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What Leonard Nimoy and Spock meant to me as a Jewish conservation biologist

Earlier today, the New York Times reported that actor Leonard Nimoy had died at the age of 83. Coming just two days after the death of Genie Clark, this means that I’ve lost two of my childhood heroes in one week. I’ve already briefly written about what Genie meant to me and to my friends here and here and am quoted here, but Leonard Nimoy’s impact on me  is a little harder to explain. I hope our readers will indulge me in an unusually personal post.

I’ve been a big fan of science fiction, something I’ve always loved sharing with my mother, since I was a kid. A world where science and intellect and technology, not brute force, are used to solve problems holds obvious appeal. To a kid who grew up struggling with some anti-Jewish discrimination, the diversity featured on shows like Star Trek was inspiring. People that were different didn’t have to hide their differences and lay low and try to avoid standing out in a crowd of people different from you, like I did. Not only did the main characters not tease and attack each other because they were different, but this behavior was actively portrayed as a problem on several episodes. The Federation wasn’t successful despite including different cultures and religions and even species, they were successful because of it.  The environmental conservation message in Star Trek plotlines like “the Voyage Home” made a budding young conservation biologist relate to it even more.

 

I had a particularly strong connection to Spock, a smart and nerdy and curious scientist type who sometimes got into trouble because he didn’t really understand how “normal” people expressed emotions and socialized with each other.  Despite his flaws, Spock was a great leader who was both liked and respected by his shipmates, and was instrumental in solving many of the problems that the crew of the Enterprise faced. In short, Spock was the first person  I can ever remember seeing on TV who reminded me of me, but was presented in a positive manner, not as a dweeby antagonist to the popular captain of the football team. As many of you know, my Bar Mitzvah was Star Trek themed.

Later, I learned that not only was Leonard Nimoy Jewish, but he also experienced anti-Semitic discrimination as a kid despite going out of his way to lay low and trying not to be a target. As told in the fantastic book “Stars of David: prominent Jews talk about being Jewish,” ten year old Nimoy was often called a “Jew bastard” and had brutal and nasty anti-Semitic literature placed in his shopping bag when he bought magic tricks from a local store. He not only overcame this to become wildly successful in show business, but his Jewish heritage influenced much of his art. The iconic “live long and prosper” hand salute was based on the Jewish blessing of the Kohanim, for example.

During my first semester here at the University of Miami, I was told that we were going to be taking Gene Roddenberry’s son, who runs a marine conservation nonprofit, to tag sharks with us. Our poor interns had to listen to me talk their ears off about how much Star Trek has meant to me on the whole two hour drive to Islamorada, but Rod was gracious and appreciative despite certainly having heard this before from so many others like me.

The character of Spock is in good hands with Zachary Quinto. Although Quinto was raised Catholic, we share something else in common. Our childhood homes are walking distance apart, and he worked for many years in our neighborhood movie rental store. As for Leonard Nimoy, though I and many others will miss him terribly, he certainly lived long and prospered. Goodbye, sir. I have been, and will always be, inspired and moved by the example you left.