Created by Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek follows the voyages of the starship USS Enterprise, a space exploration vessel built in the 23rd century by the United Federation of Planets, a futuristic intergalactic United Nations of sorts, on a mission “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
Despite the modest reaction that its 79 episodes generated during the three years it originally aired (1965-1969), Star Trek has become one of the greatest cult phenomena of all time and is notable for its cultural influence far beyond the science fiction genre.
Star Trek episodes tell the story of the adventures of the humans and aliens who serve together in Starfleet, the space-borne humanitarian and peacekeeping armada of the Federation. The protagonists, who have altruistic values but often display human/alien failings, must apply these ideals to challenging dilemmas, many of which were metaphors for contemporary cultural issues.
William Shatner (b. 1931), who played James Tiberius Kirk – the cunning, courageous, and confident captain of the Enterprise – was born in Montreal, Quebec to a Conservative Jewish family that maintained a kosher home. His Yiddish-speaking father, Joseph, was a clothing manufacturer who had emigrated from Bukovina in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and his maternal grandparents were Lithuanian Jewish immigrants. The family name was originally “Schattner,” but his paternal grandfather anglicized it to Shatner.
Shatner attended Hebrew school, attended synagogue with his family every Shabbat, and had a bar mitzvah ceremony. He worked as a teen counselor at a B’nai Brith camp in southern Quebec for young Holocaust survivors – in one case, his innocent reading of a scary story to a survivor so traumatized the child that he had to be sent home – but he always felt more connected to Jewish culture than to religious observance.
Even today, he often expresses pride at being part of a Jewish value system that teaches charity and generosity and in which education, learning, and communicating with other Jews is an important part of being Jewish.
Star Trek was notable in its time for its emphasis on addressing contemporary social issues in light of Jewish ideals like social justice and tikkun olam and for promoting Jewish values such as compassion, diversity, justice, and the pursuit of knowledge.
With the show airing only 25 years after World War II, when the Holocaust was still fresh in the public psyche, one recurring theme in the show is Kirk and his Enterprise crew confronting national socialistic societies and totalitarian states that were the antithesis of what the United Federation of Planets was seeking to advance throughout the galaxy. The prevalence of this theme may well be due to many of the show’s original writers – including Bob Justman, Herb Solow, Robert Bloch, Shimon Wincelberg, Don Mankiewicz, Harlan Ellison, Jerry Sohl, and David Gerrold – being Jewish.
In one of the most memorable episodes, the planet Ekos, a caricature of the Third Reich, is headed by a “Fuhrer” who implements a “final decision” to eliminate its neighbors from Zeon, referred to as “Zeonist pigs” (the reference to a “final solution” and “Zionist pigs” is unmistakable). Interestingly, the German government banned the episode as “unfit for entertainment” and did not permit its broadcast until 1995.
Shatner, who lost distant family in the Holocaust and characterized himself as “a Jew who lived through the Third Reich,” experienced great personal discomfort wearing a Nazi uniform in the episode. He wrote in his memoir, Live Long and… What I Learned Along the Way, that “it is impossible to have been born Jewish before WWII and not think about what you would have done if you were trapped in Europe.”
Shatner tried to raise his three daughters as Jews, with various degrees of success, and he often celebrates Jewish holidays with his children and holds regular Shabbat dinners. In one notable instance, he declined a prestigious invitation from the Kennedys to join them at their compound so that he could attend a Jewish holiday celebration with his daughters in California.
When his father, with whom Shatner had had a very close lifelong relationship, died, he purchased a simple pine box for a coffin, as per the Jewish tradition, and arranged for a Jewish funeral. He writes about how strange it was that the officiating rabbi was prohibited from attending the cemetery burial and the peculiarities of a faith that prohibits its religious leader from offering prayers for the recently departed. As many readers have probably guessed, the rabbi was a kohen who, in accordance with Biblical law, was prohibited from defiling himself by entering a cemetery.
Shatner was raised with a romantic view of Israel but with no real appreciation of the monumental effort and human lives it took to create it and the continuing sacrifices necessary to defend and maintain it. He began to more closely follow the history of Israel and its achievements as an adult and, after many visits to Israel, which he calls “a magical place,” he now appreciates the challenges facing the country. Lamenting its political quagmire with the Arabs, he expresses hope that Israeli ingenuity and political savvy will someday find a path to peace.
Standing at the Kotel during a visit in 1995, Shatner expressed his deep admiration for the Jewish state and declared, “I am here to absorb Jerusalem and Israel and to take a look at my heritage. I think it is so mystical and marvelous. It beckons everyone in the world, particularly Jews, to come here.” He attended a ceremony with then-Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert dedicating a sculpture of the 12 tribes of Israel at a seminary near the Kotel.
An active supporter of Israeli charities, particularly the Jewish National Fund, Shatner can count among his philanthropic efforts founding the William and Elizabeth Shatner Therapeutic Riding Consortium Endowment for Israel which, in cooperation with the JNF, funds 30 therapeutic horse-riding centers for the disabled. A great believer in the benefits that riding horses provides to the Israeli disabled, Shatner claims that “sussim osim nissim” (horses perform miracles).
Shatner generated some silly controversy during one of his visits to Israel and was taken to task by the media for not visiting his Jewish family there. It was suggested that he is related to Mordechai Shatner (1904-1964), a Zionist activist who saved Jews during World War II; was imprisoned in the Atlit detainee camp, Rafah and Latrun prisons for campaigning against the British treatment of Jewish prisoners; and later was a signer of Israel’s Declaration of Independence. However, there is no evidence that Shatner is in any way related to Mordechai or that he had any relatives living in Israel.
