During the early years of the first “Star Trek” TV series, when a producer asked actor Leonard Nimoy to develop a sign of greeting for his character Spock to use, Nimoy flashed on a childhood memory.
What popped into his mind was a synagogue service in which several rabbis raised their hands, split their pinkie and ring fingers from their middle and index fingers to form a wide V, and started chanting in Hebrew.
And that’s how the Birkat Kohanim — a sign of Jewish blessing that dates to the time of Moses — inspired the “Vulcan salute,” the hand sign that became Spock’s signature and an icon of Western pop culture.
The story, first shared by Nimoy in his 1975 autobiography, “I Am Not Spock,” isn’t the only example of Judaism intersecting the universes of space study and science fiction. It’s a connection as old as the Torah, and now it’s the theme of an unconventional exhibit at the Jewish Museum of Maryland.
“Jews in Space: Members of the Tribe in Orbit,” as it’s whimsically titled, includes displays about everything from rabbinical scholars who shaped early astronomy to modern Jewish authors and artists who helped develop the sci-fi genre in books, comics and films.
Spaced out over 2,000 colorfully arrayed square feet, it embraces everything from Maimonides to Mel Brooks as it advances a sort of field theory: that just as the Jewish people are known for their history of traveling far and wide in search of an identity and a home, so are the beings, earthly and otherworldly, who explore the heavenly beyond.
“I think the idea of an alien — of someone who doesn’t belong, who’s trying to find their way and navigate the pressures of assimilation — definitely resonates with Jews in America or in any diaspora,” says Tracie Guy-Decker, the museum’s deputy director and a Jewish native of Baltimore. “Staying true to oneself, but fitting in at the same time, is a theme of a lot of science fiction and fandom out there. It makes sense that Jews would be drawn to it.”
“I think the idea of an alien — of someone who doesn’t belong, who’s trying to find their way and navigate the pressures of assimilation — definitely resonates with Jews in America or in any diaspora.”— Tracie Guy-Decker, the Jewish Museum of Maryland's deputy director
Officials of the Jewish Museum of Maryland, which stands next to the historic Lloyd Street Synagogue in East Baltimore, happened on the concept two years ago when they learned of a smaller version of the exhibit at the Center for Jewish History in New York.
The starting point for the curators there, the team learned, was basically their amusement at the goofball phrase “Jews in Space.”
It’s the title of a zany short film Brooks created and made part of his comedy movie “History of the World, Part I” in 1981.
That short feature — a takeoff of “Star Wars” and “The Muppet Show” — showed audiences Orthodox rebbes piloting Star of David-shaped spacecraft and blasting lasers while happily belting out the title song, “We’re Jews out in space / We’re zooming along protecting the Hebrew race!”
Among other things, it showed that the existential quest at the heart of the faith could be viewed alongside popular entertainment vehicles, including a recurring segment of “The Muppet Show” called “Pigs in Space.”
But that “funny contrast became something real over time” as the New Yorkers began gathering information and artifacts that “tell the full story of Jews' relationship to the solar system,” says Marvin Pinkert, executive director of the Jewish Museum of Maryland.
“The idea starts out as a comical thing, but there’s plenty of depth to it as well,” Pinkert says.
“The idea starts out as a comical thing, but there’s plenty of depth to it as well.”— Marvin Pinkert, executive director of the Jewish Museum of Maryland
It was in about A.D. 360, for example, that a Hebrew prince named Hillel II is said to have fixed the Jewish calendar, an undertaking that required a sophisticated understanding of both celestial patterns and advanced mathematics.
Jewish ruling elders had decreed that every new month should begin at a time determined by observations of the new moon, a decision that made it otherwise difficult for Jews to know, for instance, on what exact days to celebrate their most important holidays.
The Jewish calendar is “progressive lunar” in nature, with seven leap months added every 19 years to maintain consistency with the solar calendar.
“Science was in a way indistinguishable from religion at that juncture in history, and someone had to understand astronomy" to develop that calendar, Pinkert says.
The story became part of a graphic timeline that stretches from such early thinkers to Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, also known as Maimonides, who used his 12th-century writings to reconcile Aristotle’s views of the universe with biblical accounts, to modern Jewish figures including sci-fi pioneer Isaac Asimov, astronauts Judith Resnik and Jeffrey Hoffman, and filmmakers Stanley Kubrick (“2001: A Space Odyssey”) and Steven Spielberg (“E.T.,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”).
