Mr. Spock goes kabbalistic in area photo exhibit

Stardate: 7 p.m. Friday of last week. Mission: To boldly go where the reporter has been many times before.

The streets of downtown Palo Alto normally are crowded at this hour, with people lined up outside bars, restaurants, movie theaters and…an art gallery?

Inside the Photographer's Gallery on Ramona Street, the air crackles with an excited buzz: "Is he here?" "Is he really coming?" "Yeah, he's having dinner down the street."

The Earthlings are restless. They range from techies to Trekkies, geek to chic. Ages are staggered from an 8-month-old in a bunny suit to a grandmother with a walker. They wait. They nibble on cheese and crackers. They sip wine. They look at the pictures on the walls. When it grows too crowded, they go back outside, where it is just as congested but cooler.

Somehow, Leonard Nimoy — actor, director, photographer, kabbalist — slips past them, virtually unnoticed.

Dressed casually in a leather jacket and turtleneck, he walks right in through the front door. Or maybe he has been beamed in from the restaurant. He does not have pointy ears.

"Is he here yet?" people continue to murmur, although he already has materialized in their midst. Anticipation is all.

In the past three years, the Jewish "Star Trek" icon has turned from his movie career to one of his first loves, photography. At the same time, he has intensified his study of Kabbalah.

In "Shekhina: Feminine Presence of God," an exhibit of his photos that runs through April 24 at the gallery, he attempts to combine the two.

"I find the female figure a constant search for dynamics of light and form," he says while talking about the Shechina, or the feminine aspect of God.

Nimoy, who was raised in an Orthodox home in Boston, has always been committed to Judaism. One of his earliest acting gigs was in Yiddish theater and, following his television and big-screen "Star Trek" success, he starred in several TV movies on Jewish subjects: "A Woman Named Golda," with Ingrid Bergman playing Golda Meir, and the 1991 "Never Forget," about the battle against Holocaust revisionists, which he co-produced for TNT.

He also has narrated Jewish recordings and concerts and performed with the Jewish Radio Theater. He has been actively involved with Chabad in the Los Angeles area.

Nimoy's interest in photography dates from his teenage years, when he began shooting pictures with a bellows Kodak Autographic, developing them himself in the family bathroom. In the early '70s he seriously considered switching from actor to photographer, and enrolled in photography classes at UCLA.

Cornered for a moment between the peanuts and the brie, the actor-photographer commented on his interest in Jewish mysticism.

"It used to be that, in order to be allowed to study Kabbalah, you had to be male, single and over 40," he said. "Otherwise, it might sweep you away.

"The rabbis teach that the search for understanding is a lifelong thing. That's about where it is for me."

Nimoy, 67, has not yet been "swept away," but his pursuit of the occult discipline permeates the photographs in the Palo Alto exhibit.

Many of the photos are centered around the Hebrew letter shin — a "Mother" letter to kabbalists, with the alchemic attribute of fire, and the first letter of the word "Shechina."

In some of his photos, the shin is superimposed on a human form. In others, it is replicated in nature (a stunning photograph of the branches of a tree) or formed by a woman's hands.

The hand image gave rise to some interesting comments by uninformed gallerygoers who noted the similarity to the Vulcan hand-greeting immortalized by Nimoy's Mr. Spock in "Star Trek."

Indeed, that greeting — palm up with the middle and ring finger splayed — does derive from Jewish tradition, but it is not the shin. Nimoy borrowed that symbol from the priestly benediction of the Kohanim.

The vast majority of Nimoy's images are of women. And the Orthodox might be a little upset. Possibly even more upset than the person who called gallery manager Amy Saret (herself a Jew) to protest holding the exhibit opening on Shabbat.

Like the proverbial emperor in the fairy-tale, Nimoy's Shechina has no clothes.

"The female figure has attracted artists through the ages." said Nimoy. "The combinations of body shape, light and composition offer endless opportunities to seek out tensions, dynamics, magic, theatricality and mystery.

"I'll be at [this] the rest of my life."

His misty, soft-focus nudes are lovely to look at, even a little mysterious, but unless one has been initiated into the particular mysteries involved, they hardly evoke a religious response. Somewhat the opposite, in fact.

Most are priced at $900 but a few go all the way up to $2,000. Even at that cost, it's a good bet that some Silicon Valley Trekkies will snap them up, if only for their cachet.

And if that helps Nimoy live long and prosper in his new career, so be it.