In Memoriam: My Dad “Spock”
My Dad – of blessed memory – passed away in February 2011 after a long and painful illness, a shadow of his former self. At the time, my children did not cry. Whether it was due to their youth, the long months of hospital visits or the fact that his death was not unexpected I do not know. But when Leonard Nimoy died last year all of us, myself included, unexpectedly found ourselves crying bucket-loads of tears as though the floodgates of all our former grief was opened and allowed to deluge.
When I was a little girl in the 70s, I watched Star Trek The Original Series re-runs beside my Dad, often from the safety of behind the sofa. I grew up in a religious home that was curiously dominated by stories of science fiction and time travel – partly because it was one of my Dad’s favourite topics, and I adopted his passion in part because I grew up honestly believing that it was my Dad who played Spock in the original television series. It was a foolish notion of course, and I was mistaken. But somehow, that idea came to form part of his personality, and he did occasionally play up to the part. My Dad did bear a passing resemblance to Leonard Limoy, with sleek black hair in his youth and a long, thin face (although he lacked the pointed ears of course). But more than that, his own character seemed to bear a striking resemblance to the logical Vulcan.
Leonard Nimoy grew up an outsider, a Ukrainian Jewish immigrant in a religious Jewish community in Boston that accounted for roughly 30% of the population that was otherwise largely Italian. That experience of ‘otherness’ undoubtedly informed Nimoy’s creation of the character of Spock. Half Vulcan and half human, he was neither one thing or the other, but he choose to establish his identity by emphasising the Vulcan side of his nature. My Dad grew up third generation Irish immigrant in north-west London, neither properly Irish nor properly British, in a culture where Irish immigrant families worked hard to hide their roots if they wanted to appear respectable, and my Dad had absorbed the traditional British reserve – quiet, apparently proud and haughty and humourless with no hint of regional accent in his speech, seldom speaking and never giving away information he didn’t need to, and above all with those famous Irish emotions firmly under control – just like Spock.
My Dad also grew up in a religious community, and although he never lost that faith, he found himself most comfortable in the company of non-believers, his closest friend being a committed atheist with whom he enjoyed a surprisingly playful debate. His friend Jim (yes, really!) seemed somehow to bring out the best in him. It was in his company that he was most often to be heard laughing and joking and arguing good-naturedly. Like Kirk with Spock, the two seemed to complement each other and Jim’s bare-faced, brutal honesty – challenging him to anyalyse why he believed what he believed – ironically allowed him to drop his guard and be the person he really was behind the mask of control and respectability. Of course, he did indeed have an undercurrent of deep emotion – joy and pain, and of course a healthy sense of humour – but other than on these rare occasions, he kept them firmly under wraps.
Leonard Nimoy wasn’t overtly religious as an adult, although he was raised in the Orthodox Jewish tradition, but he did of course bequeath to Star Trek and the wider world the traditional ‘shin’ symbol of priestly blessing representing the name ‘Shaddai’ in the form of the Vulcan greeting; and outside of Star Trek, Nimoy famous published a book of his photography of Jewish women, with commentary on Jewish tradition and scripture, entitled ‘Shekinah’, referring to the feminine aspect or presence of God. Star Trek is replete with religious symbolism and ethical quandaries (although Gene Roddenberry is often portrayed as being an atheist and of course sought to answer the ethical questions from a secular, humanist perspective, in fact all indications point to him being a seeker and in fact in a 1994 interview he was quoted as saying: “I’ve elected to believe in a God which is so far beyond our conception and real understanding that it would be nonsense to do anything in its name other than perhaps to revere all life as being part of that unfathomable greatness.”
Star Trek of course features a series of demi-gods and false gods who are capricious and unworthy of worship in the end but the topic continues to come up as though a continual question in Roddenberry’s mind, as though – unsatisfied with what he saw as the human portrayal of God, he was looking for a God who was truly worthy of worship. Leonard Nimoy’s famous final tweet: “A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. LLAP” was achingly beautiful and appropriate, but he was always one of the nicest people on Twitter – always signing off with “LLAP”, “Live long and prosper”, the traditional Vulcan greeting.
The Vulcan belief system was referred to as ‘mysticism’ rather than a religion with dogmatic formulations seeking to ‘put God in a box’, perfect for the seeker who sought a God who was too big to be put in a box. One of the most obviously Jewish ethics is the Prime Directive itself, which may essentially be boiled down to the golden rule of “do no harm”, followed perhaps by Star Trek’s mission to do good, ‘Tikkun Olam’, to ‘heal the world’, a foreshadowing of the Gospel message, and that seems to have been a guiding principle of Nimoy’s own life and indeed of my Dad’s.
When Spock sacrificed himself for the crew in ‘Wrath of Khan’, resulting in his untimely death, and was then miraculously revived by the Genesis Device with a new body and a mind transformed to innocence in ‘The Search for Spock’, we can detect echoes both of the Passion and of the hope of the Resurrection to come. “Of my friend, I can only say this: Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most… human.” – Jim Kirk of Spock, Wrath of Khan. Ultimately, despite his Jim’s influence, my Dad’s first and deepest love was for Christ, his love for science and science fiction merely exploring aspects of the imagination and possibilities of God’s creation.
My Dad was eager to depart this body of death to be with his Lord – “Absent form the body, present with the Lord”. We who remain mourn, but look forward with hope and joy to a time when there is no more sorrow, no more tears, no more poverty or misery, greed or selfishness and the world is finally, fully healed and in this way the Star Trek vision will be realised.
By Sharon Tootill
(Read more of the writings of Sharon Tootill at The Bajoran Exile)