29 June 2009

Jerusalem in Kansas and Israel: Linking the Center of USA to the Center of the World

JerUSAlem is considered the center of the world in the traditions of both Judaism and Christianity. The geographical center of continental USA was named Lebanon for the cedars of Lebanon that King Solomon used to build the Temple in Jerusalem. Cedar trees dotted the landscape of north-central Kansas when the town was named in 1873.

I flew to Kansas City and took a small plane to Selena, rented a car and drove through miles of corn fields to Lebanon, a town of 350 souls in the center of the northern tier of Kansas near the Nebraska border. There were no people on Main Street when I drove into Lebanon at midday. Only the post office and general store were opened.

I went into the post office and asked how Lebanon got its name. As she postmarked stamps with “The Center of USA,” the postal clerk said that she had no idea how Lebanon got its name. She sent me across the street to the general store to ask. “Your in luck,” the store owner responded. “Every Tuesday and Thursday Gladys Kennedy quilts with her friends at the American Legion hall next door. Gladys knows.” He took me next door and introduced me to Gladys as the town historian. As she quilted, she explained that it was named for the cedars of Lebanon that King Solomon used to build the Temple in Jerusalem. She quilted a few more stitches and added, “I have a large cedar growing in my back yard, one of the many growing in this part of Kansas.” Gladys walked home to fetch a history of Lebanon for me to get the official version. She returned with a hardbound centennial volume, A Century at the Center: 1887-1987. I copied the following from the book while Gladys went back to quilting:

“Name of Lebanon Chosen: A group of early settlers asked Jackson ‘Jack’ Allen, an early settler of the community, to choose a name for the post office and village. Mr. Allen, A Bible student, was the leading literary man of the day and the settlers looked to him to select the name by which the post office town should be designated. ‘Why not the Bible?' was his first inspiration, and searching the pages, he stopped when he read The Cedars of Lebanon and suggested that name. Nobody opposed, and the name of Lebanon was recorded in the records. This was the year of 1873.’”

A mile out of town there is an official monument with a bronze plaque marking the geographical center of the United States. It is made of fieldstones stacked into a truncated pyramid holding a flagpole flying the stars and stripes. On the pebbled ground in front of the monument, I drew a left-handed spiral with golden earth from Jerusalem. I framed the Jerusalem spiral by drawing four corners with sand that my wife Miriam and I collected from the four corners of America. Sand from a Florida beach and from between granite boulders on the Maine coast formed the two corners on the right side of the spiral and sand from the beach where San Diego touches Mexico at the Pacific Ocean and from Neah Bay at the tip of the Olympia Peninsula in the State of Washington formed the two corners on the left side of the Jerusalem spiral.

I scooped up some black Kansas soil at America’s center and brought it with me to Jerusalem, honored as the Center of the World by both Judaism and Christianity. With the Kansas earth, I drew a right-handed spiral on a slab of stone beside the Western Wall retaining the Temple Mount. This Jerusalem stone combined with cedar wood from Lebanon was used by King Solomon to build the Temple in Jerusalem three millennia ago. As I was photographing the Kansas-earth spiral in Jerusalem to juxtapose with the matching Jerusalem-earth spiral that I photographed in Lebanon, Kansas, I realized that the biblical word “Lebanon” means “heart of the fifty.” The first part of the word means “heart” in Hebrew and the second part is the name of the Hebrew letter having the numerical value of fifty.

From my book: The Future of Art in a Digital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness (Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press).

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