How anti-Semitism Led Shatner and Nimoy to Boldly Go to Hollywood

In his new book, 'Leonard: My Fifty-Year Friendship with a Remarkable Man' William Shatner recounts his complex relationship with 'Star Trek' costar Leonard Nimoy, a fellow offspring of Jews who fled Eastern Europe.

Leonard Nimoy (left) and William Shatner in "Star Trek," in 1968.
Wikimedia Commons

“Leonard: My Fifty-Year Friendship with a Remarkable Man,” by William Shatner (with David Fisher), Thomas Dunne Books, 288 pp., $25.99

At the helm of the Starship Enterprise were two Jews: William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. Coincidence brought them together as actors, but they shared the same history as descendants of Jews who fled Eastern Europe to escape anti-Semitism and find a better life in North America.

Nimoy’s parents originated from the village of Iziaslav in Ukraine. His grandparents had been smuggled out of the nascent Soviet Union, hidden under bales of hay in the back of a wagon, before travelling to America; his parents left the Ukraine separately and reunited in the United States, settling in Boston. Shatner’s family also came from Ukraine, as well as Lithuania and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, ending up in Montreal.

Shatner and Nimoy were born four days apart in March 1931, growing up in the west ends of their respective cities. They both lived in kosher homes, with three sets of dishes, presumably one meat, one milk and one for Passover, and they both were “called all the anti-Semitic names,” Shatner writes in his appreciation of Nimoy, a long-time friend with whom he had a falling out that was never resolved before Nimoy’s death in 2015. “Experiences like that create a sort of subtext, and as we got to know each other, those common experiences helped bind us together. It’s almost an emotional shorthand.”

Shatner’s father spoke Yiddish, but he didn’t. By contrast, Nimoy’s grandparents (and presumably his parents, although Shatner doesn’t say) spoke Yiddish and he became quite fluent in it, loving the sound of the language and its colorful insults. He could recite Hamlet in Yiddish, “Zayn oder nit zayn? Ot vos s’iz di frage” (“To be or not to be, that is the question”).

Worried that he was losing his facility for the language, Nimoy even sought out a Yiddish-speaking psychiatrist in New York just so he could sit and speak Yiddish with him for an hour. He acted in Sholem Aleichem’s comedy "It’s Hard to Be a Jew." Ironically, the wife of the producer said that he looked too much like a gentile to be a Jew, but when he responded in perfect Yiddish he got cast – as the gentile – and had to dye his hair blond to look the part.

Spock and Kirk.

Shatner details Nimoy’s career and how his Jewishness lay at the heart of it, particularly in the evolution of the character of Mr. Spock. Some of this overlaps with Nimoy’s own 1995 biography “I Am Spock.” According to "Star Trek" creator, the non-Jewish Gene Roddenberry, Spock was to be “the representative of an intelligent society” and “the conscience of 'Star Trek,'” both pillars of the Jewish self-image. Furthermore, as a half-human and half-alien Vulcan, Spock was not comfortable in either world, reflecting the Jewish Diaspora experience. As Shatner puts it, “Spock wasn’t simply an alien – he was alienated; the product of two very different civilizations, he didn’t fit comfortably anywhere.”

Beyond that, however, Roddenberry had not developed the character and Nimoy was given free rein to pour himself into Mr. Spock. As "Star Trek" casting director Joe D’Agosta recalled, “The whole character, other than the physicality that was described by Gene [Roddenberry], was created by Leonard. He embodied that character with its essence.”

Nimoy drew upon his own immigrant experiences growing up in Boston, explaining, “I knew what it meant to be a member of a minority, in some instances an outcast minority. I understood that aspect of the character well enough to play it. Coming from my background, growing up in a neighborhood of immigrants trying to assimilate into modern American society, believe me, I understood that deep sense of not really belonging anywhere.”

As Nimoy drily noted, his ancestors had arrived in America as aliens and then he went to Hollywood to become one.

Leonard Nimoy at the Los Angeles premiere of "Star Trek" held at the Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood on April 30, 2009.
© Starstock | Dreamstime.com

Based entirely on Shatner’s account, initially Spock’s skin was tinted a reddish color, supposedly to suggest a Martian heritage. But when it was tested on black-and-white sets, he looked black. Then a Max Factor makeup called “Chinese Yellow” was substituted to give his skin a slightly yellowish tone, just enough to emphasize that Spock was not Caucasian.

Consequently, many minorities empathized with Spock and identified him as one of their own. A young biracial girl wrote to Spock through a fan magazine: “I know that you are half Vulcan and half human and you have suffered because of this. My mother is Negro and my father is white and I am told this makes me a half-breed The Negroes don’t like me because I don’t look like them, the white kids don’t like me because I don’t exactly look like them either. I guess I’ll never have any friends.”

Nimoy was so moved by the letter that he responded to her, as Spock, in the following issue of the magazine. He told her that Spock, “replaced the idea of wanting to be liked with the idea of becoming accomplished. Instead of being interested in being popular, he became interested in being intelligent. And instead of wanting to be powerful, he became interested in being useful.”

