American Tall Tales

Monday marks the opening night of Passover, the weeklong Jewish festival that commemorates the Jews’ famed Exodus from slavery in ancient Egypt, followed by their 40-year safari through the desert toward Mt. Sinai and the Promised Land.

It is an exciting, inspiring story—and also complete and utter nonsense.

To date, no archaeological excavation of the area alleged to have hosted the Passover saga has uncovered verifying evidence of any sort.  Nor should we expect it to.  After all, what is a profession of “faith” if not a tacit acknowledgment that one’s beliefs are not supported by facts?  If they were, faith would not be necessary.

Of course, in carrying on Passover traditions, Jews are hardly the first or only people to cull a major day of remembrance from a narrative that is less than historically accurate.

While we could go on for days about questions of veracity in Judaism and other religions, the truth is that America’s secular roster of official holidays is a veritable treasure trove of myths, half-truths and outright falsities.

To begin:  We celebrate our nation’s birth every year on July 4th, even though it was actually two days earlier in 1776 when the Continental Congress in Philadelphia voted to ratify the Declaration of Independence.  In correspondence with his wife, John Adams wrote, “The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epocha in the history of America.  I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival.”

So it should have been.  Very little actually happened at Independence Hall on July 4, 1776 beyond a bit of tidying up, but the fourth somehow wound up as the “official” date stamped atop the sacred document, and that was the one we got stuck with.

Then again, this whole discrepancy regarding the precise moment we declared our independence is essentially a minor accounting error.  The central narrative we annually commemorate with fireworks and barbeque otherwise happened more or less as we say it did.

Compare this, per instance, with something like Columbus Day, observed on the second Monday of October, in which we perpetuate this great myth that a guy called Christopher Columbus “discovered” the “New World.”

We have long known and recognized two giant monkey wrenches in the old orthodoxy—first, that Columbus came upon the American continent mistakenly, thinking he had reached India; and second, that there was nothing particularly virginal about the place, insomuch as it was already inhabited by tens of millions of unassuming natives—but we have yet to fully abandon the legend of Columbus as a pre-Revolutionary founding father.

Returning to Judaism and Passover, it is curious that the world’s oldest monotheism would settle on an easily disproved legend as its central narrative about its amazing survival, when there are so many actual, albeit less romantic, examples of Jewish perseverance from which to choose.

The same is true about the story of America, which boasts no shortage of genuine heroism and goodwill from its earliest days onward.

In the conclusion of John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, we are famously told, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”  Certainly, America is nothing if not a land of legends.

Still, as the citizenry of a country that has so much about which to be proud, why do we so strongly feel the need to embellish?  To turn everything into a matter of black and white when the gray matter is so much more interesting?  Why can’t we handle the truth?

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