How Leonard Nimoy's Jewish faith gave Star Trek its signature greeting
Leonard Nimoy, best known for playing the iconic role of Spock in the Star Trek franchise, died in late February. To honor the actor’s life and career, Entertainment Weekly created a picture-filled biography as a tribute. Below, read an excerpt from “Leonard Nimoy: Remembering the Man Behind Spock,” by the Editors of Entertainment Weekly, available now in stores or at shop.ew.com/nimoy. The author of this excerpt, David Van Biema, is a former religion writer at Time and the author of the forthcoming book Speaking to God: A Cultural History of the Psalms.
“Leib Nimoy was 8 years old when he first encountered the greeting he would one day transmit to television’s final frontier. He was at services with his family at Boston’s Orthodox North Russell Street synagogue when six congregants stepped onto the pulpit and began enthusiastically swaying and chanting what is known as the Priestly Blessing. At this point worshippers normally turn their eyes away so as to concentrate on the words rather than the speakers, but as Leib (Nimoy’s Yiddish name) told a documentarian some 70 years later, “I peeked,” and glimpsed the gesture that accompanies the benediction. The sextet extended their arms, held both hands up palms outward and . . . well, the fastest way to describe the gesture today is that it was a double-handed Vulcan salute.
Nimoy was not the highest-ranking Jew on the Enterprise. That was William Shatner, from a similar Eastern European background. But where Shatner’s looks and swagger marked him a white-bread leading man, it was his hyper-intellectual, slightly saturnine first officer who contributed a taste of Kosher wry.
Born to parents who had fled a pogrom-plagued village in the Ukraine and whose first language was Yiddish, Nimoy managed well enough in a Boston neighborhood that he remembered as approximately 65 percent Italian and 30 percent Jewish, but, he said, his “friendships stopped abruptly at the door of the church.” “‘Jew bastard’ was something I heard a lot,” he told author Abigail Pogrebin, and in his second autobiography he wrote that “I learned early on that I was somehow ‘different.’” At age 8 he teared up watching Charles Laughton’s screen portrayal of the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the ultimate outsider: “I carried Quasimodo’s haunting image with me from the theater that day. The seed which would become Spock was planted.”
As a young man in Los Angeles, he found extra work in the Yiddish theater. It was the wife of a Yiddish star who suggested that Nimoy looked like he could play gentiles. This betwixt-and-between look may have helped him nail Spock. While Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry filled his bridge with a bevy of broadly drawn, laudably harmonious ethnic types, Mr. Spock was the Enterprise’s only resident alien. Its designated “other,” he enacted the rehabilitation of Quasimodo episode after episode, proving that the odd man out could also be the irreplaceable linchpin. Spock, said Nimoy, was a “wandering Jew.” He explained that “I knew what it meant to be part of a minority, in some cases an outcast minority.” The only place where the half-Vulcan could feel accepted, he said, was the starship, because it was a “meritocracy. I totally identified with that.”
When asked whether Judaism was part of Star Trek, Nimoy had a ready answer: Jewish values could be found in the show’s reverence for education, individual dignity and for a principle called tikkun olam, the obligation to repair the world. In Spock the answer was more evident, at least to a chosen few in the viewership. Nimoy—as much as Roddenberry did-—established the character’s habits and many Vulcan practices. An early script for the first episode of Star Trek’s second season, when Spock returned briefly to his home planet, appears to have called for Nimoy to kneel before a Vulcan matriarch, who would lay her hands on his shoulders. Nimoy suggested that there should be some specifically Vulcan gesture instead and reached back to the Russell Street synagogue to give Vulcans the V-shaped hand symbol. Roddenberry may not have known that he was green-lighting a sacred sign, but thousands of viewers did, and Nimoy eventually confirmed it, saying, “People don’t realize they’re blessing each other with this. It’s great.” From then on Nimoy was often greeted by fans who offered it as a “Hi” sign, most likely unaware of its origins. By the time of the actor’s death, the V sign had been flashed by a sitting President, from astronauts in space and in countless photographic tributes on social media: The outsider had created a universal salute for a cultural in-crowd.”