Star Trek XI: A Vulcan Holocaust?

A version of this essay appeared on the old TrekJews website on May 18, 2009.  This is the current version, included in the second printing of my book, Jewish Themes in Star Trek.    It explores some issues related to the new timeline introduced in the Star Trek XI movie, and how these changes might affect Vulcan culture in that timeline.

Feel free to link to it, but please respect my copyright and DO NOT copy or mirror it on other sites.

Star Trek XI:  A Vulcan Holocaust?

by Yonassan Gershom

In May 2009, Paramount released the long-awaited prequel, called simply Star Trek on the marquee, but also known among fans as Star Trek XI to distinguish it from the Original Series title.  In this movie, which takes place in the year 2233, Jim Kirk's father, George Kirk, is killed in a battle aboard the USS Kelvin at the same time that young Kirk is being born.   From this pivotal event - which did not happen in the old series - a new timeline emerges, in which the planet Vulcan is eventually destroyed by a vengeful Romulan villain named Nero.  Out of six billion Vulcans, only ten thousand survive.
For longtime fans, this genocide was a real punch in the gut.  Vulcan destroyed?   Their entire homeworld gone?  How will this affect the new Star Trek future?

Yes, there is a remnant of ten thousand Vulcans left.  At the end of the movie, we are told that they have found a new planet to settle on.  So it appears that Vulcan culture will somehow survive.  Still, we must ask:  If we are now in a new timeline and all we have left are a few thousand survivors, will the Vulcans have any social or political influence at all?  Or will they just become a relic on a museum planet?  Spock even refers to his people as "an endangered species."

Jewish historical parallels

It is well known that Leonard Nimoy drew upon Jewish history to develop the Vulcan culture.  So, let me draw on Jewish history a bit here, too, and explore some possibilities. 

After the Nazi Holocaust, very few Hasidic Jews had survived.  Most of the Hasidic Rebbes (spiritual masters) were dead and their communities decimated.  It was commonly thought that Orthodox Judaism in general would eventually die out.   Religious Jews, like the Vulcans, were indeed an "endangered species" -- and one that the world was not very eager to preserve.  Historical novels from the 1950s and 60s, such as Leon Uris's Exodus and James Michener's The Source, assumed that Orthodox and Hasidic Jews were nothing more than outdated relics of the past.

However, this predicted extinction of Orthodox Judaism never happened.  Instead, there was a revival that began in the mid-1970s and continues until today.  But the nature of that culture changed radically.  The Hasidic stories, traditional garb, and religious observances remained the same, but the "energy" or "feel" of the culture is now very different from pre-Holocaust Europe.  Before Hitler, most Hasidic Jews in Eastern Europe were nonviolent like the Vulcans.  Today this is no longer so. The majority of Jews in all denominations are not pacifists, although there are still some Orthodox groups that will not serve in the military. 

Most European Hasidim lived in small rural villages, where it was possible to be in close contact with the natural world. This is reflected in the traditional teaching stories. Hasidic communities today are located mostly in large urban areas, where they have little or no contact with the great outdoors.  Even Jewish music is now different, with "yeshiva rock" and rap in addition to traditional klezmer. 
So I am wondering:  Will post-Nero Vulcan culture develop in a different direction, the way post-Holocaust Jewish culture did?  It makes sense that they might.  J.J. Abrams, who directed the new Trek movie, is himself Jewish, although it is unknown at this point whether he was consciously drawing on the Holocaust as a model for the Vulcan genocide.   Be that as it may, the parallel between Six Million Jews and Six Billion Vulcans is there and worth exploring.

When you consider all the Holocaust denial going on in the world lately, perhaps this Vulcan tragedy serves a wider purpose.  Sometimes, seeing something in a movie can make it more real than reading about it in a history book.   Watching the entire Vulcan civilization die on screen was devastating to Jews and Gentiles alike -- as well it should be.  The loss of any culture is a loss for all.  And this tragic event is bound to affect the way that the Vulcan future unfolds in the new timeline.  That, in turn, provides a way to explore the inter-generational impact of such tragedies. 

Regarding the Holocaust, the world at large tends to say to the Jews, "That was over 50 years ago, so move on, get a life." But "moving on" is not so easy, because the impact of genocide can last for decades, even centuries.  Imagine being the only survivor from an entire extended family.  No parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins - just you, all alone in the universe.  That is how it was for many Holocaust survivors.  And that is how it is for the Vulcans now.

