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Leonard Nimoy on Spock, Yiddish Theater, and the Vulcan Symbol’s Jewish Inspiration

An excerpt from Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish

Abigail Pogrebin
February 27, 2015
Leonard Nimoy on May 14, 2013. (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
Leonard Nimoy on May 14, 2013. (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

In 2005, Abigail Pogrebin published Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish. The following is an excerpt from the chapter about Leonard Nimoy, the beloved actor best known for portraying Mr. Spock in the Star Trek TV series and films, who died today at 83.

“‘JEW BASTARD’ was something I heard a lot,” says actor Leonard Nimoy, who grew up in an Orthodox family in Boston. We’re sitting in his serene, beige and cream living room overlooking the Museum of Natural History, decorated with some of the art photographs he’s taken—a hobby that has morphed into an obsession over the years.

Nimoy, wearing black loafers without socks, looks elegant at the age of seventy-four, still utterly recognizable as Mr. Spock. “When I was a little kid, I became enamored with magic tricks,” he continues. “Simple little things—card tricks or coin tricks. And there was a shop in downtown Boston which was within walking distance of where we lived where they carried that kind of stuff, and whenever I had a little spare money, I’d go in there and shop around. One day when I came home, having bought something or other, I opened the bag and discovered that, along with my merchandise, the store clerk had slipped in some literature. And the literature was the most crude, primitive kind of mimeographed anti-Semitic, scurrilous stuff, with the terrible caricatures of the hoary Jew—sinister, looking for world conquest—really nasty stuff.

“I was maybe ten. It really shook me. I didn’t quite know what to do about it, except I didn’t even tell my parents. I just destroyed it, threw it in the garbage. But that was the kind of thing you could run into in Boston. We lived in view of a very large Catholic church—still standing—which, after Sunday school, was a dangerous place for Jews to be around because young Italian kids and Irish kids came out having just been told that we had killed their Christ.”

Had his parents prepared him for the bigotry? “My parents were very fearful people,” he says. “And their fear was itself an education. Jews were always to keep a low profile so as not to become targets: ‘Don’t boast about success or brag about it, stay amongst your own people, stay out of the wrong neighborhoods.’ They came from a village in Russia that had experienced pogroms. So they were really quite ghettoized.”

Because his grandmother spoke only Yiddish, he became fluent. “I still use it whenever I can, and I get the mailings from the National Yiddish Book Center. Aaron Lansky runs it in Massachusetts. Are you familiar?” I’m not. “He started this thing some years ago of rescuing Jewish books. He’s done a remarkable job. And I’ve been somewhat supportive, just sent him a check. They send out a monthly brochure and there are stories in Yiddish, and English translations, and I try to sit down and spend some time reading the stuff in Yiddish and see how far I can get.”

He says his family’s emphasis on education was not about trying to push their son to do great things but simply to support himself. “Here we were, my grandfather a leather-cutter, my father a barber, and there were six of us living with one bathroom, and they were very, very frugal. My mother taught me, ‘You walk into a room and turn on a light, that costs a penny. So if you have to turn it on, turn it off as soon as you’re done with it.’ It’s still a habit of mine—walking out of a room and turning off the lights. But that was their sense of achievement: security.”

Nimoy got security and then some. Star Trek made him a multimillionaire. Though only on the air for three seasons—1966 to 1969—it became a cultural phenomenon that spawned ten films (Nimoy acted in the first six and directed the third and fourth), four TV sequels (including a cartoon version), and generations of rabid fans—“Trekkies”—who remain loyal to this day. Nimoy’s fame (he says Spock’s plastic ear tips have garnered as much as three thousand dollars) created its own burdens for his two children, now adults who have their own families. Not surprisingly, they lack the shtetl perspective with which he was raised. “They have, frankly, a distorted view of how things work in the world, because they have been given so much subsidy from my income, that it’s unreal. Their lives are unreal, and they know it. My daughter and her husband, now in their mid-forties, are finally trying to exist in a way where they have some sense of self-sufficiency. My son and his wife are still wrestling with it—responsibility versus entitlement. It’s a struggle, and I sympathize with it.”

If Nimoy’s children have been somewhat crippled by his success, ironically, his parents never seemed to acknowledge it. Not until they saw him play Tevye in a Boston production of Fiddler on the Roof in 1971. “When I did Star Trek, they knew that something major had happened, but they didn’t understand it at all. They couldn’t watch Star Trek and relate to it in any way. Science fiction, strange makeup, 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.”

