Is Mr. Spock Jewish?
Forty years ago this month changed the way I was to perceive movies and the world of science fiction. It was four decades ago that my parents took me to see the first installment of the epic Star Wars. I left that movie feeling sky high (and it was not from what the teenagers were smoking in the back row). Last year also marked the fiftieth anniversary of the start of another science fiction classic, Star Trek, which first premiered in September 1966. These, and many other science fiction movies, books, and TV shows have highlighted various alien races and religions throughout the galaxies, and looking back, it is interesting to note how Judaism has influenced this genre – both by the writers and producers, as well as the actors themselves.
Live Long and Prosper
There are many symbols of Judaism appearing through the sci-fi universe, although many are subtle. For instance, the famous Vulcan salute which Mr. Spock uses as a greeting, was derived by late Leonard Nimoy, for Star Trek from his memory of the hand signal the Kohanim make during the Priestly Blessing (the hands form the Hebrew letter shin (ש)). The salute is associated with the greeting “Live Long and Prosper” may also correlate to the Jewish/Hebrew greeting Shalom Alechem (שָׁלוֹם עֲלֵיכֶם) which means “may peace be upon you” in English; as well as the Vulcan reply “Peace and long life,” which also correlates to the Hebrew aleikhem shalom, which means “unto you peace.” [Fast Fact: Muslims also have a similar greeting and response in Arabic.]
Although Gene Roddenbery, the creator of Star Trek, was not Jewish, his two co-writers for the series (Bob Justman and Herb Solow) were Jewish. This may account for some of the Jewish-like themes that were infused into the episodes, such as some of the aliens (including the Vulcans) being treated as outsiders, or the episodes that probed into the evils of the Holocaust and genocide (“The Conscience of the King,” “Patterns of Force,” and “The City on The Edge of Forever”). [Fast Fact: The “Patterns of Force” episode was banished in Germany until 1997, being called “unfit for entertainment.”] It must also be noted that the two main characters in the original series, Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk, were portrayed by Jews (Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock and William Shatner as Kirk). Also many are unaware, but one of the secondary characters on the bridge was also Jewish (Walter Koenig, playing Pavel Chekov). There were other main characters played by Jews in the subsequent series as well (e.g., Brent Spiner as Lt. Data (Next Generation), Armin Shimmerman as Quark (DS9)).
The character of Mr. Spock was a vegetarian. It is speculated that this was one way of keeping the character Kosher, without outright stating it in the series – however, it may also come from the Buddhist non-violent ideology, which do not believe in killing animals (or even insects) for food. In Star Trek, the writers did not really bring religion into their characters, and did not state it outright in the series, but there is speculation that the Klingon character Worf, who was adopted as a child, had Jewish parents.
However, Star Trek also may have its anti-Semitic side. There are those that believe the alien race in the show called Ferengi (first introduced in The Next Generation) are a satirical people based on Jews, with their love of money, and a religion that sometimes correlates to Judaism. However, the producers of the show have stated that Ferengi are actually supposed to represent humans of the 21st century, along with all our faults – in fact the word ferengi is an Asian word for “foreigners” or “Europeans.” It should also be noted that the most well known Ferengi character, Quark, was played by a Jewish actor (Armin Shimmerman).
May the Schwartz Be With You
Anti-Semetism and racism has a long history of being in Science fiction – either blatant or hidden. For instance, in Star Wars, the Phantom Menace, the character of Watto has come under heavy scrutiny for taking on the characteristics of a stereotypical Jew. He has a large hooked nose, beady eyes, greedy, and even speaks with a Yiddish-like accent. There may racism if you look hard enough, even where it does not exist. Love or hate the movies, George Lucas did try to create a universe in which the motto was that everyone is equal and should live together in harmony.
Forty years ago, when I was a ten-year old kid and first saw the first Star Wars movie, there was an automatic awe of the story and its characters. The whole idea of the “force” and the Jedi really appealed to me – as a kid, and as a Jew. Even at this young age I saw a direct correlation between the Jedi and the Jews. When Mel Brook’s movie Spaceballs was released ten years later and provided a satirical view of the Jewish themes in the original movie, the comparison was of no shock to me.
George Lucas, the creator of the Star Wars franchise, was not Jewish (he was a non-religious Methodist with Buddhist leanings). Whereas Indian Jones may have had direct Jewish influence (the co-creator of the story was Jewish director and screenwriter Philip Kaufman, and directed by a Steven Spielberg), the story line may have received greater influence from co-producer Gary Kurtz and his study of comparative religion. They wanted something religious that did not connect to any one religion, but was easy to explain to the audience, so the “force” was created. As Kurtz stated “no time to deal with exposition about esoteric religion. What we were looking for was a simple handle on something that could be explained really quickly.” As they intended, it was explained by Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi in one line: “It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.” Although they may not have intended it to be more than a nondescript religious notion, in the 2011 census taken in England and Wales, over 175,000 people stated “Jedi” as their religion. [Fast Fact: The original draft of the screenplay for Star Wars was a complete mess and went through many revisions until it was finally produced.]
