In his upcoming book, William Shatner says that he and his fellow Jewish co-star on the original “Star Trek” series, Leonard Nimoy, bonded over common experiences of anti-Semitism, which helped the two to form a close decades-long friendship.
In Leonard: My 50-Year Friendship with a Remarkable Man, Shatner, who is best known for playing Captain James Tiberius Kirk, captain of the Starship Enterprise, discusses his friendship with Nimoy, who played Mr. Spock. Both men were born to Orthodox Jewish families who fled Eastern Europe in the wake of pogroms and whose first language was Yiddish. Shatner says that growing up in North America in the wake of the Holocaust and experiencing anti-Semitism was a part of their “shared heritage” as Jews.
“Both Leonard and I got called nasty anti-Semitic names. Experiences like that create a sort of subtext, and as we got to know each other, those common experiences helped bind us together. Its almost an emotional shorthand,” Shatner writes
Shatner also explained that learning of the horrors taking place against the Jews in Nazi Germany had a major impact on Nimoy’s life and career.
“Killing Jews meant the Jews of Europe, in many cases our distant family members. There was a real feeling among all the Jews: that could have been me,” Shatner recalls. “For kids the age of Leonard and me, that had a strong impact.”
“But what it came down to was that Jews were on their own, they were different, and I suspect Leonard felt that at least as much as I did, Shatner writes. “It was part of our shared heritage.”
Shatner explains that Nimoy’s road to success was especially difficult due to the fact that he defied his father’s wishes by forgoing college and moving to California to become an actor.
Since Nimoy was one of the few young men in Hollywood who were fluent in Yiddish, he often made a few dollars when a Yiddish theater troupe came to town playing minor roles.
“Leonard Nimoy was the only man I have ever known who could perform Shakespeare in Yiddish; he could make you appreciate the beauty even if you didn’t understand a word beyond Oy gevalt, Hamelt,” Shatner says.
After a few years of working as a vacuum cleaner salesman, Nimoy slowly found more roles in the movies and theater, but his big break came in 1965 when he was cast as Mr. Spock in what would become the hugely successful “Stark Trek” TV series and films.
Nimoy said in a 1991 interview with Tom Tugend, “everything I do is informed by my Judaism. A lot of what I’ve put into Spock came to me through my Jewish orientation.”
Nimoy explained that he based the Vulcan hand greeting, which expresses “live long and prosper,” upon the gesture in Orthodox synagogues of the blessing of the kohanim.
Shatner’s new book, the publication of which coincides with the first anniversary of Nimoy’s death, also discusses the later, more tumultuous years of their friendship.
Their friendship was destroyed a few years prior to Nimoy’s death over a small incident, after which Nimoy never spoke to Shatner, who is now 84, again.
“It is something I will wonder about and regret forever. He was my closest friend in the world,” Shatner writes.