Beneath the tinted surface, his Jewishness remained, as if embracing Kafka’s use of Orientalism as a means to code the Jewish condition.

Shatner also recounts the by now well-known story that the Vulcan greeting was based on the Cohanic hand gesture, performed during the priestly blessing, which Nimoy had witnessed as an 8-year-old boy in synagogue. This greeting has become so widely recognized as Vulcan that even Senator Barack Obama greeted Nimoy with it at a pre-presidential fundraiser in 2007. (He repeated the gesture in the Oval Office in 2012 when visited by actress Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura on the show.)

Leonard Nimoy (left) and William Shatner
Paul Camuso

Previously unbeknownst to me, another Jew was present on the bridge of the Enterprise. Walter Koenig starred as the Russian-accented navigator Pavel Chekov. Koenig’s parents were Russian Jews who had emigrated from Lithuania. He had spent 20 years playing a Russian, but had never uttered a single line in that language while doing so. When Nimoy, as director of "Star Trek III: The Search for Spock" (1984) gave him the chance to do so, Koenig leaped at the opportunity to pay tribute to his parents as well as his own heritage. If Koenig poured any of his Jewishness into Chekov, Shatner doesn’t say.

"Star Trek" was not afraid to tackle the issues of the 1960s. Being set 300 years in the future allowed it to address such topical topics as civil rights or the Holocaust without attracting too much ire. Some of this must have surely emanated from Nimoy, who was active in various political and countercultural causes, including anti-war demonstrations, “love-ins,” and supporting peace candidates like Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern, during that decade.

In an attempt to distance himself from Spock, Nimoy also played other Jewish characters during his career, including Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof," Fagin in "Oliver," Golda Meir’s husband, Morris Meyerson, in the TV movie "A Woman Called Golda," and Goldman in Robert Shaw’s "The Man in the Glass Booth." Nimoy would joke that while his parents never quite understood "Star Trek," at least he was working. But "Fiddler' they understood.

Off screen, Nimoy would produce a series of photographs exploring Judaism and femininity and the concept of the Shekhina. The photographs, some showing naked women wearing tefillin, were published as a book in 2002. It was part of his attempt to revitalize his religiousness when he felt that he was just going through the motions. Shatner glibly explains, “It was as if Leonard was exploring his Jewish roots.” But then he had always been.

While acting in "It’s Hard to be a Jew," Nimoy met and then married Jewish actress Sandi Zober. When they divorced, he married another Jewish woman, Susan Bay, whose cousin is the director Michael Bay, which led to Nimoy being cast in two "Transformers" films, as Galvatron and Sentinel Prime, respectively. Did he invest these characters with the same background as he did Spock, I wonder?

Disappointingly, Shatner is much more guarded about his own Judaism and Jewishness. He grew up in a kosher household, his sisters maintained kosher homes, yet he abandoned kashrut. Nevertheless, he enjoyed sitting in synagogue with Nimoy on the High Holy Days and in 1956 married Jewish actress Gloria Rand (née Rosenberg). Shatner describes his faith as being more spiritual than religious: “I’m probably more attached to the energies of various places on earth than with the singular God who wrote the Bible.”

Shatner says little else about his own practice, preferring to deflect attention onto Nimoy. In comparison to himself, he writes, “Leonard retained a much closer relationship to his roots.”

When Nimoy's father, referring to the Holocaust, said softly, “They’re killing Jews” (which included distant family members), it made an impression: “There was a real feeling among all the Jews: That could have been me. For kids the age of Leonard and me, that had a strong impact.”

As Shatner explains, “what it came down to was that Jews were on their own, they were different, and I suspect Leonard felt that at least as much as I did. It was part of our shared heritage.”

Beyond that, however, we do not find out its impact later in life except that Shatner acted in the 1961 Holocaust film "Judgement in Nuremberg." There were Holocaust storylines in "Star Trek," but Shatner doesn’t elaborate upon this; nor does he make the connection between Nimoy’s passion for social and political causes and the Shoah. This is a surprising omission. Where even such guarded Jews as Stanley Kubrick (b. 1928) broached the topic, Shatner refuses to here.

And where Shatner details much about how Nimoy developed Spock, he says little about how the character of James T. Kirk evolved. He notes that Tiberius was a Roman emperor but fails to note it is also a city in Israel named after that same emperor. Did Shatner embody Kirk with the same Jewishness that inspired Nimoy’s Spock? Or did he prefer to bury it beneath Kirk’s seemingly all-American name and character? If there is a story to be told here, perhaps he is saving this information for a future volume.

Ultimately, this is a celebrity autobiography of the friendship between William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. It details the ups and downs of their relationship over the course of five decades, including their rift, but because Shatner never fully understood how it began, he is unable to provide any significant detail other than the pain he felt at losing his friend. Still, fans of the original "Star Trek" television series and spin-off movies, and Jews interested in celebrity Jews, will find this book, in Spock’s memorable word, “fascinating.”