Jewish Values in Popular Culture

It is often said that the novel was invented by Miguel de Servantes (author of Don Quijote), but we have found much-ancienter Jewish novels in the caves of Qumran along the Dead Sea, including Judith, Tobit, and the Testament of Joseph. Judaism and sci-fi have a long-standing comradery dating back at least eighteen centuries. The ancient fiction genre known as pseudepigraphica includes in its repertoire four tomes falsely attributed (hence the name of the genre) to Enoch of Genesis 5. These give the account of nephilim (men of renown) in Genesis a science fiction spin that is as popular a genre today as it was in the centuries when pseudepigraphica was a staple of entertainment (fiction) literature.

Fast-forward to the modern era, and we encounter Sydney Cecil Newman, who was born in Toronto to Russian Jewish immigrants. Newman left public school at 13 in order to attend an art and design school. From there, he was able to land a job with Walt Disney studios, but was not able to secure a work permit in the US. He returned to Canada and made enlistment films for the National Film Board throughout WWII, eventually going to work as the head of BBC’s drama department in 1962. In 1961, Newman had created a British spy-fiction franchise called The Avengers, but it was in 1963 that his greatest accomplishment first hit the screen – Doctor Who. [2, 3]

Doctor Jew

This show, still running after 50 years, is rife with Jewish values and themes. Is it any wonder that such would be the case, given that its creator (Newman), producer (Verity Lambert), and female lead (Carol Ann Ford) were all Jewish? [1] Zeddy Lawrence reminds us that the Fourth Doctor, “the incomparable Tom Baker – he of the unfeasibly long scarf – had a Jewish father;” and, Alex Kingston, who plays River Song/Melody Pond, is also of Jewish descent. [2] In 1994, the role of the Doctor was offered to Jewish actor of Star Trek fame Leonard Nimoy.

The Doctor epitomizes the stereotypical “wandering Jew” as he journeys through time and space after being exiled from his homeland, i.e. Gallifrey (a near-homonym to Galilee).  Abrams observes the similarity to the Doctor “choosing his name” and the numerous Diaspora Jews who changed their names to escape persecution. [1] Liel Leibowitz describes the Doctor as “the most compelling Jewish character in the history of television.” [3] Naomi Alderman, author of the Doctor Who spin-off novel Borrowed Time, asserts, “The character himself is an intellectual who is exiled from his homeland and who therefore has to wander the universe making himself useful, wherever he can.” [4] The Jewish concept of tikkun olam (repairing the world) is incontrovertibly central to every episode. Also of note is the naming of the Time Lords’ mortal enemy – a species called the Dalek, which echoes the Hebrew verb “to stir up trouble” (daleq). They have been called “canned Nazis” by Leibowitz, and ironically borrowed their iconic “Exterminate!” voice from Jewish actor David Graham. [3, 4]

Naomi Alderman suggested in an interview that the Doctor’s methodology was distinctively Talmudic, in that “his method is obviously one of chevruta –he doesn’t need the companions to solve things, but he enjoys exploring through discussion.” [5] The First Doctor (played by William Hartnell) delivered a very Judaism-sensitive line in the second season: “I have no doubt that they, the Jews that is, consider Christianity to be a danger to them.” [6] Series 2, Episode 9 brings the the Tenth Doctor (David Tenant) face-to-face with “the Beast,” of whom he inquires, “Are you the Devil of New Judaism?” The Beast responds that he is the devil of all religions. [7] In Series 6, Episode 8, the River Song (Alex Kingston) sarcastically tells a Nazi officer in 1938 that she is en route to “a gay, gypsy bar mitzvah for the disabled,” referencing four of the prime targets of the historical Nazi regime. [8]

Following the lead of the Doctor Who franchise, another sci-fi serial would emerge in 1966 with even more obvious emphasis on Jewish themes – Star Trek. The show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, was an ethnic Jew who was raised Southern Baptist. In the show’s second season, one episode, “Patterns of Force,” is set on the planet Ekos, which adopted policies similar to those of the National Socialism (historically abbreviated in German as Nazi). The planet was lead by a “Fuhrer,” who referred to a neighboring culture (the Zeons) as “Zeonist pigs” and implemented a “final decision” to exterminate the Zeons. [9] The German government banned this episode from being broadcast by their networks until 1995, deeming it “unfit for entertainment.”

