Tuesday, March 15, 2011

How Anne Baxter Changed My Religion

I had my first spiritual crisis at the age of eight. It was Passover 1956, our yearly ritual that was always held at my Bubbie’s apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. I was turning a page of the illustrated Haggadah, a kind of a child’s guide to the Passover, when I found myself gazing straight into the face of the Angel of Death. She had long, wild hair, and she was descending from a darkened heaven and wielding a very foreboding scythe with both hands. It was on the same page as the four questions, and that’s where I came into the ritual. As the youngest child I had to read the questions. However, I was so fixated on the dark angel I could barley speak.

I knew the story well—Moses warned Pharaoh nine times before the big blow. In ascending order they were water to blood, a rain of frogs, lice, wild beasts, blight on livestock, boils, hail, locusts, and then the death of all the Egyptian firstborn. Staring at the Haggadah, all I could think was, “What kind of an angel would do that? I thought angels were sweet.”

After the plagues had been run by and the prayers had fallen silent, I piped up. My question probably came from a confluence of Seder wine and fear. I asked, “Why couldn’t God spare the Egyptian children too?”

My Uncle Samuel shook his head. “It’s part of the story, it’s always been that way.”

“Don’t take it so literally,” said uncle Max, “it’s a metaphor.”

My Aunt Esther added, “Try to view the spiritual side.

Yahweh loved the Hebrews so much He’d do anything to set them free.

My father, Solomon, commented, “God warned the Pharaoh with the previous nine plagues. He had plenty of time to think it over.”

Bubbie then spoke up. “There’s still chicken. Nobody’s eating it. Is there something wrong with the chicken?”

It made no sense to me, but I, like Jacob, often wrestled with God. I wrestled with many things growing up on the Lower East Side. I was constantly worried about breaking any of my parents’ numerous socialist taboos, like watching Walt Disney, who was antiunion, or eating any product made by John Welch, who was the founder of the John Birch Society. Besides my parents, danger lurked outside the apartment in the form of young men from the Catholic school, who held me personally responsible killing their Savior.

We had our pleasures, too. Baseball, comics, street games, television, and of course the movies. In those days there was only one big screen and the movie houses looked like great palaces. When a new movie opened it would play in just one theater. It was a major deal to go uptown and see a first-run film.

In October of 1956 the epic Cecil B. DeMille film The Ten Commandments was released, all three hours and forty minutes of it. It opened at the RKO Palace, and my best friends and I were determined to go and see the movie on the very first weekend.

On a crisp autumn afternoon my friends Izzy, Tony, and I boarded the 7th avenue IRT with over two dollars in our pockets and incredible excitement in our hearts.We were not the most well-behaved young people but had made a pact with ourselves that we would refrain from our customary movie conduct.

Our usual movie behavior consisted of obnoxious noises like the hand-in-armpit fart sound. Izzy had that one down. We would also refrain from kicking seats, throwing popcorn boxes at the screen, and roaring with the MGM lion. We all agreed that getting kicked out of this movie would be a very stupid thing to do.

We got to the theater just a few minutes before they opened the doors, and there was a long line. We then performed our old trick of waiting for the line to just start moving and then slide in front of some older people who we knew wouldn’t complain too much. Once we got through the doors we ran into the theater and picked out some choice seats in the middle section just ten or so rows back. We then pooled the rest of our change and sent Izzy to get candy and cokes; we were all set.

Before the movie a chubby little man emerged from a curtain and onto the stage. He claimed to be a Bible scholar and told us that all we would see and hear was straight from the good book and historically accurate. Then the lights went down, the lion roared, and The Ten Commandments with its big brassy theme began. The three of us gazed in awe into the great colloid void.

We quickly learned that evil Ramses II (played by a bald and buff Yul Brynner) wanted to eliminate all the Hebrew male children. Being ever so alert Moses’ mom placed her child in a basket and floated it down the river where it was discovered by none other than Pharaoh’s little daughter. She was so smitten with the little child she decided to adopt him as her own. The next thing you knew he was the Prince of Egypt, or at least Co-prince of Egypt because his evil half brother Ramses II wanted to be the next Pharaoh too.

“Yes,” I thought, “I remember a lot of this from Passover, from that illustrated Haggadah with the scary angel in it.” Then something altogether different happened—it was quite unexpected. A new character was introduced, one I had never read about. Leaning out over an archway in a tight blue dress, blinking eyelashes at least two inches long, was the enchanting Queen Nefertiri.

At that moment I felt a strange sensation in my eight-year-old frame. A little bolt of electricity ran from my head to my feet, my fingers tingled. I shrugged it off and threw down another handful of raisinettes followed by a gulp of Coke.

An hour into the movie and no big action scenes yet, we were all getting a little antsy. Thoughts of rude noises ran through our collective brains. Especially since they kept saying, “So let it be written, so let it be done,” over and over again. To make things even harder there was a semi-romantic scene between Queen Nefertiri and Moses. She told Moses in a sensuous voice that she wanted to be his queen. It was at parts like this that one or two or perhaps all three of us would make a journey to the concession counter. Tony and Izzy gave me the nod, meaning let’s get more candy. “That’s OK, I’ll stay here. Just get me another Coke.”

Tony went on a tirade that I had to give him money now because he didn’t have that much on him, and then someone in the row behind was yelling for us to shut the hell up and Tony flicked him off and said something about his mother and he flicked Tony off and so on.

I didn’t tell my friends why I stayed; I stayed because that buzz was back. This time the tingle went from the bottom of my neck down through the front of my body. It wasn’t Charlton Heston as Moses that was causing this new emotional response. It was Queen Nefertiri. That tight dress, the cool stuff on her head, her sultry voice as she said “Mo.....ses......Mo...ses.”

At this point in my life I had not the faintest idea what sex, lust, or passion was. I had no idea where babies came from and what’s more I didn’t want to know. I had a feeling that the explanation was very disturbing. Every so often I’d hear grownups talk about people sleeping together. What did that mean? I reached the conclusion that sleeping together meant that you stayed up late with someone you liked and had milk and cookies and watched TV.

It was now the second scene between Moses and Queen Nefertiri. Moses had decided to get back to his roots and was currently working in the mud pits with his tribe. Nefertiri showed up with her entourage, pointed to Moses and said, “Take this man to my royal barge.” My heart was beating faster again, little electric rockets were launching all over my body. Funny, I didn’t remember this part from the Passover meal. I started to wonder if the little guy at the beginning of the film really knew what he was talking about, but I didn’t care.

So there they were floating down the Nile, he was all muddy and she had on an ultra-tight blue dress. I was licking my lips as I realized now (although I couldn’t label it then) that I was experiencing my first titillation. I wanted to be in my pajamas and sit up and have milk and cookies with Queen Nefertiri, except I didn’t want her to wear pajamas, I wanted her to be in that dress. Tony and Izzy were looking at me funny.

“You like this part?” Tony said, gazing at me like I was the creature from another planet.

“No man, no, this part’s boring,” I quickly lied.

“Yeah, right,” Tony replied. (Tony was a little further along about sex then I was. He was Catholic and came from a family of eight kids so I guess he had it figured out.) “Oh, I know,” Tony said, “you got the hots for her. She’s not bad but I’m waiting for the action parts, when’s the part with the Red Sea going to happen?”

I then looked at Tony de Marco. I liked Tony, he was a cool guy, but I didn’t feel the same when I looked at Tony as when I looked at Queen Nefertiri. The same was true for Izzy.

It was this second encounter between the Queen and Moses that sent me over the top. She had first met Moses as a prince and now he was a slave. But she still loved him, she offered him a deal, she would soften the Pharaoh’s heart to let the Hebrew children go if he agreed to do the milk and cookies thing with her. It was then she said my favorite line of the movie: “Mo...ses....Mo...ses, worship whatever gods you please so long as I can worship you.”

She then told him that if he became Prince of Egypt again, he would be in a position to free the Hebrew people; it was as simple as that. “Oh, this is great,” I thought. “Now the little Egyptian children don’t have to be smitten by an angry God. This is a win-win situation.” I was cheering Moses on. “No,” says Moses, “I must serve my God. I saw the burning bush. I must take the Hebrew children to the Promised Land.”

What! I nearly choked on my malt ball. What was Moses thinking? How did he know this wasn’t Yahweh’s Plan B? The plan where nobody gets hurt. OK, so he married that little goat herder girl in the land of Median. What’s wrong with fooling around a little bit for the greater good? He wasn’t even really Jewish yet and already he had guilt?

Perhaps if the Almighty could have gazed at Anne Baxter in that blue dress he might have understood. To bad all of this didn’t happen in Greece. Last year Izzy and I saw a movie about this Greek guy named Ulysses trying to find his way home. There was a different God for every situation in that movie. I’m sure at least one of them could have inspired Moses to consider Queen Nefertiri’s proposition. That’s a problem with one God, not a lot of wiggle room.

So Moses turned down the queen’s offer and the plagues were on. The Angel of Death showed up, the Egyptian children died. Finally Pharaoh let the Hebrew people go. Then Pharaoh did an about-face. I guess losing his firstborn pissed him off, and we were off to the big Red Sea part. Tony and Izzy were poking me in the ribs again, “Hey, man, this is the really good part.” They were jumping up and down in their seats. It was all lost on me; I was still reveling in my first infatuation.

So the Hebrew children crossed over, but their troubles didn’t stop there. And after a golden bull and a big party, it was a forty-year trek through the wilderness before they reached Canaan.

That’s where Moses really got the worst part of the deal. He didn’t even get to cross the Jordan. He spent the rest of his days up on Mount Nebo probably thinking about that woman he left behind in Goshen. Izzy, Tony, and I discussed our favorite parts on the subway going downtown. We all agreed that Yul Brynner looked a lot tougher than Moses, and had it come down to it he would have kicked Moses’ ass. Oh yes, the Red Sea and the pillar of flame and the golden bull were spectacular. However, my mind was fixed on Moses’ refusal of Ann Baxter’s proposition with the added bonus of letting all the children live. Such a shame I thought.

Had they been able to work it out, the Egyptian children would have been spared and Moses and Queen Nefertiti could have munched on milk and cookies as they floated down the Nile and into the sunset on her royal barge.