5 ways Jewish culture shaped ‘Star Trek,’ from Gates of Heaven


SCHENECTADY — A week of bitter weather and wild winds made binge-watching an iconic TV series a tempting pastime.

Congregation Gates of Heaven’s Arnold Rotenberg, the synagogue’s director of congregational Jewish living, hosted about two dozen “Star Trek” fans for a Zoom  exploration of how Jewish culture shaped the 1966-69 series that became a pop culture phenomenon.

“Star Trek” counted Martin Luther King Jr., Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and endless astronauts, astronomers and NASA engineers as fans. The series had a magical hold despite cardboard props and scripts that occasionally dipped into sermonizing.

But it was a civil rights and feminist inspiration. Sure, the bosomy female officers wore silly micro-minis as a uniform. But they were greeting aliens on distant worlds, navigating the stars and collecting moon rocks right beside the men.

“Star Trek” aired as Black Americans faced violent resistance all over the South for trying to vote and the Vietnam War had no end in sight. But the crew on the U.S.S. Enterprise showed Black, Asian American and white officers working together and forging friendships in a galaxy where war was an anomaly.

As Rotenberg observed, many of the scriptwriters and the two lead actors were Jewish and their heritage helped shape many of the show’s themes and its dream of a better future than the present turmoil.

Here are some of the influences Rotenberg spotted — with some supplemental research by a Trekkie attendee:

1. Leonard Nimoy, who played the Vulcan named Mr. Spock, and William Shatner, ship captain and ladies’ man James T. Kirk, were both sons of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants and grew up in kosher homes where Yiddish was spoken. Nimoy was so fluent and savored the language so much, he appeared onstage in Yiddish theater productions. In a book that paid tribute to their friendship, Shatner said they both were confronted with anti-Semitic insults and slurs as children and teenagers.

2. Spock’s Vulcan salute was a gesture Nimoy remembered from a Jewish prayer blessing he participated in as a child.

In Congregation Berith Sholom on Third Street in Troy,  visitors often ask to see the “Spock window.” They are referring to a stained glass depiction of a pair of hands in what looks like the Vulcan salute but is actually that blessing.

3. “Star Trek” writers worried about how Jewish Enterprise crew members could get in-flight kosher meals. And rabbis actually debated this and concluded that food made in the spaceship’s replicator is always kosher. Because the replicator fabricates all food from pure energy, everything, even a pork chop, would be kosher.

LeoLamvaed.com is a popular site about how the Talmud and Jewish jurisprudence would answer questions posed by sci-fi novels, comics and fantasy fiction. He has a detailed posting on the replicator’s kosher food: “The fact that the final product is designed to look and taste like a forbidden product (pork) does not make it actually forbidden. What matters is the origin of the item you are eating.” There is no pig, he notes, only pure energy, producing a “Star Trek” pork chop.

4. “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry was not Jewish. He was a World War II veteran who would never forget the horrors of the Holocaust— and fascism’s creepy allure to some who feel desperate and marginalized. In the episode “Patterns of Force,” a professor— apparently the stupidest on Earth — tries to unite an alien planet by introducing Nazism.

It may sound preposterous. But the SS uniforms and plot about mass slaughter were too disturbing for Germany. The episode was banned from German TV until 1996.

5. Nimoy believed that “Star Trek” reflected “tikkun olam,” the Jewish obligation to repair the world. Nightly news of Black Americans being beaten and killed for protesting racist barriers to jobs, education and voting made it clear how badly repairs were needed.

In “Star Trek’s” distant future, beautiful, brave, brainy Lt. Nyota Uhura — a Black female officer — was on the ship’s bridge and a crucial officer on planetary missions. But the show was paying her less than the two male actors playing an ensign and a lieutenant commander — until Nimoy demanded pay equity for her. In her autobiography, “Beyond Uhura,” she recalls racist TV staffers who tried to conceal the volumes of fan mail she was getting. Finally, tired of seeing her lines cut, she decided to leave the role.

Then she attended an NAACP convention where she met her self-described “No. 1 fan.”

It was King. He watched the show weekly with his family. She thanked him but explained she would be leaving it soon.

“You cannot and you must not,” King implored. “Don’t you realize how important your presence, your character is? … You have broken ground. For the first time, the world sees us as we should be seen, as equals, as intelligent people.”

King was in such constant danger, jailed, beaten, threatened by the FBI, often separated from his wife and children to confront crises, that it’s comforting to imagine him relaxing with his family by the TV, wrapped in a future dream world where racism was no obstacle to friendship or happiness.


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