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As June gave way to July, religion had quite a week. First, a monument to the Ten Commandments that had just been erected in Arkansas by the innocuous-sounding American History and Heritage Foundation was demolished by an angry citizen. Alleged to have yelled ‘Freedom,’ as his car plowed into the three-ton stone sculpture, he made his opposition to the planting of religiously-themed statuary on public grounds dramatically clear, giving Moses, who had angrily dashed the Ten Commandments to the ground the first time around, a run for his money.

Flag. Flickr/Paul Wiethorn
Flag. Flickr/Paul Wiethorn

Ever since the 1950s, when the Fraternal Order of Eagles first set about depositing large-scale monuments to the Ten Commandments in the public square, some Americans have expressed grave concern at what they see as a violation of the First Amendment. In each instance, they’ve turned to the courts, couching their opposition in judicial terms.

It’s too early to tell whether what happened in Arkansas is an aberration or a portent of things to come. But one thing is already clear: Smashing the Ten Commandments is not the way to go.

Meanwhile, miles to the north, in D.C., a counter narrative has emerged, one that celebrates rather than pillories America’s relationship to religious expression. For the first time in more than a century, the National Museum of American History mounted an exhibition that explored the variety of ways in which the citizens of the early republic -- a polyglot lot, if ever there was one -- gave voice and shape to faith.

Curated by the estimable and widely-published Peter Manseau, “Religion in Early America” has something for everyone: George Washington’s christening robe, as pristine as a new-born babe; a first edition of the Book of Mormon; the easily-transportable wooden pulpit used by George Whitfield when preaching outdoors; a church bell produced by Paul Revere; a thirteen-page text in Arabic outlining the basics of Islamic practice and a Torah scroll that had been burnt by Hessian soldiers during the Revolutionary War, courtesy of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York. (The last item, I have to say, gave me pause: Why is the only object in the exhibition that represents the Jews in a state of complete and utter disrepair? I have no doubt that its deployment was well-intentioned; even so, viewers might associate Judaism with destruction, not a pleasing prospect.)

A jewel of a show, “Religion in Early America” is well worth a trip to our nation’s capital. Nothing if not timely, it reminds us that diversity and with it, freedom of expression, is our greatest asset.

Having spent a number of years exploring the ways in which the Ten Commandments (a k a ‘the Decalogue’) have insinuated themselves into American popular culture, I don’t think I have ever come across them in the world of dance.

Ballerina photo shoot
Ballerina photo shoot. Flickr/David Yu

Songs, yes; movies, for sure; even an abundance of down-to- earth, helpful hints such as The Ten Commandments of Quiet Automobile Driving (“toot less”). But a dance? Never -- and certainly not a ballet.

Imagine, then, my delight in learning that a piece called “Decalogue,” the work of New York City Ballet’s resident choreographer, Justin Peck, would be making its debut on Friday evening, May 12, right on the heels of the publication of Set in Stone, my new book about the commandments. That it featured ten dancers piqued my curiosity all the more.

Were the stars aligned? The Ten Commandments trending? Might there be a fortuitous convergence of interest in these ancient dos and don’ts? Galvanized by the possibility, or, more to the point, eager to establish a connection between book and ballet, I emailed the communications folks at the New York City Ballet as well as the dance critics of the New York Times -- and held my breath.

Eventually, I heard back from the associate director of communications at the New York City Ballet, who wrote:

“Just to provide some information, the score for Justin Peck’s new work is called The Decalogue, and the ballet is simply named after the score. There is no other connection or meaning beyond that, and the ballet itself is purely abstract.”

Though disappointed by this bit of news, I was still eager to see for myself and, as luck would have it, “Decalogue” was on my Sunday afternoon subscription. It turns out that apart from the piece deploying ten dancers and having ten sections, (each marked by a Roman numeral), there was nothing else, near as I could tell, that invoked, let alone evoked, the ten commandments.

Alastair Macauley, the chief dance critic of the Times, agreed, writing “if ‘The Decalogue’ title refers to Ten Commandments, they surely aren’t those in the Bible.”

Oh well ... Nothing ventured, nothing gained, as the old saying goes. Besides, conjuring up new ways to convey the ancient biblical text is fun and keeps me on my toes -- so to speak.

When last we left off, I was in search of a narrative that would weld the various elements of my research into a book.

Book cover, Set in Stone.
Book cover, Set in Stone.

Finding a through-line and devising a plot took me to lots of places. It had me perched precariously atop a fire escape on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to see what I could see of the silhouette of a now-vanished stained glass window that had once featured the Ten Commandments in the round.

It also took the form of a class field trip to Trenton, New Jersey, where my students were charged with locating a six foot monument to the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the state capital. You’d think that would be a walk in the park, but it took some doing. The monument, somewhat the worse for wear, was tucked away in a thicket of trees.

My pursuit of perspective brought me even further afield to the Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum in Coshocton, Ohio, whose holdings include an allegedly ancient relic of the Decalogue exhumed by amateur archaeologists on the eve of the Civil War, and to Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. Its glorious sanctuary features a 1905 piece of Americana in which Moses receives the Ten Commandments against the background of El Capitan rather than Mount Sinai.

Closer to home, my search for an overarching framing device took me to the steps of the United States Supreme Court where, nearly a century after the Moses-in-America stained-glass window took shape, champions of the Decalogue brandished cardboard versions of the tablets as they circled the courthouse, anxiously waiting to hear whether or not the public display of the biblical code was constitutional.