The timeline is part of the New York exhibit that curators brought to Baltimore. So are such highlights as rare works of astronomy, in Hebrew, from the early and mid-18th century and a section on Nimoy that contains editions of “I Am Not Spock" and its 1995 follow-up, “I Am Spock.”
When Pinkert and company decided to import the exhibit, they did so with the idea of enlarging it, both to make use of the larger display space in the Lloyd Street museum and to enhance it with Maryland-related features.
Joanna Church, the Baltimore museum’s collections and exhibits director, quickly realized some of the possibilities.
The museum, Church says, had long possessed a hand-carved, early-20th-century decalogue — a representation of the tablets on which God is said to have etched the Ten Commandments — donated by the now-defunct B’nai Reuben Synagogue.
The piece, designed to decorate a synagogue’s ark (a chest that contains the Torah), was surmounted not by a crown or lions, as many are, but by a carving of a pair of hands giving the Kohanim blessing that had inspired Nimoy.
Curators made it part of the “Star Trek” display.
“By putting it in this context, we’re talking about that [Vulcan] salute as a religious symbol,” Church says. “Most of us know that salute, but this placement doubles the meaning.”
Exhibitors have manifested the productivity of Asimov, the Russian-born Jewish author of more than 500 science fiction books, by stacking more than 100 of the tomes. A few feet away, visitors can operate a theremin, the electronic musical instrument responsible for the wobbly, high-pitched sounds known to fans of sci-fi fare including the TV series “The Twilight Zone.”
The instrument is Pinkert’s favorite interactive feature both because its touchless nature answers the sanitary demands of the COVID-19 era (players alter sound frequencies by moving their hands in proximity to a pair of antennas) and because its history “ties to our storyline.”
“There have been many Jewish composers involved in the scores for science fiction movies, including the [1951 classic] ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still,’ and several of the ‘Star Trek’ movies,” says Pinkert, whose love of pop culture has influenced exhibits at the museum for years. “Those are some of the classic theremin soundtracks. Visitors can recreate the sounds for themselves.”
The team has fleshed out the Maryland component with an oversize map of 18 space-related sites, including NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt and the 57-year-old Baltimore Science Fiction Society. There’s also an exhibit on Resnik, the second American female and first American Jewish astronaut to go into space.
Resnik, an Ohio native who earned her doctorate at the University of Maryland, died in the space shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986. A mailgram announcing her acceptance to NASA’s astronaut candidate program, dated 1978, is part of the display.
The exhibit is timely, in the view of one man who has studied the role of Jewish people in the creation and growth of science fiction.
Lawrence Pinsker is the former longtime rabbi of Beit Tikvah Congregation in Baltimore, which was founded in 1963 by a group of people who happened to be interested in science fiction.
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Pinsker, who has taught courses on Jews in science fiction at Beit Tikvah and at the annual Balticon convention, says the connection is drawing increasing scholarly attention.
The Jewish tradition, he says, historically encourages questions about the nature of the universe and the ways in which things might be different under slightly altered circumstances — both core elements of science fiction.
After all, he says, it was the Talmud that contained the first “time-travel” story, when Moses is granted a glimpse 1,400 years in the future to visit Akiva, a first-century scholar and sage. And it was a Jewish immigrant from Luxembourg, Hugo Gernsback, who started the first “scientific fiction” magazines in the 1920s and coined the term “science fiction.”
“I’ve been a devotee of science fiction from childhood on,” says Pinsker, 73. “A significant percentage of the authors and fans I’ve met in that world have been Jewish. It’s a fascinating subject area.”
“Jews in Space” debuted in September, and members of the public may visit the exhibit either online or in person through April. In-person visits, offered twice a day, are limited to 10 people at a time, due to coronavirus restrictions, and guests must make reservations in advance.
Guy-Decker says guests have told her the exhibit offers an appealing respite from the ongoing stresses of politics and the pandemic.
“It’s an enjoyable show because it’s so playful, but it doesn’t sacrifice intellectual rigor along the way," she says. “That’s something that feels so welcome right now.”