Spock saluteDoctor Spock’s signature greeting “Live long and prosper” is a paraphrase of the last line of the Priestly Benediction – v’yaseim l’cha shalom. The accompanying hand gesture is the shin presented by rabbis when pronouncing the blessing. Leonard Nimoy explained that he purposely incorporated this into his character as a nod to his own Jewish upbringing:

“The special moment when the Kohanim blessed the assembly moved me deeply, for it possessed a great sense of magic and theatricality… I had heard that this indwelling Spirit of God was too powerful, too beautiful, too awesome for any mortal to look upon and survive, and so I obediently covered my face with my hands. But of course, I had to peek.” [10]

The show’s original producer was Robert Justman, who happens to be Jewish. Members of the USS Enterprise crew ever appear from time to time sporting traditional Jewish surnames such as Kaplan and Kelowitz. Star Trek continues to present Jewish themes through its several emanations today. Walter Koenig played Chekov in the original series (1966-1969) alongside Leonard Nimoy (Dr. Spock) and William Shatner (Capt. Kirk), Brent Spiner portrayed Data in The Next Generation, and Armin Shimmerman was the actor behind all the prosthetic make-up for Quark in the Deep Space Nine series – all five of them ethnically Jewish. Harlan Ellison, aka Cordwainer Bird, was one of the show’s writers in 1967 and was likewise a member of the Tribe.

The next decade brings Jewish sci-fi novelist Isaac Asimov onto the scene. In 1974, he wrote and published Wandering Stars. He was soon joined by an onslaught of other Jewish voices contributing to the genre.

Writers write about what they know, so is it any wonder that the Weltanschauung (worldview, or in Judaism – hashqafah) with which one is most familiar would find its way, veiled or not, into what the author creates? We can find the same phenomenon in the LDS themes of Battlestar Galactica (original series), which was created by a screenwriter with Mormon background. Even mainstream Christianity has engaged with the genre. Of course J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series come to mind, but it can be traced back even further, to the Eighth-Century Coptic work of Pseudo-Cyril of Jerusalem which depicts Iesous (Jesus) as needing to be betrayed by Judas in the way the Gospels describe because He was a shape-shifter and never had the same appearance twice. If that isn’t sci-fi, please tell me what is.

 


Sources

  1. Nathan Abrams, “Is Doctor Who a Jew?” HaAretz (23 Nov 2013; online: https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/culture/.premium-is-doctor-who-a-jew-1.5294175).
  2. Zeddy Lawrence, “Doctor Who’s Jewish Roots,” Australian Jewish News (22 Nov 2013; online: https://www.jewishnews.net.au/doctor-whos-jewish-roots/33222).
  3. Liel Leibowitz, “Doctor Who? Doctor Jew,” Tablet (9 May 2013; online: http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/131751/doctor-who-doctor-jew).
  4. Naomi Alderman; in Simon Rocker, “Obey! Or is that Oy Vey? Who Knew – the Doctor and the Daleks are Jewish!” The JC (21 Nov 2013; online: https://www.thejc.com/news/uk-news/obey-or-is-that-oy-vey-who-knew-the-doctor-and-the-daleks-are-jewish-1.51061).
  5. Naomi Alderman; in “Could Doctor Who be a Jew?” Jewish News/Times of Israel (21 Nov 2013; online: http://jewishnews.timesofisrael.com/could-doctor-who-be-a-jew/).
  6. “The Romans,” Doctor Who (London, England: BBC, 16 Jan 1965).
  7. “The Satan Pit,” Doctor Who (London, England: BBC, 10 Jun 2006).
  8. “Let’s Kill Hitler!” Doctor Who (London, England: BBC, 27 Aug 2011).
  9. “Patterns of Force,” Star Trek (Los Angeles, Calif.: Gene Roddenberry, 16 Feb 1968).
  10. Leonard Nimoy, I am Spock (Hachette Books, 1995), 109.

About Prof. Brian Tice, B.Sci., M.Sci.

Brian Tice is currently a Hebraica research scholar and education facilitator with Manuscript Research Group in Michigan and a Jewish Studies and Ancient Languages professor with MJR Yeshiva. He received his rabbinical semikha in 2000. His formal education includes studies in Music and Modern Languages (Kalamazoo Valley Community College); Bible, Youth Ministry, and Ancient Languages (Cornerstone University); Divinity and Practical Ministry (Grand Rapids Theological Seminary); Higher Education and Classical Hebrew Andragogy (Purdue University Global/Kaplan); and Jewish Studies (Tel Aviv University/Coursera)... culminating in B.Sci. and M.Sci. degrees. Professor Tice has been an avid volunteer with Little Mary's Hospitality House critically-ill children's camp, Habitat for Humanity, Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Kalamazoo, several schools, and several homeless outreach ministries. In 2001, he was awarded a Governor's Commendation for service to the community and extraordinary academic contributions. View all posts by Prof. Brian Tice, B.Sci., M.Sci.

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