Arts & Culture

The Jews of ‘Star Trek’

Happy 50th to the sci-fi franchise! Read More

By / September 8, 2016

Leonard_Nimoy_William_Shatner_Star_Trek_1968

Today marks 50 years since the premiere of the first Star Trek series that’s still going strong in franchise today. There’s lots of reasons the show boldly went where no other had gone before, from its progressive casting choices, to its heavy influence on the presence of science fiction in popular culture. And of course, Members of the Tribe have been involved every step of the way.

Listen in 50 years and several series, movies, you name it, there have been a lot of actors involved with the franchise of Jewish origin. We don’t have to talk about, say, the fact that Data’s short-lived daughter Lal was played by Hallie Todd, the daughter of the woman who played Fran’s grandmother Yetta on The Nanny.

We’d like to, but let’s keep it simple.

While series creator Gene Roddenberry was probably not Jewish (it’s never been definitively decided), many of the original writers were— like Robert Bloch, Shimon Wincelberg, Don Mankiewicz, Harlan Ellison, Jerry Sohl, and David Gerrold. Many of these writers were great science fiction authors, in a smart move by producers. Sean Penn’s father, Leo, directed an episode (he went over budget, so it was only the one).

As for onscreen work, the two highest-ranking officers in the original series were both played by Jewish actors. Captain James T. Kirk is beloved Canadian Jewish actor, song-stylist, and all-around treasure William Shatner. Spock, you know, the guy with the pointy ears (yes I know he’s half-Vulcan— don’t send me angry emails), was Leonard Nimoy, who not only was Jewish, but was very invested in his identity, even releasing a photographer book about Jewish femininity and the Divine.

By now, you almost certainly know the story: Nimoy came up with the gesture for “Live Long and Prosper” himself— he adapted it from the Jewish priestly gesture of blessing that he encountered as a little boy in synagogue. And now even the president has done it!

Also Jewish in the original series was Walter Koenig, who played Pavel Chekov, the Russian-born character in the main roster (during the Cold War? Gasp!).

Unfortunately, we lost the latest addition to Star Trek’s Jewish legacy earlier this year. In the latest movie reboots (there have been three) Chekov was played by another Jewish actor, Anton Yelchin, who died in a tragic accident in June.

Other Star Trek series also Jewish actors in prominent roles. Brent Spiner, one of the leads from The Next Generation series, played the aforementioned Data, the android who struggles with what it means to be human. Whether or not Data has a soul is one question, but Brent Spiner certainly has a yiddishe neshama.

Or take Worf, the tough Klingon with a heart of gold. No, actor Michael Dom isn’t Jewish, but Worf’s adopted (human) parents, the Rozhenkos, were portrayed by two great Jewish performers: Georgia Brown and the legendary Theodore Bikel. The characters may or may not be Jewish as well; it isn’t explicit, but it’s been suggested.

Wallace Shawn also recurred on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as Zek, the Ferengi leader— the Ferengi have been called into question altogether as an alien race based on Jews, but let’s focus on the positive.

The positive is that when you name an incarnation of the Star Trek franchise, there are Jews involved, and that on a whole it’s been a world that argues for compassion, diversity, justice, and the pursuit of knowledge— in our own world and beyond. According to Star Trek, while you may have to deal with, say, a having to fight a lizard man, or combat in a gladiatorial arena, or the occasional loss of a girlfriend to avoid seriously destroying the time stream as we know it, the future still looks utopian compared to today. What’s not to love?

Watch Worf with his maybe-Jewish parents, below, and remember:

Live long and prosper, kinderlach.

Image via Wikipedia.