a legacy that I hope our children take with them – wherever they may choose to live as adults.
And to that I proudly say, “shalom, y’all”— from Jackson, Mississippi.
I recently completed a one-year Kahn Fellowship for the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. My aim during the fellowship was to specifically work on engaging the young queer Jewish community. In return, my own personal growth would be nurtured through an additional immersive experience. My colleague Margalit suggested something called TENT.
One of TENT’s week-long intensive programs, “Tent:The South,” would be take participants from all over the country on a road trip, from New Orleans to Memphis through Mississippi, learning about Jewish history and contemporary culture in these regions.
I had never thought about Jews in the South. It was so far removed from everything I knew about the history of the South – which was delineated along racial lines that excluded Jewishness. I was excited to go on this trip. Who were these Jews in the South? Perhaps even more interesting, who are they now?
We started out in New Orleans, a city rich with history and supporting three synagogues. Even the Orthodox synagogue in town, Anshe Sfard, is working toward inclusivity and seeks LGBT involvement. This was astonishing to me, but also exciting. From there, we traveled up through Mississippi and into the Delta, all the way up to Memphis. We stopped in many towns and small cities, and met with local Jewish communities, continuously learning about our Jewish history in the South.
I had many emotional and informative experiences on this trip. Perhaps most personal to my understanding of my own identity was really digging into what the South “is” and “isn’t” and what it really means to me as someone who was raised in a border state.
Growing up in Maryland, whenever I spoke with Northerners I was told I was from the South, and whenever I spoke with Southerners, I was told I was from the North. I tried to claim my border-statehood, but that wasn’t good enough for people – they needed to “other” me to the other side of the tracks, or in this case, the other side of the Mason-Dixon line. I left Maryland at 14 to go to a private school in Pennsylvania, and I’ve never identified as a Marylander since.
It was on this trip, this Southern Jewish trip that I got to go on as a result of my work with the LGBTQ Jews in Los Angeles, that I learned to own the Marylander in me. And in a way, more of my Jewishness too.
Growing up, I saw myself as an “other” compared to the Jews I knew, because of my queer identity. But now I really see the cultural narrative of Jewishness as one of “otherness;” and I see my Jewishness as part of my personal narrative. Many people say they are Jew-ISH; I used to say I wasn’t practicing – I was just good at it. Now I don’t know what to say. I suppose I am “exploring my Jewishness.”
Finally, now I see: not feeling like I’m from the South or from the North, not feeling like my home state has a place in this country’s delineation, is really part of my greater narrative. I am a person in-between, or on the line, an “other” from the norm like all Jews and from the Jewish “other.” Never here nor there. I live on the border between the LGBTTQQIA2S (and growing) alphabet. I live on the border between secular and religious (and changing). And now I am finally owning that I grew up on the border between North and South. I am from a border state, and like the place from which I hail– I, too, am a perpetual border state.
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