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Eight years, 10 months and 5 days after I started out on the cultural trek that resulted in my writing a book about America’s fascination with the Ten Commandments, Set in Stone comes into the world. I never imagined this project would take as long as it did.

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

From past experience, I was keenly aware that book-making takes time and patience. Even so, in working on this particular project I felt one with my forebears, the ancient Israelites wandering around the desert with no end insight. Would I ever reach my destination? Or, more to the plaintive point, why was this taking so long?

I could point an accusatory finger at the intrusions at the outside world, at least for starters. Aging parents and their subsequent deaths in quick succession, coupled with a new academic position, replete with administrative responsibilities, diverted me from my appointed rounds. These challenges demanded my immediate attention to the exclusion of all else. The Ten Commandments would have to wait.

But that was just the half of it. Writing about the ancient dos and don’ts, let alone coming up with something new to say about them, turned out to be a daunting enterprise -- far more than I bargained for. Calling for the patience of a Job and the mental agility of a Sherlock Holmes -- and I was neither -- it entailed sifting through a voluminous and varied body of material: texts upon texts, paintings and poster art, comic books and court cases, music and film.

Having abundant material on which to draw was a mixed blessing. It wasn’t so much a matter of competing voices, though that certainly slowed things down, as it was the absence of a clear through-line. Discerning a pattern, an argument, a claim about these biblical passages and their tenacious hold on the American imagination eluded me.

Sure, I could have taken the curatorial high road, showcasing the Ten Commandments of this and that and the third thing. But I was writing a book, not mounting an exhibition, even one with the potential to be lively and engaging. I was in need of a narrative.

To be continued….

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.

People in funny hats, empty chairs, a capella singing, overheated rhetoric, a red dress -- the Republicans put on quite a show in Tampa last week at their national convention. Most of it left me cold. What didn’t was the ardent public display of religion, especially the ritualized invocation. The sight of thousands of earnest delegates, their eyes shut tight in prayer as clergymen from denominations that ran the gamut from Orthodox Judaism to Mormonism intoned passages from the Bible or evoked the presence of Jesus, really got me going.

Bible by Mike Johnson
Bible. Flickr/Mike Johnson
I should know better, of course. I spend a lot of my time studying, teaching, and researching the history of religion in modern America. My bookshelves groan under the accumulated weight of book after book on this very subject. I’m even at work on a volume of my own -- on America’s embrace of the Ten Commandments -- the very point of which is the entangled relationship between religion and culture.

And yet, while watching the Republican convention, I was truly taken aback by the ways in which religion was repeatedly affirmed. Some of my coreligionists, I suspect, were thrilled when Rabbi Meir Soloveitchik appeared on the vast stage of the convention hall to deliver the opening invocation, his hard-to-pronounce and decidedly un-American name emblazoned across the screen. Their hearts might have beat a little faster as the rabbi, in ringing but yeshivish tones, highlighted the connections between Biblical and American notions of freedom and, for good measure, punctuated his remarks with a hefty dose of Hebrew. Hebrew! In Tampa! What a triumph for the Jews!

My heart beat a little faster, too, but it wasn’t out of pride. The whole thing, from start to finish, made me really uncomfortable. It’s not that I think that American Jews should hide their light under a bushel; far from it. But the overt politicization of religious expression, let alone the calculated staginess of it all, unsettled me.

There was more to come. Integrating Mormonism as well as Orthodox Judaism into the proceedings, the Republicans invited Kenneth Hutchins, a Mormon bishop from Boston, to give the invocation on the last day of the convention. Replete with explicit references to Jesus in lieu of the more anodyne 'heavenly father,' his remarks made a point of underscoring just how much Mormonism had in common with the other Christian denominations. And lest anyone within earshot might have missed that connection, Hutchins concluded his presentation by blessing the assembled in the name of 'Jesus Christ, our Lord.'

Only in America.

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Word from on high is that the Walt Disney Company is planning to open a theme park in Israel. Talk about bringing coals to Newcastle!

For years, religiously-minded Americans had created facsimiles of the Holy Land on American soil. As early as 1881, a "miniature representation in relief and color" of Jerusalem graced Ocean Grove, N.J., a Methodist summer colony.

The organizers of the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis did the residents of Ocean Grove one better. "Jerusalem comes to you," they proclaimed, replicating the Jaffa Gate, the Dome of the Rock, the Tower of David and the so-called Wailing Wall on the grounds of the fair and importing 1,000 honest-to-goodness inhabitants of Palestine to populate the site.

Holy Land Experience
Holy Land Experience.

Meanwhile, in Orlando, Fla., just a few miles away from Sea World and Walt Disney World, contemporary evangelical Protestants throng the Holy Land Experience, which boasts of transporting visitors "2,000 years back in time to the land of the Bible."

Much like an old-fashioned amusement park but better, the Holy Land Experience contains the "Temple Plaza," the Shofar Auditorium, a Scriptorium, the "world's largest indoor model of Jerusalem," and a laser show in which the Ten Commandments are etched in fire atop Mount Sinai.

The idea behind the Holy Land Experience, explains Joan R. Branham (PDF), is to create a "complex theological landscape" that blends Judaism with Christianity.

...continue reading "Promised lands"

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