The Hazzan Emeritus of Beth Sholom Congregation recalls hosting the Star Trek legend during a special concert at his shul.
One June evening in 2003, the unforgettable voice of Leonard Nimoy resounded through Beth Sholom Congregation. “My father, an enlightened spirit, believed in man. My grandfather, a fervent Chasid, believed in God. The one taught me to speak, the other to sing!”
Thus began our performance of “Souls on Fire,” a cantata by Cantor Charles Osborne. These words are both the formal opening of the cantata and a doorway into the Jewish neshamah — the soul of Leonard Nimoy.
A fan of Star Trek, the TV series that catapulted him to fame, since its inception in 1966, I taught my wife and children to share the wonder of the show’s optimistic view of the future, and together we attended conventions, purchased memorabilia and viewed all six movies starring the original cast members.
Spock died, was reborn, changed careers from space exploration to diplomacy and aged gracefully before our eyes.
In February 1998, I met Leonard while serving as chorus master for our community’s Israel 50 celebration at the Core States Center. Leonard was the emcee of the event.
Standing backstage, my wife, Ellen, asked him to pose with our daughter, Alana, and her best friend, Emily Botel-Barnard, the flower girls for the concert. He graciously agreed, and gently put his arms around his very young fans.
In 2003, Beth Sholom Congregation launched a fundraising campaign to write a new Sefer Torah. I proposed that for the completion ceremony celebrating the new scroll, we mount “Souls on Fire,” which is based on the Elie Wiesel memoir on the lives of seven Chasidic rabbis.
This presentation required chorus, soloists, storytellers, symphony orchestra and narrator, a role that Leonard agreed to play. Ellen and I sponsored a fundraising brunch to welcome Leonard to our community, and more than 100 congregation leaders gathered in our home.
Leonard arrived to great applause. He asked me for hot tea, and I said to myself, “Spock drinks tea!” It was truly impossible to separate the Star Trek character from the actor who portrayed him. He greeted everyone warmly, posed for pictures, enjoyed the food and then addressed our guests.
Although we had been told not to ask Star Trek-related questions, he began his comments in the following way: “Thank you for coming! I am thrilled to be here. I grew up in an Orthodox neighborhood in Boston, and as a child, I experienced anti-Semitism. I became alienated as a teenager; I moved to Los Angeles — where I became an alien!”
He shared with us the oft-told story of his borrowing the three-pronged hand sign indicating the Hebrew letter “Shin” from the Priestly Benediction he witnessed in shul as a child, in order to greet the high priestess of Vulcan on his home planet, in the episode “Amok Time.”
He then added a previously unknown element to the story. Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the Star Trek world, forbade any cast member from bringing religious symbols on board the Enterprise. The use of the sign was Leonard’s violation of Roddenberry’s prime directive; 50 years later, it is known throughout the world!
A few days later, his agent reported that Leonard had called his wife, enthusiastically praising the event. He said, “This is the first concert I have ever participated in with a Klingon Bird of Prey hanging over my head,” reflecting on the huge multicolored glass chandelier in the Beth Sholom sanctuary and its resemblance to an enemy space ship.
A year later, Michael Elkin, then the Jewish Exponent arts and entertainment editor, asked me to interview Leonard about his participation in the forthcoming radio series featuring the music from the Milken CD Archives of American Jewish Music.
He and I chatted for about an hour. He shared with me how much he had enjoyed listening to all the music.
He reflected, “Each piece has its own ta-am” — a taste or flavor. “All this music is very important to me.” He was especially touched by the recording of the Yiddish hit and favorite of his mother, “Oy Mama, bin Ich Varliebt/Oh, Mama, I Am in Love.” (Leonard was quite familiar with Yiddish, having starred in Los Angeles Yiddish theater productions in the 1950s.) He and I then sang the song together on the phone — an absolutely unforgettable moment.
In 2006, Beth Sholom opened a visitors’ center to encourage tourists to explore the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed sanctuary. I convinced Leonard to record the soundtrack for the 25-minute video describing the partnership between Wright and Rabbi Mortimer Cohen. To this day, visitors are welcomed to Beth Sholom by his voice.
For my generation of aging baby boomers and our children, Leonard Nimoy was an unforgettable personality — linking Jewish values, identity and traditions with an optimistic view of the infinite potential of the future.
May his memory be for a blessing!
Hazzan David F. Tilman is associate professor at the Miller Cantorial School of the Jewish Theological Seminary, choral director of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, and Hazzan Emeritus of Beth Sholom Congregation.