2013 December (?)
Leonard Nimoy in conversation with Christa Whitney
A production of the Wexler Oral History Project
at the Yiddish Book Center
(Thanks to Ibolya for the links! link) Scroll down for allthe links to the various parts of this interview.
Producer and Oral Historian: Christa Whitney; Camera: Amanda Lindquist and Christa Whitney, post- production: Amanda Lindquist and Emily Bell.
Look at www.yiddish-book-center
So I'm with my father, my grandfather and my brother sitting in the bench seats. The women were upstairs. Five or six guys get up on the beamer facing the congregation.They get their talit over their heads and they start tthis chanting. ... and my fater said to me: 'Don't look!'. So everybody got their eyes covered with their hands. And they got the talit over their faces, some turned away with their back to these guys and I heard this strange sound coming form them.
They were not singers. They were shouter and dissonent. They were all discordant. They were doing like "Ayayaai ..." that kind of whaling ald all discordant, not together. And the leader would go: ' Yevarechechah !' And the rest would go (shouting): 'Yevarechechah !' It was chilling. Something mayor is happening here.
So I peeked and saw them with their hand stuck out underneath their talit like this towards the congregation. Wow!! Something really got hold of me. I had no idea what was going on. But the sound of it and the look of it was magical.
This is the shape of the letter shin - Hebrew alpahbet. A very interesting letter. It is the first in the word 'shaddai', the first letter in the word 'shalom', the first letter in the word 'shakhina' which is the name of the feminine aspect of god who supposedly was created to live amongst humans, the shakhina. Why you are not supposed to look came to me much, much later, much later.
My wife Susan has a cousin who is a rabbi here in Los Angeles in Tempel Israel. And I was telling him that story. And he said: the reason why you are not supposed to look, the legend is that during that benediction, the yevarecha-call, the shakhina comes into the sanctuary to bless the congregation and you don't want to see that because it is so powerful, you could really get seriously injurd or it could be fatal. So that's why you protect yourself by hiding your eyes, don't look!
I survived. I never dreamed I would deal with it some way or be involved with it some day, but sure enough one day when we were making the television series we came to a very lovely script 'Amok Time' where my character, Spock, who comes from the Vulcan planet has to go home to fulfill a marriage betrothal, to be married. And the lady who is going to conduct the service is T'Pau played by a wonderful Jewish actress, Celia Lovsky. I was supposed to meet her when we arrive at the planet. We exchanged Hellos. It was the first time we were visiting Vulcan. We were seeing other Vulcans of my race. So I was hoping to fins some touches that could develop the story of the Vulcan sociology, history, whatever ... ritual. So I said to the director: We should have some special greeting that Vulcans do because humans have these rituals, we shake hands, we not to each other, we bow to each other, we salute each other, would do Vulcans do? So I suggested this (giving the blessing with one hand, which became the Vulcan salute.) and he said: OK. And that's how we did it as a Vulcan greeting. Oh boy! That took off through the culture. It was amazing. Within days after it was on the air I was greeted on the street, people doing this to me. Waving to me in this Vulcan guesture.
That's interesting! And it's been that way until these days. Almost 50 years later peopel are still doing that. It touched a magic core. Most people still don't kow these days what it is all about. Well, many people do because I told them about this a lot because they ask the question: 'Where did this come from?' And I have put very rarely put out this story. It is like a secret handshake or something people enjoy to exchange with each other as if they would say: 'Im in, I know the joke, you know? Star Trek, right, you know, Star Trek! It's great. People don't realize they're blessing each other with this.
(laughing) It's great!!!
(question missing) Leonard Nimoy: I knew a man Oscar Osrob(?) who had been a chicago presenter, theater presenter, and was now here in Los Angeles. So when these people who came over from New York to see the stars, they'd come to Osrob and he would help them to set up a production here.
So he contacted me because Maurice Schwarz was coming to town to work in the Yiddish theater. Wow! That was a name to recon with in the Yiddish theater, the founder of the Yiddish art theater in New York. I went and met him. He was doing 'Shver Tzu Zein a Yid' in English. Hard to be a Jew. Comedy. He had done it very successfully in New York. And the role that waas open was orininally a role which was played by ... , had done the role in New York in the Yiddish theater. So I was excited. The theater was on ... Boulevard and I went to see him in the apartment. And I came into the theater in an afternoon. There was something going on on the stage and he was standing - I recognized him - in the isle with his wife. She turned to Schwartz and said (in Yiddish): He looks like the non-Jew in 'It's Hard To Be a Jew'.
They didn't know I sopke Yiddish. I think it was great I get a job. I got the job, I had to bleach my hair because I as playing a blond goy, a blond gentile who makes a bet with his Jewish friend. The Jewish friend says: It's tough being a Jew. And the other says: What's so tough about it?
Well, you try it!
So I become the goy who's posing as a Jew to see how it feels like to be in a Jewish community. And we were in forsix weeks, we did a long run in Los Angeles.
