November 19, 2018

My Jewish Trek

In the spring of 1991, I had the privilege of spending a month aboard the good old NCC-1701-D. That's the starship Enterprise to you, then the flagship of Star Trek:The Next Generation, and the only interstellar craft I'd been on (and as a bureau chief for the acclaimed sci-fi film and TV magazine Cinefantastique, I'd been on a few) that boasted carpeting on the bridge.

The occasion was the 25th anniversary of Star Trek, a series I had watched assiduously since its debut on September 8, 1966. I was 12 then, the proverbial “Golden Age of science fiction.” And by the end of “Man Trap,” an episode featuring the last of a race of mind reading, shape shifting, salt-sucking vampires, I shouldered a habit every bit as nasty as the hideous but otherwise sympathetic alien.

Henceforth, Thursday nights became nearly as sacred as Erev Shabbat. Henceforth, I would save my meagre weekly allowance to buy an AMT model of the original USS Enterprise, then a whopping $5.95, and after that, finances permitting, a Klingon Bird of Prey. Henceforth, I implored my Auntie Roz, who worked for Bantam Books in New York, to send me the Star Trek tie-in paperbacks no one else seemed to want. And in anticipation of Halloween, I haunted Eaton's, Hudson Bay Company, Zellers and other Montreal clothing retailers searching in vain for a velour cosplay shirt, all the while pestering my mother for a pair of pointed ears.

As you might imagine, the desk at The Los Angeles Times Magazine didn't have to ask twice if I was interested in a short tour of duty aboard the new ship of the line. And to start things rolling, I was provided an audience with the Great Bird of the Galaxy himself, Eugene Wesley Roddenberry or, as he presented himself while seated in a wheelchair in the expansive office of his palatial Bel-Air home, Gene.

I decided to conclude our wide-ranging interview with an issue that had intrigued me since I began covering Jewish and Israeli affairs. I suggested that there seemed to be something almost uniquely Jewish about the flavor of the Star Trek universe. Roddenberry perked up. “How so?”

“Consider,” I said, drawing upon long practiced Vulcan equanimity. “Earth has chosen a Federation as its greatest organizing entity. The Federation believes in outreach and mutual acceptance and respect as organizing principles. The peripatetic protagonists are tasked with the ongoing mission of wandering the galaxy. The second banana, hired because his unconventional Jewish face suggested alien qualities, used rabbinic gestures to convey salutations, and parsed the wild and wooly universe with the logic-bound aplomb of a Talmudic scholar.”

I left unsaid that performers Bill Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and Walter Koenig, as well as producers Robert Justman, Herb Solow and Fred Freiberger and too many writers to name were all fellow tribesmen. Roddenberry, I concluded, must have been a philo-Semite of the first order to surround himself with so many Red Sea pedestrians.

The congenial Roddenberry concluded what I later realized was a slow burn. “You Jews,” he snarled, “have a lamentable habit of identifying those characteristics in a society that you deem positive and then taking credit for inventing them”

Um.

Not long after my Times story appeared (and shortly before Roddenberry expired), Star Trek: TNG producer Rick Berman suggested to Leonard Nimoy that he might wish to co-write his biography, I Am Spock (early in his career, fearful of typecasting, he wrote a book called I Am Not Spock) with me. After some discussion, I bid farewell to the 7-series Bimmer that had replaced models of the Enterprise in my dreams: Nimoy, I suggested, would be best off, and was eminently capable of, writing the book himself. This he did, rather nicely, I thought, while I embarked on a feature on the making of the film Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, which he directed, for Cinefantastique.

(l-r), Cinefantastique Co Bureau Chief Steve Biodrowski, Trekspert Mark Altman, moi, CFQ editor Fred Clarke and Dennis Fisher.

My first interview then took me to the West Side home of the recently deceased producer Harve Bennett. Another Jewish Treknik, Bennett had eased Roddenberry out of involvement in the Star Trek films after the Great Bird laid an egg with the maladroit Star Trek: The Motion Picture (a film which inexplicably made $82 million over the long haul). Bennett informed me that as director, Nimoy had all but imbued Star Trek III with a surfeit of Yiddishkeit. Nimoy began by depicting Spock's homeworld, Vulcan, as a hot, desert planet recognizable as a stand-in for Ancient Israel.

“Vulcan is really the creation of Leonard's mind,” said Bennett. He noted that Nimoy saw Vulcan as a once-barbaric world peopled by a passionate race who had nearly destroyed themselves early in their history through civil war, yet channeled this energy into pure intellectualism. In so doing, they achieved species survival by becoming the most logical and least war-like of peoples. But despite their rationalism, they are still ruled by ritual and ideological orthodoxy. Even the costumes worn by Vulcan officials in the “Star Trek” were, according to costume designer Robert Fletcher, based on descriptions of the vestments worn by Temple Kohanim that he found in the Bible.

Initially, Star Trek: TNG provided a strangely hospitable haven for Jews who ordinarily would have blanched at the prospect of relying on Federation star dates to determine Shabbat onset. Who could have imagined that Klingon badass Worf, a Federation officer and scion of a Klingon imperial family, would be called upon to host his adoptive earth parents, including Theodore Bikel, identified as a Russian but initially conceived as a Jew until the idea of Tevye as paterfamilias threatened the Klingon warrior's estimable gravitas.

