Just how Jewish was Leonard Nimoy? Son tells all

When Leonard Nimoy announced in 1949 that he wanted to be an actor and was leaving Boston for Hollywood, his Russian Jewish parents were stunned.

“My grandfather said that he should take up the accordion,” said Adam Nimoy, Leonard’s son and the director of the new documentary “For the Love of Spock.”

“You could always make money with the accordion. Those were Max Nimoy’s words of wisdom to my dad, if the actor thing didn’t work out.”

Leonard Nimoy (aka Spock) patterned the Vulcan greeting on the Jewish priestly blessing. photo/flickr

He needn’t have worried. Not because Leonard eventually made it after 15 years of bit parts in movies and TV shows, thanks to “Star Trek.” Or because his talent and curiosity propelled him into singing, photography, poetry and film directing.

Nimoy had a deeply ingrained work ethic, independent of the arts, that perpetually drove him. From folding chairs at the Boston Pops to selling vacuum cleaners, Nimoy was determined to support himself and his family.

But his ambitions assuredly lay elsewhere.

“He had a tremendous hunger to achieve, which was the dream of his parents coming over here, to achieve something in American society,” Adam explained. “This is why he was so able to relate to Spock. My dad felt like an outsider, of a minority, of an immigrant background in a very defined neighborhood of Boston with other immigrants, and with a desire to assimilate himself into the greater culture.”

Nimoy, who died last year at 83, is front and center in “For the Love of Spock,” a documentary that recently screened in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and opens a scheduled one-week run on Friday, Sept. 9 at the Roxie theater in San Francisco.

The public often conflates an actor with a role. This film is willfully guilty of that, too, delving into Leonard’s personal life only so far as it relates to Spock or to Adam’s relationship with his dad.

But it does include the story of how Nimoy took a childhood memory of seeing elders in synagogue making the gesture that forms the Hebrew letter shin and adopting it as a Vulcan greeting. “He was very connected to his Jewish roots and very proud of his Jewish roots,” Adam, 60, said during a recent visit to San Francisco. “He repeated the story of the Spock salute hundreds of times, literally, with great pride about where he got it — that Spock is an embodiment of some of Judaism.

“My dad, through Spock, has spread this tradition of Judaism to the world. The magnitude of that fact alone, that so many people all over the planet salute my father with a ‘shin,’ is just mind-boggling to me.”

Adam Nimoy gives the Vulcan salute. photo/fortheloveofspock.com

Of course, not everything Leonard did endeared him to his son. Driven to make the most of what might be a short-lived gig on “Star Trek” — NBC canceled the show after three seasons, although it found great success in syndication — Leonard accepted every personal appearance he was offered.

“It took a toll on us,” Adam said. “We had challenges we had to deal with without him around, without his involvement in the family. His career was No. 1. This is what caused a lot of friction between the two of us, because I didn’t feel like I had that much of his attention early on. He had a great love and respect for the fans, but trying to get him to look at me was very challenging.”

That experience continued beyond Adam’s adolescence. He was a student at U.C. Berkeley in the late ’70s, on his path to getting a law degree, when his dad made a stop at Wheeler Hall on a college speaking tour.

“I waited for him to finish,” Adam recalled with painful clarity. “I thought we were going to go to dinner together. He came up the aisle, signed some autographs and came up to me and said, ‘I have to catch a plane. I got another commitment I got to make tomorrow in Los Angeles, and I’m leaving.’

“I was devastated,” Adam continued. “What am I, borscht? It wasn’t until later in his life that it was less about Leonard and his career and more about ‘What’s going on with my kids and my grandchildren.’”

Father and son were estranged for a stretch, exacerbated by the actor’s drinking and his son’s drug use. When asked if it was difficult to forgive his father, the younger Nimoy didn’t hesitate. “No, because I’m in 12-step [program], and that’s a huge part of what 12-step is all about.”

Resentments and setbacks play only a passing role in the film, which is an unabashed tribute to Leonard Nimoy’s contributions as an actor and as a man, and to a character widely embraced for embodying intelligence, science, fairness and integrity.

The film omits Leonard’s record as a major benefactor of Jewish causes: 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.

It also leaves out the degree to which Leonard passed down his pride and love of being Jewish.

“I would say that I am more religious than my father was,” Adam said. “I like to study Torah. I like to go to services on a regular basis on Friday night. Particularly the weekly Torah study has been very meaningful to me over the past couple of years. It’s just mind-boggling to me about the divine inspiration of the written word and how it always applies to something going on in my life. This is what enriches my life, and brings new meaning to my life.”

“For the Love of Spock”
opens Friday, Sept. 9 at the Roxie, 3117 16th St., S.F. (Not rated, 105 minutes)

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.