It is well known that the role of Han Solo was played by Harrison Ford in the first three (and seventh) film, who is half-Jewish. However, it is not as well known that Carrie Fisher is also half-Jewish (her father, actor Eddie Fisher, was Jewish). Although Fisher was raised Protestant, it has been stated that she “identified” herself as a Jew – and attended Sabbath services with her daughter. It must, however, be noted that the second and third films in the series (Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi) were co-written by Jewish screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, and one of the directors of Empire, Irvin Kershner, was born Jewish. As a kid, and even as an adult, I could still imagine the ancient Hebrew warriors using the force of G-d as sure as the Jedi wielding the force. The wise Yoda was a puppet, but was voiced by Jewish voice actor Frank Oz. [Fast Fact: There is a theory that the writing on Darth Vader’s uniform looks like it is a form of Hebrew, and when read upside down, it translates to “One shall be regarded innocent until he is proven guilty.”]
If one counts the three prequel movies as a part of the series, it is hard not to notice that one of the maid characters, Princess/Senator Amidala was played by the beautiful Jewish Actress Natalie Portman. Also note that although the actors playing both the young and the old Obi-Wan-Kenobis (Ewan McGregor and Alec Guinness) are not Jewish, they married Jewish women, and have raised their children Jewish. The latest move of the series, The Force Awakens, has a lot of Jewish influence, beginning with its Jewish director JJ Abrams (who also revitalized the Star Trek series on the big screen), and the return of Kasdan as part of the team of writers.
It is the underlying theme of Star Wars – the small and outnumbered heros and heroines taking on the must larger and much more powerful evil in the world. It is a story that parallels the history of the Jewish people. From the earliest days of its faith, the Jews have always had to take on a larger insurgence of evil. I am not only talking about tales from the Bible, such as the Jews oppression by the Ancient Egyptians or the battles against the Philistines. Later in history were the brave band of Maccabees in the second century BCE that fought against the Greek Empire (the Jedi of ancient times) to the Jewish revolts against the vast Roman Empire in the first and second century. In more modern history, there was the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising against the Nazis and Israel’s wars against the much larger armies of its many hostile neighbors. This David vs. Goliath struggle continues even today, although it is currently occurring in the political arena, with dozens of UN countries teaming up against Israel and its small handful of allies.
Jews in Sci-Fi
There have been many Jews that have been a part of the genre of science fiction and adventure/fantasy in book and on the small and big screens. Although many have been well respected for their works, their religion was not whole-heartedly accepted, especially until recently. Whereas there are outwardly Catholic oriented works (such as Narnia in the Adventure/Fantasy genre), there is no Jewish Narnia. [Fast Fact: In attempt by the Nazis to keep non-Aryan literature out of Germany, in 1938 the publisher for the German translation of The Hobbit sent J.R.R. Tolkien a questionnaire asking about being Jewish, he answered “I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people.”] Many of the Jewish authors of the past include Hugo and Nebula Award winners Murray Leinster, William Tenn, and Robert Silverberg, as well as the founder of the first science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories; Hugo Gernsback (the Hugo Award is named after him). Although there are many other writers, the list would not be complete without mentioning one of my favorite authors, Issac Asimov.
Isaac Asimov is considered one of the greatest science fiction writers of all time, winning many awards for his writings, including the seminal epic, Foundation. Although his parents were orthodox Jews, they did not practice any when they immigrated to the United States (from Russia) in 1923. In fact, they did not teach any Judaism to young Isaac, nor did they give him a bar mitzvah. Although he considered himself a rationalist and atheist, he always acknowledged that he was Jewish. However, he never consciously wrote about Jews or Jewish themes in his books. [Note: some races in Foundation used a Yiddish-like dialect and his short story, “Pebble in the Sky,” seemed very analogous to the plight of the Jewish people.] One explanation he gave for this in the book Wandering Stars was that he “didn’t think of Jews, particularly, in connection with robots, wrecked spaceships, strange worlds with six suns, and Galactic Empires.” Wandering Stars is an anthology of Jewish fantasy writers, in which he wrote the introduction, and contributed a short essay, entitled “Unto the Fourth Generation,” which dealt with assimilation. We should also not forget the groundbreaking sci-fi silent movie from 1927, Metropolis, which was directed and written (uncredited) by the legendary Fritz Lang – his mother was Jewish, although converted to Catholicism before he was born. [Fast Fact: The first Science Fiction movie was Le Voyage Dans La Lune (“A Trip to the Moon”) by film pioneer Georges Méliès. Although he was not Jewish, he directed the politically motivated The Dreyfus Affair, which tells the story of a falsely accused Jewish French army captain. The story was so controversial that fights had broken out in theaters; Méliès was pro-Dreyfus.]
