Mr. Spock's nudes

Leonard Nimoy talks about religion, Vulcans, sexuality, getting up at 5 a.m. and his love of photographing naked women.

Published September 6, 2002 7:17PM (EDT)

I am sitting in Leonard Nimoy's Manhattan living room discussing naked women. Not just any naked women, but Mr. Spock's naked women. Nimoy's naked women.

"I Am Not Spock" was the title of Nimoy's first autobiography. "I Am Spock," the title of his second. This on-again, off-again Vulcan science officer has a new book out -- a collection of his photographs of nudes. But Nimoy's naked women are not Helmut Newton's naked women. There's something otherworldly about Nimoy's dames. You might suppose they're Vulcan nudes minus the pointy ears. His naked women stand in trances. They float in black pools. When they're photographed naked outside, the background seems deliberately false, like a cheesy "Star Trek" set from the late 1960s.

Sometimes Nimoy's women are dressed, but just barely -- they peek out of transparent ceremonial robes. Their skin is often vibrating -- you can imagine them whispering, "Beam me up, Scotty." Often the flesh of these women is transformed into pure light. As the photographer talks to me about his women -- his work -- he gets more animated and suddenly raises his right hand and makes that gesture. Yes. Nimoy is older than you can imagine with a face that is still luminescent and beautiful, sporting a gray crew cut and shaved chin -- and he is raising his hand like Tonto about to say, "How" -- except Nimoy's thumb is extended while his pointer and middle finger form a V with his ring finger and pinkie.

Perhaps only a handful of Americans have never seen Mr. Spock give the Vulcan greeting. I'm sure those other Americans called "Trekkies" have calculated how many times Spock has given this hand signal on television and film. A dozen times? A hundred? Can you imagine what it is like to sit in this man's immaculate living room, lined with photographs of his naked women, and observe him giving the Vulcan greeting?

But then Nimoy is making the signal not as a reference to "Star Trek" but as an example of Jewish sign language. In fact, Nimoy's naked women are a representation of a single Jewish archetype -- the Shekhina, the feminine presence of God. According to the doctrine of Jewish mysticism, the Kabbalah, evil came into the world after God was separated from the Shekhina.

How does mainstream Judaism treat the Kabbalah?

It ranges from intense interest to indifference. You don't have to have Kabbalah in your life to be Jewish. You don't have to be Jewish to be interested in Kabbalah. I'd been curious about it for many years.

Can you explain the Shekhina?

Kabbalahists developed the idea that Shekhina is the Sabbath bride of God. And she and God meet and mate every Friday night. Other people have different visions of the Shekhina. There's the theory that Shekhina and Moses lived together as husband and wife. When Moses died, the Shekhina carried him on her wings to his burial place. I just find it fascinating. I've always been interested in magic. I've always been interested in the paranormal. Mysteries intrigue me and there is a great deal of mystery involved here. A great deal of spirituality too.

Do you know Leonard Cohen's music?

[Sits upright; looks alert.] I'm well aware of him. Why do you ask?

He frequently sings about naked women and his songs remind me of your photos. He even has a song about a woman's flesh turning into light.

[Recites] "I dreamed about you baby, just the other night/ Mostly you was naked, but -- ah -- some of you was light." [Pause.] I just discovered that song fairly recently. I was playing the soundtrack to "Wonderboys" in the car and I heard the Cohen song and had to stop the car. "Whoa! What did he just say?" [Laughs.] I have to talk to him. I wonder if the word "Shekhina" resonates for him.

How should your audience view the photographs -- as spiritual artifacts? Or whatever they see, they see?

It's very hard for me to predict or determine or guide an audience how they should perceive the work. There is a very strong feminine issue here. The cover photograph, for example, shows a lady wearing phylacteries, which is something traditionally associated with the Jewish male. Some people are going to see this work as transgressive. "Whoa, that's not right! Women don't do that!" Some people are going to see it as being a very bold feminism stroke. That's fine with me, too. Some people are going to say, "That's not what the Shekhina looks like." And some people are going to say, "That's a very beautiful manifestation of Shekhina."