“It was a subject of extraordinary discussion,” the late executive producer Michael Piller recounted. “The orders were handed down not to make Worf's adopted parents Jewish. I don't want to sound anti-Semitic; that's not what it meant. I am a Jew and so is Rick (Producer Rick Berman). We were simply afraid of making the Worf character laughable.”

In the spring of '93, however, Jewish fans of the series took special umbrage at a group of aliens figuring prominently in the Star Trek series, Deep Space Nine. As originally conceived by Roddenberry, the Ferengi were squat, deformed and venal creatures, lecherous, miserly and greedy,  bearing huge, misshapen ear, severely notched noses and, according to Roddenberry's Writers' Bible, prodigious personal packages. The editor of Film Score Monthly, at the time, a student at Amherst College, called the alarm, attesting that “There was no denying the anti-Semitic attributes of the Ferengi.”

Paramount denied it. But writer/producer Brannon Bragga, who was not Jewish, told me he had in fact protested to Berman and Piller that the Ferengi represented malicious Medieval representations of Jews as profit-crazed merchants lusting for Christian damsels. But when he warned that such stereotypes still had the potential to wreak havoc in the late 20th Century, they dismissed his concerns. Meanwhile, word went out about my pursuit of this issue within the walls of Paramount. Smack in the middle of an interview with Ferengi majordomo Armin Shimmerman, himself a Jewish actor with admitted misgivings over the role, a call came in from Paramount's publicity department instructing him to cease and desist all contacts with me forthwith.

Clearly, I had become an enemy of the Federation. And as such, I discovered I had been, to coin a term from my early days as an SF fan, spaced.

Two years later, The Jerusalem Report asked me to interview Nimoy about his involvement in KCRW public radio station's release of a series of audio CDs comprising a series called “Jewish Short Stories from Eastern Europe and Beyond.” In it, Nimoy introduced 13 hour-long readings by such performers as Walter Matthau, Lauren Bacall and Elliott Gould. The series features contemporary works by the likes of Philip Roth and Cynthia Ozick along with stories by Yiddish authors, including Sholem Aleichem, I.B. Singer and I.L. Peretz

I met Nimoy at his Pico-Robertson adjacent office, where he told me about his difficulties, upon first arriving in Los Angeles during the 1950s, finding a minyan he felt welcoming and spiritually enriching. He spoke about his early activities in local Yiddish theatre, and of his discovery that he was one of the only local performers who could actually sing and dance in Yiddish, which made him quite the man in demand in those circles.

And then we spoke of Roddenberry. I told him of my sense of the man as no big fan of Jews or Judaism. But perhaps I was just being tetchy. In fact, I loathed thinking of Roddenberry in these terms. What would that portend for my own enthusiasm for his creation? Trek was, after all, the first TV series to portray an interracial kiss? He hired an African-American production manager. Roddenberry mocked small-minded bigotry and bloody-mindedness in episode after episode. He even had the temerity to put a Russian on the bridge at the height of the Cold War.

These were hardly the actions of a small-town American bigot.

And yet.

“Gene was anti-Semitic, clearly,” Nimoy replied as my heart sank. “Roddenberry had Jewish associates; Bill (Shatner) and I were both Jewish, as were others. To be fair, Roddenberry was anti-religion. And apart from being a ethnic-cultural entity, Jews, to him, were a religious group. But I saw examples not only of him practicing anti-Semitism, but of him being callous about other peoples' differences as well.”

How then, I found myself wondering over the years, could Nimoy, Shatner, Koenig and the rest of them work for a man who held Jews in such poor regard? Were they driven merely by the steady paycheck and star billing? Or was this just another time, when for many American Jews, this kind of crap was simply the cost of business?

What, for instance, are we to make of Roddenberry's decision to rewrite screenwriter Shimon Wincelberg's reference to Hillel's “Torah on one leg” parable in the classic first-season-episode, “Dagger of the Mind,”, attributing it to “the ancient skeptic.” Wincelberg responded to Roddenberry's incessant rewrites by requesting a name change to S. Bar-David. According to Trek historian Marc Cushman, Wincelberg, like many other veteran writers commissioned by Trek, took umbrage at being rewritten so wantonly. Was the resort to the Bar-David nome de plume the writer's way of telegraphing his displeasure over the whitewashing of the Jewish reference?

The truth, I suspect, is more layered. Roddenberry may have shared Richard Nixon's small-town anti-Semitism while availing himself, as would Nixon, of Jewish talent. But that sentiment could no more negate the fundamental decency of the universe he inherited than could the parochial prejudices of some of the founding fathers of this country. Disney may have been created whole cloth by a vicious anti-Semite. But that did not preclude Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg from assuming the helm of a public space open to all and in which some kind of outward decency ostensibly prevailed.

In the film Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Nimoy quoted a famous Vulcan proverb: “Only Nixon could go to China.” As I continue contemplating the measure of Gene's achievement, I am inclined to believe that only Roddenberry could have turned deep space into a Jewish preserve. And only Nimoy, a lovely man from an Orthodox Jewish family in Chicago, could have served as its high priest.


Sheldon Teitelbaum, formerly a Los Angeles-based senior writer for the Jerusalem Report, is currently editing Zion's Fiction: A Treasury of Israeli Speculative Literature