The Vilna Shul is the only survivor of about 50 Boston synagogues from the jewish immigration period, and the only one in Boston on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s on the back slope of Beacon Hill (Phillips Street) which traditionally was part of the West End. The neighborhood was filled with Yiddish-speaking jews who fled Eastern Europe in the late 1800’s to escape institutionalized orgies of persecution called “pogroms,” where governments would legally permit the populace to go to jewish sections and attack children and parents and destroy their homes and businesses. The Vilna Shul was composed largely of orthodox jews from Vilna Lithuania. “Shul” is the Yiddish word for “synagogue,” and is cognate with “school” (both Yiddish and English are Germanic at root – though, of course, English has since 1066 incorporated a lot of Latin words).
In 1931, Leonard Nimoy was born in the West End to Yiddish-speaking parents. As a child he was fascinated by the orthodox jewish custom of blessing the congregation using a certain hand gesture, and as Spock on Star Trek he adapted it to become the “Vulcan salute.” In his (second) autobiography he reports the magic the gesture had for him
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.
A sculpted depiction of the priestly hand gesture can be seen inside the Shul on the Holy Ark:
I don’t normally celebrate the holidays, but Karen Lurie invited me to attend Purim service at the Vilna Shul. The holiday celebrates the jewish escape from a planned genocide in Persia in about 500 BCE. Many jewish holidays are about escaping persecution, and the jews who built the Shul in 1919 (and Nimoy’s family) would have related through personal experience to this historical trend. The atmosphere was lively and festive inside the Shul, which functions also as a museum where inquisitive Bostonians and guests may visit during the following hours:
March 15th until November 18th:
Thursday, Friday: 11am to 5pm.
Sunday: 1pm to 5 pm
Finally, here is a short documentary about the Shul narrated by Leonard Nimoy.