Leonard Nimoys trek through TV galaxy began in shul

Leonard Nimoy took out a traditional tallit, put it over his head, sang and davened, recollecting the Orthodox rabbis of his childhood.

Those memories, re-enacted Thursday of last week for a Stanford University audience, had a strong impact on him as a young man — and eventually on "Star Trek" fanatics around the world.

Based on his early experiences in synagogue, Nimoy created the Vulcan hand gesture made famous by his character Spock in the original "Star Trek" series — fingers held straight and apart between the middle and ring finger to form a "V."

"At this point in the service you weren't supposed to look," Nimoy said, because this was when God was said to enter the synagogue. "But if you did, this is what you saw."

Cameras all over Stanford Law School's Kresge Auditorium flashed as Nimoy, his head bent and completely covered, held both hands out in what is now called the Vulcan gesture of greeting.

"It's magical. Whenever I do that, flashbulbs go off," he said.

In a lecture called "Spock in the Diaspora," sponsored by Stanford's Jewish studies program, which in turn is partially sponsored by the Koret Foundation, Nimoy talked for nearly an hour about how his Jewish upbringing had influenced how he played various characters, including Spock, the relentlessly logical Vulcan science officer on the Starship Enterprise.

Much of Spock's alien identity — not just the hand gesture — came from an Orthodox Jewish upbringing in Boston, Nimoy said.

Spock, who existed in a kind of diaspora because he belonged nowhere, was comfortable neither on earth nor on Vulcan. In the various "Star Trek" spin-offs, Spock lives among the Romulans.

Nimoy, 64, grew up in a crowded, Yiddish-speaking tenement, with five and sometimes six other people living with him in the apartment. He began performing at a local community playhouse at age 8, and eventually joined the Yiddish theater after growing up and moving to Los Angeles.

His film career began in 1951 when he landed a small role in "Queen for a Day." Throughout the late '50s and early '60s, he appeared in various television shows. He later performed in numerous movies and TV specials, including "A Woman Called Golda" with Ingrid Bergman, for which he received an Emmy nomination for Best Actor in a Dramatic Special. He also starred in the television movie "Never Forget," in which he portrayed an Auschwitz survivor who successfully sued a group of Holocaust deniers.

Among his many current projects, he is now hosting a 13-week series, "Jewish Short Stories From Eastern Europe and Beyond," on National Public Radio.

Despite his prolific and varied body of work, Nimoy remains best known for his role in "Star Trek." It's a mantle he once resisted carrying, having titled his 1975 biography "I Am Not Spock." However, in a move toward reconciliation with the character and its impact on his life, the title of Nimoy's latest autobiography is "I Am Spock."

Mr. Spock, as he was addressed on the series, is a character of dignity and a good role model, Nimoy said, "and I have no problem being him."

But in response to an audience member's question, he added that he has little interest in pursuing the role further. "I've had closure with this character."

Despite this closure, however, identity remains a concern for Nimoy. During the lecture, he told a story illustrating his acceptance of some of the roles the world has thrust upon him. A man on an elevator became very excited meeting Nimoy, and asked for an autograph. When the elevator door opened up, the man got a piece of paper for Nimoy to sign, and called to someone he saw in the hallway, "`Do you know who this is? It's Kreskin!'

"So I signed Kreskin," Nimoy told the Stanford audience.