As two new shows, Amazon Prime’s Picard and Netflix’s Space Force both contain significant Jewish themes and/or actors. it is timely to reflect on the relationship between Jews and outer space in popular culture.
Typically, the notion of Jews in outer space was one only mined for humour. Jews could only mimic astronauts, but were out of place in outer space.
At the end of his History of the World, Part 1 (1981), Mel Brooks offered up a humorous sequence depicting a promised sequel to his preview of ‘Hitler on Ice’ entitled ‘Jews in Space’, a sci-fi spectacular featuring Star-of David-shaped spaceships, flown by haredim, singing of the glories of ‘defending the Hebrew race’.
In his parodic Spaceballs (1987), Brooks delivered.
This idea is developed elsewhere: in Deconstructing Harry, Allen provides a bar mitzvah party with a Star Wars (dir. George Lucas, 1977) theme, including the legend, ‘May the force be with you, Donald’.
Some believe that Stanley Kubrick was asked to fake the moon landings. Being the perfectionist, he agreed and shot them on location.
Generally, though, the Jewish presence in outer space was submerged in analogy. You had to read the clues to decode the Jewishness.
For example, the television series Star Trek and spin-off films featured Leonard Nimoy as Vulcan scientist Mr. Spock. The cerebral, pacifist, intellectual Vulcans were conceived along Jewish lines and the Spock greeting sign is based on the raising of the hands during the priestly blessing. Yet, this was nowhere made explicit in the films and Spock, the only non-human member of the USS Enterprise crew, thus functioned as a symbolic or conceptual Jew.
Of course, the orginal Star Wars trilogy featured a Jewish actor playing Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz) whose name is Hebrew for ‘knowledge’.
David Lynch’s Dune based on Frank Herbert’s novel of the same name did not feature any explicit Jews and, despite the more obvious references to Islam (e.g. Jihad), much of Herbert’s vision owes much to Judaism, even if not always conscious. The belief in a Messiah is one of the main themes. Even Herbert’s term, the Kwisatz Haderach, resembles the Hebrew phrase kefitzat haderech, a magical transport or teleportation (which is how Emanuel Lotem translated the phrase in his Hebrew translation of the novel in 1989). The extreme secrecy of the Fremen, at home in a desert environment, who do much with scarce resources and are concerned mainly with their own survival suggests early Hebrew pioneers.
Jews only show up in the sixth instalment of the Dune books, which Herbert wrote before his death in 1986, Chapterhouse: Dune. There, Herbert presented an ossified form of Judaism that had not changed in millennia. “It is probable that a rabbi from ancient times,” explains a Bene Gesserit leader to her disciple, “would not find himself out of place behind the Sabbath menorah of a Jewish household in your age.” “Herbert’s Jews are as they have always been,” observes Michael Weingrad, the product of a highly stereotyped form of thinking.
It would have been fascinating to see how the Jewish director Alejandro Jodorowsky would have adapted the book in the 1970s. It will be interesting to see what Jewish screenwriter Eric Roth brings to the 2020 version.
In Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), I have argued that both the chess-playing supercomputer HAL (Douglas Rain) and astronaut David Bowman (Keir Dullea) can be read as conceptually Jewish. Kubrick even considered Jewish voices for the former — Jackie Mason and Martin Balsam.
The long-running British character Doctor Who also has Jewish roots.
Robin Williams’ Mork embodied the ultimate Jewish outsider in the classic American sitcom “Mork & Mindy,” which ran from 1978-1982.
On the surface, Mork was not Jewish. He was an alien from the planet Ork, whose propensity for humor in a humorless world made him an annoyance on his home planet and led to his being effectively exiled to Earth. But in Williams’ hands, the character was quintessentially Jewish.
Mork was the stereotypical wandering Jew (although he denies he’s a “wanderer” but an “explorer” instead). An alien outsider stranded on Earth, he embodied the Jewish diaspora experience, trying his hardest to fit in, but never quite making it. There was always something different about him, such as the way he wore his clothes backwards and substituted “KO” for “OK” when speaking English. In one episode, Mindy (Pam Dawber) attempts to instruct him on “how to pass for one of us” by speaking correctly. He lacked the required etiquette and civility. He blurts out to Mindy’s father that they’re living together. When asked to sit down he would sit on his face with his behind in the air. When told “it’s not nice to sit on your face,” his response was to answer with a question: “Then why did God put it there?”
But things are changing, are Jews are becoming more visible as Jews in movies about outer space.
In Serenity (dir. Joss Whedon, 2005), Mr. Universe (David Krumholtz), is a recluse who lives alone on a moon with his blonde shiksa wife, Lenore (Nectar Rose), an automaton known as a ‘love-bot’. A techno-geek, he adores data, and is skilled at intercepting electronic transmissions and recordings anywhere in the universe. He is also religiously identified as Jewish, shown wearing a yarmulke (Yiddish: skullcap) and crushing on a cloth-wrapped glass on his wedding to Lenore. And after his death, stones are placed on his grave in the Jewish tradition.
In Independence Day (dir. Roland Emmerich, 1996) David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) saves the Earth from Alien annihilation.
Finally, Predators (dir. Nimrod Antal, 2010) features Isabelle (Alice Braga) as a beautiful, gritty and badass IDF sniper who is captured in an operation after her spotter is killed and transported to an alien planet where she and her male companions are hunted like prey by an alien species. Isabelle may well be the first serious Jewess in cinematic outer space!
In his 2016 novel Moon Glow Michael Chabon imagines ‘Jews on the Moon’. If we had the Frozen Chosen in his 2007 The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, now we have lunar landsmen. ‘They’re putting a lot of muscle and money and brainpower into a next-level system, Jericho 2. Lunar orbiters and landers. To build a Jewish settlement on the Moon.’
Watch this space for perhaps the Israeli statellite Beresheet, launched in February 2019, is just one of those landers.