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Thursday, October 10, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Nimoy sees no logic in cancellation of talk

Seattle Times staff reporter

The Federation has dumped Mr. Spock.

Not the United Federation of Planets, though. The Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle has canceled an appearance by Leonard Nimoy over a dispute concerning nude images in the former "Star Trek" actor's new art-photography book.

"I'm shocked by it," Nimoy said, following what he described as an "unpleasant" conversation with the federation's director, Barry Goren. "It may be an anomaly. I hope it is. We have not had this kind of reaction anyplace else."

"Shekhina" features ethereal black-and-white images of women — some of whom are partially dressed or nude — based on the Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism.

"It's a photographic essay on the subject of the Shekhina, which is the feminine presence of God, the feminine aspect of divinity," Nimoy, 71, explained in a phone interview from his Los Angeles home. "This is not some figure that is a foggy mist in a cloud somewhere. I have depicted her as being a flesh-and-blood woman."

And it's not what prospective donors at the Oct. 23 fund-raising event needed to see, according to Goren. He describes the federation as "sort of the Jewish United Way here in town," with about 4,500 regular donors. It raised $10 million last year.

"When we started to get some expressions of concern, I brought it to my leadership," Goren said.

He declined to say how many people had objections. As for the concerns:

"I think it's pretty self-explanatory. If you were running a charity fund-raising dinner and there were going to be images of naked women or naked women with Jewish ritual objects draped on them, that might be offensive to some folks."

The book's cover, for example, shows a woman with a nipple visible through a translucent garment, and with phylacteries — a traditional Jewish prayer accessory — wrapped around one arm.

But Nimoy said, "I don't think there is anything about this work that is any more aggressive than what you would see in any museum in the world. This is a very reverential book. These photographs are reverential." And he claims the images are hardly without precedent in a Jewish mythic tradition that has a long history of references to sensuality.

Still, he said, "There's no question that some of these issues could be considered transgressive." However, he maintains that the people at the Jewish Federation knew what they were getting when they booked his appearance.

That's where the communication gets garbled.

According to Goren: "We invited Leonard Nimoy because he's a well-known Jewish person that would be a draw for our donors. The truth is that we invited Leonard Nimoy back in July, not to talk about his book but to talk about his 'Jewish journey,' a speech he has given in Jewish organizations before. That's what we contracted for."

Neither Nimoy's publicist nor the Jewish Federation would release a copy of the contract.

One way or another, Nimoy said he volunteered to negotiate with the federation on which images in his slide show would be acceptable. (Copies of the book were to be available at the event.) But the two sides couldn't reach a compromise and called it off Wednesday.

"This is a shutout. Don't come, don't show," Nimoy said.

Goren said comedian Al Franken, author of "Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot: And Other Observations," will replace Nimoy at the fund-raiser.

"Shekhina" is Nimoy's first published book of professional photography, a project he said he worked on for six or seven years. After enjoying fame and a massive cult following over his long career as an actor and director (and also — less publicized these days — a singer), Nimoy said he has "withdrawn" from show business to concentrate on photography.

"I'm withdrawn from both — I'm not accepting any acting or directing offers. I've had enough of that. This is what I'm doing."

The Seattle experience — one of many on his promotional tour for "Shekhina" — has left him frustrated.

"Rather than simply apply a word to it like censorship — which it probably is, I don't know, I'm not a First Amendment specialist — I think at the very least it's some people determining what a lot of other people should be exposed to or not. That's the issue that concerns me. Somebody's making a decision that these other people should not see this, should not be exposed to it. And that saddens me, frankly."

But is it censorship?

"Not at all," argues Goren, who says he's never encountered such a hassle in his 18 years with the federation. "But we find ourselves in an unusual situation. We have a purpose and a goal for this event that has nothing to do with this book."

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