By William Tusher for Mirror;
Since the beginning of time it has not been easy to be Jewish. And it was not easy being a kid and being Jewish in the 1930s in the East End ghetto area of Boston, Massachusetts.
A recent publicity jaunt to his hometown brought back all the memories for Leonard Nimoy, the first-generation son of an immigrant Russian barber.
The sounds of the Boston Symphony orchestra came back over the years to warm him with memories of concerts along the Charles River. But the sound of taunts, the verbal venom of bigotry also echoed down the corridors of memory.
Often in his boyhood Leonard suffered welts and bruises, delivered by youths of other religious faiths. Often—after he had been set upon—tears would swim in his uncomprehending brown eyes. Bravely, though, he brought them under check before he reached home. His father had chosen a land of religious freedom in which to settle, thus sparing Leonard what his forbears had known about the savage pogroms of Czarist Russia and Poland. But mean, animal-like little vendettas of Boston’s callow East End assailants had been rough enough—and rougher on the spirit than on the flesh.
Yet it never entered Leonard Nimoy’s mind to change his religion, to give up his God, to renounce or disguise his Jewish birth. He was Jewish, and he was glad. He wasn’t making the best of a pour bargain. He rejoiced in it. For the beatings were not all there was to being Jewish.
“ For me,” he smiles now, and there is nothing smug or insular in his tone, “being Jewish is a real cultural color that I think a lot of people, born into my faith, miss. And I think it’s sad. They have no roots, no heritage, no color to turn back to and say,This is something unique from which I come and of which I am part.”
He is not contemptuous of those who embraced other faiths—or merely submerged their own. All he knows is that with .the passing of time the decision was forced on many fellow Jews of his Boston youth, as it was demanded of him. And each man decides according to his own conscience and his own feelings.
“There is a problem of a divided identity,” Leonard nods as he acknowledges that he, too, felt pulled in opposite directions: that he, too, was torn between the call of his ancestral religion and the new culture and new society in which his parents, freedom-starved, had taken care to give him birth.
“It becomes a question, as you grow older, of whether you want to completely discard and hide your being Jewish,” Leonard says candidly. The understanding which floods his compassionate eyes is tinged with a hint of sorrow. “Some people do discard or hide it,” he says. “It doesn’t exist for them. They change names or whatever.”
For him, however, it was not that way, could never be that way.
Because being Jewish meant more warmth than pain, Leonard recalls it without rancor. TV’s Mr. Spock blames the spawning place, not the sometimes misguided creatures spawned by that seething, often rancid melting pot of Old World cultures and superstitions.
Grown now, he had only recently revisited the city of his boyhood. Now, because fame had overtaken him as the wise man of Star Trek, his identity had assumed, and properly, new, more universal dimensions. Once all that had counted on the ghetto streets of the East End was that he was a Jewish kid. Now all that counted was that he was a Boston boy who had made good. The cruel, wrenching sense of alienation had vanished. There was warmth and adulation where once there had been something less, and terribly stark.
“The whole thing was very poignant,” Leonard says of his visit home.
His boyhood springs to life again as he remembers. The vivid episodes, the smells and the feelings put aside so long, come achingly awake again.
“In a sense,” Leonard reflects, “that section where I lived was Boston’s equivalent to the Lower East Side of New York. There were a lot of immigrants, and a lot of first generation American kids. It was very mixed.”
He sits back on his emerald green living room couch, looks off wistfully and sees, it seems, more wonder than terror through the mellowing filter of the years.
“It was a heavily lrish-Catholic neighborhood,” he recalls. “And there were many Jews, some Polish and some Negro. Really mixed up. And among the kids,” he continues with a tolerant smile, ‘there was as much internecine cruelty as you’d expect—one group to another.”
He tries almost heroically to toss it off. He cannot bury it. Nor does he have any desire to make much of it, but it won’t go away.
“Boston is a very religious city, and very denominational in that sense,” Nimoy points out as if to pardon the emotional excesses by explaining the source. “Those who were Jewish were very Jewish—in that period. Those who were Catholic, and it’s a very Catholic city, were very Catholic.”
He smiles now at the enormity with which he had perceived Boston’s predominant Catholicism as a boy. It was as if Boston was the world—as for him indeed it was.
“I grew up thinking that Catholics were in the majority in the United States,” he grins at his own naiveté. “I was amazed when I got to be 10 or 12 and I heard somebody say that a Catholic could never be President of the United States, for example. It was amazing. I thought, why not? It was just amazing. It seemed to me that all Presidents would be Catholic.
“Boston was strongly defined in that religious sense,” he observes, “very mixed up in that sense, the ethnic sense in terms of people living with each other socially. The shopkeepers spoke the language depending on the trade they catered to. There were stores where Yiddish was spoken exclusively. There were stores where only Italian was spoken—or Polish, and so forth.”
A sigh escapes the tall, saturnine star —a sigh born of affection, compassion and a persisting bewilderment.
“The immigrants, my parents included,” he says, “seemed to be trying to do two very divergent things at one and the same time. On the one hand they were trying to hold onto and recapture some of the things they had left behind in the old country, and at the same time to be Americans and raise American children. It was really mixed up.”
But to Leonard, being born an American was affirmation of the right to be Jewish, to savor the joy of being Jewish. From childhood he had heard from his enthralled parents that in America it didn’t matter what religion one was— and no sidewalk insult or cruelty could force him to disbelieve that American credo.
“They were rough times,” Leonard grants grudgingly, a flash of pain stealing across his taut face. “Yes, they were rough.”
And the story emerges in spite of his will to hold back.
