|Leonard Nimoy, at the 2011 Phoenix Comicon in Phoenix, Ariz., gives his Vulcan hand gesture. Gage Skidmore|
Leonard Nimoy says there is a “strong strain of Judaism” in everything he does, including his famous on-screen hand gestures.
Best known for his character Mr. Spock in the “Star Trek” television show and movies, most recently in his cameo as Spock Prime in this year’s blockbuster “Star Trek Into Darkness,” Nimoy’s Vulcan hand gesture comes from an experience he had at synagogue when he was 8 years old.
Nimoy’s father told him not to look as worshippers averted their eyes during blessings recited by the kohanim.
“The men were chanting, shouting, and praying in an Orthodox service,” Nimoy said. “It was very passionate, very theatrical. I was chilled by the whole thing.”
Years later, on the set of the “Star Trek” television show, Nimoy suggested to the director that Vulcans should offer some gesture in greeting other Vulcans.
“The director asked me what I had in mind, and I suggested the gesture used by the kohanim,” Nimoy said. It went on to be accompanied by the expression “live long and prosper.”
Nimoy, 82, was born in Boston to Yiddish-speaking Orthodox Jews from Ukraine. He said that he grew up “in a very Jewish environment and was bar mitzvahed appropriately when I was 13.
“The neighborhood I grew up in had several synagogues, and I sang in the choirs for the High Holidays,” he said. His Jewish identity “is a presence that I do not deny and do not want to deny. It is a valuable resource for me, and a valuable part of my consciousness.”
In 1997, Nimoy narrated the documentary “A Life Apart: chasidism in America, ” and in 2002, he published “The Shekhina Project,” a photographic study inspired by Kabbalah.
According to Rich Michelson, owner of the Northampton, Mass.-based R. Michelson Galleries, the best art often opens up a societal debate – and Michelson believes the “Shekhina Project” certainly did that.
A feminine word in Hebrew, Shekhina is the Talmudic term for the dwelling or settling of God’s divine presence on Earth. Over time, the concept of Shekhina evolved in progressive Jewish circles into a softer, empathetic feminine aspect to God, who could argue for humanity’s sake, comfort the poor and sick, and stand as the mother of Israel.
Nimoy’s “depiction of women – some wearing t’fillin and nothing else – as the essence of the feminine manifestation of God struck some as revolutionary and others as salacious,” Michelson said. “The response in our gallery was overwhelmingly positive, as it was in most venues where we toured the exhibit. There were some synagogues that refused to show the work, and others that canceled Mr. Nimoy’s speaking engagements, but in almost all cases, another synagogue was happy to step in and host the exhibit.”
Nimoy has a long list of activities that have to do with his Judaism.
“I surprised a lot of people by playing Tevye in ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ in 1971 on an eight-week eastern tour that was very successful,” he said.
Antioch University presented Nimoy with an honorary doctorate of humane letters, awarded in great part because of his activism in Holocaust remembrance.
Nimoy produced and starred in a television movie called “Never Forget.” The 1991 film is a dramatization of the story of a Holocaust survivor, Mel Mermelstein, who confronted a Holocaust denial organization’s lies in court.
“Mermelstein’s family was taken into Auschwitz during the second World War,” Nimoy said. “His siblings and parents were killed. He won his lawsuit, but more importantly, the subject of the Holocaust went into American law for the first time in 1979. It became a legal fact.”
Barbara Gellman-Danley of Antioch said that Nimoy’s fame never got in the way of his commitment to social justice causes.
“Indeed, he worked in key symbolism of his own faith into his character as Mr. Spock,” Gellman-Danley said. “I recall he was very committed to organizations, museums and affiliated projects that reflected his own value system. He is a consummate artist – performing, writing and through beautiful photography. I found Mr. Nimoy to be a very caring, deep and committed man who is leading a measurably purposeful life.”
Nimoy’s portrayal of Mr. Spock in “Star Trek” earned him iconic status as well as three Emmy nominations. But aside from his many credits as an actor and director, Nimoy also is a successful recording artist and author; he published two autobiographies as well as several volumes of poetry, two of which also feature his photographs. His photographs are in the collections of many major museums, including the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the Judah L. Magnes Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Jewish Museum of New York, the New Orleans Museum of Fine Art, and the Hammer Museum.
“I just produced a collection called ‘Eye Contact’ of 25 fine art prints,” Nimoy said. “The concept is that there is no eye contact with the models in the photographs. It has to do with the issues of privacy, neutrality, modesty, and voyeurism.”
At Michelson’s website, www.Rmichelson.com, viewers can see Nimoy’s work and note his rising stature as a major contemporary American photographer.
“There is no doubt that Nimoy will always be identified foremost with Mr. Spock,” Michelson said. “But he is no dilettante with the camera.”
Mr. Spock, created in 1966, is Nimoy’s most enduring character. It became iconic as “Star Trek” branched off into syndication and later onto the big screen as a series of six feature films. “I admire Spock, and I enjoy being identified with this very interesting character,” Nimoy said.
“Spock claims to be other than human but he’s a terribly human character,” he added. “That’s what makes him so attractive. People understand him and identify with him. His dilemma is a human dilemma. Particularly for young people. Teenagers really understand what Spock is dealing with, which is finding the proper balance between logic and emotion.”