Friday, February 27, 2015

‘Live long and prosper’

The signature line from one of American television’s best known characters: “Live long and prosper.” When Star Trek debuted on NBC in 1966, it received little attention, and endured only three years. One thing that did get the public’s eye, provoking a maelstrom of outrage in the forms of phone calls, telegrams, and letters, was the appearance of Leonard Nimoy’s character, Starship Enterprise’s Science Officer Mr. Spock.

Courtesy Star Trek/Paramount

Between his pointed ears and pitched eyebrows, he looked, said the complainants, like the devil. (I can’t imagine what would have happened had they known the actor was Jewish.) Beside his physiognomy, Spock employed a salutational hand gesture; with the phrase “Live long and prosper,” he would uphold his right hand with thumb extended, and with the four fingers in two pairs. It requires some dexterity. I can’t do it, and hardly anyone I’ve ever seen attempt it could do it. I imagine it requires the strong fingers of a pianist. It was another physical aspect of the character, a native of the fictitious planet Vulcan, that distinguished him from his human colleagues. A number of years ago, I learned the origins of this unique display of digits. In another of his characteristically brilliant papers, Howard Kanowitz, at New Jersey Lodge of Masonic Research and Education, discussed aspects of Masonic ritual, explaining in an aside how he recognized Spock’s hand gesture in the movements of holy men during worship in his synagogue. (I’d quote from this paper directly, but I no longer have it on file.)

Amid the media eulogies of Nimoy today is an excerpt in Tablet magazine of the book Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish by Abigail Pogrebin. Here are a few relevant paragraphs:

Would it surprise him if today people didn’t know he was Jewish? “Well, I think a lot of people know what I am. Certainly at Star Trek conventions, I’ve told the story about where this came from,” he demonstrates the Vulcan greeting: a raised hand with forked fingers—the pointer and middle fingers sandwiched together and the ring and pinky fingers similarly aligned. “I’ve always talked about this coming from my Jewish background.”

He invented the hand signal based on his memory of seeing the rabbis do it when they said the priestly blessing. Nimoy recites the prayer for me in Hebrew and then translates: “It says, ‘May the Lord bless and keep you and may the Lord cause his countenance to shine upon you, may the Lord be gracious unto you and grant you peace.’ ”

He points to one of his photographs behind me, which depicts an isolated hand shaped in the famed Vulcan salutation. “I was talking to this rabbi cousin of ours about that image one day [Rabbi John Rosove of Temple Israel of Hollywood, a cousin of Nimoy’s second wife, Susan Bay], and I told him that my childhood memory was that when these guys did this traditional blessing, it was really theatrical. These men from our synagogue would cover their heads with their prayer shawls, and they were shouters— these were old, Orthodox, shouting guys. About a half a dozen of them would get up and face the congregation, chanting in a magical, mystical kind of way. They would start off by humming.” Nimoy hums. “And they’re swaying and chanting. And then the guy would yell out: ‘Y’varechecha Adonai!’ And then the whole bunch of them would, like a chorus, respond, ‘Y’varechecha Adonai!’—all six of them. It was really spooky.

Courtesy Tablet

“So, the congregation was all standing, and my father said to me, ‘Don’t look.’ And in fact, everybody’s got their eyes covered with their hands or they’ve got their heads covered with their prayer shawl, the entire congregation. But I peeked, and I saw these guys doing this. So I introduced it into Star Trek. But I said to this rabbi cousin of ours, ‘To this day, I’m not really sure why my father said, Don’t look.’ And he explained, ‘The traditional belief is that during that blessing, the Shekhina—the feminine presence of God—enters the congregation to bless the congregation. And you shouldn’t see God, because the light could be fatal to a human. So you close your eyes to protect yourself.’ ‘Well!’ I said. ‘I never knew that!’ ”

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