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.
One of my favorite things about my new role as a full-time historian at the ISJL is getting to meet great people with fascinating stories. The latest example? I recently had the privilege of speaking with Scott Davis, an Emmy award-winning Jewish television producer from Raleigh, North Carolina.
Scott Davis has told stories for a living for most of his life, and he became interested in the traditions of Jewish storytelling toward the end of his career. He began writing plays based on nineteenth century Yiddish culture. While doing research for a play based on the Jewish short stories of I. L. Peretz and Sholom Aleichem, two very famous classical nineteenth century Yiddish writers, Scott discovered another important literary figure, Jacob Dinezon.
It turns out Jacob Dinezon was a bestseller in his time (one of his very first novels sold more than 200,000 copies—a massive number in that era!), and he served as a mentor and benevolent uncle of sorts to several writers, but he never became as widely known as his contemporaries like Peretz and Aleichem. Why? Because his works were never translated into English.
Davis feels very passionately about sharing Dinezon’s amazing stories with the rest of the world. In 2007, he founded Jewish Storyteller Press to publish the work of Yiddish authors who deserve more recognition. Initially, he worked with existing English translations of old Yiddish tales. Davis himself doesn’t read Yiddish, so he hired professional scholars to translate directly from the original books. Davis also works with the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of books in the Yiddish language.
Davis just published the first English translation of Dinezon’s book, Memories and Scenes, a collection of 11 autobiographical short stories. In this collection, Dinezon recalls his childhood years in the shtetl and the events that led to his passion for becoming a writer. His simple tales provide a firsthand look into 19th-century shtetl life and a treasure trove of Yiddish history, culture and values. What Davis truly admires is the philosophy behind Dinezon’s tales. Hearing him talk about it so passionately, I can see why: Dinezon’s values reflected those of Davis’s father, a man Davis describes as generous and kind, always going out of his way to help other people.
One of the stories, entitled “Borekh,” tells the tale of a young orphan boy living in the yeshiva. Borekh was not very good at studying Talmud; but he was a generous soul, doing things for people and asking nothing in return. As he grew into manhood, he began to explore the question of who he would grow to be as an adult and what his contribution would be to his community. He asked God for help and soon realizes his special ability, woodworking. He make dreidels, Purim groggers, and toy animals for the children of the town. People in the town still looked down on him for not studying like his peers—until he ultimately carves a holy ark for the Torah, making his own significant and lasting contribution to his community.
Davis strongly identified with Borekh and his struggle to find his true calling. An avid clarinet player, he tried to learn to play Klezmer music. He knew he had an interest in promoting Jewish culture, whether in music or literature. After a few sessions, he realized that it wasn’t very good at it, but was he could do was he tell a good story. That love of storytelling has allowed Davis to engage so many individuals in history that could have easily been forgotten.
Like Davis, I see myself as a storyteller and feel fortunate that I get to tell the stories of Southern Jewry. Each of us offers a unique contribution in preserving Jewish heritage and ultimately, making a positive difference in our communities. Taking a cue from Scott Davis, we can all work together to make sure the story of our Jewish legacy continues.
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It’s been a busy few months here in Jackson. We’ve welcomed Jewish visitors from all over the country, arranging experiences for them to discover this place I call home. This fall, I’m looking forward to a new type of tour experience that, through a partnership with The Yiddish Book Center, will bring the Southern Jewish Experience to a new group of explorers.
The TENT program is an incredible idea: a series of week-long seminars that immerse 21-30 year old Jews in full-impact experiences of culture, cuisine and community. The best thing about TENT? In addition to being fun and often profound, these programs are free to the participants.
The ISJL will host Tent: The South from October 19-26, 2014. This dynamic program will be a week-on-wheels, traveling from New Orleans to Memphis, and spending several days in Mississippi along the way. Tent: The South will explore the Jewish experience in one of this nation’s most distinctive, complicated, and fascinating regions, discovering the best that the South has to offer. Music, art, food, and visits to Jewish communities large and small will make this a week participants will never forget. (You may even start saying “Shalom, y’all.”)
It’s special for me to be involved with a project like this because as a Northern transplant to this region, I take my responsibility as a Southern advocate and promoter very seriously. (Just check out my particularly joyful expression in at :40 of this video. If that doesn’t make you want to come join me us on bus for week, I’m not sure what will.) Tent: The South is such a great opportunity to gather people here with adventurous spirits, who are curious to experience the South.
I’ve put together itineraries for many groups, but this trip is especially fun because it’s built to engage my own demographic! We will get to stop (and eat!) in some of my favorite places. Po Boys in New Orleans before visiting historic congregations. Fried chicken in Natchez before touring Antebellum mansions. Sweet tea while stopping between Civil Rights sites in Jackson. Local beers on the porch of the Shack Up Inn in Clarksdale. We’ll also be experiencing Southern arts culture. Listening to the blues while traveling between small towns like Indianola, Clarksdale, and Greenwood in the Mississippi Delta and touring the homes of William Faulkner and Eudora Welty.
For those interested in social justice work, the South is a place with a great legacy of Jewish activism. I’ve had the fortune of inviting the best scholars and experts to lead sessions– our presenters will be from amazing organizations like the William Winter Institute of Racial Reconciliation at Ole Miss in Oxford, the Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University in Cleveland, and the Center for Southern Folklore in Memphis. There will be learning. There will be eating.
And dancing. There will certainly be dancing.
Sold? Great! Participants must apply to Tent: The South by August 1st, 2014. Only twenty applicants will be selected for each session. Again, Tent is offered free to accepted applicants– that means program costs, lodging, most meals, tickets, and more! Participants are responsible only for the cost of transportation, from wherever they live to New Orleans and back home again from Memphis. Space is limited, so apply now!
If you are interested and have any questions, please contact email@example.com or 601-362-2357.
(Not eligible yourself, but know someone who is? Forward this post, share the website, spread the word!)
See you in The South!