A decadent, devout Passion Play

Released 19 April 1927, The King of Kings is one of Cecil B. DeMille’s great Biblical epics. While he was a devout Christian, he also loved his decadence, and brought the two together in some very interesting ways. How many other directors would impart moral lessons alongside orgies, pet leopards, and parties where everything is made of candy?

The immense cast includes H.B. Warner as Jesus, Dorothy Cumming as Mary, the awesome character actor Ernest Torrence as Peter, Jacqueline Logan as Mary Magdalene, Joseph Schildkraut as Judas, child actor Micky Moore as Mark, Victor Varconi as Pontius Pilate, and an uncredited Ayn Rand.

When it comes to such a well-known story, an original angle is key. It helps the story to stand out from all the other versions. DeMille did this quite well, not only in his trademark decadent touches, but also in how he handled the religious material.

Mary Magdalene is at a very hedonistic party which includes a pet monkey and leopard. When one of her boytoys sits in Judas’s chair, she pushes him out. This guy points out that Judas hasn’t come around for a few days, and Mary Magdalene thinks Judas must be with another woman.

Upon being told he’s hanging out with a band of beggars led by a carpenter, she hops on her zebra-drawn chariot (because why not?) and goes to find him.

We then shift to a large crowd outside of Jesus’s house, as people wait in line to get healed. One of the crowd is a little blind girl, who gives one of the film’s most touching performances. The future Gospel writer Mark runs across her, and takes her to a window. Our first sight of Jesus is through her eyes.

Shortly after this healing, Mary Magdalene arrives to confront Judas, whose ulterior motive in befriending Jesus is the possibility of being promoted to a high official. Before she can have it out with Judas, however, Jesus casts the Seven Deadly Sins out of her in a multiple-exposure sequence.

It’s fair to assume just about everyone is familiar with the Biblical account of Jesus’s ministry and life, so the rest of this review will focus on my own thoughts, and the things which make this film unique.

Some people feel H.B. Warner, in his early fifties, was far too old to play a convincing Jesus, though others feel his fatherly appearance is perfect for the role. It all depends on your perspective. As a student of world religions, I love how every culture depicts holy figures in their own image, in a way they can relate to. It’s the same person and message, only a little bit different than the one we’re used to seeing.

I absolutely love Ernest Torrence as Peter! He usually played heavies (villains), so this is quite a delightful departure from his usual forte. His Peter is such a sweet, big lug, just perfect for the role.

Torrence is on the far right in the group embrace

I also love the scenes of Jesus with children. Besides the blind girl, another sweet, lovely scene is with a child who tells Jesus Mark says he can heal broken legs, then presents a doll whose leg has fallen off. Jesus obligingly mends the doll.

That is such a believable child thing to do, or for anyone who has a soft spot for stuffed animals and dolls. Many adults send their precious old friends to doll and teddybear hospitals.

Almost all of the intertitles are from the Bible, with the book, chapter, and verse noted. They’re also rendered in Elizabethan English, which can be kind of distracting to the modern audience. These people spoke Aramaic, not any form of English! I tend to translate Elizabethan English in my head.

Nitpicker I am, I cringed to notice a typo in one intertitle, “sieze” instead of “seize.”

The above still comes from a scene where a woman is accused of adultery and Jesus famously challenges the crowd, “Let he who is among you without sin cast the first stone.” He proceeds to write various sins (in Hebrew) in sand that spilled out of a broken jug.

The mob scatters as their sins are revealed, until the last guy thanks God he’s not like other men. Then his sin is revealed as adultery, and he too leaves.

In a scene in the 155-minute grand première version (versus the 112-minute general release), Jesus steps into the carpentry shop of a couple whose son he just cast the Devil out of. Some of his disciples, including Peter, are fishing during this time. The piece of wood Jesus is working on is covered on top by a cloth, and it’s later revealed to be a cross.

Joseph Schildkraut is excellent as Judas. His body language conveys how conflicted and torn-up he is about his betrayal.

A dove flies onto the empty Last Supper table, which was apparently unplanned.

The Resurrection scene is in two-strip Technicolor, though not that vibrant.

Both versions are good, though the longer original adds so much extra depth. It makes it seem like the general release is missing lots of chapters! I highly recommend this film, to people of all faiths.

WeWriWa—Closeness in distance

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. This week’s snippet comes right after last week’s, when one of the rescuing Czech partisans, Jaroslav, asked Emánuel about the semi-fast day he mentioned. It’s the ending of this section of the chapter.

The illustrations are from illuminated scrolls of the Book of Esther.

“It’s called Ta’anit Esther, and commemorates how Queen Esther fasted before going to make her petition to King Xerxes for her people’s lives.  Tonight, the holiday of Purim began, celebrating our deliverance from evil.  God is never mentioned in the Book of Esther, but he was working behind the scenes the entire time.  Sometimes God is closest to us when he feels most distant, perhaps because he wants us to be proactive in fighting for our deliverance and not passively wait for Divine intervention.  Tonight you were God’s emissaries, after Adri and I made a run for it.”

“What about all the other guys still on the march?” Adrián asked. “God hasn’t delivered them yet, and most of them didn’t try to escape.”

“We each have our own destiny, existing alongside free will.  It’s not for us to try to understand Divine ways, though it’s nice to know the chapter of our lives as slaves has ended.”

Emánuel’s sentiment about how “God is closest to us when he feels most distant” is echoed a number of times by unplanned secondary character Tímea, a Bible Student (Jehovah’s Witness offshoot) who’s with the girls. She never wavers in her strong faith, though she often says she doesn’t know why any of this happened or why some people fared relatively better than others.

Yizkor

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Redelheim Machzor (High Holy Days prayerbook), Source, pgs. 182–3, 1807

Yizkor (Remembrance) is a brief prayer service held during Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret (the holiday right after Sukkot, featuring the prayer for rain), the last day of Pesach, and the second day of Shavuot. Though the tradition is to recite Yizkor with a minyan (quorum of ten), one may recite Yizkor on one’s own if the need arises.

Custom holds that Yizkor isn’t recited during the first year of mourning, when one is still saying Kaddish. However, like all minhagim (customs), it’s not binding law. The Sephardim traditionally don’t have Yizkor, though in its place, they have Hashkabóth, prayers recited on Yom Kippur for all those who’ve died during the past year.

1867 Machzor, Source

An old Ashkenazic superstition holds that anyone with two living parents leave the synagogue till Yizkor is over, for fear of the evil eye befalling one’s parents. When I’ve been by a very traditional shul for a holiday with Yizkor, I’ve had to do this too, though I always stay when I’m by a Conservative shul. There’s absolutely no halachic requirement or law dictating this. It’s just yet another Ashkenazic superstition, and makes me glad I didn’t grow up like that.

When I began living a Jewish life at age 18, I was free to choose the customs that most spoke to me, and those customs were Sephardic. Sephardim have always tended to be more lenient and rational, instead of elevating superstitious customs into quasi-law.

Parents aren’t the only people we mourn. I always say Yizkor for my grandparents, my uncle, my great-grandmother Alice, my favourite writer (Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn), George Harrison (whom I consider my spiritual mentor), and several other people as the time allows. I always feel so cheated when I’m by a super-traditional shul that dictates one only say Yizkor for a parent.

Secular Yizkor in Kiryat Shaul military cemetery, Copyright יעקב (Ya’akov)

A modern Yizkor service often includes poems, prayers, and additional readings about Death, mourning, and our martyrs, as well as the El Malei Rachamim prayer. Many shuls now have two versions of El Malei Rachamim, the traditional prayer and a modern one for the victims of the Shoah. There’s also a third version, for IDF soldiers.

My characters participate in a Yizkor service for the first time on Yom Kippur 1945, in Dohány Utca Synagogue. There’s no mass exodus as usual, since almost every congregant has lost at least one parent. As Mrs. Goldmark says, that superstition robs people of the chance to lovingly remember other loved ones. To save time, they include all the names together, instead of making separate prayers for each.