It took three generations for the newly established families of Holocaust survivors to have grandparents again and feel any sort of intergenerational normalcy.  So it will be very interesting to see what Paramount does with the Vulcan genocide.  How will this tragedy affect the culture of those Vulcans who are left?   Here are a few of my own speculations.

The importance of geography

 Again drawing on Jewish history, let us look at the impact of moving a culture from one location to another.  Although the Eastern European locations where the Hasidic groups originated -- Lubavitch, Breslov, Belz, Bobov, Satmar, etc. - still exist on the map, the Jewish communities in those towns are long gone, sucked into the black hole of Nazi genocide.  For all intents and purposes, these places are lost forever, living only in Hasidic stories and folklore.

The fact that most Hasidim now live in urban areas also means they are cut off from the realities of the village life portrayed in the pre-Holocaust stories.  I remember visiting Brooklyn a few years back and having a young boy tell me that he went to an arboretum and "actually saw corn growing!" -- something that I can see every day along the road in rural Minnesota.  "Zlateh the Goat" (or any other farm animal) is no longer part of the Hasidic experience.  

My point being, that even if the Vulcans reconstruct their culture on a new planet, based on old stories and patterns, it will never be the same.  Different places bring different experiences.  And they won't ever be able to visit the physical locations of their origins, because the whole planet is gone, literally sucked into a black hole (or a singularity - I'm a rabbi, not a physicist.)   There will be always stories about Gol and Vulcan's Forge, but the actual places no longer exist.   Even if New Vulcan is also a desert planet (and we do not know this yet), there is going to be a deep sense of exile and loss.

The value of oral tradition

 In the movie, young Spock beams down to Vulcan as it is being destroyed, in order to rescue the Vulcan elders.  Why rescue them first, instead of saving the physical records of Vulcan knowledge?  Because the elders carry the katras (souls) of previous sages, which would be lost if the elders died.  There would presumably be copies of Vulcan computer files offworld somewhere, but the elders and the katras they carried were irreplaceable.  Also, I would imagine there are meditation techniques that are passed on through initiation that cannot be preserved in texts alone.  Certainly that is true of many forms of meditation on Earth.

Both the Jewish and Vulcan stories illustrate the value of memorizing, even in a technologically advanced age.  In the Nazi concentration camps, Jews did not have written copies of sacred texts.  But study went on anyway, taught by those people who knew the texts by heart.  There have also been periods in Jewish history, such as the Spanish Inquisition, when enemies burned the holy books.  In such times, Jewish teachings were only preserved because of individuals who had memorized them (as in Ray Bradbury's famous novel, Fahrenheit 451.)   Hence the traditional focus on memorization.

Vulcans have eidetic memories, so I think we can safely assume they will be able to recover the knowledge that each elder has brought with him or her in their minds.  At the same time, there will be gaps in the record, because not all of the Vulcan elders survived.  Those who died took with them the katras they carried.  But even ordinary Vulcans carry some pieces of the story in their own family histories, and these can help fill in the gaps. 

I can imagine that a community-wide effort will be made to gather every bit of information about the old homeworld that the survivors can remember - much the same as the various Holocaust museums and Steven Spielberg's oral history project are now recording the memories of Holocaust survivors.   There have been cases where a song or story was rescued because only one single person was alive to remember it.  So every detail, no matter how unimportant it might seem, needs to be collected.  The same is true with Vulcan history.

Will there be a Vulcan Talmud?

In the Jewish tradition, Moses was given oral teachings as well as those that were written down in the Torah.  This oral tradition was passed down, teacher to student, in an unbroken line until the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 C.E. Not only the city and Temple were destroyed, but half a million people as well, including many rabbis, priests and scholars.  Those sages who escaped gathered in a town called Yavna and began to write down the teachings they had so carefully memorized.  This compilation continued to grow over the next 300 years or so as more commentaries were added.

Eventually, this collection of knowledge became what is known as the Talmud, which literally means, "the studying."  It is a many-volume resource that covers everything from religious laws to folk remedies.  There are things in the Talmud of extreme importance to Jewish life today, and other things that may seem trivial or irrelevant.  The sages did not make such distinctions.  They collected everything.

Will a similar process take place among those 10,000 Vulcans who survived the destruction of their home planet?   Probably.  With their love of logic and ritual, I am sure they will begin to collect and preserve the remnants of their culture in an orderly fashion.  But there will also be changes in the culture, the same as there were changes brought about by the Jewish Diaspora (scattering).  One of the biggest changes back then was the substitution of verbal prayers for physical sacrifices.  When the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed, people could no longer bring the animal and fruit sacrifices.  So, based on teachings about prayer from the Prophets,* verbal prayer took the place of sacrifices.

