Leonard Nimoy was synonymous with the Vulcan hand salute, to 'Live Long and Prosper,' but even some die-hard Trekkies are unaware of the Jewish origins of the famous greeting and its personal significance to the actor.
Nimoy, the son of a barber, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on 26 March 1931 to Ukrainian immigrants who were Orthodox Jews. The actor first saw what would later become the Vulcan salute, as a child during an Orthodox Jewish synagogue service in Boston.
Nimoy first witnessed the gesture as part of a religious Jewish blessing. In a 2013 interview with the National Yiddish Book Centre he recalled how the memory of the moment never left him.
He watched as men made the sign during the priestly benediction in a synagogue in a ritual performed by "kohanim," the descendants of the ancient Israelite priesthood. He and the rest of the congregation were instructed not to look at the men conducting the ritual.
"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," Nimoy said in "Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish," a book by Abigail Pogrebin.
"They get their tallits over their heads, and they start this chanting," Nimoy says in the 2013 interview, "And my father said to me, 'don't look'." At first he obliged, but what he could hear intrigued him. "I thought, 'something major is happening here.' So I peeked. . And I saw them with their hands stuck out from beneath the tallit like this," Nimoy said, showing the "V" with both his hands. "I had no idea what was going on, but the sound of it and the look of it was magical. Something really got hold of me," Nimoy said."
"This is the shape of the letter shin," Nimoy said in the 2013 interview, making the famous "V" gesture. The Hebrew letter shin, he noted, is the first letter in several Hebrew words, including Shaddai (a name for God), Shalom (the word for hello, goodbye and peace) and Shekhinah, which he defined as "the feminine aspect of God who supposedly was created to live among humans."
After witnessing the ritual all those years ago, Nimoy practiced making the "V" gesture with his fingers as a child. He could never have known how important the gesture would become in his life.
Nimoy was cast as Spock in the Star Trek TV series in the mid-1960s while teaching method acting at his own studio. The iconic character was developed very much with Nimoy in mind and he drew on his experiences as an American Jew
Nimoy recalled: "As a Jew from Catholic Boston, I understood what it was like to feel alienated, apart from the mainstream...There were a number of values in 'Star Trek' that I felt very comfortable with as a Jew".
Recounting how the hand gesture came to be a part of Vulcan history he revealed it was introduced when a "Star Trek" script required his character Spock to go home to Vulcan. "It was the first time we'd seen other Vulcans, other people of my race, so I was hoping to find some touching that could help develop the Vulcan sociology," Nimoy said.
"I think we should have some special greeting that Vulcans do," Nimoy recalled saying. He suggested the prayer gesture from his childhood. "Boy," he said, "that just took off. It just touched a magic chord."
He further noted that "most people to this day still don't know. People don't realize they're blessing each other with this!"