Memorial in Gedenksteen, The Netherlands, Copyright P.J.L. Laurens, CC-BY-2.5

The prayer, loosely translated:

May God remember the soul of my [relationship to the mourner], [Name], who has gone to his/her eternal home. I promise, without making a vow, to honor his/her memory with charity and good deeds in his/her name. In this merit, may his/her soul be bound up with the bonds of life, together with the souls of Avraham, Yitzchak, Ya’akov, Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, and Leah, and the other righteous people in Gan Eden, and let us say, Amein.

Xaver Suppe and Xoriatiki Salata

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Xaver suppe, or Xavier soup, is an Italian dish traditionally served on 3 December, the Feast of Saint Xavier. My character Caterina is Italian, and very familiar with this food. Being kosher, she has to make some modifications, since the true recipe uses both chicken broth and lots of dairy products!

Recipe (source: Cooking With the Saints, by Ernst Schuegraf, Ignatius Press, 2001):

1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup cream
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
Pinch of nutmeg
2 eggs
2 egg yolks
1 tablespoon parsley, chopped (for dough)
12 cups chicken stock
2 tablespoons chervil, chopped
2 tablespoons parsley, chopped (for soup)

Over low heat, work the flour, cream, butter, and Parmesan into a solid dough. Work in the salt, pepper, nutmeg, eggs, yolks, and parsley. Put the mixture into a piping bag with a big nozzle and pipe pea-sized balls onto a buttered tray. Let stand for about 30 minutes.

In the meantime, heat some salted water until it boils, then drop in all the “dough peas.” Cook for 5 minutes, then remove with a slotted spoon and add to the warm chicken stock. Season soup to taste and add the chervil and 2 tablespoons parsley. Serves 10 to 12 people.

To make it kosher or vegetarian, simply use vegetable broth. For a vegan version, use non-dairy butter, your favorite vegan Parmesan, non-dairy milk in place of the cream, and your egg substitute of choice, equivalent to one egg and one egg yolk.

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Xoriatiki Salata is a dish many people are familiar with. It’s Greek salad, made with ingredients which can include:

Feta
Lettuce
Tomatoes
Cucumbers
Red and/or green peppers
Spinach
Olives
Lemon juice
Onions (which I always skip or pull out!)
Olive oil
Sea salt
Oregano
Red wine vinegar

Non-traditional ingredients some people enjoy adding:

Chickpeas (I love them!)
Baby corn
Bok choi
Avocado (I love adding it!)
Mushrooms (particularly Portobello!)
Dried cranberries
Walnuts
Pine nuts
Slivered almonds

There’s no one set recipe, since you can add as much or as little of each as you prefer. Maybe you love extra feta and tomatoes, but don’t care so much for olives and cucumbers. You might hate onions as I do, and so never include them by choice. And though it’s not traditional, you can add extras like avocado and chickpeas.

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While my characters are staying in a vacation apartment in Florence over Chanukah 1945, Caterina tosses an extra-large Xoriatiki Salata for the days they’ll have dairy meals. This is a dish many people serve during Chanukah, not just those of Greek descent, because of the feta. It’s traditional to eat dairy and foods fried in oil during Chanukah, because of their symbolic relationship to the holiday’s origins.

During the time of the Maccabean Revolt, Judith famously beheaded General Holofernes. She fed him very salty cheeses which made him thirsty, and then got him drunk. Once he was asleep, she cut off his head and displayed it to the Greeks. They fled in panic and disarray. Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi frequently painted this subject. In the most famous painting, she modelled Judith after herself and Holofernes after Agostino Tassi, a friend of her father who raped her and whom she was gutsy enough to bring to court.

Wesselényi Utca and the White Paper

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Wesselényi_street

Copyright Fauvirt

Wesselényi Utca is part of Erzsébetváros (Elizabeth Town), the historical Jewish quarter of District VII of Budapest. During the German occupation of 1944–45, it formed part of the large ghetto. There were two ghettoes, a small, international ghetto for those with phony foreign citizenship enabling them to live in the relatively protected Yellow Star Houses, and a large ghetto for everyone else.

The street runs about a kilometer and a half (a bit under a mile).

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Budapest JCC, 7 Wesselényi Utca, Copyright Globetrotter19

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Detail of cast-stone reliefs depicting the Twelve Tribes, Sculptor István Strasser Örkényi, Copyright Globetrotter19

The street got its modern name in 1872, from reforming politician and patriot Baron Miklós Wesselényi de Hadad (20 December 1796–2 April 1850). Only the downtown side was developed until 1887, when it began expanding and improving.

Landmarks include the former Metropolitan Shoemakers’ Guild HQ, the Ministry of Education, Henrik Meyer Baptist Theological Student Hostel and Baptist church (in the same building), the stage door of the Magyar Theatre, former HQ of the Paint Industry Board, a former Jewish elementary school (converted to a hospital in the ghetto), and the former JCC.

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Classicist monument house, Wesselényi Utca 15, Copyright Globetrotter19

My characters the Goldmarks, widowed mother Lídia and her children Imre, Júlia, and Nándor, move into an apartment on Wesselényi Utca after the end of the war. Mrs. Goldmark was in the large ghetto without protective papers, but she managed to send her children to relative safety in the international ghetto with phony papers from Carl Lutz. They formerly lived in the Castle District on the Buda side.

Mrs. Goldmark found a way across the Danube and recovered what she could from their former home, including a fair amount of furniture, and brought it back across the river to their new apartment. Though they’re a religious Neolog family, they’re still upper-middle-class Budapestis used to a certain lifestyle.

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Former Shoemakers’ Guild HQ, Wesselényi Utca 17, built 1905, Copyright Diana, Source Flickr

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Detail of wall decoration, Copyright Diana, Source Flickr

The British White Paper of 1939 is one of the blackest marks on British history, very similar to America’s equal black mark of “The Emergency Immigration Quota.” Both significantly contributed to the number of people prevented from reaching safety before the Nazis devoured them.

Neville Chamberlain issued this most foul piece of quasi-legislation in response to the 1936–39 Arab revolts in the British Mandate of Palestine. The Arab population (who weren’t calling themselves Palestinians at this time, contrary to modern-day ultra-Left propaganda) revolted in part because they were very unhappy with the large mass of Jewish immigrants.

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1936 bus with wire over the windows, as a safeguard against terrorism

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Evacuating the Old City of Jerusalem, 1936

The White Paper was approved by the House of Commons on 23 May 1939, and limited Jewish immigration to 75,000 over five years. Further immigration would be determined by the Arabs. Jews weren’t allowed to buy land from Arabs anymore, and Britain would only allow a Jewish state with Arab approval.

The British didn’t consider a binational state. They foresaw an Arab state which included a Jewish national home within ten years.

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Women’s protest by King David Hotel, Jerusalem, 22 May 1939

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Haganah HQ demonstration, Jerusalem, 1939

Though all self-respecting Zionists immediately rejected this piece of filth, it was heartily accepted by major scumbag and terrorist Hajj Amin el-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and an ally of Hitler. For several months, protests and attacks on government property reigned, and a general strike was called on 18 May.

The White Paper led to a very sharp uptick in illegal immigration, since these people desperately needed to leave occupied Europe, and there was no other way to get to Palestine. There were only 34,000 legal immigration certificates left by December 1942, when the Shoah became public knowledge (albeit buried in tiny print in the back pages and dismissed as Polish and Jewish propaganda trying to drum up sympathy).

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Women’s demonstration, 18 May 1939, King George Street, Jerusalem

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Youth demonstration, 18 May 1939, Zion Circle, Jerusalem

After the war, the vile Ernest Bevin (Labour Foreign Minister), nicknamed Bergen-Bevin, continued the policy of severely restricting immigration. Many survivors wanted to go to Palestine, the only place where they’d be fully, truly accepted and understood. Instead of being allowed to go to their homeland, these survivors were forced to remain in Europe, a continent which represented a blood-soaked graveyard.

Many of the ships attempting to bypass the British blockade were pirated, and the survivors attacked mercilessly. Some were killed during the resulting assaults and skirmishes. Other ships were sunk. Those who survived were forced into detention camps on Cyprus.

Even after Israel declared her independence in May 1948, the British forced many military-aged men to remain on Cyprus. Their wives and children usually chose to stay with them.

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Demonstration by Atlit detention camp in Palestine