I admire him. He was a wonderful theater man. He could create magic. He was brave on stage, he was big, he was bold, he was theatrical, he was one of the old theater managers who really knew how to deliver the goods. And given an opportunity on stage, he would get hold of it and chew it. (laughs) Bravo acting. He was a very smart man, very dedicated to be Yiddish. He wrote articles for Yiddish publications. He wrote a letter for me to my parents who were very worried about me at the time because I wasn't exactly tearing up Hollywood, you know? He wrote to them and said he wanted to be my theatrical father and I was doing OK, I was a nice kid and responsible and everything would be all right. They cherished this man because they knew his reputation.
At the same time there was kind of a tragic quality about what was happening with him because the Yiddish audience was diminishing. The audience that came here to our theater each night was all grey haired Yiddishists. And he would comment the fact that the cars would pull up outside the theater, the young people would sit in front, the parents at the back seats, the parents would get out and the young people would drive away. And They'd come back to pick up the parents after the show. They would not coem to see him. He was destined finding the people of the Yiddish audience to go to the performances and make up a living. But the glory days of the Yiddish theater were over.
(The question is missing) Leonard Nimoy: There was a guy named T... . That was the only name I knew him by. He had a glorious voice, a tenor, he could sing like a bird. He wore a black cape, had a rope around his waste, no lether, I don't know he was alcoholic or mental problems, I don't know. But he would come down sometimes, in the middle of the street in Chambers street, West End, singing and shouting at the top of his voice. And the kids would all tease him: 'Here comes the busnik (?)' and he would go 'rrrrrrr' and he had a staff like a prohet comes down a mountain with his staff and it would scare the kids. We would run down the hallways and hide. And he'd go on singing down the street. A very small show down .. street. a very small congregation, not much money to work with, but they would hire T ... to sing for the high holidays. He had a glorious voice and he knew the material. He was a brilliant student, maybe had had studied for the rabbi, but I'm not sure. They could hire him because if he didn't show up it was OK, they had congregants who would take over the service, no big deal. But if he showed up, they had a glorious voice singing to them. They paid him $ 500 for the high holiday services.
And the story was: There was a local very successful liquor store. The merchant owner would finance him subsidise him through the year. he woould go to that store every week, and they would give maybe $ 10 to pay his room rent, his food or whatever else he needed to get through the week, and next week they'd give him another $10. And when he sang for the high holidays, he'd get $ 500 and walk into the store and pay off his debts. That's the way it worked. Which was a lovely local legend. So, when the high holidays were coming we would go to hear him sing, we would sneak in just to hear him because that was really something. An opera tenor, it was wonderful to listen to.
From Zaslav to Boston: Roots Across the Atlantic
Christa Whitney asks in Yiddish: Where does your family come from?
Leonard Nimoy answers in Yiddish: My family comes form Russia, from the Ukraine. A Twon called Zaslav.
And continues in English: My mother was brought out across to Poland in hay. In a hay (wagon) she came across the border. She and her mother I guess. And my father came across the border on foot some place where it was not patrolled carefully. So he walked across the broder to Poland to get out from Russia where he met my mother he knew from Zaslav and they married. We lived in avery interesting neighborhood.
It was called the West End. It was about 60 % Italian and about 30 or 35% Jewish - Yiddish speaking Jews. The Italians sopke Yiddish, the Jewish spoke Italian. Some did.
My friends were all mixed of Jews and Italians. Second floor was Italian, third floor was Jewish. You could tell the occupants by the smell of the food. (laughs)
Leonard Nimoy: We were six people in the apartment: My grandparents, my parents, my brother and I.
My grandmother never learned English. She could bake a favel (?) that would be beautiful.
They make a brush from turkey feathers, the big feathers, that they dip in the egg batter and basted the havel (?) (bagel?)... with that and she felt my mother should do that.
I remember the .. came out golden brown, it was so beautiful, the .. was beautiful.
My father's barber shop ws within -I'd say- 75 yards where we lived. It was nicely outfitted. There were 3 chairs, I don't ever remember the third chair being used. It maybe was there just in case maybe the business was getting so big that they probably needed a third barber.
There was always a pinnacle game going on in the back room. If things got slow you clould go in and play a crad game. A little vit of gambling going on. My memory was that my dad had a reputation of a pretty good card player. A cut was I think 25 cents and a shave wa a dime. And then I think at the time I left Boston he was all the way up to about 75 cents for a haircut. A shave was probably a quarter. It was that kind of a business.
This is a phtograph of my grandfather, my maternal grandfather, my mother's father, Sam Spinner. He believed in trying and going and doing. And there were always some situations I would declare some interest in something rather then my parents were saying 'no, no, no. no.' and he'd say, do it, here's a dollar, do it! (laughs) He was quietly supportive becauwe he admire that sense of trying. 'Try something!'
My mom and dad were extremely careful people. Everything they did was colored by fear. 'What could happen if you do this or that? So, be safe, just be safe.'
