Leonard Nimoy as Spock Embodied Star Trek's Jewish Undertones

Nimoy, along with William Shatner and the show's first writers, imbued Star Trek with a submerged Jewishness.

Nathan Abrams
Nathan Abrams
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Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk.
Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk.
Nathan Abrams
Nathan Abrams

Actor Leonard Nimoy, who died Friday, is probably best-known for his role in the long-running science fiction television series, Star Trek.

Nimoy played the Vulcan scientist Spock. Nimoy, as well as the show’s first writers, Bob Justman and Herb Solow, and principal actor William Shatner, who played USS Enterprise Captain James Tiberius Kirk, were Jewish. Together they imbued Star Trek with a submerged Jewishness that went over the heads of many. For example, perhaps only Jews would hide their real names behind such goyische ones as James, Tiberius, and Kirk. But then again maybe James was the Anglicization of the Hebrew name Yaakov.

But where Star Trek’s Jewishness really came into its own was with Spock. Despite the seemingly Roman name - which invokes the god of fire, the Vulcans were conceived of as cerebral, pacifist, and intellectual. Certainly, these very characteristics tap into age-old stereotypes of the Jew: bookish, learned, scholarly, and smart.

Leonard Nimoy's character was modeled on the ancient Hebrews. His greeting sign was based on the raising of the hands during the priestly blessing. This invocation of the priestly sign was deliberate, something he remembered from peeking at the priestly blessing in shul when he was a child, though the congregation is meant to look away from those performing priestly blessing.

Spock was also the stereotypical wandering Jew. An alien outsider, he embodied the Jewish diaspora experience. He was the only non-human member of the USS Enterprise crew, emphasizing his role as the alien, “Other,” even among a crew as multicultural as that which appeared in the 1960s. He was marked as different by his physical appearance and logical rationality.

But this was nowhere made explicit in the television series or films and Spock functioned as a symbolic Jew. Indeed, many thought he belonged to another ethnic minority entirely and identified with him on those terms.

Nimoy’s Jewishness manifested itself in other ways, too.

In various episodes, the spectre of the Holocaust was present. In “The City on the Edge of Forever,” Kirk and Spock travel back in time to prevent Nazi Germany from winning the Second World War.

In “The Conscience of the King,” a former dictator responsible for the mass murder of innocents has escaped to a distant planet and reinvented himself as an actor giving Kirk and Spock a Nazi-hunting role.

Perhaps the most developed Nazi analogy occurs in “Patterns of Force.” Kirk and Spock dress up in Nazi-style uniforms to infiltrate a planet called Ekos because it has adopted policies very similar to National Socialism as a means of restoring order to its society. Mimicking the Third Reich, the Ekons have a “Fuhrer” for a leader with soldiers in Brown shirts, patrolling the streets. They describe Nazi Germany as “the most efficient society ever created.”

They refer to their neighbors, the Zeons as “Zeonist pigs,” suggesting parallels with Zion and Zionism. The Ekons have implemented a “final decision” to exterminate the Zeon race who are “poisoning the land.”

At one point Kirk and Spock are captured by the Ekons but they escape by wearing stolen uniforms. Spock wears a German coal-scuttle helmet to hide his pointed ears. Kirk comments that Spock “looks like a very convincing Nazi.” Indeed, it looked so realistic that it was banned in Germany for 43 years.

While Nimoy played many other roles, it is for this iconic, subsurface, Jewish character that he will be remembered.