Does Star Trek have a Jewish soul—or at least a humanistic one? Seekers may find confirmation in a new museum show, Star Trek: Exploring New Worlds, at a Jewish institution, the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. The show will run through February 20, 2022. While you will have to bring your own interpretation to the stories, costumes, sets, weapons, and props on display, you may never look at Star Trek quite the same way again.
Star Trek, which broke ground a half century ago (featuring television’s first interracial kiss) remains relevant today, including its current incarnations. The Star Trek universe got a brief flurry of publicity in 2021 when William Shatner, the Captain Kirk of the original series, flew into space. After the 90-year-old Shatner blasted on Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin rocket, he was officially recognized as an astronaut. He was also recognized as the oldest person—and certainly the oldest Jew—ever in space.
But it is a photo of the other Jewish star of Star Trek, the late Leonard Nimoy, in character as Mr. Spock, who greets visitors to Exploring New Worlds.
Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry invited actors to infuse elements of their personal identities into their characters. So Nimoy developed the splayed finger “live long and prosper” Vulcan salute from the birkat kohanim “blessing of the Kohanim.” As a child in Boston, he watched in awe as rabbis descended from the high priest Aaron put their hands into a shape that resembles the letter shin to bless congregants. Nimoy transferred the gesture conferring peace and blessing to the alien (yet oddly familiar) Vulcan culture invented by Star Trek.
To some, Kirk and Spock, as played by Shatner and Nimoy, represent different Jewish archetypes. Spock is the traditional Torah scholar, the product of a learned civilization, the possessor of rabbinical wisdom. But Kirk, as played by Shatner, is a new kind of Jew, a bold leader, two-fisted, an assimilated American or an Israeli commando (the Six Day War took place after the first season.)
Developed by Gene Roddenberry, a secular humanist and World War II veteran, Star Trek has a history of inspiring people. Star Trek has driven interest in science and space, certainly, but also captured imaginations with its vision of a more tolerant, united society.
Mae Jemison, the first Black woman in space, was among a new generation of astronauts recruited for NASA by Nichelle Nichols, the show’s iconic Uhura. Jemison says, “I appreciate and love the character Uhura, but I like many characters on Star Trek.” The show “told a lot about a hopeful future where we were able to get past our differences.”
Nichols herself had once been ready to leave the show to follow her Broadway dream. After she gave Roddenberry her resignation letter, she attended an awards show. An organizer interrupted her dinner, asking her to meet a “famous fan.” She looked up to see Martin Luther King telling her how much he enjoyed Star Trek, the only show he allowed his children to stay up to watch.
But when Nichols mentioned her impending departure, King told her, “You cannot. Don’t you see what this man [Roddenberry] is doing, who has written this? This is the future. He has established us as we should be seen. Three hundred years from now, we are here. We are marching. And this is the first step. When we see you, we see ourselves, and we see ourselves as intelligent and beautiful and proud.” Nichols went back to work on the following Monday. She told Roddenberry, as a tear rolled down his cheek, “Gene, if you want me to stay, I will stay. There’s nothing I can do but stay.”
While representation and tolerance were important themes, Star Trek was meant to be enjoyed as entertainment. At Star Trek: Exploring New Worlds, costumes, props, and relics holy to Trekkers and casual fans alike are on display. They range from a restored navigation console from the original series to communicators, tricorders, phasers, and filming models of the USS Enterprise. There’s a captain’s chair to sit in and a transporter simulator to “beam up.”
Costume fans will enjoy Spock’s tunic as worn by Leonard Nimoy, Lt. Uhura’s dress as worn by Nichelle Nichols, and of course the open-chest tunic worn by Ricardo Montalbán in The Wrath of Khan. Other outfits include Captain Picard’s uniform worn by Patrick Stewart, a Borg costume, and the rubber suit inhabited by the brutal alien Gorn, whose life was nonetheless spared by Captain Kirk.
Ironically, the show’s founder, Gene Roddenberry was a lapsed Baptist turned secular humanist who rejected overt display of religion. So why has Star Trek landed in Los Angeles at a museum “deeply rooted in Jewish heritage and inspired by its values?”
