Star Trek is probably one of the first nerdy shows that I ever experienced. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t watching the Star Trek original series (TOS). I remember, specifically, asking my father why Spock wasn’t captain instead of Kirk. It was probably very obvious from my father’s perspective that I had a little bit of a crush on the dashing and mysterious Vulcan as a child. But mostly I remember when I was a little older, sitting at the dinner table with my mother, and she would tell me all she knew about Star Trek. Like me, my mother was fascinated with the Vulcans, and Spock in particular. She told me about little details she loved seeing in the TV shows and the movies, and she would tell me about the stories in the Trek novels she had read that expanded on Spock’s past and on Vulcan culture. My mom recently passed away this past October after a terrible battle with breast cancer. She was a big nerd like me and she is probably at least partly the reason I am taking the recent death of Leonard Nimoy so hard.
It seems silly, I guess, to truly grieve over the death of a man that I have never, and will never, know. But when I heard about Leonard Nimoy’s passing at work, I felt nearly overwhelmed with grief. His character had felt like a part of my family. Star Trek and Spock were some of the primary ways that I developed a relationship with my mother, and I recently started re-watching TOS in order to feel some connection with my mother again. So for me, his death is extremely personal.
My personal feelings aside, that is the not the only reason I want to honor Leonard Nimoy today. There are many celebrities out there that we, as geeks, love, but sadly we know the celebrities we love are not always the best people.Though I don’t know if Nimoy was perfect (none of us are, really) in many ways Leonard Nimoy was probably one of best examples of an intersectional feminist in our geek culture. It’s his great advocacy for all human rights that I want to honor today.
Leonard Nimoy was born in Boston on March 26, 1931, and was the second son of Max and Dora Nimoy, Ukrainian immigrants and Orthodox Jews. Because of his Jewish background, Nimoy was staunchly against anti-Semitism and incorporated Jewish elements into Spock’s character. Most people today know that the Vulcan salute is actually a Jewish symbol of blessing, protection, peace, spirituality, and Godliness. Leonard Nimoy described how, during a service at the synagogue, the kohanim, descendants of the temple priests, bless the congregation using this hand gesture. Members of the community were not allowed to look at this symbol because during the blessing the kohanim represented the presence of God. Well, as a child, Leonard Nimoy peeked, became fascinated by the gesture, and later used it as the Vulcan greeting in Star Trek.
Nimoy later discussed how his own Jewish background and experience with anti-Semitism influenced how he played Spock’s character.
Spock is an alien, wherever he is. Because he’s not human. He’s not Vulcan. He’s half and half — what we used to call a half-breed. … He’s not totally accepted in the Vulcan culture because he’s not totally Vulcan. Certainly not totally accepted in the human culture because he’s part Vulcan. And that alienation was something I learned in Boston. I knew what it meant to be a member of a minority — and in some cases, an outcast minority. So I understood that aspect of the character, and I think it was helpful in playing him.
Sadly though, there is no indication in Trek canon that Spock has any Jewish ancestry on his mother’s side of the family (to my knowledge). However, in the novel Strangers from the Sky by Margaret Wander Bonnan, Amanda Grayson (Spock’s mother)’s great-great grandfather mentions that his wife Dora (who was presumably named for Nimoy’s own mother) was Jewish. Though it’s never confirmed in canon, I like to think that Amanda was still a devout Jewish woman who taught Spock about her faith and her heritage.
A man after my own heart, in 2002 Nimoy would combine his feminism and his love for his faith to create a book of photographs called Shekhina, which focused on femininity within Judaism. Nimoy was later criticized for only using skinny and stereotypically attractive models in his book. He agreed that this was an issue and decided to up his feminist game by publishing The Full Body Project in 2007. The idea behind the work was to showcase what the average American woman looked like and to specifically go against the fantasy female body type perpetuated by the media.
Leonard Nimoy was also an ally of people of color. In a recent interview Nimoy described how he discovered that Nichelle Nichols was not receiving the same pay as her fellow Star Trek cast members. He proceeded to advocate for Nichols and took the issue to those in charge to make sure she was paid an equal wage. Perhaps my favorite story, though, is one I just learned recently, about a young biracial girl who wrote to a teen magazine called FAVE. She addressed her letter to Mr. Spock, asking him how he dealt with being biracial and receiving hate from both sides. Nimoy responded by telling the young girl to be herself and described how Spock dealt with prejudice when he was young. You can read the whole response here.
On top of all this Leonard Nimoy was also an LGBTQ+ ally. Star Trek already has the distinction of being the source material that led to the first slash pairing, Kirk/Spock, but while the show/movies have not given us any queer characters it has given us several great allies. Nimoy was close friends with both George Takei and Zachary Quinto, both of whom identify as gay; he often spoke about the rights of LGBTQ+ people and was a strong supporter of marriage equality.
Leonard Nimoy was a great actor, poet, photographer, director, and an amazing intersectional feminist. As an adult he has inspired me to be both a better geek and a greater advocate for social change. And though it is hardly the most noteworthy thing I have mentioned here, as a child his character gave my mother and I something to bond over, a means to grow closer to one another, for the short time that we had left. When my mother passed away, I hated hearing everyone tell me “I’m so sorry for your loss,” and “If there is anything I can do to help, let me know.” Those words are meant to be sweet and comforting, but it’s more a reflection of how people don’t know what to say when someone dies. After all, why should they be sorry? They didn’t do anything, and offers to help are only so meaningful when the only thing you want is for the loved one who died to be returned to you. In the antiquated Vulcan language, when emotions were still acknowledged, there is a phrase used specifically for those who are grieving. I remember feeling that the phrase was much more apt and heartfelt then the ones that we used. When I was standing in the funeral home, greeting the people who came to pay respects to my mother, I remember wishing that someone would say that phrase to me. So, to the family and friends of Mr. Leonard Nimoy, I wish to say, “I grieve with thee.” And I’m sure all of us in the geek and social justice communities feel the same.
Live Long and Prosper.