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Lived long and prosperedLived long and prospered

Kirk and Spock bonded over real life anti-Semitism

In a new book, William Shatner says his longtime friend and colleague Leonard Nimoy was profoundly affected by anti-Jewish sentiment

Leonard Nimoy (left) and William Shatner in a 'Star Trek' poster, 1968 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Leonard Nimoy (left) and William Shatner in a 'Star Trek' poster, 1968 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The two Jewish stars of the original Star Trek series, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, bonded over shared experiences of anti-Semitism, helping the two actors forge a decades-long friendship, Shatner says in his upcoming book.

In Leonard: My Fifty-Year Friendship with a Remarkable man, Shatner, better known as James Tiberius Kirk, captain of the Starship Enterprise, recalls his friendship with co-star Nimoy, who played the show’s Mr. Spock.

Both born to Orthodox Jewish families who had fled a pogrom-plagued Eastern Europe and whose first language was Yiddish, Shatner says growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust in North America and experiencing anti-Semitism was part of their “shared heritage” as Jews.

“Both Leonard and I got called nasty anti-Semitic names. Experiences like that create a sort of subtext, and as we got to know each other, those common experiences helped bind us together. Its almost an emotional shorthand,” Shatner writes.

Shatner said learning of the atrocities taking place against Jews in Nazi Germany had a profound impact on Nimoy’s life and career.

Leonard Nimoy as 'Spock' (photo credit: Startrek.com)
Leonard Nimoy as ‘Spock’ (photo credit: Startrek.com)

“Killing Jews meant the Jews of Europe, in many cases our distant family members. There was a real feeling among all the Jews: that could have been me,” Shatner recalls. “For kids the age of Leonard and me, that had a strong impact.”

“But what it came down to was that Jews were on their own, they were different, and I suspect Leonard felt that at least as much as I did, Shatner writes. “It was part of our shared heritage.”

Leonard: My Fifty-Year Friendship with a Remarkable Man, by William Shatner
Leonard: My Fifty-Year Friendship with a Remarkable Man, by William Shatner

Shatner says Nimoy’s road to success was particularly difficult since he defied his father’s wishes by forgoing college and moving to California to pursue a career in acting.

As one of the few young men to speak fluent Yiddish in Hollywood, Nimoy picked up a few dollars in minor roles whenever a Yiddish theater troupe came to town.

“Leonard Nimoy was the only man I have ever known who could perform Shakespeare in Yiddish; he could make you appreciate the beauty even if you didn’t understand a word beyond Oy gevalt, Hamelt,” Shatner says.

William Shatner (Keith McDuffee/Flickr)
William Shatner (Keith McDuffee/Flickr)

After several years of working as a vacuum cleaner salesman, Nimoy gradually found more roles in the movies and theater, but the milestone event in Nimoy’s career came in 1965 when he was cast as Spock in what would become the enormously successful “Star Trek” TV series and subsequent motion pictures.

In a 1991 interview with Tom Tugend, Nimoy said that “everything I do is informed by my Judaism. A lot of what I’ve put into Spock came to me through my Jewish orientation.”

Nimoy said he based the famous Vulcan hand greeting, which expresses “Live long and prosper,” on the gesture still seen in Orthodox synagogues during the blessing of the kohanim (priestly class).

Shatner’s new book, whose publication coincides with the first anniversary of Nimoy’s death, also recalls the later, more tumultuous years of their friendship.

The friendship was sadly shattered in the last few years of Nimoy’s life over a small incident and Nimoy never spoke to Shatner, now 84, again.

“It is something I will wonder about and regret forever. He was my closest friend in the world,” Shatner writes.

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