The early Christians handled the same problem by making Jesus into the ultimate and final sacrifice -- but here is not the place to get into a big Jewish-Christian debate.  The point is, that major changes in worldviews and ceremonies often take place after major disasters.  So it will be interesting to see in what direction(s) Vulcan culture will grow on the new planet.  Will they continue the kas-wan survival initiation, or will the unfamiliarity of the land make this trial too dangerous?   Will they remain pacifists, or will they embrace militarism out of a need to defend themselves?  Will they isolate themselves like the Orthodox Jews in Mea Shearim (a very traditional part of Jerusalem) in an attempt to preserve everything as it once was?  Or will they take the road of the Talmudic rabbis after the Roman siege, and find ways to adapt to a new era?   Maybe they will they take the best of both worlds and forge it into a new Vulcan society.   Only time (and Paramount Studios) will tell.

The question of populating New Vulcan

The post-Holocaust Hasidic communities repopulated themselves by having lots of children -- big families are still the norm today.  When asked about birth control, they point out that six million dead in the 1940s was enough "birth control" already.   Many also believe they are providing new bodies for the souls of the victims to reincarnate. (Yes, Hasidic Jews believe in reincarnation.)**

Vulcans normally have few children, and their population in the old timeline was stabilized.  Plus, they only go into pon farr (a sort of male estrus cycle) every seven years.  But it has never been clear to me whether or not they can voluntarily reproduce at other times.   It would appear from the TOS episode, "The Enterprise Incident," that they can at least have sex outside of pon farr.  Is there is a way to artificially induce pon farr so they can have children more often?   Since Vulcans live so much longer than Humans, they could space their children so that it would not be such a burden on the mothers.  Maybe that was the original purpose of pon farr -- to space children seven years apart.  On a desert planet with few resources, that would make evolutionary sense.   But for a decimated population that has been transplanted to a new world, it may be necessary to have children more often.

Would they marry only Vulcans?   That would probably be true if "Vulcanness" is defined only in terms of genetics.  But remember, the original Spock was very much Vulcan, even though he was half Human genetically, so "race" is only part of it.  Culture and upbringing play a large role, too. In many ways, Spock was more strictly Vulcan that a lot of full-blood Vulcans.  So, there might be more openness to marrying with other races now, if those individuals were willing to adopt Vulcan ways.  Again drawing on Jewish history, before the Holocaust it was very, very rare to have converts to Judaism, and those who did convert were often not socially accepted.  Now it is much more common and there is less prejudice.

Vulcans by Choice?

Becoming a Jew is more like being adopted into a tribe, because it is not just about religion per se.  It also means joining a community and taking on the culture.  A true convert becomes a full-fledged Jew and so are his/her descendants as long as they marry other Jews.  In other words, genealogy plays an important role in Jewish identity, but biological "race" has nothing to do with it.  That's why you will find blonde Jews, black Jews, and even oriental Jews nowadays.

So, perhaps we could imagine Vulcans becoming more open to adopting non-Vulcans into the "tribe," so to speak.  We already know (or at least, we did know from the old timeline) that there are some liberal Romulans who are interested in reunification and are studying the Vulcan Way.  They might provide a new influx of vulcanoid blood.    And we also know that Vulcans can breed with Humans.

In some of the fan-produced Vulcan dictionaries, there is actually a word for "Vulcan by Choice" -- yet another Jewish cultural influence! "Jew by Choice" is the more politically correct term for a Jewish convert (as different from a "Jew by Birth.")  This terminology has apparently provided fandom with a role model for Vulcans by Choice.

It would seem the Vulcans will have no other choice but to accept Vulcans by Choice if they want to survive, because 10,000 individuals is not really a very big gene pool in the long haul.  The Amish, who do not accept converts or newcomers, have become very inbred and are now facing serious problems with genetic diseases.   European Jews, who lived in isolated communities for many centuries, also carry certain genetic diseases. However, the recent influx of Jews by Choice is bringing new DNA patterns into the community, so that Jews have fewer such problems than the Amish.

Whatever choices the Vulcans make, one thing seems certain:  they are going to have to be more willing to talk openly about sexual and reproductive matters than in the past.  This will, in turn, have a strong effect on their very private culture.  Was that the purpose of the Spock-Uhura kiss scene in the turbolift in Star Trek XI?  Was it to establish that these "new Vulcans" are not so rigid about displaying affection?   Here, too, there is a Jewish parallel.  While the Bible is very circumspect when talking about sexual acts (with sayings such as "Adam knew his wife"), the Talmud goes into considerable detail about various sexual practices and taboos.  Non-Jews are sometimes offended by this candor, and ask how this can be "spiritual."  But the Talmud is not about spirituality per se.  It is about the continuity of a people.   As such, it covers all aspects of society, even sex.

A more loving Vulcan father role?

In The Original Series, Spock's father, Sarek, does not speak to him for 18 years because he disapproved of Spock going into Starfleet instead of the Vulcan Science Academy.  In the new movie, Sarek seems more supportive of his son.  Is this a change in the timeline, or is it a reflection of 2009 expectations about more nurturing father roles?

We need to remember that Leonard Nimoy was drawing on his parents' Jewish culture and his own experience in the way he developed the original Spock.  Nimoy was born in 1931, and has repeatedly talked about how he felt like an outsider as a Jew in 1930s and 40s America.  He drew heavily on that alienation to play Spock.  In fact, this was one of the things that first attracted him to the role.  Nimoy has also said that his parents disapproved of him becoming an actor, to the point that his father would not give him the tuition to study acting.

In early 20th-century Russia, where Nimoy's family came from, it was common for Jews to totally disown children who left the faith, to the point of saying the prayer for the dead.  Therefore, the idea that Spock and Sarek did not speak for 18 years was not impossible to Nimoy's generation, nor would it have seemed "abusive."  It just was what was.  Spock joining Starfleet would have been, in Sarek's mind, the equivalent of "converting" to another set of values.  (Which may be why Spock was so strict in his Vulcan discipline, to prove he was not abandoning Vulcan ways.)   This would also explain why Spock had a half-brother we did not hear about until Star Trek V: The Final Frontier -- because in that movie, brother Sybok really did reject Vulcan logic in favor of emotionalism, and was therefore disowned by his family and Vulcan society.

However, times have changed in the 21st century, and the general public now expects a more nurturing role for father figures in movies.  In the Jewish community after the Holocaust, attitudes about "heretics" also changed.  There were so few Jews left, we could not afford to lose a single one.  Rather than write them off as dead, Orthodox Jews began to reach out and try to bring them back into the fold.  And that is exactly what the older Spock is saying to younger Spock at the end of the movie.  There are so few Vulcans left, they cannot afford to ignore each other.
We should also keep in mind that the supportive scene between Sarek and younger Spock in the new movie occurs before Spock rejects membership in the Vulcan Science Academy.  Sarek and Amanda wanted a son, and they knew he would be a "mixed breed" child, so why would Sarek reject him for that?  But Spock's later refusing to go to the Academy would be like the son of a Hasidic Rebbe deciding to become a rock star.  There would simply be no common ground.  So it is possible that Sarek was no longer so supportive after Spock joined Starfleet in the new timeline, same as in the old timeline. And it might have continued that way, were it not for Nero's attack on Vulcan.  Spock's rescue of his father from the imploding planet changed everything between them.

From generation to generation...

These are just a few of my thoughts about possible Jewish parallels generated by the new movie.  One thing is certain:  Star Trek is going in a new direction now.   Paramount has already signed contracts with the actors for two sequels, the first to be released in 2012.   Director J.J. Abrams has said,  "The idea, now that we are in an independent timeline, allows us to use any of the ingredients from the past - or come up with brand-new ones - to make potential stories."  He also felt that the new plot line could conceivably fuel Star Trek for decades to come.
I do find myself wondering whether any of the Jewish subtexts that Nimoy created will carry over into the new timeline with Zachary Quinto's portrayal of Spock.  Quinto is not Jewish, he is of Italian-Irish descent.  He is an excellent actor, but will he bring the same "outsider" perspective the role as Leonard Nimoy?   Hard to tell yet.   Then again, is Spock even going to be an outsider in this new timeline? 

In effect, we of the older generation are now passing the Star Trek universe on to the new generation, which will have its own strange new worlds to explore.  Where that will take us, is anyone's guess.    It's a big universe out there.  Shalom.

*SACRIFICES:  As for example, Hosea 14:3, written after the destruction of the First Temple circa 550 B.C.E., which says, "Take with you words, and turn to the Lord; say unto Him: Take away all iniquity, and receive us graciously.  So we will offer the words of our lips instead of calves."  The Hebrew word devarim can mean either "words" or "things."   Based on this, Hosea taught that we could be forgiven through prayer instead of animal sacrfices.

