Leonard Mr. Spock’ Nimoy is a logical choice to host National Public Radio’s Jewish stories’ series. Leonard’s talk was titled “I Am Not Spock.” But if he once dreaded the possibility that being so identified with his “Star Trek” character might get him permanently typecast, Nimoy has had no such qualms about accepting numerous Jewish roles throughout his career.
He is currently hosting the acclaimed National Public Radio series “Jewish Short Stories from Eastern Europe and Beyond,” introducing 13 hour-long readings by such performers as Walter Matthau, Lauren Bacall and Elliott Gould. The series features contemporary works by the likes of Philip Roth and Cynthia Ozick along with stories by Yiddish authors, including Sholem Aleichem, I.B. Singer and I.L. Peretz.
Nimoy, 64, is himself a veteran of Yiddish theater productions in Los Angeles during the early 1950s, where he worked alongside legendary performers like Maurice Schwartz and Michael Michalevsko. “This was serious stuff,” he recalls while being interviewed in his Beverly Hills office. “I thought I was in a state of grace working with those people.
“The son of Yiddish-speaking immigrants from the Ukraine, Nimoy grew up in Boston’s West End in a heavily Jewish household. “It was an Orthodox upbringing, not terribly pious but culturally very Jewish. Kosher home, heder around the corner every day after school until bar mitzvah.”
Nimoy moved to Los Angeles from Boston in 1949 to pursue an acting career, much to the dismay of his parents. They had not come to America, he recalls, so that “their son could hang around with Gypsies and bums. My brother had studied with Rabbi (Yosef Dov) Soloveitchik. He was a scholar with a degree from MIT who went on to become a chemical engineer. I was not an academic. I was too restless, and became too bored with studying.
“But when I came out here, I remember immediately looking for a place to go to High Holy Day services. I bought a ticket to Masonic Auditorium, which was this mass Rosh Hashanah service. I hated it! It was so impersonal. It had no sense of community, no cultural feeling for me, and had hardly anything spiritual. I was used to people who were imbued with the culture, the community and the sense of family coming together. And this had nothing to do with any of that. But I was looking for it constantly.
“He found some of it working in the Yiddish theater, and although in the four decades since then Nimoy has lost some of his facility with Yiddish, he has maintained the warmth he felt for the language and culture. So he was pleased when, about a year and a half ago, he was invited by the Circle in the Square Theater in New York to participate in a fundraiser for YIVO, that city’s major Yiddish research institute. The theme, here counts, was “The Grandfather Connection” to the Yiddish language and culture. In preparation, Nimoy began studying Yiddish several hours a week with a private teacher. But when he showed up for the event, he was shocked to discover that he was the only one there who was prepared to speak and sing in Yiddish.
“I went expecting to be the bumbling, stumbling Yiddishist of the group. I found that people who were masters of the language didn’t do it at all. One guy did a song from Fiddler on the Roof’ – in English! What was going on here? Well, I learned that in some quarters there was a sense of renewal and revival, but there was also resistance, an aspect that said let’s keep it as a funereal language but let’s not speak it. Since that day, though, I have found out about a resurgence of interest. There’s now a Yiddish chair at Harvard and a Yiddish program at Stanford. There’s an interest in klezmer and in Yiddish literature and culture that wasn’t there before.
“The actor’s career has also been rich with non-Yiddish Jewish roles. He has performed Tevye in a summer production of “Fiddler on the Roof”; Golda Meir’s estranged husband Morris Meyerson in the made-for-TV film “Golda”; Holocaust survivor Mel Mermelstein in the TV movie “Never Forget”; Fagin in a stage production of “Oliver”; and Goldman, the tortured Jew who masquerades as a Nazi in Robert Shaw’s play “The Man in the Glass Booth.
“Nimoy’s career has of course not been defined by Jewish characters, but his role as Mr. Spock, the pointy-eared half-human, half-Vulcan first officer of the 24th-century Starship Enterprise. He first played Spock in the original NBC-TV “Star Trek” series from 1966 to 1969, and has since appeared in six “Star Trek” feature films, two of which he also directed. In recent years he has moved on to direct a number of successful non-Star Trek films, including the hit comedy “Three Men and a Baby” and “The Good Mother.”
Even while playing Spock, Nimoy managed to inject the character with a Jewish touch, by utilizing the traditional split-fingered gesture used in the priestly blessing in synagogue services, as the accompanying hand sign for the Vulcan greeting “Live long and prosper.” Some “Star Trek” fans have gone further in suggesting that the Vulcan race – super-rational beings who hail from a harsh desert planet – were intended to represent the Jews, whose presence was notably absent from the multi-ethnic future universe envisioned by “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry, who died two years ago.
RODDENBERRY HIMSELF HAD vigorously denied such a notion, and Nimoy surprisingly asserts that the “Star Trek” creator – revered by fans for imbuing the “Star Trek” universe with a strong liberal-utopi an ethos – “was anti-Semitic, clearly. Roddenberry had Jewish associates; Bill (Shatner) and I were both Jewish. To be fair, Roddenberry was anti-religion , and apart from being a racial-cultural entity, Jews, to him, were a religious group. But he was certainly anti-Semitic. I saw examples not only of him practicing anti-Semitism, but of him being callous about other peoples’ differences as well.
“Several of the cast members of the original “Star Trek” series have published tell-all memoirs in recent years, and Nimoy recently issued an updated version of his own autobiography, this time called “I Am Spock” (Hyperion). He brushes off a suggestion that he is beating a dead horse by continuing to trade on his “Star Trek” fame.
“The whole thing has got to be seen with a little bit of tongue in cheek,” insists Nimoy, who passed on the opportunity of directing or even appearing in “Star Trek: Generations,” the seventh and latest movie in the series.
“Have I changed in my personality as a result of the Star Trek’ experience?” he asks. Yes. Have I changed in my attitude toward Spock? Yes. I am definitely more comfortable if I am on the street and someone calls me Spock. I don’t have a problem with it. Spock is still by far the thing that I am best known for – there’s no question of that. But there are other things that I enjoy doing, and have had the opportunity to do. I have not been denied opportunities, and that’s the issue.
“Of course, that doesn’t mean that the rest of the world has caught up with Nimoy’s internal changes. A few weeks ago, he says, he was stepping into the elevator after a dental appointment and a woman looked up at him and said, “Oh my, I know you’re not Spock, but Good morning.'” “Well, maybe I am,” he responded, laughing.
Originally published on the Jerusalem Report on November 16, 1995