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 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.
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.
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.