It would be nice to say that once I settled down to the business of writing, everything -- the stained-glass windows, archaeological relics, faux Decalogues and the primary and secondary literature that I had consulted over the years -- fell into place, enabling me to coax a coherent narrative out of so many disparate bits and pieces.

No such luck. Another year came and went and then another...

Eventually, though, thanks to the alchemy of writing and a lot of staring at the computer screen, things came together. I found my voice and a structure to contain it. And behold: a book.

The Jewish holiday of Shavuoth, which just took place, is associated with many things: Harvest fruits or bikkurim; Mount Sinai and the giving of the Torah and, on a more quotidian note, the eating of cheese cake and other dairy comestibles. These associations keep the age-old yontef in circulation. But now and again, modern-day life intrudes, adding a grace note to the proceedings.

Cheese cake
Cheese cake. Flickr/Alper Çuğun

Like many of my coreligionists, I had planned on eating a slice or two of cheese cake in the course of the holiday. In search of New York’s finest version, I made a beeline for William Greenberg Jr. Desserts on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, a bakery known far and wide for its pastries. By the time I had arrived on the scene, on the Tuesday afternoon preceding the start of the holiday, none was to be had. “We’re all sold out,” glumly explained the woman behind the counter, one of a handful of longstanding employees who hailed originally from the Philippines. She then added that she was caught off-guard by the pent-up demand for a product which usually doesn’t sell out. “What’s going on?”

I volunteered that a holiday was in the offing. “What kind of holiday?” she asked. “Shavuoth,” I replied. “Spell it,” she commanded. Which I dutifully did, not that it clarified anything. On the contrary. Even more puzzled than before -- what kind of American holiday was Shavuoth? -- but undaunted, the Greenberg Desserts employee then turned to one of her co-workers and told her to order more cheese cakes for the morrow. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that by then, it would probably be too late: Those customers who were apt to mark the holiday with a cheese cake were not too likely to be purchasing one on Shavuoth itself. I hope that wiser heads prevailed. Otherwise, William Greenberg Jr. Desserts was going to have a surfeit of cheese cakes on its shelves -- and it would be all my fault.

The other sweet little holiday-related moment I experienced this year took place not in a bakery but at shul, where, at the conclusion of the service, the congregation’s children placed fruits and flowers at the foot of the Ark. One of their number, a boy of about 7 or 8, had made a poster in honor of the occasion, the details of which he was rather keen on sharing publicly. Drawing himself up tall, he proceeded to explain in the preternaturally mature manner of a smart Upper West Side kid that his artwork contained “approximately” 10 petals, which symbolized the “approximately” Ten Commandments. The congregation, fittingly enough, erupted in laughter.

These two incidents are not going to supplant Mount Sinai in our collective imagination, of that I’m sure. All the same, they put me in mind of the ways in which the unanticipated encounter sustains tradition. You never know what’s going to happen.

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For decades now, Cecil B. DeMille’s cinematic extravaganza, The Ten Commandments, has held pride of place on television screens across America, its timing sandwiched between Pesach and Easter.

Heston Ten Commandments
Source: Wikipedia.
An invented holiday tradition if ever there was one, the annual broadcast of a nearly four hour film given over to the story of the ancient Israelites and their search for freedom puzzles as well as delights me.

I can well understand the film’s connection to Pesach, which, after all, commemorates the Exodus and exhorts its celebrants to remember. The movie version may even enhance the process of remembering, rendering the ancient story vivid and alive. As one movie-goer put it, way back when, “the story of Israel had laid frozen in hieroglyphics, manuscripts and books.” But thanks to DeMille, it has “thawed into something colorful.”

Under the circumstances, it’s no surprise that some American Jewish households have even made a point of integrating bits of the film into their own seder, or so I’ve been told.

But the film’s connection to Easter seems more of a stretch. Does it have to do with renewal, perhaps? The maturation of a religious community? Or am I missing something?

I can’t help wonder whether the decision, year in and year out, to showcase The Ten Commandments between Pesach and Easter is a singularly American form of ecumenism designed to celebrate and salute what the members of the tv nation have in common.

When people talk of travel as broadening, they usually have Paris in mind, not Toledo, Ohio. But as I discovered recently, travelling to the heartland of America can be just as eye-opening.

Aerial View of Toledo
Aerial View of Toledo. Source: Flickr.
I had come to the University of Toledo to deliver an illustrated lecture about the Ten Commandments and to participate in a Jewish-Christian-Muslim conversation about religion in contemporary America. By the end of my 24-hour stay, I had learned a lot.

For starters, I was exposed to the debilitating, corrosive effects of de-industrialization on the urban landscape. I then discovered that despite a first-rate women’s basketball team, the lecterns in the university’s student union are not equipped with digital technology. I subsequently drove all over town in search of a laptop as well as a clicker and, in the process, visited Corpus Christi Church where an interfaith dinner was being held.

While in church, I met a Jewish student clad in a yarmulke as well as a tallit, a ritual garment customarily worn only in the morning, much less in a Catholic house of worship. I found a laptop, too, courtesy of a professor of Islamic studies.

If this didn’t set my head spinning, the Q & A session that followed my formal remarks certainly did.
...continue reading "Holy Toledo!"

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