Full disclosure: I have very little memory of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956). On the last two Sabbath days I hunted for what those of us in publishing habitually call the physical copy (“pbook” when I’m in the office . . . feh!) of this film so I could schedule a revisit. My reliable used DVD shop is on its last leg these days, so it’s slim pickings over there. I hacked into Mom and Dad’s Netflix to see if I could do some streaming, but I knew that was an even riskier gamble to take. Two routes fruitless, the third was to explore other online options available to me, but those were certainly not to occur without a coupon or a gift card. Eventually I called off the hunt and accepted God’s honest truth – in a modern world divided between the physical and the digital, The Ten Commandments were nowhere to be found.
My search for Moses started a few days after a long weekend in Chicago. Many will agree that the bloodiest conflicts tend to revolve around religion; it’s true of world history, and it seems to be true of families. One of the greatest wars in family history involved getting me to Chicago in the glacial month of January to attend a distant relative’s bar mitzvah. Battles were fought on many fronts, and perhaps even a few were won, but in the end my troops forced to retreat, and I found myself in a window seat on United Airlines headed for O’Hare International Airport. Judaism felt like it been a part of my life three or four lifetimes ago, but it got me thinking . . .
My Jewish summer camp in Santa Cruz, CA, was being swallowed up slowly by the earth. As kids we were entertained by the fact that camp was built on a fault line, and the cabin floors were noticeably slanted. Left untouched, a laundry bag resting on the floor could very well end up on the other side of the cabin without any human interaction. Eventually the site was shut down, but not before generations of camp alumni were invited to revisit the grounds and walk around the sections that were not closed off with barricade tape. A five-minute walk from main camp was a beautiful building constructed as a Holocaust Memorial, and fortunately it was safe enough (or so they said) for us to visit. I remember walking up there alone and standing in the main room where I had spent many summer hours being educated on the rituals and customs of Reform Judaism.
The main room of the Holocaust Memorial building was primarily windowed; to the left I could see the trunks of the surrounding trees, and to the right I could see the tops of the trees. Beginnings and ends; young and old; growing and grown; I’m sure its point was drilled into my head at an age when I refused to accept any point made by a superior, but standing there that day looking left and looking right, I felt more spiritual than I have before or since. It was a connection to nature, a connection to my past and future, and a connection to the soul mates I was fortunately to have had in my life. The “camp” parts of camp were priceless, and I wouldn’t trade those days for all the Mae West DVD collections in the world. When it comes to the organized “stand now; sit now, pray now” aspects of Judaism, however, I’m afraid we have long since parted ways. And as it turns out, we were never that close. Spiritually comes in many forms, but for this guy, it never came from a scroll or a prayer book. An equally powerful moment returned years later, when Madonna performed “Like a Prayer” dressed as Joan of Arc, and for those seven minutes, I can guarantee that I was more soul than body. But would you like to know what experience has practically no amount of spirituality whatsoever? That would be Chicago in January.
At 33 years old, my attention span in synagogue is essentially where was it was when I was a lad, possibly worse. A service that starts with a song is lovely, but to those of us who have seen the political sides of organized religion, we can’t help but snicker at an opening song that is simply a melodic repetition of the word “lie.” I’m sure the song book just leaves off the “e” in the transliteration of the soothing song, “Li, Li, Li.” Later on while the rabbi was jabbering on up there on his stage, I had a good Footloose moment and grinned slyly when I found myself examining my nails. I didn’t go as far as the minister’s daughter in Footloose and break out my nail polish during the sermon, but let’s be honest; we all know it crossed my mind. For two decades rabbis were the adults from Charles M. Schultz’s Peanuts, just an avalanche of incomprehensible noise that only they could understand. This particular rabbi didn’t seem like he wanted to be in the office that day (seriously, this guy should have been holding an “I Hate Mondays” coffee mug), but he did manage to get my attention at one point during the service – he brought up an old movie. Yes, I should have been paying closer attention in synagogue that day. I think my mind was more present when I was in Texas weeks earlier and a friend took me to church so she could take Communion. Now that was fascinating to a former-ish Reform Jew from California.
With Moses holding a gun to my head, I couldn’t map out the exact path that led us to Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments during that bar mitzvah, but there we were: temple movie trivia. The rabbi’s get-their-attention moment of his sermon called out the unresolved debate over who supplied the voice of God in The Ten Commandments. Some list Charlton Heston, while others claim it was DeMille himself who lent voice to the Almighty. Without a film credit (and who needs those, right Mrs. Hitchcock?), we can never know the true voice of God. I would have cast Katharine Hepburn, myself, but that’s just another one of Hollywood’s missed opportunities. I tuned out as quickly as I had tuned in, but for a brief moment there, the rabbi was speaking my language.
In college I was taught that a legend is a traditional tale handed down from earlier times and believed to have an historical basis. My beloved folklore professor, who looked a bit like Cecil B. DeMille, and to me, was the voice of God for three years, assigned a wonderful book that examined the Bible as one would a piece of folklore. And wouldn’t you know it; he turned out to be the author of said masterpiece. Accepting with gratitude any text he handed me and absorbing it as my religion, I powered through Holy Writ as Oral Lit, as it points out folkloristic aspects found in multiple translations of the Bible. I’m fairly certain that following the publication of certain works like these, my professor received death threats . . . God bless Your followers. I remember being at a house party in Orange County with some of those old soul-mate friends from camp around that time, and someone asked me what I was studying at school. When I mentioned the subject of my professor’s book to one young lady, she refused to continue the conversation and walked out of the room. It made about as much as sense to me as the thought of a gun-toting Heston playing the role of Moses. But it’s all just a movie, right? Right? Of course right!
Academy Award for The Ten Commandments (1957): Best Special Effects