December 10, 2019

Exodus at (Cedars-)Sinai

In 2003, when John T. Lange was hired as curator of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center’s vast contemporary art collection, one of his first tasks was to take inventory of the items in the collection’s storage room.

Rummaging through a stack high up on a shelf, Lange came across something heavy that looked nothing like any of the other artworks owned by Cedars-Sinai. 

“They were just these big stone blocks,” Lange said during a recent interview. “I pulled them down, I said, ‘What is this?’ ”

Those big stone blocks, Lange realized after doing some research and asking around at the hospital, were from the filming of Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments,” the 1956 classic movie starring Charlton Heston as Moses. As it happens, Lange’s find of the tablets in storage is reminiscent of another film classic, the final scene of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” in which the U.S. government has squirreled away the Ark of the Covenant in a massive warehouse amid thousands of other presumably less impressive items.

The story at Cedars-Sinai, though, is real. The red granite for the tablets was actually mined from the Sinai Peninsula, where much of the movie was filmed in October 1954. Which part of the movie these tablets were used in is not known, but, given that each one weighs 50 pounds, it was definitely not the scene where Moses lifted them above his head as he prepared to smash them. 

DeMille brought a few pairs of tablets back to Los Angeles, and he and his wife, Constance Adams DeMille, decided to donate a set to one of their favorite charities, Mount Sinai Hospital, which opened in 1955 on Beverly Boulevard and merged in 1961 with Cedars of Lebanon to form Cedars-Sinai. A Cedars-Sinai spokesperson was able to identify 1961 as the latest possible year in which the gift was made, as there’s a picture from then of the DeMilles with the tablets at the hospital. Meanwhile, a woman contacted in the Cecil B. DeMille Foundation’s Burbank office also did not know precisely when the family made the donation.

For decades, the tablets were proudly displayed atop Mount Sinai’s main building — after the merger, the building was renovated and then reopened in 1976 as the Schuman Building. In 1994, when the Northridge earthquake caused extensive damage to Cedars-Sinai, including to the Schuman Building, that building was demolished and replaced by the Saperstein Critical Care Tower. 

The tablets weren’t damaged in the quake, but they were removed from display and put into “temporary” storage with other “transitional” art, Lange said — and they still are considered a valuable part of Cedars-Sinai’s collection. Lange said the hospital plans to put them on display again, possibly within the next few years.

Rabbi Jason Weiner, senior rabbi and manager of the hospital’s spiritual care department, stood by as Lange removed a light protective cardboard packaging that covered the tablets. Weiner pointed out that the inscription carved into the stone tablets is not written in the Hebrew alphabet Jews today would recognize — DeMille ensured that the tablets were engraved using ancient Hebrew script, also known as Paleo-Hebrew, which bears little resemblance to modern Hebrew. 

Tracing the words of each commandment with his finger, Weiner pointed out that DeMille actually made a mistake in the engraving: In biblical literature, each of the two sides lists five of the commandments. 

DeMille’s tablets, though, show the first four commandments on the first tablet and the remaining six commandments on the second. Honest mistake? Not enough room? Weiner doesn’t know.

The other unknown is precisely what the pair is worth. “It’s one of those things where you just kind of say it’s priceless,” Lange said when asked. He also wouldn’t disclose the value of Cedars-Sinai’s entire art collection, even though it was appraised within the last few years. He did say, though, that he thinks it rivals some of the major museum collections in Los Angeles County. 

Although DeMille’s gift to Cedars-Sinai may not possess quite as much holiness as the actual Ten Commandments, Weiner certainly appreciates the historical intrigue the tablets add to his workplace. 

“Just like everyone always jokes that the Ten Commandments and the menorah [from the Temple] are in the basement of the Vatican, so this is in the basement of Cedars-Sinai — it’s also a holy place,” Weiner said, pausing for a moment before finishing his thought: “I’m joking.”