Some people say you shouldn't be able to see Shekhina at all. There will be a very wide range of reactions. An editor of the book review section of a major United States newspaper was very upset by what he said was the introduction of sexuality to religion. He wasn't going to have anything to do with the book. On the other hand, the lady who is the curator of the Hebrew Union College gallery, where they are having an exhibition, said to the publisher, "A blessing on you for producing this book." So that gives you some sense of the range of reactions.

I suspect that where there is going to be controversy and discomfort will be with guys -- the men who are nervous about the idea of a feminine deity or feminine spiritual presence. I think women will welcome it more readily. I can't say you should see this or you should see that. When I go to see a work of art and stand in front of it, I don't necessarily want the artist standing and whispering in my ear. I'm very proud of the photographs. When people say they're very beautiful, I am pleased. When people say "Ooooo! That's unusual." I say, "Yeah, that's true." I don't think anyone has ever done this before. I haven't seen it done. It came to me through a long, long series of events. It started when I was about 8 years old. The final key didn't fall in place till about five years ago.

What happened when you were 8?

I saw the priestly gentlemen in my congregation that I was attending with my family doing this with their hands over the congregation. [Nimoy makes the Vulcan greeting sign with his right hand!] I was intrigued. I learned later that that was the shape of the letter Shin in the Hebrew alphabet and that was the first letter in "Shekhina." It's also the first letter in the word "Shaddai," which is the name of the almighty. I understood that. But there was one element that I didn't understand. My father told me, "Don't look." And I saw the whole congregation covering their eyes with their hands or their prayer shawls or looking down at the floor.

I didn't know why until about five years ago. I assumed for a long time that it was a way to show humility when you're being blessed. I was discussing it with a rabbi and he said, "The reason you don't look is because the belief is that the Shekhina enters the sanctuary to bless the congregation. We're told the light of God could be fatal to a human if you saw it. You should not see God face-to-face, and Shekhina is God's presence on earth. When she comes into the sanctuary the light could be fatal. That's why you cover your eyes. I went, "Oh. Wow." So I put this together and created first images like this: the female figure with the letter Shin [points to a photograph of a naked female torso with a black trident shape etched into the picture]. Then I went from there.

I'm devoted to the history of naked women but don't believe in the so-called aesthetic distance an observer is suppose to have when he gazes upon a Greek statue of a naked Aphrodite. I can't help but view all naked women in sexual terms.

You don't believe in a distance?

No. Do you?

Let's look at the other side of the picture. Are you asking if I believe that all images of naked women are sexual? I can tell you this: that a lot of the photographs of naked women that are intended to be sexual I find totally asexual. I find -- for lack of a better description for the moment -- pin-up photography totally a turnoff. Doesn't interest me at all. And I presume myself to be a sexual person. The answer is no, not all images of naked women are sexual. It depends on the context, on the model. In pictures where the intention is to be sexual, I find the least sexuality. Wait. That's not entirely true. I find Helmut Newton's images sexual and there is an intentional sexuality in the pictures. But you know what I'm talking about -- this very "in your face, aren't I sexy" kind of posing.

I'm being a little more abstract than that -- the "erotic" is a subset of the "sexual." Your photographs are meant to be religious, not erotic, yet I can't help seeing sexuality in them.

Let's take a side step for a moment. The Kabbalahists are very sexual people. Kabbalah deals with sexuality a lot. [Nimoy stands up and walks across the room to retrieve a piece of paper.] I got a letter from a rabbi discussing sexuality, which I think may be helpful here. There is a prayer that is chanted on Friday nights in most temple services. [He recites the poem in Hebrew and then translates.] "Come beloved, let us meet the Sabbath bride." And the Kabbalahists would go out into the fields singing this song all dressed in white, singing "Come, let us meet the Sabbath bride who is going to arrive here tonight."