Though his family didn’t foster Nimoy’s career, it did have an unintentional hand in his choosing it. “I became an actor, I’m convinced, because I found a home in a play about a Jewish family just like mine,” Nimoy says. “Clifford Odets’s Awake and Sing. I was seventeen years old, cast in this local production, with some pretty good amateur and semiprofessional actors, playing this teenage kid in this Jewish family that was so much like mine it was amazing. The same dynamics, the same tensions in the household. The family lived with the grandfather, who was a barber, and the dominant mother was the power figure, which was the case in my family—my father was a shadow figure. And there were the same concerns about financial security. I felt like I was in a warm bath in this play; I was saying things that I would have liked to have said to my parents. And I thought if I could do this for the rest of my life I’d be a very happy person.”

Nimoy didn’t just use his family to connect to roles; he used his childhood Yiddish. “I was put in touch with some of the old Yiddish theater actors who were coming to California to do an occasional weekend of Yiddish productions. Maurice Schwartz sort of took me on; he was the founder of the Yiddish Art Theater in New York, a pretty famous Yiddish theater figure—a great talent. Speaking Yiddish in front of an audience was a great thrill for me.”

But Hollywood wasn’t exactly champing at the bit for a Yiddish-speaking leading man with Nimoy’s looks. “Guys like me were playing all the ethnic roles, usually the heavies—the bad Mexicans, the bad Italians. And those were the jobs that I took and was happy to get for a long time. I played Indians in Westerns many times. The first Indian role that I took was a role that a Native Indian turned down because the Indian character was so unredeemably bad. I was happy to get the work, thank you very much.”

Despite the ethnic typecasting, Nimoy says, Hollywood was much more hospitable to Jews than Boston had been. “I came to the realization that anti-Semitism wasn’t acceptable in Hollywood. People who were anti-Semitic were extremely covert about it because a lot of very powerful figures in Hollywood were Jewish.

“I distinctly remember, when I was really struggling—before I had my first job—I was with an agent who was Jewish, and he walked me into a casting office to introduce me to the head of casting. And in addition to talking about my acting background, he told him, ‘He’s a nice Jewish boy.’ And I thought, ‘Wow, he’s trying to help me gain entrance by announcing that I’m Jewish.’ It was amazing to me that he would try to make a Jewish connection to help me get work. That was a revelation to me.”

But Nimoy pauses when I ask whether he felt he had to play down being Jewish when he became Spock. “It’s a valid question,” he answers, “and I have to think about it. I think it’s fair to say I was kind of neutral on the issue. In playing Spock, I never saw any point of making a big deal about ‘I’m Jewish, I’m Jewish!’ It would have seemed gratuitous somehow.”

Would it surprise him if today people didn’t know he was Jewish? “Well, I think a lot of people know what I am. Certainly at Star Trek conventions, I’ve told the story about where this came from,” he demonstrates the Vulcan greeting: a raised hand with forked fingers—the pointer and middle fingers sandwiched together and the ring and pinky fingers similarly aligned. “I’ve always talked about this coming from my Jewish background.”

He invented the hand signal based on his memory of seeing the rabbis do it when they said the priestly blessing. Nimoy recites the prayer for me in Hebrew and then translates: “It says, ‘May the Lord bless and keep you and may the Lord cause his countenance to shine upon you, may the Lord be gracious unto you and grant you peace.’ ”

He points to one of his photographs behind me, which depicts an isolated hand shaped in the famed Vulcan salutation. “I was talking to this rabbi cousin of ours about that image one day [Rabbi John Rosove of Temple Israel of Hollywood, a cousin of Nimoy’s second wife, Susan Bay], and I told him that my childhood memory was that when these guys did this traditional blessing, it was really theatrical. 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. They would start off by humming.” Nimoy hums. “And they’re swaying and chanting. And then the guy would yell out: ‘Y’varechecha Adonai!’ And then the whole bunch of them would, like a chorus, respond, ‘Y’varechecha Adonai!’—all six of them. It was really spooky.

“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. But I said to this rabbi cousin of ours, ‘To this day, I’m not really sure why my father said, Don’t look.’ And he explained, ‘The traditional belief is that during that blessing, the Shekhina—the feminine presence of God—enters the congregation to bless the congregation. And you shouldn’t see God, because the light could be fatal to a human. So you close your eyes to protect yourself.’ ‘Well!’ I said. ‘I never knew that!

Excerpted from Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish by Abigail Pogrebin. Copyright 2005 by Abigail Pogrebin. Used by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc.

Abigail Pogrebin is the author of Stars of David and My Jewish Year. She moderates the interview series “What Everyone’s Talking About” at the JCC in Manhattan.