‘On a Sunday, their day of worship,” Leonard recalls, determined not to overdramatize it, “a Catholic kid might very easily come out of Church looking for a Jew to beat up on because he was told that day in church that it was the Jews who killed Christ. And if he happened to have a fixation about his Christ and the people whom he was told killed Him, he went out to look for some Jewish kid to take it out on.”
Leonard has distaste for blowing it into a cause célèbre. He feels no rush of self pity; and if he did, he would resist it. He had no wish to play the martyr, to nurse those boyhood grievances—however legitimately come by— for the rest of his days.
“I don’t remember the particular kid and the occasion, you know,” he laughs in a good-natured attempt to steer clear of melodramatics. “But I became very aware that people didn’t always get along with each other. Sure,” he shrugs, his mood easy and philosophical, “sure, there are always problems. You have to learn as a kid in an environment like that how to get along. You just have to. You have to learn where the problems are going to be, and how to deal with them or how to avoid them.
“I don’t know that there’s any childhood, including my own,” he insists with a light laugh, “that isn’t filled with some idyllic moments and some of hell. But the last thing in the world I would want to do would be to give the impression that mine was particularly hellish.”
His preference is to warm himself by the light of childhood memories—rekindled in the quiet pleasure he takes today in his Jewishness and in Jewish customs that gave so much texture to his childhood.
‘I love all the mystique of Judaism,” Leonard says, eager to share what he feels about his religious ties. “There’s a great mystique in the synagogues. I get disappointed when I walk into some of the synagogues out here. There are a few houses of worship like the Wilshire Temple. It is a phenomenal place, a fantastic place. It is irreplaceable.
“But I remember talking with Rabbi Magnin there, and he mentioned that so many of the places of worship now are converted Safeway stores. You put up a cross or a Star of David, or whatever it happens to be, and supposedly it will take on the significance of that particular religion.”
Leonard shakes his head firmly. He sips a cup of coffee brewed by his wife Sandi.
“I remember, I remember”
“Not necessarily true,” he comments vigorously. “There’s a whole mystique in it. There’ a whole culture. To me, religion has a smell. I remember the odor of the synagogue we used to go to. I remember the physical, tactile feel. I remember the leather of the pads on the benches in the synagogue where we prayed, and it has a physical relationship to a room.
“We always sat on a particular bench which was our family’s bench for all the holidays. Year after year that was ours. And you knew that if you looked over your right shoulder you’d always see the same people. And if you looked over your left shoulder those people who always sat on that bench would be there.
“And up in the balcony,” he smiles sentimentally, embracing something familiar and bygone, “the women were in their usual places.’
His face becomes shadowed. He yearns for those boyhood associations that warmed him and filled him with a sense of love and security of which he has become even more sharply aware in retrospect.
“None of that is here,” Leonard says sadly, “or very little of it. I miss it. I’m romantic in that respect. At the time I don’t think I understood how much it was going to mean. You’re exposed to it, and you live in it, but it’s not a conscious thing. The consciousness moves in later when it’s gone or when you make a change. You look back and you see in perspective what it was, and you realize that it was a very rich and colorful time.
“And I try to find it again. I guess I do spend time now trying to find those colors and those experiences because they are very meaningful as opposed to most of the plastic kinds of experiences so many people spend their time with.”
He becomes preoccupied with the thought, saddened by it.
“I think Disneyland is plastic,” Leonard said by way of amplification. “A lot of the food that we eat is plastic. The food of the lunch trucks, you know. I would rather eat in a Mexican restaurant, or Italian restaurant, or a Chinese restaurant that has a kind of identity. That has some kind of special thing about it. The rest of it, “ he gestures impatiently, “is just so much bulk that you consume – as food, or intellectually or spiritually, or whatever. It’s just bulk. It’s homogenized, and I think that’s sad.”
Leonard Nimoy was struck very forcefully by something at the recent afternoon he spent in a large Boston department store, meeting fellow Bostonians. He has known many in his youth – some well and some casually. He enjoyed signing the autographs – on outstretched pieces of paper, on copies of his latest album, on glossy publicity photos of himself. On some of the faces he saw sudden flickers of recognition, and he felt sudden answering remembrance.
The event filled him with a curious exhilaration, a sense of wellbeing that he welcomed. It somehow put his youthful experiences into dramatic perspective – a perspective he already had embraced in the privacy of his thoughts, a perspective that was inevitable because of his open attitude toward life and his stubborn feelings of oneness with people, all people.
“Here I was back there again,” he smiles, gratified because his philosophy was vindicated. “Now some of these very same people who might have harbored hate or whatever at that time – I’m not talking about me in particular, it might just as well not have been me in particular – here they were, bringing their children to buy my album and to get my autograph.” To Leonard that was a good and reassuring thing.
“So the identification and the relationship changes and reaches an entirely different level,” he says, pleased – pleased with the people he so recently re-met in Boston, pleased with what it said about human nature, and about growth. “On the one hand as children they tended to relate to each other in terms of which group they belonged to. It was either a friendly group or a hostile group.
“And as adults you begin to relate on an entirely different level. You begin to relate in terms of what an individual means to you, I guess.” A faint, contemplative smile ripples across his features as he pauses reflectively.
“Maybe,” he goes on pondering, “if you don’t relate in those terms – to what an individual means to you – then you haven’t grown up. You’re still thinking in terms of Jew, Catholic, Protestant, Irish, Negro, whatever. So maybe you’ve never grown up. Maybe you’re still playing that other game of putting everybody in a package and saying, I hate that package – or, I love that package because it’s my package.”
Leonard Nimoy looks up with a half-plaintive, half-ingenious grin. “It’s so much nicer isn’t it,” he says, “when you can realize that everybody has something to offer everybody regardless of any difference.”