So this rabbi writes about the origins of this song. He writes, "It was written by Rabbi Solomon Alkabetz Halevi in 1540 C.E. in Safed, Israel, a town of extraordinary mystical activity by some of the leading Kabbalists in the Jewish tradition. It means, 'Come, my love" and refers to the Shabbat bride. The mystics used to sing lecha Dodi dressed in white as they walked out to the fields in the setting sun on a Friday evening to welcome the Shekhina. The imagery of the poem is quite rich. The light referred to as well as the call to 'wake,' 'arise,' and 'sing' have to do to with the time to come when the Shekhina and God's male nature will be reunited. God's name will be reunited with itself  ..." And so on.

I want to get to the sexuality issue. [He skips ahead.] "There is explicit sexual imagery written into the poem as well. The final verse is 'Enter in peace, O crown of your husband. Enter in gladness. Enter in joy. Enter, O bride, enter.' The verb for enter is la-vo. The command form is bo-ee, which translates to 'come.'" [Nimoy stops reading.]

"To come" is a sexually charged verb and is used throughout biblical literature as "sexual intercourse." So the point is that there is sexuality in a lot of the Kabbalahistic writings and stories. And it was not my intent to avoid this sexuality in my book. [He looks into the distance for a moment.] The question is, are people able to think in terms of sexuality and spirituality in one thought? In a combination of thoughts? The union of male and female is always referred to as a spiritual experience.

Is this religious sexuality necessarily monogamous?

Monogamous? That has to do with society's social standards. Some very religious people practice polygamy. I don't, but some people do. In some places it's legal. It's a cultural issue.

But polygamy is only monogamy times 5 or 6.

[Laughs.] there's an oxymoron in that somewhere. [Laughs.] It's not quite logical.

When I first open the book, I assumed it was pictures of the same woman, but of course it's not -- as a photographer you were not "monogamous" to one model.

The photos were taken over eight or nine years. I think there are eight or nine models there.

They're all of a type.

Yes. That's a conscious choice. I didn't want to introduce totally different types of women and make a whole other statement that might be distracting. [Pause.] One guy, Jewish, said to me, "Your Shekhina is a certain age and body type." I said, "Yeah. So?" "Well," says he, "If I had to describe my Shekhina, she wouldn't look like this." "What would she look like?" "Well, she might look more like my grandmother." I said, "Well, everyone has their own Shekhina. This is mine. You can have yours." He says, "Boy, you're a lucky guy." [Pause.] Some people want the Shekhina to be a matriarch 

Just as God is the patriarch.

"Make her my mother so I won't have sexual feelings about her, please."

But you'd be upset if you met God and he was younger than you, wouldn't you?

Younger than me? I'd be intrigued. I say, "Wow. How did you get to be God? How old are you, 17?"

Of course, society has always taken a negative view of aging women. Catherine Deneuve is almost 60 and the other day I saw her taking a bath.

In a movie?

Yeah. I'm not lucky enough to have her show up in my bathtub.

She look good?

Oh yes. Have you ever taken photos of male nude?

No. I've always been interested in the female figure.

As an artist do you think about what people will say of you 100 years from now?

No. I don't think in those terms. I'm thinking much more immediate than that. I'm very excited to be going around the country talking about this book. Most important, I'm going to be showing a lot of slides of the work and talking to audiences about the work and taking questions and discussing the work in much the same way we have. I'm really looking forward to it and hearing people's reactions. Maybe once or twice in my acting career I was performing a piece where there was some controversy, where one group of people said, "That's terrific" and other people said, "That's terrible. You shouldn't be doing it."

How does the Shekhina relate to the mythology of the "muse"?

My wife, Susan, is my muse. The muse is any being, entity, creature, idea, thought, that leads you or inspires, gives you motivation or inspiration to create, to explore ideas. My wife and I talk about these things a lot. She's in the book. There are a couple of images of her in the book.

