Remembering Leonard Nimoy, A Serious Jew

I can only imagine that, after everything I’ve written the past few weeks about Bibi, Barack, and the “Situation,” and having just come back from the AIPAC Policy Conference, you might expect me to write about all that … And you’d be completely justified in assuming that I would.

But the truth is that I am so “full” of that situation right now, so completely saturated with the issues and personalities involved, that what I really need, more than to write about it, is to take a step back and think about it instead. There is so much that needs to be said, but with just a bit of time and the opportunity to reflect, I will hope that what ultimately comes out might be more reasoned and helpful than if I tried to write it now.

So instead, I’d like to use this opportunity to reflect briefly on the life and work of Leonard Nimoy, who died last week. I had the pleasure to work with him on a number of occasions via the wonderful Jewish holiday recordings of the Western Wind Vocal Ensemble, commissioned by Public Radio International.

I wrote the scripts for a number of these projects, including “Birthday of the World,” a two-CD set on the music and traditions of the High Holidays, “The Chanukkah Story,” and another two-CD set titled “Taste of Eternity,” on the music and traditions of Shabbat. Leonard was the narrator. All were aired on NPR, and I believe still are around holiday time, and they are still available for purchase (not intended as a shameless plug, just a fact).

Meeting Leonard Nimoy for the first time, particularly as a collaborator on a project, was an unanticipated and wonderful experience. Although I had watched my share of Star Trek episodes, I was never the biggest Trekkie in the world. But Leonard was a larger than life figure, and still is, even in death. Working with him was a treat.

It is the rare actor who is able to so inhabit a role that the character he plays essentially takes on a life of his own, but that is exactly what Leonard did with Spock. He took a basically reticent and quirky man, half-human, half-“Vulcan,” and brought him to life in ways that made him an enduring presence in the world of American entertainment. Tone and shading of voice, subtle facial gestures, and every one in a while, just a hint of emotion, side by side with the ever-present commitment to logical thinking, and there you have it. Spock is an iconic character who will endure, long after the person who played him is gone from the stage. Of course, the development of a character and his quirks is as much a reflection on the talent of writers as it is of actors. But it’s virtually impossible to imagine Spock being anyone other than Leonard Nimoy.

But what I came to appreciate about Leonard, and had no idea of whatsoever before working with him, was the powerful connection that he had to Jewish culture in all of its manifestations. Everyone associates him with the priestly hand blessing that he introduced as Spock, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of his interest and involvement in Jewish culture. Beyond the erotic photographs on religious themes that earned him a fair degree of notoriety, he gave voice to some of the finest readings in English translation of Yiddish literature, never shied away from referring to his very traditional upbringing (he was quite conversant in the traditional prayers), and for all intents and purposes was steeped in, and proud of, the culture in which he was raised. He was a serious Jew.

I lay no claim to having been a friend of Leonard’s. We worked together on a number of occasions, that’s all. But to have had the opportunity to hear that sonorous and so-familiar voice read the words that I had written, and have him look to me as a fellow artist, if you will, as opposed to merely someone who wanted his autograph on a picture of Spock (although he appreciated the degree to which people had made his characterization of Spock a part of their frame of reference), meant the world to me. I got to see a true professional at work, and for a few precious moments, work with him. I will always remember those moments, and him, with great fondness.

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.