Jewish Connections: "Spock is An Alien Wherever He Is"
Leonard Nimoy (about his parents): They didn't understand what 'Star Trek' was all about. They didn't get it, they just didn't get it. We were trying to understand that it was just not their cup of tea the whole science fiction, the whole view. What they knew was that I was making a good living, it was 'success', they knew that. Kids would come around to my father's barber shop and ask for a Spock - haircut. And he had a picture of me as Spock haningon a mirror, so he could give them a bang cut.
Spock is an alien wherever he is because he is not Vulcan, he is not human, he is half and half. He's a half-breed, what we used to call a half-breed, a mixed breed. Vulcan father, human mother. So he is not totally at home in the Vulcan culture, not totally accepted in the Vulcan culture because he is not totally Vulcan. Certainly nottotally accepted in the human culture because he is partly Vulcan. And that alienation I have learned in Boston. I knew what it meant to be a member of a minority, and in some cases an outcast minority. So I understood that. I understood that aspect of the character to play it.
The Mamelson: Itzik Manger's Poem "Afn Veg Shteyt a Boym"
The song that burned itself into my brain - I felt so in love with that song because I felt so identified with it - the song called "Afn Veg Shteyt a Boym". It spoke of a boy who says to his mother: 'There's this tree on the road and
in a moment I want to become a bird and want tofly to that tree and sit on those branches and sing to the people accompany during the weather. .. Leonard goes on receiting the poem in Yiddish...
[Margitta: I transferred the song / poem very literally by purpose.A real good translation takes months to do. Correct English gramarwould take away even more of the magic of this poem by Itzik Manger.]
on the way stands a tree, it stands bowed,
all the birds from the tree have flown away.
three to the West, three to the East, and the rest to the South.
and the tree left alone, exposed to the storm.
I say to the mother: “listen, you should not hinder,
because I, mother, 1 and 2, soon will become a bird.
I will sit on the tree and will cradle him
over winter with comforting, with a nice song.“
says the mother: “no, child,“ and she cries tears.
“maybe on the tree you will freeze [to death].“
say I: “mother, it is a shame for your nice eyes“ -either this or either that, I am a bird.“
cries the mother: „itsik [the poem's writer's first name], my crown, for God's sake,
take a scarf along, you should not get a cold,
put on the boots, it will be a hard winter -
and the cap take along, too, I feel aches and sore.
and the winter-vest take, and put it on, you stubborn, (bullhead)
if you don't want to be a guest between the dead.“ -
I raise the wings, it is too heavy for me, too many clothes,
has the mother put on, the little bird, the weak one,
look I sadly, my eyes into the mother's eyes:
her love hasn't let me become a bird.
on the way stands a tree, it stands bowed
all birds of the tree have flown away.)
Leonard Nimoy: And then he says: ' I can't fly. My mother put onto me too many clothes.' I so identify with it, but I got away, but it was tough. It was very tough. I remember my mother crying at the train station when I left. And I was like my grandfather, I was the adventurer taking off for another world. And to be an actor! No way that that was going to work.
A Living Language: Speaking Yiddish With Isiah Sheffer
Isiah approched ma at an event and introduced himslef and said: 'If we were serious in short story readings in Selected Shorts [see various pages on this site under 'Other Appearances' or 'Audio Work - readings'], actors and actresses come and read short stories for us. Would you be interested? ' And I said, I would appear and do that. We became friends and I did severalof these short story readings for them. Isiah had a background very similar to mine. He acted in the Yiddish theater, and he knew Schwarz and he'd been in that millieu, so whenever I would work with him to do these short story readings we would eventually lap into Yiddish. And I would give him a little Skahespear in Yiddish and he woud do a little of thais and a little of that. And we enjoyed ourselves with our Yiddish connection. Isiah is gone, he's passed away a year ago. And I spoke at his memorial and talked about this Yiddish connection I had with him. I found a woman here in Los Angeles who is a psychologist, but who is a master in the Yiddish language. And I went to her and spent an hour every week or two, paid for thepsychiatric fee to have somebody speak to me Yiddish. (laughs) And to help me with questions about the language. Because I it. I think it's going to go away and become a historical reference fact. Like something which is in the culture, alive. I don't see it an alive language. I don't know who's going to speak it, you know?
Christa Whitney: How do you feel about that?
Leonard Nimoy: Sad. That's the mameloshn.
Christa Whitney: Are there any sayings that you remember from your grandparents?
Leonard Nimoy answers in Yiddish: '[May you live until] 120 years.'
'You should grow like an onion, with your haed in the ground and your feet in the air.'
'Go bang your haed against the wall when you say you're bored and got nothing to do.'
Terrible stuff. (laughs)
'Don't bang me with a teabowl.'
Those are the expression I remember. Oh, my grandmother, often I heard from her (he recites a saying) 'Tell me oh god, where are things going?' Master of the universe, tell me what's going on here? (laughs)
The Vulcan salute / Blessing in the Synagogue: