Credit: Creative Commons

Passover is the only holiday I’ve ever felt affection for. A seder was the kind of ritual I recognized instantly as a child, from my own haunted house initiations and flashlight-in-the-basement spiels. With its serving bowls of mud, roots and tears, its affirmations of specialness, war stories, ghost stories, dirges and anthems, oaths and blood-rites, it was like deep woods camping with my grandmother’s good silver.

Our half-Jewish, half-Anglican, all-agnostic family celebrated Easter, Christmas and Hanukah, none of them with conviction. But unlike those holidays, or at least their modern, Americanized incarnations, with their generalized insistence on FUN! SOMEHOW! NOW!, Passover was a holiday we did, a physicalized story. It didn’t put the kids at a card table – it asked for our questions, made room for our mischief and spoke our language. And it was hosted by my mother’s parents, who did everything with conviction.

A story told as a meal, the seder was a project of dramatic progression, told in a familiar, child-friendly style of Biblico-magical realism, in part to help the kinder at the table digest its leaden, bitter core. It would not be easy to find a modern, non-Orthodox Jew who believes that Moses literally parted the Red Sea, but the central fact of the story, that the Jews were slaves in Egypt, is offered as a hard pit of truth, the source of an earthy gravity at the center of the evening, around which spin the fantastic stories of water turning into blood and staffs becoming snakes.

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Among the thousands of extras Cecil B. DeMille hired for his original, silent version of The Ten Commandments were 250 Orthodox Jewish immigrants, newly arrived in Los Angeles from Eastern Europe. The director hoped that they would lend a sense of human verisimilitude to the project: “We believed rightly that, both in appearance and in their deep feeling of the significance of the Exodus, they would give the best possible performance as the Children of Israel,” he wrote. In May of 1923, DeMille accompanied the extras to the Guadalupe-Nipomo Sand Dunes in northern Santa Barbara County, where he had erected an enormous, ersatz City of Rameses guarded by 35-foot-tall statues of the Pharaoh and twenty-one five-ton plaster Sphinxes.

The immigrants had, like other members of the company, signed contracts that began with the words: “This location is not a vacation,” and would eventually spend three weeks on the film set, shielding themselves from the sun with improvised, handkerchief turbans, hiding from sandstorms under woolen camp blankets, and sleeping under old canvas tents. But they were paid well: $10 a day for adults, $7.50 a day for the children.

At the end of each day’s filming, they were carried across a mile of sand by horse-driven sleds to Camp DeMille, the company’s sprawling home-base on the beach. The five and a half acre site included a thousand two-person tents, a hospital tent, a postoffice tent, two mess halls, stables for 5,000 horses, donkeys, sheep, goats, and camels, and a large enclosure for the viewing of daily rushes.

DeMille made certain that the camp had its own synagogue, presided over by a Los Angeles Rabbi, and an interpreter for the many immigrants who spoke only yiddish. After a disastrous first night at Camp DeMille, during which the Jews had been served a ham and cheese dinner, the director sent to Los Angeles for a kosher chef.

Kosher rules were observed throughout the camp. Men’s and women’s quarters were separated by a boardwalk dubbed Lasky Boulevard, and men were not allowed into the women’s section without a special pass and a chaperone. Drinking and coarse language were prohibited. It was all enough to make one wonder if DeMille secretly meant to encourage the kind of writhing-on-golden-calves debauchery for which his films were already famous. The mind reels at the opportunities for commandment-defying hijinks at Camp DeMille.

But any historical record left behind by the cast and crew has yet to be discovered, because the entire camp, its dining halls and latrines, its abandoned photographs, journals lunch pails, tobacco tins, shooting scripts, whiskey flasks and mash notes, the enormous City of Ramses itself and all the detritus left lingering at the feet of its Sun Gods, was bulldozed and buried under six feet of desert sand after the last day of shooting. Cecil B. DeMille was said to be nervous about some other filmmaker’s possible poaching of the set, a common practice in the early days of Hollywood.

A scene from Cecil B. DeMille's Ten Commandments (1923). Credit: Creative Commons

There is now a one room, tin shack museum at Guadalupe-Nipomo, which houses the few cracked and yellowed artifacts – fingers from a hand of Ramses, a cafeteria tray – that have made their way to the surface over the years. The filmmakers’ attention to detail and historical accuracy is evident in mounted, side-by-side comparisons of props from the movie and photos of their original counterparts in Egypt.

DeMille wanted every aspect of the shoot to be historically accurate, and to help make the experience for the actors as authentic as possible. Rita Kissin, a writer and extra on the set, overheard a conversation between two middle-aged women at one of the wardrobe tents, as they tried to figure out how to drape their elaborate slave-rag costumes. She transcribed it, in the anthropological spirit of the times, as follows: “Take that off’n you, Mrs. Rosen, or the director will be mad mit you. I’ve heard DeMille say in the olden times there wasn’t no safety pins.”

