In the days before cable TV, the Internet–VHS and DVDs, for that matter–I couldn’t miss the weekly hour on network TV with Mr. Spock and the crew of the starship Enterprise for fear that once gone, the loss would be irretrievable. My parents restricted our TV time to 30 minutes on weeknights, so my brother and I pooled our time and watched the 1-hour Star Trek together.
It’s hard to explain to people what the original Star Trek and the character of Mr. Spock meant to me when I was a kid. I didn’t have onerous challenges to surmount –I was a middle-class white kid with well-educated parents and much love. No, what made me feel like an outsider was pretty much being Jewish in Yonkers, NY, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with parents who gave me piano and violin lessons and as many books as I wanted to read. It was a time when (and few people believe me when I say this) each Wednesday afternoon, the entire public elementary school I attended was released from school to attend “religious instruction” at a nearby church. I should amend that statement to, “the entire public school except for 3 kids (2 Jewish girls and one Chinese-American girl), who remained behind to clap erasers together, clean the desks, and wash the chalkboards with the teachers. The next day when the kids came back to school, they’d sometimes talk about what they learned in “Religion” and it was certainly a source of wonder for me to ponder, or decode, the puzzling imagery their words produced: crosses, ascension to Heaven. The downside to what they learned “in Religion” was the occasional remark about Jews killing Jesus Christ or the called-out chorus of “Jew! Jew!” during cafeteria food fights. This was likely the beginning of a life-long predisposition toward alienation from larger groups I might have otherwise been part of.
So Mr. Spock and the multicultural/multigender crew of the USS Enterprise was a revelation to me. I’m not the first one to say that, obviously. The actress Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhuru, tells of being contacted by Martin Luther King, who begged her not to leave the show because her prominent presence on the crew (albeit as a glorified telephone operator) meant so much to the African American community, who rarely saw an African American actor who was not playing a maid or slave. No one said it, but Mr. Spock was obviously a Jew as far as I was concerned. The big ears were instead of a big nose (yes, a stereotype but…), his heart being in the wrong place, his blood being a different chemistry, these were ways to codify Spock in fact being “OTHER”: Jewish, bookish and intellectual (“logical”) in the less-than-brainy environment I found myself growing up in.
Years later Mr. Spock’s Judaism was confirmed for me when I read that Leonard Nimoy had himself added the now-famous V-shaped hand signal he made when saying, “Live long and prosper!” Apparently, when he was a small boy he had seen the rabbi gesticulate this way with both hands toward turned backs of the assembled synagogue congregation while he blessed the Torahs in the arc behind him. And what about Mr. Spock’s parents–one Vulcan, the other an Earthling–the two cultures at war within him, making it hard for him to feel fully identified with either half (which is how I felt). If one needed any further evidence that Spock was a Jew, it was easily found in the episode called “Amok Time,” when Spock returns to his home planet for a mating ritual that is presided over by the matriarch T’Pau, who is perhaps best described as the world’s biggest-ever Jewish Bubbe (grandma).
Nowadays kids like me would “find community” on the Internet, would discover like-minded people in far flung places who could be united online because they have common interests, concerns, beliefs, and shared weirdness. We didn’t have that in 1968 or 1970. We had to find community in some really bizarre ways. My way was Mr. Spock.
When Leonard Nimoy died today, my son sent me a tweet from a woman my age who said she carried Spock’s picture around in her notebook when she was a kid. “Helped me a lot as I was a kid not like the others,” she tweeted. “I remember knocking on a neighbor’s door one evening when our TV wasn’t working. It was SO important to me.”
Farewell, Mr. Spock, and Leonard Nimoy. You did live long, prosper, and make a lot of people feel less weird and alone.