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Live long and prosper

A Jew need only watch Star Trek for five minutes to notice that Spock is a member of the tribe.

    A Jew need only watch Star Trek for five minutes to notice that Spock is a member of the tribe. He's saturnine, difficult, bumptious, awkward with women, clever and thoughtful. As a half-human and half-Vulcan he's the eternal outsider, living and working on the Starship Enterprise but always feeling somewhat detached.

    Over the years, Leonard 'Leib' Nimoy's Mr Spock became Star Trek's most memorable character. He served on board the Enterprise as a science officer and first officer, eventually becoming a commanding officer in later versions of the story. His logical analysis and counsel often proved invaluable to the ship's captain, and several storylines focused on his struggle to balance the different parts of his character.

    Nimoy died last week of complications linked to pulmonary disease, which he attributed to his smoking habit in earlier life. Though his 83 years were full of creative endeavour, in popular memory he will be indelibly linked with the character of Spock.

    But few of the obsessive Trekkies who devote themselves to the show fully appreciate the extent of Spock's Jewishness. Nimoy was born in west Boston in 1931, the son of Ukrainian immigrants. His father, Max, ran a barbershop and his mother, Dora, spoke Yiddish and kept an orthodox home. When Nimoy first pursued his acting dream he performed in Yiddish productions with the great Maurice Schwartz. Later his "otherness" brought him roles as a Native Indian in Westerns. But it was in 1966 that he was cast alongside William Shatner's Captain Kirk as Mr Spock in Star Trek. The original show only ran for three seasons, but it created an entire industry and transformed Nimoy's life.

    Nimoy and Spock became synonymous, and Nimoy's Yiddishkeit infused Spock's character. The most famous example of this was the Vulcan greeting that he invented. Nimoy explained that the distinctive salute, which means "Live long and prosper", had been cribbed from the priestly blessing of the Kohanim during which they make a "shin" with their hands.

    Leonard Nimoy as Mr Spock, featured in the JC in 1991
    Leonard Nimoy as Mr Spock, featured in the JC in 1991

    "My childhood memory was that when these guys did this traditional blessing, it was really theatrical," he said in an interview. "These men from our synagogue would cover their heads with their prayer shawls, and they were shouters - these were old, orthodox, shouting guys. About a half a dozen of them would get up and face the congregation, chanting in a magical, mystical kind of way... So, the congregation was all standing, and my father said to me, 'Don't look.' And in fact, everybody's got their eyes covered with their hands or they've got their heads covered with their prayer shawl, the entire congregation. But I peeked, and I saw these guys doing this. So I introduced it into Star Trek."

    More generally, Spock and the Star Trek mission came in part to embody Nimoy's sense of Jewishness. "As a Jew from Catholic Boston, I understood what it was like to feel alienated, apart from the mainstream," Nimoy recalled. "There were a number of values in Star Trek that I felt very comfortable with as a Jew. The futuristic society is a meritocracy that values education, social justice and tikkun olam, repairing the world. That's exactly what we were out there doing on the Starship Enterprise: trying to heal the universe."

    Surprisingly, women also found Spock sexy. During the height of Star Trek's popularity, Nimoy would often find himself mobbed by women wanting to touch his ears. Nimoy had an explanation for that too. "Down comes a stranger-tall, dark, thoughtful, alien and exotic," he told an American newspaper in 1977. "Somewhat devilish in appearance. He has a brilliant mind, the wisdom of a patriarch and is oh, so cool." Tall, dark, thoughtful, exotic and cool - surely any Jewish wife will recognise their husband in such a description?

    Some of Spock's storylines will be familiar to most Jewish families. One episode focused on how Spock's decision to join the starfleet instead of attending the Vulcan Science Academy had contravened his father's wishes and caused tension in the family home. The relationship between Spock and his Vulcan father, Sarek, was often tense though also rooted in mutual respect.

    With their minds still in the ghettoes of the Pale, Nimoy's own parents never fully appreciated his success in Hollywood. It was only when he played Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof in 1971 that they understood their son's success. "When I did Star Trek, they knew that something major had happened, but they didn't understand it at all," he said in an interview. "They couldn't watch Star Trek and relate to it in any way. Science fiction, strange make-up, the future-it just wasn't their world. But they knew that something major had shifted; suddenly their phone was ringing-because they were listed in the phone book. People were knocking on their door, and people were coming to my father's barbershop, and he had a picture of me up on the wall, and they would say, 'My kid wants a Spock haircut.'

    "But when I went home on tour in Boston doing Fiddler, and they came to the theater, and saw twenty-five hundred people pack the house, screaming and cheering, and laughing and crying, they got it. They knew what Fiddler was about."

    In his idiosyncratic way, Nimoy became fascinated by Judaism in later life. In 2002 he published a photography book called Shekhina, which controversially depicted naked woman wearing tefillin. He also used some of his vast Star Trek riches to support Jewish causes, including the National Yiddish Book Center, for which he had a particular affection.

    He also came to realise that not only had he made Spock a Jew, but that Spock had made him a Vulcan. "To this day, I sense Vulcan speech patterns, Vulcan social attitudes and even Vulcan patterns of logic and emotional suppression in my behaviour," he said. "Given the choice, if I had to be someone else, I would be Spock."

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