He Lived Long, Prospered… And Spoke Yiddish

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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