** REINCARNATION: my previous book, Jewish Tales of Reincarnation, for classical Jewish text sources and oral traditions.  (Published in 2000 by Jason Aronson, Inc.)

Excerpted from Jewish Themes in Star Trek by Yonassan Gershom, pp. 231-240.   Copyright 2009 by Yonassan Gershom, all rights reserved.


  1. Re:
    "... Imagine being the only survivor from an entire extended family. No parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins - just you, all alone in the universe. ... It took three generations for the newly established families of Holocaust survivors to have grandparents ... "
    I've heard that, during and after World War Two, when young Jewish refugees arrived in America, England, or other countries where they could return to school, in many schools they were made ashamed by teachers who gave assignments that involved things like "Interview three generations of your family about their childhoods" — or "Ask one of your grandparents to tell you about his/her own family history: what were his/her own grandparents like?" — or embarrassed further by class-wide/schoolwide projects/parties/events where students were strongly encouraged (maybe required) to bring a grandparent/uncle/aunt/cousin (similarly, often there were letter-writing activities — in class, or as homework — where students were required to write and mail a letter inviting a grandparent/uncle/aunt/cousin in another town to an event at the school or in the community. Extra points were given if the relative answered and the student read the letter in class aloud, and it was very common for everyone in class — except the young refugee, the Holocaust survivor — to be able to merit those extra points.)

    [translation and footnotes by Kate Gladstone —
    traditionally chanted to a tune somewhat reminiscent of "Sledgehammer" as sung by the twenty-first century Terran bard Rihanna]

    In the ashes between stars we meditated
    On impermanence
    As we remembered Vulcan. [1]

    There on the bulkheads we hung our lyres
    As if our destroying kinsman had called to us for songs
    As if he had demanded melodies of home,
    As if he had said,
    “Sing to me now
    Of the power in Vulcan's logic!”

    How can we chant the Stanzas of Surak under alien skies? [2]

    If I forget thee, Vulcan, may my brain forget reason.
    May my tongue cease to speak logic if I do not remember thee,
    if I do not consider Vulcan's legacy my highest purpose.

    Remember, each sentient being, what Nero did on the day Vulcan was destroyed.
    “Tear it down,” he cried, “tear it down to the subatomic!”

    Romulans, our kinfolk bound to emotion —
    May long life and prosperity come
    To the one who confronts you with your illogic,
    As your captain has confronted us with its consequences.

    May sentients live long and prosper
    As they bring your descendants
    To the contemplation of mortality in an unforgiving cosmos. [3]

    [1] This and subsequent verses are structurally, and otherwise, uncannily similar to an ancient (approximately 3000 years before spaceflight)Terran lament. To date, Federation anthropologists have offered no completely satisfactory explanation for the seeming coincidence, which appears too thoroughgoing to be completely attributed to Preserver action.

    [2] In Modern Standard Vulcan (ever since its initial codification by grammarians of the orthodox Surakian school), questions beginning with any word equivalent to "How?" are never rhetorical, but are always literal.    
               In other words, the implication here is the direct opposite of what it would have been in many Terran languages ("We cannot possibly chant," etc.) Here, the anonymous composer is not implying that Vulcan's heritage cannot be preserved or transmitted after the destruction of the homeworld: on the contrary, he or she is calling on fellow survivors of Vulcan's demise to find ways to preserve and transmit this heritage.

    [3] The idioms used in the last line are generally translated as "contemplating mortality" and "in an unforgiving cosmos" when encountered in post-Surak Vulcan speech or writing; for instance, these are the only translations provided in the SAREK-GRAYSON STUDENT DICTIONARY OF MODERN STANDARD VULCAN.
            However, these two phrases in question include archaic words which originally had quite different, much more concrete meanings: all of which are still found in poetic and ritual texts whose study remains central to the Vulcan primary school curriculum.
            Specifically, the compound word which now means "contemplating" once had a much more concrete meaning: namely, "having one's head penetrated or cracked open" — similarly, the prepositional phrase which now means "in an unforgiving cosmos" once meant "through forcible contact with stone." In other words, any Vulcan schoolchild (and certainly a Vulcan poet or singer) would be well aware that a wish to see future generations of Romulans being brought to "contemplate mortality in an unforgiving cosmos" — an entirely justifiable wish, fully compatible with the anti-aggressive strain of Surakite thought — could also be quietly understood as an unadmitted hope that the Vulcans' obstreperous cousins might someday, somehow, get their heads smashed in by rocks.