Although I touched on fantasy and adventure, I will discuss the Jewish influence (or lack thereof) on that genre at in a forthcoming article, as well as the Jewish influence on comics and superheroes. But for now, let’s reflect on the fact that many of the science fiction stories you read and many of the sci-fi TV shows and movies have been shaped in some way by Jewish influences in this genre.
Food in Science Fiction
The world of science fiction is a world of fantastic creatures, places, ideas, and culinary differences. The foods depicted are as wondrous and sometimes as gruesome as the aliens (and humans) that consume them. Some stories, like Star Trek have replicators that will provide the hungry crewmember with their dietary needs, but sometimes food is not as easy to come by and a visitor to a foreign world must eat whatever is served locally.
Below are only a few of the memorable foods and drinks from sci-fi books, movies, and TV shows.
- Bantha Milk (Star Wars)
- Dog Food (Mad Maxx)
- Eddie (Rocky Horror)
- Gagh (Star Trek)
- Humans (“To Serve Man,” Twilight Zone; Little Shop of Horrors)
- Iguana Chicken (Stargate)
- Klingon Bloodwine (Star Trek)
- M&Ms (ET)
- Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster (Hitchhikers Guide to the Universe)
- Pepsi Free and Tab (Back to the Future)
- Romulan Ale (Star Trek)
- Slurm & Popplers (Futurama)
- Soylent Green (Soylent Green)
- Spice (Dune)
- Spoiled Milk (Alien Nation)
- Last, but not least, the most delicious food in the universe . . . Spoo (Babylon 5)
[This list is surely not complete, so if you think other memorable foods are missing from the list, please submit them via the comments box below.]
Romulan Ale is perhaps one of the most known drinks in the Star Trek/Sci-Fi universe. Here’s a twist on that drink, and although it does not have the distinctive clear liquidity, I present Romulan Ale Smoothie (2 servings)
1 cup blueberries + 3-4 blueberries on side
8 oz plain yogurt
2 oz. Blue Curacao
3 oz. Vodka
4 oz ice
2 tbs sugar
2 oz. seltzer
½ tsp vanilla extract
- Add all ingredients (except blueberries) into blender and mix well.
- Place the remaining 3-4 blueberries on top of drink.
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“A commentary on the deafening silence in response to anti-Semitism in the genre community in comparison to the unabashed banter in response to Samuel Delany’s 1998 NYRSF essay ‘Racism and Science Fiction’. Contrasts & disturbing impressions” (Season of the Red Wolf: 2012) @ https://seasonoftheredwolf.wordpress.com/2012/11/03/a-commentary-on-the-deafening-silence-in-response-to-anti-semitism-in-the-genre-community-in-comparison-to-the-unabashed-banter-in-response-to-samuel-delanys-1998-nyrsf-essay-racism-and-science-fi/
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“The Jewish Side of Star Trek” (Elizabeth Finkel: Ohio Valley NFTY: 2016) @ https://ohiovalley.nfty.org/2016/11/03/the-jewish-side-of-star-trek/
“Jewish Themes in Star Trek” (Yonassan Gershom: TrekJews.blogspot: 2016) @ http://trekjews.blogspot.com/
“May the Force Be With Jews” (Liel Leibovitz: TabletMag.com) http://www.tabletmag.com/scroll/196014/may-the-force-be-with-jews
“The Merchant of Menace” (Bruce Gottlieb: Slate.com: 1999) @ http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/hey_wait_a_minute/1999/05/the_merchant_of_menace.html
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“Star Trek: Jewish Thought and Social Revolution” (Matthue Roth: My Jewish Learning) @ http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/star-trek-jewish-thought-and-social-revolution/
“Star Wars Producer Blasts Star Wars’ Myths” (Chris Taylor: Mashable.com: 2014) @ http://mashable.com/2014/09/27/star-wars-myths-gary-kurtz/#SRXcKuHEfuq4
“The Tastiest Food Moments in Science Fiction” (Meredith Woerner:iO9: 2008) @ http://io9.gizmodo.com/389720/the-tastiest-food-moments-in-science-fiction
“Vulcan Salute” (Wikipedia) @ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vulcan_salute
“Was Princess Leia Jewish?” (Jeffrey Salkin: ReligionNews.com: 2016) @ http://religionnews.com/2016/12/27/princess-leia-carrie-fisher-dead-jewish/
“Weirdest Foods in Science Fiction” (Cooking Channel TV) @ http://www.cookingchanneltv.com/recipes/packages/kitchen-adventures/photos/weird-food-from-sci-fi-movies
“Why There is No Jewish Narnia” (Michael Weingard: Jewish Review of Books: 2010) @ https://jewishreviewofbooks.com/articles/290/why-there-is-no-jewish-narnia/