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When Cecil B. DeMille's epic, The Ten Commandments, came out in 1956, lines of people crowded theaters across the country to admire the movie's spectacular special effects. Thanks to DeMille, the Decalogue now had fans as well as devotees. But Americans' fascination with the Ten Commandments goes well beyond the colossal scenes of this Hollywood classic. It is a story sparkling with remarkable, unexpected episodes in which folklore, faith, and patriotism are inextricably woven together.
In a vividly rendered narrative, Jenna Weissman Joselit situates the Ten Commandments within the fabric of American history. Her subjects range from the 1860 story of an amateur sleuth from Ohio who discovered the alleged ancient holy stones inside a Native American burial mound to the San Francisco congregation Sherith Israel, which commissioned aluminous piece of stained glass depicting Moses in Yosemite for its sanctuary; from the Kansas politician Charles Walter, who in the late nineteenth century proposed codifying each commandment into state law, to the radio commentator Laura Schlessinger, who popularized the Ten Commandments as a psychotherapeutic tool in the 1990s.
At once text and object, celestial and earthbound, Judaic and Christian, the Ten Commandments were not just a theological imperative in the New World; they also provoked heated discussions around key issues such as national identity, inclusion, and pluralism. In a country as diverse and heterogeneous as the United States, the Ten Commandments offered common ground and held out the promise of order and stability, becoming the lodestar of American identity. While archaeologists, theologians, and devotees across the world still wonder what became of the tablets that Moses received on Mount Sinai, Weissman Joselit offers a surprising answer: they landed in the United States.
Jenna Weissman Joselit is the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of History at the George Washington University. She is the author of several books on American daily life in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including The Wonders of America, winner of the National Jewish Book Award in History, and A Perfect Fit: Clothes, Character, and the Promise of America.