Leonard Nimoy Recites Famous Soliloquy from Hamlet in Yiddish: “To Be or Not To Be”

Leonard Nimoy’s death yeste­day at the age of 83 is an enor­mous loss to fans across the world who loved and respect­ed the actor. Nimoy may have nev­er tran­scend­ed his Star Trek char­ac­ter Spock, though he tried, but he seemed to have made his peace with that, sign­ing his many wise tweets in the last few months of his life with the acronym “LLAP,” or “live long and pros­per,” the Vul­can farewell. The actor and his most famous char­ac­ter were very famil­iar to even non-fans of the show; Spock has come to rep­re­sent an arche­type of the dis­pas­sion­ate and ratio­nal, and Nimoy even­tu­al­ly immersed him­self in the Star Trek uni­verse, pen­ning Star Trek nov­els and con­tin­u­ing to star in the franchise’s many films (and in good natured car ads with his replace­ment). He was an ambas­sador for sci­ence fic­tion, and an ambas­sador for sci­ence fact, as a major donor to NASA and nar­ra­tor of sev­er­al films about astron­o­my.

Nimoy also had sev­er­al oth­er non- Trek endeav­ors of note, includ­ing his work as a pho­tog­ra­ph­er and nar­ra­tor of audio­books about, for exam­ple, whales. And while Spock fans watched the actor inhab­it the half-Vul­can, half-human character’s exis­ten­tial strug­gles with his iden­ti­ty, Nimoy the actor had his own dis­tinc­tive back­ground as the son of Ukrain­ian Jew­ish immi­grants. His par­ents escaped the town of Zaslav in what was then Sovi­et Rus­sia and emi­grat­ed to Boston’s West End, a neigh­bor­hood rough­ly 60 per­cent Ital­ian and 25–30 per­cent Jew­ish. It was a place—Nimoy says in the engag­ing 10 minute excerpt above from an inter­view with Christa Whitney—where the Ital­ians spoke Yid­dish and the Jews spoke Ital­ian (Nimoy speaks some Yid­dish, some famous lines from Ham­let!, above).

Nimoy remem­bers his per­son­al his­to­ry, his par­ents’ bemuse­ment with Spock, and his own iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with the famous char­ac­ter: “Spock is an alien wher­ev­er he is,” says Nimoy, “not total­ly at home in the Vul­can cul­ture… not total­ly at home in the human cul­ture. And that alien­ation is some­thing that I had learned in Boston… so I under­stood that aspect of the char­ac­ter.” The inter­view was taped in Octo­ber of 2013 as part of the Yid­dish Book Center’s Wexler Oral His­to­ry Project. As we grieve the loss of Nimoy-as-Spock, it’s a fit­ting way to get to know much more about the man him­self. Hear much more of Nimoy’s Yid­dish and much more about his life in the full, two-hour inter­view below. You can find basic Yid­dish lessons in our col­lec­tion, Learn 45+ Lan­guages Online for Free: Span­ish, Chi­nese, Eng­lish & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Leonard Nimoy Reads Ray Brad­bury Sto­ries From The Mar­t­ian Chron­i­cles & The Illus­trat­ed Man (1975–76)

Leonard Nimoy Nar­rates Short Film About NASA’s Dawn: A Voy­age to the Ori­gins of the Solar Sys­tem

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