You can believe in what you see

Jewish Telegraph
You can believe in what you see

Much of my life has been concerned with mysteries, investigating them and demonstrating them. Often when I’m around, the mystery deepens. Few have been solved.

But I’m pleased to be able to clear up one mystery that’s been puzzling me since I was a child, and I suspect it’s been niggling in the back of your mind too: where is the man in the moon?

My father taught me to pick out a face in the full moon, eyes high in its round head, and chubby cheeks above a smiling mouth. It’s more of a baby in the moon, really, but I can’t have been more than four when I first saw it.

When I was a youngster living on a kibbutz, aged about 10, an older boy insisted I was wrong: the man in the moon could only be seen when the moon was a crescent. He was an old fellow with a sharp chin and a long nose, seen in profile.

I fiercely defended my father’s lunar theory, and we were about to come to blows when one of the adults hauled us apart and tweaked our ears.

“You’re both stupid,” he said. “There’s no man in the moon. How could he breathe in space?”

This was such a miserable, sceptical outlook on life that we were shocked into silence.

At that age I dreaded becoming a grown-up who believed in nothing but dry facts and sour science. I still do. So I was delighted to stumble across the truth this week: there is a man in the moon and, what’s more, he’s a Jew.

I was searching through my library to discover more about pareidolia after reading on the Internet of a miracle in a Chicago subway.

Pareidolia is the technical term for images which appear in inanimate objects – pictures in the clouds, faces in the fire or, in this case, a Madonna on the stained concrete of a city underpass.

Chicago’s Catholics are hailing the manifestation, under the Kennedy Expressway, as an apparition of Mary, to mark the ascension to heaven of the late Pope.

Sceptics are calling it a random stain, a pattern made from the residue of lime and calcium as water trickles down the wall.

I’m neither a Christian nor a sceptic, but it’s clear to me that a powerful and detailed image of a woman who is praying intensely can be seen. The image is so strongly defined that even the parting in her dark hair is visible.

I’m told the image at first-hand is still more arresting: flash photography bleaches its subtlest details.

Pareidolia is a psychologist’s word: one theory says the human brain is programmed to translate features into faces, because that’s how we recognise each other.

A Stone Age child who couldn’t tell his mother’s face apart from others would be in constant danger, and we evolved with a keen instinct for spotting shapes and images in a flash.

But that’s only half the story, because the most impressive forms and faces we find, on stained walls, in the knarled bark of trees and even baked in bagels, are always spiritual.

Verses from the Koran are written in seeds when a pomegranite is split; the name of God is spelled on the scales of a fish; the figure of Buddha floats in the fluffy cumulus above a mountain top.

Even if you’re not religious, even if you’ve sold your soul to Elvis, you can find spiritual succour in pareidolia: the King regularly turns up on pancakes and potato chips.

Terrifying images circulated the Internet after September 11, showing the leering face of the devil in the smoke spiralling from the Twin Towers. This wasn’t a trick of Photoshop, but a picture clearly visible in CNN’s footage.

Camera phones and email have made pareidolia a worldwide phenomenon, but this mystery of the mind has been intriguing people for centuries.

Storytellers across Europe, 500 years ago, would gather their audience on a bright moonlit night and point out the real shape of the man in the moon.

He’s a bent-backed old man, with a bundle of sticks on his shoulder. It’s easy to see, but if you want a little nudge to your imagination, pick up the cover of Led Zeppelin’s fourth album (the Stairway To Heaven one).

The ancient labourer with the withy-sticks across his back is a mirror image of the man-in-the-moon. As a stage performer, I can easily picture the excitement stirred up by the storyteller when, one by one, folk in his audience spotted the outline of this figure on the face of the full moon.

“Who is he?” one would shout. “What’s he doing up there?” “Who sent him?” “It’s in the Bible,” the taleteller would confide.

“In the story of how the Israelites fled from Egypt to the promised land. And who sent him up there? Why, that was Moses.

“They were all out in the wilderness, and God had commanded them to keep the Sabbath as a day of rest, but one man, he thought he’d collect some firewood. And his neighbours, they saw him doing it but he wouldn’t stop. He had this big pile of sticks, and ,of course, he was getting the pick of the wood because no one else would break the law to pick up so much as a twig.

“So they called out to Moses, and the man was found guilty, but no one had ever committed such a terrible crime before. No one had ever broken God’s commandment by working on the Sabbath. So they didn’t know what to do with him.

“Now if you looked in the Bible, you’d see, book of Numbers, Chapter 25, the man was stoned to death. But you can find the truth before your own eyes. For collecting sticks on the Sabbath, he wasn’t stoned – he was banished. Moses sent him to the moon and he’s there yet. Him and his firewood!”


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