The director’s fastidiousness paid off. When the day arrived for the shooting of the movie’s big scene, a Hollywood columnist named Jack Jungmeyer parked himself by a 50-foot tall pylon at the edge of the City of Ramses to witness the Jews’ flight from Egypt. Thousands of extras and animals gathered at the towering, faux-copper gates of the city and, upon DeMille’s bark of “action!,” began to stream down the avenue of sphinxes, out into the forbidding Sinai of the central California coast. A few moments later, as they passed the pylon, Jungmeyer wrote, “A strange thing happened…above the bleat of sheep and the lowing of cattle, haltingly at first then sure, swelled the ancient Hebraic chants – ‘Father of Mercy’ and ‘Hear O Israel,’ the ‘Lord our God the Lord is One.’ This was not in the script, not in rehearsals. Here was something flaming from the heart of a people.”

In documentary footage shot by filmmaker Peter Brosnan, who first discovered the “Lost City,” actress Leatrice Joy says, “God almighty, you never heard anything so sad as the dirge of the Jewish people. They gave the impression that this was it. It was never done before. They were living the time, these people. They weren’t acting.” An older Jewish extra told Jungmeyer, “We know this script – our fathers studied it long before there were movies. This is the tale of our beginnings. It is deep in our hearts. It’s just like living in dem times when we got the Torah, an’ now we’re going to get it all over again in a picture by Mr. DeMille.”

The extras’ reactions would not have been very surprising to most Jews. A seder is designed to make the flight from Egypt a personal memory for every member of the tribe, to make the experience of the seder as immediate and authentic as possible. The Haggadah tells the story in the first person plural: we were slaves in Egypt. Not “our ancestors,” not, “the ancient Israelites.” “We.” We were slaves. And now we’re free. We are free and living in the immediate afterwards of that moment.

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A long-brewing tension between my father and my grandfather came to a head one Passover when I was about ten. My father was a fire-and-brimstone atheist, forever on guard against the temptations lurking in the “bad theater” of religion and the “ridiculous fairy tales” of the Bible, yet nonetheless devoted to a personal mythology as improbable and confusing as the Book of Ecclesiastes. He was also an occasional wife beater, a heavy drinker, an often sweet and attentive father, a charming dinner companion, and a bully of explosive rage, used to quieting dissent with a mere lowering of his eyelids.

He’d issued so many snide critiques of the holiday over the years that I associated Passover more with him than my grandparents. By insisting on its fictional nature, he had wierdly established a kind of ownership of the story.

My mother’s father, whom my two brothers, my sister and I called Papa, was our father’s temperamental opposite: gentle, curious, and calm. a painter, chess aficionado and jewelry designer, an observer by nature. He may not have known about the beatings yet, but he was clearly on to my father.

Papa performed his duties as host of the seder every year with as much respectful dispatch as he could get away with. He took a nod-and-wink attitude toward the Judaism his wife practiced earnestly, and he suffered the burdens of a lobster-lover in a kosher home with more than a little annoyance. He liked to sneak away from seders hosted by others, occasionally taking me with him on suddenly remembered “errands” that invariably detoured past drive-thru windows for large helpings of greasy traif nestled between well-leavened, sesame-seed buns.

But he was a traditionalist at heart, the family guardian of heirlooms and legends, and the most reliable keeper of its conscience. We returned quickly from our fast-food sojourns, and he always read the Haggadah with a lovely, warm chuckle and sense of surprise in his voice, as if he were encountering it for the first time, and welcoming its very real effect on him.

He stood to begin the seder that year holding only a single piece of paper, translucent enough for me to discern long, type-written paragraphs and swipes of White Out on the other side. I remember sitting very still as Papa began to read carefully, “The story of Passover is not a fairy tale. It is the story of the Jewish people, and it has been told in more or less its current form for thousands of years.”

My grandfather never mentioned God or the ten commandments in his primer. He focused on the poetry of the seder, the power of its rituals to bring the past into the present, to connect what happened in the days of the Pharaohs to what was happening now. How important it was to fight the good fight against oppression, wherever it occurs. He emphasized his opening point, that the seder rituals had been passed down from grandparents just like him to grandchildren like us, in a long, unbroken line going back to Moses.

I don’t remember monitoring my father for his reaction to the speech. I probably pretended to myself that my grandfather’s words were not meant as a direct rebuke. But I remember the words. I remember the way the steadiness and easy affection in my Papa’s voice thawed my nervousness and made me feel calmer in the presence of my father than I had known I could be.

Sometime later in the evening, I let myself notice that Dad appeared distracted, his eyes a bit glazed, his cheeks pale and puffy. I was used to seeing this look in bathroom mirrors – the look of a frightened and chastened child. I remember feeling a sharp sting of pity for him, and a small sense of new maturity in myself – as if I had been the one who’d written and read my grandfather’s speech.

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Cecil B. Demille, director of The Ten Commandments. Credit: Creative Commons

Cecil B. DeMille was a practicing Episcopalian, and saw his work directing religious epics in evangelical terms. He was proud, he said, that, “‘(his) ministry was making religious movies and getting more people to read the Bible than anyone else ever has.’ But DeMille was also a Jew, at least according to the precepts of Jewish law. His mother, Matilda Beatrice DeMille, was born in 1853 to the prominent Samuel family of Liverpool, England. At the time that Cecil was shooting The Ten Commandments, in May of 1923, his second cousin, First Viscount Herbert Louis Samuel, was serving as the high commissioner of British Mandate Palestine, and as such was the first Jew to govern the historic land of Israel in 2,000 years.