Shatner, who has never been reticent about his Jewish heritage, says that “the mystique of being Jewish is something you wear as part of you, as though it were clothing.” He has been outspoken about his experiences with anti-Semitism during his childhood growing up in Montreal, as a student at McGill University, and even during his career as an actor.
He was devastated when he was replaced on his high-school football team for missing a practice on Yom Kippur when he attended synagogue with his family. (He later regularly attended synagogue services with Leonard Nimoy on the High Holy Days.)
Tough neighborhood kids regularly picked fights with him because he was a Jew and, because he always fought back, he earned the nickname “Toughie.” Shatner explains, with no small degree of pride, that anti-Semitism began to wane in America after World War II when Jewish soldiers, who had made important contributions to the successful war effort, “came back tough” and refused to back away from fights.
In this wonderful correspondence on his personal letterhead titled “Some Hanukkah Memories,” Shatner – who signs the letter “Captain Kirk, Proud Jew” – writes:
First of all I’d like to say I recently released a Holiday album – I was going to call it “Dreidel” but then I thought better of it. Maybe I should have – maybe.
I was born in the Notre Dame de Grace neighborhood of Montreal Quebec Canada to a Conservative Jewish family – my Paternal Grandfather “Wolfe Schattner” anglicized his family name to Shatner. All four of my grandparents were immigrants – they came from the Austria-Hungary and Russian Empires – location of present-day Ukraine and Lithuania.
Third – during my childhood – the menorah stood somewhere on the mantelpiece – it was silver and black from use no matter how often it was polished – it stood there until used and then it was used with great reverence.
Fourth – my mother standing over the frying pan, pouring in a mixture of potatoes – ground-up potatoes into the sizzling fat – the oil – and frying up potato pancakes. The memory of those potato pancakes with applesauce and the family crowding around eating the pancakes is a memory that is indelible.
Happy Chanukah, William Shatner
This correspondence was likely written in 2018, when Shatner appeared in a PBS documentary, “Hanukkah: A Festival of DeLights,” which traced the evolution of Chanukah from its origin as a relatively “minor holiday” on the Jewish calendar to “one of major prominence in assimilated American Jewish life.” Said Shatner, “[Chanukah is] the tradition and the celebration of something brave and victorious…. Those are the things I think Jews think about.”
Shatner is interested in Jewish holidays besides Chanukah. For example, he delivered a dramatic reading from the Bible and the Haggadah for “Exodus: An Oratorio in Three Parts,” performed and recorded in 2005 by the Oklahoma Symphony Orchestra with a choir of 350 conducted by David Itkin, who composed the piece.
Although Shatner, who characterized the oratorio as “the perfect Seder entertainment,” has been pilloried by critics for his bombastic musical performances – see, for example, his renditions of the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which have become cult classics for their sheer awfulness – the critics commended him for his “nuanced” Exodus performance, including his effective interpretation of a pulpit rabbi delivering a sermon.
It was Shatner’s shared Jewish background that helped him bond with his Star Trek co-star, Leonard Nimoy (1931-2015), the iconic ultra-rationalist and logical – dare we say “Maimonidean?” – first officer. Nimoy, who grew up in a strictly observant Orthodox family, based several aspects of his character on his Jewish upbringing, most famously the “Vulcan finger-salute,” which has become a universal sign for the blessing, “Live long and prosper.” As he tells the story in his memoir, I Am Spock, he adopted the salute from the Birkat Kohanim (the “Priestly Blessing”) he witnessed in the Russell Street Synagogue:
The special moment when the Kohanim blessed the assembly moved me deeply, for it possessed a great sense of magic and theatricality…. I had heard that this indwelling Spirit of God was too powerful, too beautiful, too awesome for any mortal to look upon and survive, and so I obediently covered my face with my hands.
The public often conflates Nimoy with his defining role, but there is good cause to do so – not the least of which is that one of his memoirs is titled I Am Spock. Spock, as created and portrayed by Nimoy, was the model of an immigrant Jew; as a half-human and half-Vulcan, Spock was the product of two very different civilizations who did not fit comfortably in either one.
Nimoy, who characterized Spock as “the Wandering Jew,” explained, “I knew what it meant to be a member of a minority, in some instances an outcast minority. I understood that aspect of the character well enough to play it. Coming from my background, growing up in a neighborhood of immigrants trying to assimilate into modern American society, I understood that deep sense of not really belonging anywhere.” Ironically, as Nimoy wryly observed, his ancestors had arrived in America as aliens only to have him go to Hollywood to become one.
Nimoy played many other Jewish characters during the course of his career, including Morris Meyerson, Golda’s husband, in “A Woman Called Golda” (for which he earned an Emmy Award nomination) and “Goldman in The Man in the Glass Booth,” and he starred in “Never Forget,” a TV movie based on the story of a Holocaust survivor who sues a group of neo-Nazi Holocaust deniers. As to playing “Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof,” he joked that while his shtetl-born parents never quite got Star Trek, “‘Fiddler’ they understood.”
Nimoy was a major supporter of Jewish causes – including the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra; a childhood center at Temple Israel of Hollywood; and the Susan and Leonard Nimoy Career Center at Beit T’Shuvah, a Jewish recovery house in Los Angeles – and he served on the advisory board of the National Foundation for Jewish Culture. Fluent in Yiddish, he funded a project to record Yiddish stories and distribute them to Jewish children. Much of his charitable work was performed anonymously because “in Judaism, there is a philosophical understanding that the highest form of charity is that which is given anonymously.”
Another Jew aboard the Enterprise was Walter Koenig (nee Konigsberg), the Russian-accented navigator Pavel Chekov, whose parents were Russian Jews who emigrated from Lithuania. The show also featured many Jewish guest stars.