GOD ONLINE: Exploring media spirituality

Web sites, TV, films, books and the search for meaning.

More than shamrocks: The story of the real St. Patrick

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Parades, concerts, shamrocks and the “wearing o’ the green” mark the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, which falls on today. But the real-life fifth century man is even more colorful.

St. Patrick statue at Nativity Catholic Church, Hollywood, Fla. (Photo: James D. Davis)

Ironically, Ireland’s patron saint wasn’t born Irish. Born either in England or Scotland to a church deacon, he was kidnapped as a boy to pirates, who sold him into slavery in Ireland. He grew up a shepherd until he was able to flee and return to his family.

Yet Ireland or God, or both, still had a hold on him: He had a vision in which the Irish were begging him to “come and walk among us again.” He went to France, studied with the Church and was ordained a bishop.

He set up a base in northern Ireland, then gradually won over the fierce Celtic warlords who ruled parts of the island. A popular story has him lighting a bonfire near the hill of Tara, eventually winning over King Laoghaire there. Over the next 40 years, Patrick built churches all over Ireland, baptizing thousands, ordaining priests, converting the sons of local kings.

St. Patrick window in St. Helen Church, Lauderdale Lakes, Fla. (Photo: James D. Davis)

Stories multiplied about him: that he used a three-leafed clover to show the threefold nature of God, that his walking stick grew into a tree, and that he drove all serpents off the island (although none are believed to have ever been there). It’s said also that he performed a thousand miracles during his time in Ireland.

Whatever the truth of such stories, his dedication and legacy of Celtic Christianity are beyond question. One of the most popular saints, he is honored not only in Ireland but also by the Church of England and Eastern Orthodox Christians.

Patrick himself testified his devotion in writings like his chant-like poem “The Breastplate”:

Christ be within me
Christ behind me
Christ before me
Christ beside me
Christ to win me
Christ to comfort and restore me
Christ beneath me
Christ above me
Christ inquired
Christ in danger
Christ in hearts of all that love me
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger

Patrick died on March 17, 461, at Saul, the site of his first church. He is believed to be buried at Down Cathedral in Northern Ireland.



Written by Jim Davis

March 17, 2017 at 5:52 am

Holiday Almanac: Purim, the Festival of Esther, starts tonight

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“Esther Before King Ahasuerus,” oil on canvas, by Andrea Celesti (1637-1712). Public domain image via Wikimedia.org.

Sundown today ushers in Purim, the joyous Jewish Festival of Lots that celebrates the deliverance of the Jews from a would-be mass murderer 25 centuries ago.

The story, told in the biblical book of Esther, takes place in Persia, where many of the Jews were living in exile. There Esther, a Jewish woman, won a beauty contest and married King Ahasuerus.

Haman, the king’s prime minister, hated the Jews after Esther’s cousin Mordecai refused to bow to him. Haman persuaded the king, who was unaware Esther was Jewish, to sign an iron-clad decree for the Jews’ extermination.

After Esther bravely pled her people’s case, Ahasuerus changed his mind but could not rescind the decree. However, he issued another order allowing the Jews to defend themselves. They killed thousands of their enemies, and Haman was hanged on the gallows he had built for Mordecai.

Purim takes its name from the Hebrew word for “lots,” for the method by which Haman had decided the date of the slaughter — which became, instead, the day of the great Jewish victory.

Boisterous celebrations lift Purim above its formal status as a minor religious holiday. Synagogues and Jewish community centers often sponsor Purim festivals, with carnival rides and games. Costume parties have children dressing as their favorite Purim characters. And refreshments include hamantaschen, triangular pastries in the traditional shape of Haman’s hat.


Written by Jim Davis

March 11, 2017 at 11:06 pm

Ash Wednesday: Solemn preparation for Good Friday

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Photo: FreeImages.com/Luiz Renato D. Coutinho

Photo: FreeImages.com/Luiz Renato D. Coutinho

Boisterous Mardi Gras and Fat Tuesday celebrations give way today to Ash Wednesday, the start of six weeks of Lent. The season is a period of solemnity before Good Friday, the traditional observance of Jesus’ death, which will fall on April 14 this year.

Ash Wednesday takes its name from ashes daubed on the faithful as a sign of penitence, with the traditional words, “Remember you are dust and will return to dust.”

Lent is a somber season marked by prayer, introspection and repentance. For Catholics, it also includes fasting and abstinence from meat on Fridays for those 14 years and older.


Written by Jim Davis

March 1, 2017 at 8:00 am

Holiday Almanac: Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus

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Nativity scene in the chapel at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic School, Fort Lauderdale. Photo by James D. Davis.

Believers worldwide celebrate today as Christmas, the birth of Jesus Christ, whom they worship as the Son of God. The founding events are set in Israel of 20 centuries ago.

