Thirty-three years after Star Trek: The Next Generation first aired, Captain Jean-Luc Picard returned to our screens earlier this year with a new ragtag crew, a daring rescue mission, and a show bearing his name. But Star Trek: Picard isn’t just an ambitious, exciting, often deeply moving show – it’s also incredibly Jewish. From subtle naming choices to major plot points, the Picard showrunners have cleverly woven Jewish culture into nearly every aspect of their universe, even though none of the characters are explicitly described as members of the tribe.
*Major spoilers for the first season of Star Trek: Picard below*
In the first episode of Picard, we learn that the now-retired admiral is haunted by a failed attempt to evacuate members of the Romulan species to safety when their home planet is about to be destroyed. While Picard himself compares the attempted rescue mission to the WWII evacuation of Dunkirk, there is another famous evacuation reference in this plotline as well: the ships Starfleet sends to transport the refugees are identified as “Wallenberg class.”
While this has not been confirmed in the show, it seems likely that this class of ships was named after Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat with Jewish heritage who saved tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust. Working with the War Refugee Board, he issued “protective passports” to Hungarian Jews naming them as Swedish citizens to prevent their deportation – even handing protective passes through the doors of an Auschwitz-bound train and saving dozens of lives that day alone, according to a driver who worked for him – and prevented a plan to blow up the Budapest ghetto.
In 1945, Wallenberg went to attend a meeting with Soviet military leaders and was never seen again – he is presumed to have died in 1947. He has since been made an honorary citizen of the United States, Canada, Hungary, Austria, and Israel, and is recognized as Righteous Among the Nations.
While Picard marks the first time Wallenberg class ships have appeared in the Star Trek canon, it seems fitting that Starfleet would choose to honor this wartime hero by having the ships they use to rescue civilians bear his name.
And the ships aren’t the only part of the Romulan evacuation plan with a Jewish influence. The planet Starfleet was hoping to use as a relocation hub is called Vashti. Sound familiar? In the Book of Esther, Queen Vashti is banished for refusing to “display her beauty” at a banquet the king has ordered her to attend. While there are many interpretations of the reasons behind Vashti’s refusal, the fact of her defiance cannot be denied, and echoes of this story show up in Picard as well. The planet Vashti is home to an order of Romulan warrior nuns called the Qowat Milat, an all-female group who believe in total honesty and are incredibly skilled in combat. It seems fitting that the women living on the planet bearing Queen Vashti’s name have trained themselves to never silence their thoughts, motivations, or desires, and can put a sword through anyone who tries to order them around.
The music of Picard also draws on Jewish origins, as well as referencing 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis. In Nemesis, Lieutenant Commander Data sings Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” at Commander Riker and Counselor Troi’s wedding, and the song returns near the end of Picard when Data’s consciousness is turned off at his request. Though “Blue Skies” was written by iconic Jewish composer Irving Berlin, that’s not the only reason this music choice feels Jewish to me. Hearing “Blue Skies” play during Data’s death reminded me of the Mourner’s Kaddish, and seemed to fill a similar emotional space when it was time to say goodbye. The version of the song used in Picard is performed by Isa Briones – who plays Data’s twin daughters Dahj and Soji – so the end of Data’s life was marked by a loved one singing about something beautiful without mentioning death once.
But for me, the most exciting Jewish reference in Picard wasn’t the ships or the planet or the music – it was their wonderful, brand-new twist on golem mythology.
Near the end of the first season, the characters are shown a synthetic body that could upload a person’s consciousness, and which cyberneticist Agnes Jurati immediately refers to as a golem.
In Jewish folklore, a golem is a constructed being – usually made of mud or clay – that has been brought to life for some purpose. In the story of the Golem of Prague, widely considered as the “classic” golem narrative, the golem was brought to life specifically to defend the Jews of the Prague ghetto from anti-Semitic attacks.
While I do love golem folklore, I often find myself frustrated with how golems are depicted in popular culture – as mindless, destructive, uncontrollable things, rather than beings intentionally created to protect and safeguard a Jewish community under attack. But the Picard writers don’t just honor golem folklore. They innovate. In the final episode, after Picard helps save a group of synthetic life forms from persecution but succumbs to a degenerative brain condition while doing so, his consciousness is uploaded to the synthetic body to save his life. So, rather than the golem being built to protect a marginalized people, in this case a protector becomes a golem – and one built in the image of the people he was protecting, too.
The Jewish story threads woven through Star Trek: Picard are a welcome breath of fresh air in a sci-fi landscape that often leans towards hazily “post-religious” futures, ignoring potential layers of narrative depth and flattening the complex relationship between religion and culture. I have no idea what the next few hundred years will hold for humankind – maybe we’ll be exploring the universe with some version of Starfleet, or maybe we will have taken a different path entirely – but I do believe that Jewish culture will be part of whatever future we fashion for ourselves. Watching Picard, I found a great deal of joy watching future Jewish culture thrive, as I hope it will in the real 24th century, too.
Header image design by Grace Yagel.