The Viscount would have no doubt witnessed scenes among the early Zionists under his protection similar to those enacted by the “children of Israel” under cousin Cecil’s supervision seven thousand miles away. One of the film’s extras would later recall that, when the actor portraying Moses stood on a rock at the Pacific shoreline, preparing to part the “Red Sea” as hundreds of horse-drawn chariots bore down on real Jews only weeks removed from the pogroms of Kiev or Warsaw, “Tears trembled on wrinkled cheeks, sobs came from husky throats. For many the world had moved back 3,000 years, and they stood once more on the shores of the Red Sea, viewing once more the good omen of deliverance.” For its participants, the Guadalupe Exodus was an authentic experience of a moment invented by memory, perhaps even the most authentic experience of the Passover story ever.

A 2001 story in the Los Angeles Times, and a follow-up piece three years later by Rabbi David Wolpe on BeliefNet, said that no evidence has ever been found of a mass migration of Jewish slaves, or anyone, from Egypt, nor of a sudden influx of a new population into Canaan. The Sinai has yet to yield so much as a Hebrew knife-tip or bracelet, a shard of Jewish pottery or bone. Small tribes of Canaanite shepherds were known to occasionally trek back and forth to Egypt around the time the Exodus is supposed to have happened, and may have been the source for some parts of the story, but they never traveled in anything approaching the large numbers talked about in the Bible. As Israeli archaeologist Ze’ev Herzog has said, “The Israelites never were in Egypt. They never came from abroad. This whole chain is broken. It is not a historical one. It is a later legendary reconstruction – of a history that never happened.”

If they’d discovered that Hanukah was bunk I would have thought, so what else is new? If it had been Succoth I would have thought, which one is that again? But Passover was different. Exodus was a creation story, the story of how Jewishness was made. Judaism’s fundamental ideas – liberation from oppression, commitment to social justice, a belief in the power of words and the law – spring from the story of Passover.

I had hosted several seders of my own as an adult, without ever managing to reconjure the haunted desert of my childhood. The story’s primitive, bloody, nationalistic elements, all the revenge and drowning horses and hailstones and “chosen people” – all the stuff that made it fun – had a tough time getting past my clenched, adult teeth, for the benefit of dinner guests who preferred to dip free-range eggs in low-sodium “saltwater.” But I still found pockets of meaning in the story, and nostalgia in the telling of it. The prospect of its not being true, of the supposed fact at the root of the story – that “we were once slaves in Egypt,” being fiction – made me wonder if I’d be able to derive even modest rewards from the ritual. But I needn’t have worried. Knowing that the whole thing was made up allowed me to enjoy it even more: I felt less obligated to believe the story, and freer to believe in it, in its poetry, its celebration of upheaval and change, its promise of renewal. Moments invented by memory can be very forgiving. I found the elusive authenticity of the Passover tale most easily apprehended when it was untethered from truth.

The Bible refers to Israel as “a land that swallows its inhabitants,” but of course the same could be said of Hollywood, Beijing or Guadalupe-Nipomo. The Torah’s admonishment, “for dust you are, and to dust you will return” doesn’t keep many of us from claiming ownership of the stuff. We settle it, sell it, push it around in defiant terror, like a cookie telling a mouth who’s boss.

And don’t we colonize our myths with the same terror? Raid them, mine them, make them do our bidding, “stand firmly” on their sandy principles, only to be, inevitably, swallowed by them whole?

The spot where 250 Eastern European Orthodox Jewish Los Angelenos pretended to be ancient Israelites is known as The Western Gate, as in the western gate of civilization, among members of the Chumash Indian tribe, who have inhabited the area for ten thousand years. Members of the tribe built and buried the sets for The Ten Commandments.

Spanish settlers changed the name of the area when they arrived in 1772, and then promptly made slaves of the Chumash, forcing them to build the sprawling adobe Mission which would ultimately be their undoing. The Spanish church claimed the entirety of the central coast for its own and exploited the Chumash until the mid-nineteenth century, when Mexico asserted its independence and laid a new claim to the land.

Cecil B. DeMille’s fake Sphinxes and obelisks – genuine-seeming enough to inspire deeply authentic religious experience – were built by the grandchildren of slaves, for a movie about an enslavement that never happened, then buried under beach sand once claimed by those slaves, and others, and others and still others. Oil companies now own most of the land. There is a huge reserve under the Guadalupe Dunes, far beneath the remnants of DeMille’s “Lost City,” a twenty mile long underground lake of liquefied former inhabitants, from which the energy giants are furiously extracting the means of their own demise. The Guadalupe dunes are part of an extremely fragile ecosystem, and particularly susceptible to rising sea levels caused by the use of fossil fuels. The area is considered by climate scientists to be one of those most likely to be reclaimed by the Pacific within the next fifty years.


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