As told in the New Testament books of Matthew and Luke, a Jewish couple named Mary and Joseph traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem for a Roman census. Rebuffed from every inn in the crowded village, they settled in a stable, where Jesus was born.

In nearby fields, angels announced the birth to shepherds, who rushed to the stable to worship the child. And from the East, magi or wise men followed a special star to Jesus’ home and offered gifts of gold, incense and rare spice.

Roman Catholic churches began Christmas with Midnight Mass; Eastern Orthodox churches held Divine Liturgy. Protestant Churches often celebrate with carols and special cantatas.

Church youths like to stage “Living Nativity” scenes, recreating the first Christmas — a custom said to have been founded by St. Francis of Assisi. A few churches unpack high-tech gear or rent civic auditoriums for elaborately staged pageants.

Christmas traditionally was from Dec. 25 to Jan. 6 — the “Twelve Days of Christmas” in the carol of the same name. That tradition still thrives among Hispanic and Latino Christians. They celebrate Jan. 6 as Three Kings Day, when they believe the Wise Men arrived in Bethlehem.

— James Davis

Written by Jim Davis

December 25, 2016 at 12:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Holiday Almanac: Hanukkah, Jewish festival of freedom

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Hanukkah menorah alit with candles. Photo via Pixabay.com.

Tonight starts Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish Feast of Lights. Hanukkah, whose name is Hebrew for “Dedication,” recalls the Jews’ recapture of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem from a pagan tyrant.

Hanukkah is sometimes called the Jewish Christmas, and the first night falls on Christmas Eve this year. But the two holidays have overlapped only eight times since 1900, according to Vox. And the founding events of Hanukkah are not related to Christmas; they took place 165 years before the traditional date of Jesus’ birth.

At the time, Israel was ruled by a Greco-Syrian king named Antiochus Epiphanes. The king banned Judaism and had a pig — a ritually unclean animal — sacrificed in the Jerusalem Temple.

The Israelites finally revolted for freedom of religion, led by the five Maccabee brothers. They miraculously defeated the Greek army and set out to rededicate the Temple, but found only one day’s supply of oil for the Great Menorah or candelabrum. In the story’s second miracle, the oil lasted for eight days, long enough to purify a new supply.

Jewish families commemorate the victory by lighting a small, eight-branched menorah at home, while singing seasonal songs such as Maoz Tzur, or “Rock of Ages.” One more candle is lighted each night, until by the last night, the whole candelabrum is ablaze.

Hanukkah also features festive foods: latkes, or potato pancakes for East European Jews; sufganiot, or doughnuts filled with jelly or chocolate, for Mideastern Jews. Both are deep-fried in oil, recalling the miracle of the Temple lamp.

A more subtle holiday custom is the dreidel, a four-sided top that children play with. The sides of the dreidel have Hebrew letters: Nun, Gimel, Hay and Shin . The letters form an acrostic for a sentence: Nes gadol hayah sham, or “A great miracle happened there.”

— James D. Davis


Written by Jim Davis

December 24, 2016 at 5:18 pm

Holiday Almanac: Advent, looking toward Christmas

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Advent candle and wreath, by jruppit on sxc.hu.Today starts Advent, the season of preparation for Christmas. Advent, which is marked by the four Sundays before that day, is celebrated mainly in traditional churches, especially Episcopal, Lutheran and Roman Catholic.

The season’s central symbol, the Advent wreath, is a leafy horizontal circle with four candles, a new one lighted each Sunday. Each church lights a large wreath, and many homes of the faithful often have smaller versions. Although the custom originated in western Europe, Hispanic Catholic parishes have adopted the wreath as well.

Another Advent custom is the Jesse tree, often decorated by children in church schools. The tree, which doesn’t have to be a pine, is draped with homemade representations of biblical prophecies — scrolls, the Lion of Judah, seraphim, David’s harp and other symbols — believed by Christians to have foretold Jesus’ life.

— James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

November 27, 2016 at 5:19 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Nazi weapons for Jews: New documentary reveals little-known chapter of history

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wp-title-with-photo-of-gideon-lichtmanImagine learning that your grandfather’s rifle was stamped with a swastika.

Now imagine that you make that discovery as a young Jew in Israel.

Boaz Dvir doesn’t have to imagine. It happened to him.

His grandfather, Ozer Grundman, told him that his Mauser rifle, which he used during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, bore not only the hated Nazi symbol, but the wreathed eagle that formed another symbol of Hitler’s regime.

“Do you know where we got these Nazi rifles?” he asked his grandson.

The riddle drew Dvir on a years-long quest for the answer — a quest crowned with success later as a documentary: A Wing and a Prayer. The film tells a little-known chapter of World War II: how American and Canadian veterans smuggled tons of weapons — from rifles to whole planes — to the nascent Jewish state for its first struggle to survive.