Have you ever worked with a woman who had a male muse? Or is this something that just guys do?

I never heard of that. Interesting question. I don't think I ever have.

We need women, but they don't need us. [Looks at his watch.] So I've been talking to you for an hour and haven't mentioned certain cultural mythologies that you've been associated with.

What could that be, for example? I can't imagine where you're going with this question 

When we started talking, you made this sign with your hand. [Makes the Jewish Shin sign.] This is also Spock's Vulcan greeting?


Did anybody realize its religious significance back in the 1960s?

The realization came later.

I'm sure someone has written their Ph.D. thesis on this.

Probably. I remember the day I did it -- the first time. We were shooting a scene of Spock going back to his home planet of Vulcan for the first time. This was the first time we saw Vulcan on the series. We had never seen any other Vulcans before. I was very much attuned to the thought that I should be watching for opportunities to add something to the Vulcan culture, to the Vulcan story. We were shooting a scene where we see the other Vulcans arrive in a ceremonial parade and a lady being carried in a sedan chair -- a very important Vulcan personage. And she and I are supposed to greet each other. This is the first contact between two Vulcans in the entire "Star Trek" world.

So I said to the director, "There should be some special thing that Vulcans do." He didn't quite get it at first. I said, "Well, humans shake hands with each other. Asian people bow to each other. Military people salute. What do Vulcans do?" He said, "Well, OK. What do Vulcans do?' I said, "How about this?" [Nimoy makes the hand gesture.] And she did it in response. And that's how we did it. It's as simple as that. But it resonated very quickly. Within days after that show airing, I started getting people doing this [makes gesture] to me on the street. Still do.

Are there other images of Kabbalah or Jewish mysticism in the show?

[Chuckles.] No. [He says this unconvincingly.]

Are you doing more movies?


Are you retired?

From the movie business. It feels very good. When I was a kid starting out, I did my first movie work when I was 19, 20 years old [in 1950]. I lived in Boston and left home when I was about 18 to go to California to be an actor. The first work that I did -- I thought it was the most exciting and romantic thing that a person could possibly do. I'd get up before dawn when it was still dark and drive to the studio at 5 in the morning -- "Report to work at 5:30." "I'll be there!" -- It was so great. Cup of coffee in the car. Drive to the studio gates. Give 'em your name and they open the gates. Spend a day being part of moviemaking. Drive home in the dark. God, it was so great.

I didn't make a living for the first 15 years, but I was OK. And then the first location, the first overnight location, I thought that I had died and gone to heaven. The first location was one night away at a place called Marine Land. It's now closed, but it was the first of the "marine lands" where they have whales and dolphins and what have you. There was a series called "Sea Hunt" with Lloyd Bridges, and I was in several episodes. And in one we had an overnight at Marine Land. I thought "Wow. I'm going on location." It was only an hour and a half from home, but I thought it was great.

Then I went on foreign locations. I shot in Israel. I shot in Italy. I shot in China. I shot all over Canada. I shot in Germany. France. Spain. Ah, wow. Fantastic. And I finally realized that I had three very beautiful homes and I'm living in trailers and motel rooms surrounded by objects that aren't mine. And weather issues. Being in places where it was fiercely hot or frighteningly cold, but you have to stay there because that was where the work was being done right now. You can't say, "I'll be back in a month when the weather is better."

We have a life now. We can choose by weather. We can choose by geography. We can choose by friends and relatives. We can be there for kids and grandchildren's experiences, and then leave and say, "We're going to New York for a week." Or Lake Tahoe for the summer. Or we're going to Europe because we want to go and this is the best time to go, not because this is when the picture is being shot, but because we want to be there. We want to do certain things there, not go into a studio or out in the woods somewhere at five o'clock in the morning to shoot a scene. I had enough of it. I had 60 years of it.

By David Bowman

David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."

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