Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock of Star Trek) passed away this morning at the age of 83. In a New York Times article today on Nimoy/Spock’s cultural impact, Nimoy’s Jewish upbringing was addressed:
“His religious upbringing also influenced the characterization of Spock. The character’s split-fingered salute, he often explained, had been his idea: He based it on the kohanic blessing, a manual approximation of the Hebrew letter shin, which is the first letter in Shaddai, one of the Hebrew names for God.”
This was always one of those factoids that filled us Jewish kids with pride when we were growing up, and I remember as a kid trying to make my fingers do what Spock’s fingers did – I could never quite get it right when I was young. More so, the fact that the raising of the hands by the Kohanim in synagogue is something that we were never allowed to look at (we were always hidden under my father’s tallit during the birkat kohanim) made what Nimoy did even cooler. Here was this major television and movie star, who drew on his significant Jewish knowledge to infuse his character’s most famous gesture and saying, “Live long and prosper”, with a deep, meaningful Jewish connection. Had Nimoy not had that background that he did, that inspired him to develop his split-fingered salute, we might very well have missed out on the meaningfulness of his character’s most poignant moments:
Without that depth or meaning that comes with real Jewish knowledge, we are often left with this version of Jewish impact on popular culture, a la Mel Brooks:
Not that there’s anything wrong it, but I prefer the deeper, more nuanced, and thoughtful version of Nimoy’s Judaism.
Which leads me to last night’s Left Brain Right Brain Idea Fair. Kol hakavod to our students – their projects and presentations were really amazing, and it was evident how much learning happened along the way. This year, we added a dimension to the projects – every upper grade student needed to research a Jewish connection to their topic, and had to be prepared to discuss it. Whatever the topic, be it space exploration, light & sound, countries, community, science or the animal kingdom, is there a meaningful Jewish teaching that connects to it?
For example, a student in grade 4 chose to do his project on lasers, how they work, uses, etc. In addition to learning about how fibre optic lasers are the basis for a new air defense system being developed in Israel called the Iron Beam, the student also discovered the following amazing verse in Tanach, from the Prophet Habakkuk:
“God came from Teman; yea, the Holy One from Mt. Paran, with everlasting might. His glory covered the heavens and His splendor filled the earth. And there was a brightness like the light; they had rays from His hand, and there was His strength hidden.”
The power of the imagery contained in those words written thousands of years ago, how many multiple layers of meaning are found in it, and the connection to the subject matter – I was completely floored when I read it. And it really drove home the point of the whole exercise. The left brain needs the right brain. The mind needs the soul. Jewish Studies complements and informs General Studies. And vice versa.
As a Jewish Day School, we are in the business of educating the whole child, the mind, the body and the soul. There are so many opportunities in our daily learning to go deeper, in all subject areas, and being able to find cross-curricular linkages to other subjects being studied makes the whole experience that much more meaningful, and the learning that much more relevant. As a Jewish Day School, if we don’t create the space and the environment for students to explore how all the different parts that we study are connected to a whole, then it is an enormous missed opportunity, and we are all the poorer for it. And If we can’t share with our students that Judaism has something to meaningfully contribute to how they think and learn and feel and act, then Judaism stays superficial and compartmentalized.
“If parents want their children to have one foot firmly planted in Western civilization and another in Jewish civilization, parents would be wise to provide their child with a sophisticated and sustained Jewish education that provides the best of both worlds.”
Mr. Spock, thank you for showing us how to have one foot planted on earth and the other in the heavens, and for helping us to understand that Judaism can be a source of spiritual wealth and inspiration. Live long and prosper, and in the words of the kohanim:
May the LORD bless you and guard you –
יְבָרֶכְךָ יהוה, וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ
May the LORD make His face shed light upon you and be gracious unto you –
יָאֵר יהוה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ
May the LORD lift up His face unto you and give you peace –
יִשָּׂא יהוה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם