Jenna Weissman Joselit is Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of History at George Washington University. This interview is based on her new book Set in Stone: America’s Embrace of the Ten Commandments (Oxford University Press, 2017).
JF: What led you to write Set in Stone?
JWJ: The importance that so many contemporary Americans attach to having the Ten Commandments a visible part of their physical environment piqued my curiosity, prompting me to look for the origins of that relationship both within and without the confines of the sanctuary. I wanted to know more about how earlier generations of Americans kept these ancient dos and don’ts close at hand – and why. Many twists and turns later, which brought me to phenomena as disparate as mid-19th century archaeological sites in central Ohio and 20th century Hollywood movies, I came away with a heightened understanding of the multiple ways in which the Ten Commandments imprinted themselves on the modern American imagination.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Set in Stone?
JWJ: The presence of the Ten Commandments is vital to, even an anchor of, American identity as well as a testament to the porousness of the divide between religion and culture.
JF: Why do we need to read Set in Stone?
JWJ: In a word: context. By exploring how previous generations variously celebrated, redefined, visualized, domesticated, miniaturized and monumentalized the Ten Commandments, the book offers its readers the opportunity to think about the relationship of the past to the present and with it, the life cycle of a religious and cultural phenomenon that is at once divine and earthly, word and object. In the wake of the Civil War, the Reformed Church Messenger suggested it was high time for Americans to take another look at the Ten Commandments, or, in its words, to “air” and “ventilate” them. I’d like to think that, a century and a half later, Set in Stone does much the same thing.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
JWJ: I wish I could say that I experienced some kind of eureka moment when everything fell into place and my career path was clearly set forth, but that didn’t happen. Instead I drifted into becoming an historian. From a very young age, I loved to write and to concoct stories and majoring in American history at college seemed like a good fit as well as a creative outlet. By the time I entered graduate school, I had come to understand that the discipline of history was also a high-stakes enterprise. I relish its fusion of creativity and responsibility.
JF: What is your next project?
JWJ: At the moment I’m considering a couple of options. Having very much enjoyed casting Set in Stone as a series of narrative accounts, I would like to try my hand at writing an honest-to-goodness mystery set in the past. We’ll see.
JF: Thanks, Jenna!