Certainly, Los Angeles is the perfect place for the exhibition. As the Red Hot Chili Peppers sang in Californication, “Space may be the final frontier, but it’s made in a Hollywood basement.” But why a Jewish cultural institution?
The original show had major contributions from Jewish actors like Leonard Nimoy, (Spock), Walter Koenig (Chekov), and Shatner. Jewish writers were well-represented, like Robert Bloch, Shimon Wincelberg, Don Mankiewicz, Harlan Ellison, Jerry Sohl, and David Gerrold, as were producers and musicians.
But the values of Star Trek, such as inclusion, integration, and discovery are equally important. The show broke barriers with a Japanese American, an African-American, and a number of Jewish stars on the bridge.
Star Trek also aligns with Jewish values including seeking learning, pursuing justice, honoring memory, and showing kindness while rebuilding the world (tikkun olam).
“For 55 years, Star Trek has portrayed a future in which diverse crews of humans and interplanetary species work together toward a common goal, strengthened by their members’ different cultures, abilities, and perspectives,” says Sheri Bernstein, Skirball Museum Director. “There is a close connection between this optimistic, inclusive vision and our Skirball mission, which is guided by Jewish traditions of welcoming the stranger, fostering community, promoting justice, and celebrating hope and discovery.”
In “Dagger of the Mind,” an episode of the original show, a character refers to the famous formulation of Rabbi Hillel, who was once asked to summarize the Torah while standing on one foot. “Don’t do to others what is hateful to you.” The episode was written by S. Bar-David, a pseudonym for well-known TV writer Shimon Wincelberg, a Jewish refugee from Hitler’s Germany.
In addition to Jewish references, Star Trek also has Holocaust parallels. In “Patterns of Force,” Nimoy and Shatner disguise themselves as Nazis to infiltrate the planet Ekos. The planet’s rulers have adopted National Socialism and are attempting a Final Solution to eliminate the neighboring Zeons. Kirk and Spock derail the impending genocide, but not before the Jewish Nimoy remarks to the Jewish Shatner, “You should make a very convincing Nazi.”
Although an atheist, Roddenberry believed in tolerance while condemning false prophets.” He said, “Star Trek was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms.”
Not everyone bought into Roddenberry’s worldview, however. Irritated at how the dialog for his script “The City on the Edge of Forever” was rewritten, the caustic Jewish writer Harlan Ellison said it now featured “precisely the kind of dopey Utopian bullshit that Roddenberry loved.”
“People often ask if Judaism was part of Star Trek,” Nimoy said in a 2008 speech to a Jewish audience in Montreal. “The answer is definitely yes. Education is a Jewish value, and all of the members of the Starship Enterprise were highly educated. So are individual dignity and social justice, which were a big deal in Star Trek. As a Jew I had a strong sense of comfort with the series. I felt at home.”
Nimoy was a supporter of Jewish institutions, including a childhood center at Temple Israel of Hollywood and the Susan and Leonard Nimoy Career Center at Beit T’Shuvah, a Jewish recovery center. He was also a Hollywood mensch; as a producer of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, he helped 70-year-old DeForest Kelley get a million-dollar payday for his final film.
“The best of Star Trek is when the metaphors and allegories are subtle,” says Scott Mantz, an entertainment reporter and co-consultant of programming for Star Trek: Exploring New Worlds.
Mantz says Jewish-themed episodes include shows about Genesis, the Garden of Eden and false idols like those Abraham smashed. “In the episode ‘The Apple,’ the people the Enterprise encounter live in a garden of Eden but live only to take care of a machine.”
“One thing about Judaism is about honoring memory,” Mantz adds. “In the film The Wrath of Khan, McCoy says to Admiral Kirk when Spock dies, ‘He’s really not dead as long as we remember him.’ At the end, the crew on the bridge is sitting shiva for Spock, honoring his memory.”
“When I think of what it means to be Jewish, I think of diversity and hope and acceptance and tolerance,” Mantz says. Star Trek, which aired just twenty years after the Holocaust, “is about tolerance–after the greatest display of intolerance of the last thousand years.”
Star Trek: Exploring New Worlds
Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90049