Earlier this week, Richard Michelson wrote about following his own advice for aspiring authors and the encouragement he received in penning Fascinating, a children’s biography of Leonard Nimoy—which comes out this week! Richard is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.
Leonard Nimoy’s Star Trek character, Mr. Spock, became a cultural icon—as did Leonard Nimoy, himself—but even his most ardent fans do not fully understand the important role that Judaism played in both the Star Trek series and Leonard’s life. (William Shatner, who played Captain Kirk, is also Jewish, though less directly connected to his faith.)
Leonard was born into a Yiddish-speaking, kosher—and I mean three-sets-of-dishes-kosher—Orthodox Jewish household on Chambers Street in Boston. He shared his small apartment with his older brother, his parents, and his Bubbe and Zayde. Three generations, four rooms.
When he brought his dad lunch and the Forverts at the family barbershop, he only had to walk three blocks. The shul was at the end of his street. Later the family attended a different synagogue, and although Leonard never discovered the dispute that led to the change, he loved to tell the joke about the Jew who was saved from a desert island, and proudly showed his rescuers the two shuls he’d built: one to attend and one he wouldn’t enter for a million bucks.
One Rosh Hashanah, when Leonard was eight years old, he accompanied his father to services. He was fascinated as a bunch of men went to the bima, orpulpit, and started chanting and swaying.
He was instructed, as tradition dictates, to cover his eyes during the Priestly Blessing.
But Leonard was an eight-year-old boy, and he couldn’t help peeking. He watched the men pull their prayer shawls over their heads, as their chants got louder. He watched them bless the congregation as they raised both arms in the air and held out their hands “as if they were shooting a two-handed jump shot. What were they doing with their fingers?”
At age seventeen, Leonard fell in love with theater when he was asked to be in a local production of Awake and Sing by the playwright Clifford Odets. It was about three generations of a poor Jewish family who lived together in one small apartment, and the director needed someone to play the part of the teenage son who yearned for a better life. “Lenny read the play,” I describe in my new children’s biography, Fascinating: The Life of Leonard Nimoy. “Could the author have known the Nimoys? How did Mr. Odets understand what Lenny was thinking—thoughts he hadn’t shared with anyone?”
When he started out as a professional actor, Leonard played in a production of Sholom Aleichem's It's Hard to Be a Jew at Hollywood's Civic Theatre, with the great Yiddish actor and director Maurice Schwartz. Leonard would later go on to tour the country as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, as well as playing Golda Meir’s husband in A Woman Name Golda and Holocaust survivor Mel Mermelstein in Never Forget.
As established a thespian as he already was at the time, it was in Star Trek’s second season, when the Enterprise visited the planet Vulcan for the first time, that Leonard’s most lasting contribution to American culture occurred. The script told Spock to shake hands with the Vulcan queen, but Leonard wanted to have a special greeting. “Asians bow when they meet,” he told the director, “and military men salute.”
“And how do Vulcans greet each other?” he was asked.
Leonard thought for a while, and then he remembered that awesome moment during High Holiday services when he was eight years old. He held up his hand in the ancient Hebraic gesture and blessed his fellow actors.
✷Live Long and Prosper.✷
Richard Michelson is the author of many acclaimed books for adults and children. His work has earned a Sydney Taylor Gold Medal and National Jewish Book Award recognition. Richard lives with his wife in Amherst, Massachusetts, and is the proprietor of R. Michelson Galleries.
- Gavriel Savit: It's Hardly Peeking If There's Nothing in the Way
- Matthew Kressel: Surviving Leonard Nimoy's Superhuman Salute
- Helene Wecker: The Most Jewish Thing I Do