Classic sci-fi beams down to Portland’s Cathedral Park this August as Atomic Arts presents Trek in the Park. For the past three years the talented players of Atomic Arts have brought Gene Roddenberry’s iconic 1960s TV series Star Trek to life through adaptations of classic episodes.
Star Trek, best remembered for presenting a hopeful vision of the future, is also replete with Jewish influences that any Jew worth his salt bagel should be able to spot. Before you and your landing party arrive for this year’s episode, “Journey to Babel,” set phasers to “fun” as we explore some Jewish Trek connections.
In the Torah, the tower of Babel stands as a monument to mankind’s hubris; a united humanity that sought to touch the divine and perhaps eclipse it. A single global language enabled cooperation on a massive scale, culminating in the construction of a colossal tower “with its top in the sky” (Genesis 11:1-9). God, looking upon the fruit of humanity’s labor, finds it wanting and resolves to confound man’s speech. God creates the many languages of the world, and humanity’s collaboration soon collapses into enmity, mistrust and tribalism.
Fast forward to the 23rd century when the Enterprise crew escorts a group of ambassadors to a diplomatic conference on the neutral planetoid Babel. In “Journey to Babel” we again have a united humanity, and again we see man’s reach exceeding its grasp. Yet instead of arrogance there is benevolence. Instead of cruelty we see cooperation, at least among the Enterprise crew. The invention of a universal translator helps disparate peoples communicate. A starship exploring the galaxy shows no less chutzpah than a tower breaching the heavens, but by the 23rd century, humanity is mature enough to make the journey.
Onboard the Enterprise, the bridge crew is practically a minyan. William Shatner (Captain James T. Kirk); Leonard Nimoy (First Officer Mr. Spock); Walter Koenig (Ensign Pavel Chekov); and Mark Lenard, (Spock’s father, Sarek, who was first introduced in “Journey to Babel”), are all “members of the tribe.”
Nimoy has made the most enduring Jewish contribution to Star Trek. While filming the classic episode “Amok Time,” Nimoy decided Vulcans needed a formal greeting. Reaching back to his Jewish roots, Nimoy, who was raised as an Orthodox Jew in a Yiddish-speaking household, recalled that on the High Holy Days the Kohanim (priests) would deliver the blessing to the congregation. As he recounts in his memoir I Am Spock, “The special moment when the Kohanim blessed the assembly moved me deeply, for it possessed a great sense of magic and theatricality. … I had heard that this indwelling Spirit of God was too powerful, too beautiful, too awesome for any mortal to look upon and survive, so I obediently covered my face with my hands. But of course, I had to peek.” What that young boy saw was two raised arms with the fingers splayed in such a manner as to form the Hebrew letter shin. Shin is the first letter in the Hebrew word Shaddai which means almighty. This gesture, slightly modified, became the formal Vulcan greeting accompanied by the phrase, “Live long and prosper.”
A generation later, Nimoy was invited to speak at a Star Trek convention in Germany. He’d been invited in the past but had declined due to a negative experience while on a promotional tour for Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (which Nimoy directed). After consulting with his rabbi about the appropriateness of the visit, Nimoy accepted, intending to make “the big reveal” that he was a Jew. Nimoy took the stage and began answering the usual questions about Mr. Spock, while preparing to confront this German audience with the fact he was Jewish. However, when a member of the audience inquired about his 1991 movie Never Forget (which pits a Holocaust survivor against a group of Holocaust deniers), he realized he had misjudged the current generation of Germans. After discussing the film and the Jewish origin of the Vulcan salute, Nimoy received a standing ovation. As he recounts in the book Stars of David, “They were on their feet and they were cheering. It was incredible. And there was a message in it that I picked up that has something to do with: ‘We are a new generation. We are a repairing generation.’”
Speaking of a new generation, it may come as a surprise that Lt. Worf, the surly Klingon chief of security depicted on Star Trek: The Next Generation, is considered by more than a few fans to be Jewish. The character’s adoptive human parents, Sergey and Helena Rozhenko, were memorably portrayed by two world-renowned stars of Yiddish theater, Theodore Bikel and Georgia Brown. As Larry Nemecek explains in Star Trek: The Next Generation Companion, “Their presence initially caused some studio concern that Worf’s parents might become comically Jewish.” However, as series writer Michael Piller continues, the performance “…treads the line of universal humor.”
Sergey and Helena kvell over their Klingon boychick. Brimming with unbridled pride, yet quick with embarrassing tales from their little warrior’s childhood (sound like a Jewish parent you know?), they reveal the humanity within the normally stoic and reserved Klingon. Worf may be mortified by his parents’ excesses, but his love for them is impossible to deny. Jewish parents certainly help explain the character’s penchant for ritual. In numerous episodes, Worf is shown lighting candles while reciting Klingon phrases and drinking bloodwine as part of Klingon rites. One can only imagine that Pesach in the Rozhenko household was quite an affair. To get a better idea, we can consult the book 300 Ways to Ask the Four Questions by Murray Speigel and Ricky Stein. This extraordinary volume translates the four questions into the warrior’s tongue with honor. It even boasts a foreword written by Theodore Bikel.
It was perhaps inevitable that Judaism would find its way into the world of Star Trek fiction. In 2005, both The Forward and NPR interviewed Glenn Hauman, the author of Starfleet Corps of Engineers: Creative Couplings. The book features a Jewish-Klingon wedding that skillfully merges the two disparate traditions in surprising ways. Esther Silvers (granddaughter of Captain David Gold and Rabbi Rachel Gilman) marries Khor, the son of the Klingon ambassador. During the course of the ceremony, four Klingon warriors proudly raise the chuppah with their bat’leths (Klingon swords) held high as the bride slowly circles the groom. Klingon musicians fill the cavernous shuttlebay/chapel with the joyous sound of klezmer music. After the glass is stomped, the Klingons break into song … Klingon opera of course! Creative Couplings even manages to answer that age-old question: Are gagh (Klingon serpent worms) kosher? The answer is, “Sadly no. They crawl upon the ground.” Other Trek books depict characters playing dreidel and fasting for Yom Kippur. There is even a Rabbi Geller – perhaps a future descendant of Portland’s own beloved Rabbi Yonah Geller? – serving as a senior member of the clergy on Starbase 47 in the Trek novel Harbinger.
So what is it with Jews and Star Trek anyway? In 2001 Nimoy put it succinctly to Mark Pinsky of the Orlando Sentinel: “There are strong Jewish concepts in Star Trek. Social justice, meritocracy and the idea of tikkun olam, the healing of the universe – it’s a Star Trek argument.”
Atomic Arts, a Portland-based theater group, has been “exploring strange new worlds” right here in the Rose City for nearly four years. This year’s production will take place in Cathedral Park in Portland on Saturdays and Sundays at 5 pm, Aug. 4-26. For more information, go to atomicarts.org.
Richard Geller is a freelance writer, husband, father and lifelong Trekker based in Portland. His book WonderDads Portland is a guidebook for Portland parents.