Leonard Nimoy and the Judeo-Vulcan Ethic
Few television characters have left as much of a mark on viewers as Mr. Spock, the half-human, half-Vulcan, always logical science officer on the Star Trek television series."The character has touched a lot of people," says actor Leonard Nimoy of his most famous role. "He (Spock) had a real positive impact on society. Every day I hear from people who were affected by Spock as a role model."Fans regularly tell Nimoy stories about how they were inspired by his Star Trek character to become teachers or scientists. Nimoy is giving a talk titled "Spock In the Diaspora" around the country. Among other things, he'll address how some of the philosophical undertones of the Spock character derive from his Jewish upbringing.Spock, says Nimoy, is "a classic Diaspora character, a person who is a stranger in someone else's territory; a misfit, a loner. He is not totally at home on Vulcan because of his human side, and he isn't at home on the Enterprise because he looks and acts like a Vulcan. I have felt this sort of alienation myself."Nimoy grew up in a Russian Jewish family where Yiddish was the language spoken at home. However, that home was located in predominantly Catholic Boston, an area where the well-to-do send their children to the Ivy League for schooling in deep American traditions. "It was clear to me that I was not a member of the majority," Nimoy reflects. "I was not like everybody else, and I think it was very useful to me in the development of the Spock character." "I don't claim Spock is a member of the lost tribe of the Israelites, but there are values in Star Trek which I felt comfortable with because they are values that I grew up with as a child. This doesn't mean that these are exclusively Jewish values, but they are values that are reflected in Judaism, like social justice, professionalism, responsibility, mutual support of colleagues and friends in relationships, and meritocracy; values that are still important to me."Jewish values on prime-time television? Social justice on the medium that seems to reach for the lowest of the low in titillation and violence? Rabbi Rich Kirschen, assistant director of Ann Arbor's Hillel Foundation, recognizes them in Star Trek, particularly Spock's experience as an outsider."Tolerance is a big part of Judaism, as is the commitment to learning," says Kirschen. "The pursuit of learning was very important for Spock. It's part of the immigrant experience that is synonymous with the Jewish experience, says Kirschen. "Spock, like many Jews, comes from another culture, and is forced to deal with issues of assimilation into a new environment. É Tolerance is a big part of Judaism, as is the commitment to learning. The pursuit of learning was very important for Spock."Even nonclerical viewers found Spock's values notable. Adina DeRoy of Pittsburgh, a longtime fan of the television series and six-time winner of the Star Trek Trivia Championship, found watching Spock on TV inspiring while growing up Jewish."Spock's priorities were my priorities -- tolerance, education and the environment," she says. "I'll never forget the end of Star Trek 2 when a dying Spock, after sacrificing his life to save the Enterprise, tells Captain Kirk: 'The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.'"While Nimoy points out the many Jewish philosophical undertones to the Spock character, there is only one overtly Jewish reference in all of Star Trek: the four-fingered "V" hand gesture Spock became known for, meaning "live long and prosper."Nimoy borrowed the hand gesture from a Jewish tribe, the Kohenim. When he was a child in synagogue in Boston, Nimoy remembers being moved when he saw members of the congregation raise hands in the now-famous signalToday few people know of the hand sign's Jewish roots. In fact, the way cultural origins are often forgotten is illustrated in a story Kirschen tells.A young girl visiting a Polish cemetery saw Jewish gravestones engraved with the "V"-shaped Kohenim gesture. Her orientation was obvious when she asked, "Why do the tombstones have the Vulcan 'live long and prosper' sign?"Kirschen says Kohenim priests used the symbol as a blessing during major Jewish holidays including Passover and Rosh Hashana. Spock isn't the only role that reflected Nimoy's experience growing up in a household of Russian immigrants. Another was his 1970s stage role as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof.More recently, he hosted the 13-part National Public Radio series, "Jewish Short Stories from Eastern Europe and Beyond," and starred in a movie about the biblical story of David (he stars as the prophet Samuel), which will air on the cable channel TNT in April. His directorial credits include the box-office hit Three Men and a Baby, The Good Mother and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Although Nimoy once bridled against being typecast as the stern Spock after the series ended, a pique which culminated in his first memoir, I Am Not Spock (1975), that stand had softened considerably by the time he wrote his latest book, I Am Spock (1995). As for Star Trek, Nimoy's favorite episodes from the TV series include "The Trouble with Tribbles," a comical story about rapidly reproducing furry little creatures; "The City on the Edge of Forever," a love story (written by Harlan Ellison) in which members of the crew go back in time to the Depression era (and Captain Kirk falls in love with a young Joan Collins); and "Amok Time," the episode in which Spock returns to Vulcan.The latter program also marked the debut of the "live long and prosper" Vulcan hand gesture.As for the future of Spock, Nimoy offers this tease: "The people at Paramount have my phone number."