On Media / Pop Culcha

Jewish World Review Sept. 21, 1999/ 11 Tishrei, 5760

Robert Leiter

Spock's spectacular voyage

LEONARD NIMOY'S day of reckoning came earlier this year.

The actor, famous for his role as Spock on the classic TV show "Star Trek," began being invited to Star Trek conventions in Germany repeatedly in the mid-1990s - and just as repeatedly had refused to go. In a personal essay published in the current issue of Reform Judaism, he tells of how he had been "intentionally rude," throwing the invitations in the trash and not looking back.

But then he began hearing from Star Trek colleagues about the crowds that appeared at these gatherings, and how animated they were. His curiosity was peaked. But that didn't yet completely dispel the ambivalence he felt about going to the homeland of the Nazis.


This personal struggle with things German didn't just crop up in Nimoy's life. Nor had he avoided going to Germany altogether. He took a business trip there in 1985 when he was asked by his studio to help promote one of the Star Trek films, his first effort as a director.

Nimoy's appearances in Germany clearly helped the film, he says in the article, but his emotional baggage stayed fairly intact. During a break from work one day, he and his wife took a tour of Munich conducted by a young woman conversant with the history of the area.

"Here you can see," she said pointing up to the architecture, "where some of the buildings have been reconstructed on top -- such a shame. So much damage from the war -- a shame for these beautiful buildings."

Notes Nimoy: "I took this away with me as a testament, a proof that my feelings were valid. Her sadness for the bricks and mortar made me ill. I bit my tongue."

Leiters Sukkah

But last year when his curiosity was aroused by the descriptions of the Star Trek conventions he decided to discuss his long-held ambivalence with his wife's cousin John Rosove, who is also the couple's rabbi at Temple Israel in Hollywood.

Rosove asked if Nimoy thought that young German fans knew he was Jewish and that he had introduced the Vulcan hand salute from watching the kohanim (the priestly descendants of Aaron) at synagogue services.

Nimoy said he thought it could only be a small number.

"If you were to go and tell the story and identify as a Jew, it might have a profound effect," the rabbi said. "It might be a transforming experience for some of those young people to discover that this person whom they admire is Jewish."

Nimoy almost immediately made arrangements to attend a convention in Bonn set for May of last year. The actor had his whole presentation carefully planned before he left, but several technical glitches meant that the question-and-answer period came sooner than expected. Someone eventually asked about the origins of the Vulcan salute, and though Nimoy didn't want to get ahead of himself he couldn't avoid telling the tale. When he finished, the applause was deafening.

Nimoy writes: "How could I have so miscalculated? How could my expectations have been so far afield from the reality I encountered? Could this indeed be a new Germany? After all, this audience ranged from teenage to mid-50s, essentially a post-World War II generation. Could I have prejudged them on a false assumption? In any case, it was I who felt transformed."

No one would deny the genuineness of Nimoy's experience, but perhaps his ambivalence shouldn't have deserted him so quickly. What is appealing about his article is that it is not writerly in any way; it represents an individual conveying his experience in an honest manner, unmediated by the technique of art. But what might be nice to see is a follow-up, perhaps a few months down the road, when the roar of the applause has faded a bit more from Nimoy's ears.

Not that change doesn't happen, even in Germany; but lets just say that dealing with make-believe Jews and symbolism is a lot easier than dealing with real live ones, day in and day out.

Robert Leiter is Literary Editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent.

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4/29/99: To tell the truth
3/17/99: Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder


©1999 Robert Leiter