Released in 2015, the hour-long documentary has been screened in places like New York, Paris, Philadelphia and Jaipur, India, as well as over PBS. And today (Nov. 11) and Sunday (Nov. 13), it’s scheduled as part of the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival. (See details below.)

It’s clearly become something of a personal cause for Dvir, 49, a journalist, and educator.

“I wondered, how this story have been ignored all this time?” he said in an interview. “I’m eager for it to become part of our understanding of history. And it’s getting there.”

Desperate measures

A Wing and a Prayer tells of Americans and Canadians who helped save Israel in its 1948 War of Independence. Knowing Israel was outgunned and outnumbered, the volunteers bought not only surplus American items, like B17 bombers, but surplus Nazi items from Czechoslovakia, like Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighter planes — and Mauser rifles, like Dvir’s grandfather’s firearm.


Filmmaker Boaz Dvir.

The task was full of dangers — not only from Israel’s Arab enemies, but from the U.S. government, which had passed the Neutrality Act to keep out of the brewing conflict. To pull it off, the small knot of men launched an elaborate scheme of quiet fundraising, dummy corporations, shadowy contacts and daring flights in rickety planes. They finally got the gear to Israel just as the 1948 war broke out.

Dvir tells the story through archival photos and war footage, plus narration by actor William Baldwin. He also interviews some of those who carried out the mission. Click here to see a clip.

A second-generation Sabra, or native Israeli, Dvir was born in Petah Tikvah, near Tel Aviv. He came to the United States in 1980 and worked for various newspapers, including the South Florida Sun Sentinel while I was the religion editor.

Dvir also has worked as a writer for New York Newsday and editor at the Jacksonville Business Journal. And in 1994, he produced a study of Jewish spirituality before, during and after the Holocaust under a grant from the Religion News Service.

In 2003, he went into academia, first in the School of Journalism at the University of Florida, then his current position as assistant professor of journalism at Penn State. He also lectures on documentaries and multimedia there.

Meanwhile, he kept digging into his grandfather’s question and decided in 2008 to produce a film on it. The project cost $130,000, much of it from travel expenses to Israel, Canada, Europe and around the U.S. Besides his own pocket, he got grants from the likes of the Jewish Federation of Greater Miami.

Dvir finally finished A Wing and a Prayer last year, and PBS aired it that April. He was elated to learn that it came in at #7 for PBS programs that month.

He has personally shown it to roughly 6,000 people in 20 screenings; others, including Jewish organizations, have screened the film independently in hundreds of other events. All told, he estimates, some two million people have seen A Wing and a Prayer via the various venues.

Aiding future research

Although the film title sounds spiritual, Dvir, like many in his generation, isn’t especially religious. He’s not a synagogue member and attends mainly on occasions like the High Holy Days. And as a boy, he studied the 1948 war in a secular school that gave secular explanations for the Israeli victory.


Al Schwimmer, one of those featured in the film A Wing and a Prayer, waves from a plane next to white-haired David Ben-Gurion, one of the founders of modern Israel.

But ever since boyhood, he’s thought there was “something bigger at play” in the Israeli victory — a notion that has only been reinforced as the tale he retells in A Wing and a Prayer.

“You could say it wasn’t God, it was these guys. And yes, they were superheroes. But still, they needed something else to help them. They had the State Department, the FBI and MI5 on their tail. They had planes that should have crashed and burned.

“I get the sense that God was with them.”

With the film finally in the can, Dvir is thinking about how to follow up. He has a dream of an interactive website, which would include a locator map plus outtake clips from the main film. He would make his findings freely available, to the public as well as to scholars for future research.

“I would just want the knowledge spread,” he says.

Besides shedding light on little-known history, Dvir has several distinct goals for showing A Wing and a Prayer.

One is to show that you can’t always accept what official histories relate. “Things are not always as they seem,” he says.

Another goal is to inspire young people. “These guys [in the documentary] were in their teens and 20s, and they fought the biggest war in history. Then, when they’d paid their dues, they changed history again, still in their 20s.”

His final stated goal is evident in the making of A Wing and a Prayer itself: commitment.

“People always say, ‘Believe in yourself,’ ” he says. “To me, it’s not about believing in yourself. It’s about believing in the work, in the story, in having it done right.”

If you go

A Wing and a Prayer will be shown twice this weekend for the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival.

First showing will be 6 p.m. today (Nov. 11) at the Sunrise Civic Center, 10610 W. Oakland Park Blvd., Sunrise.

The film also will be shown at 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 13, at Savor Cinema, 503 SE 6th St., Fort Lauderdale.

Tickets for each showing are $6-$11. For information, call 954-525-3456 or go to the Film Festival website.

Written by Jim Davis

November 11, 2016 at 6:13 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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