A Mormon Girl Among Jews
At Sunday school, I learned about the Israelites and end-times. Then bar mitzvah season began.
Before I met any Jewish people, I learned about Jews in my Mormon Sunday school classes. But no one used the word “Jews.” Instead, it was always “Israel,” or “the tribes of Israel,” or “Israelites.” Or maybe even “Hebrews.”
During sacrament meeting on Sunday morning, I would trace the movements of the Israelites charted on the colored maps at the back of my scriptures. Perhaps the most important of these movements, I learned, was the exodus of a small family of Israelites led by a righteous man named Lehi away from the land of their ancestors and across the ocean to the Americas, where they grew and divided and clashed and became the civilizations of the Book of Mormon. In Sunday school, I studied the colorful Arnold Friberg Book of Mormon illustrations that my teacher propped up on her knees as we all sat in our little semicircle of child-sized chairs. The Israelites in these pictures were tall, dark-haired, and heroically muscled. Their expertly crafted wooden ships parted the waters as they approached some unspecified American coastline. At the center of the painting stood Lehi, the white-bearded patriarch, looking toward the heavens in prayer as the rest of the traveling party strained to see land on the horizon; his wife, Sariah, clung to him and silently rested her head upon his shoulder, eyes closed.
After church, because our family kept the Sabbath, I was not allowed to watch secular television, only Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. Sunday afternoons, my sisters and brother and I would watch the Israelites—mostly tall and sculpted (Charlton Heston, John Derek) or lovely and lithe (Yvonne DeCarlo)—act and reenact their epic journey from slavery and across the sea and the deserts to freedom.
And sometimes around the Sunday dinner table, or even on long drives to Utah for summer vacation, my parents would narrate other epic journeys made by the 12 tribes. The lost tribes especially—you know, Dan, Naphtali, Reuben … those guys—had migrated across the globe and into many secret locations, from Korea to England to the Americas. American Jews, my mother told me, were all the tribe of Benjamin. And when the time was right, the lost tribes would gather home to Israel and star in the dramas of the end-times.
So much, so very much, depended on the Israelites.
I first met actual Jewish people in 1979. I was in third grade, and my family had just moved from one Southern California orange-grove suburb to another, wealthier one. My new best friend’s name was Amanda Goldstein. Amanda’s dad worked as a disc jockey at a local FM soft rock station, spinning the BeeGees and Rod Stewart. He was tall and had dark, feathered, shoulder-length hair and wore tight, dark Jordache jeans. He was home in the afternoons when I went to Amanda’s house to play, but he didn’t say much. That was the job of Amanda’s mother, a freckled beauty who wore a little star of David around her neck on a gold chain.
In December of my third-grade year, I learned for the first time about Hanukkah, and I tried to politely point out to Mrs. Goldstein its rank injustice, because whereas some of us had only one Christmas morning with presents, others of us had eight entire Hanukkah nights.
“Honey,” Mrs. Goldstein said, fixing me in her gaze. “You’re wrong. It’s not like that at all. Some nights we only give socks.”
And that was the end of that.
My third-grade crush was a Jewish boy named Matthew Alexander. He had beautiful olive skin and curly hair, and his older brother, Ethan, played soccer, which in 1979 seemed a beautiful and exotic sport. His mother’s name was Charlie—a woman named Charlie!—and she spoke with a New York City accent.
All the Jewish kids in my grade-school classes—David Schwarz, Craig Turk, Jenni Samuelson, Rebekah Rosen, Adam Carl, Brian Stern—blended in with the rest of us in their corduroy O.P. surfer shorts and slip-on Vans tennis shoes. But their mothers! Dark-haired women with big-city accents, book- and newspaper-readers who backed Jimmy Carter and plainly spoke their minds. Sometimes they even argued with their husbands or gossiped about each other.
One afternoon, sitting in the back seat of David Schwarz’s family station wagon, I heard Mrs. Schwarz criticize another Jewish mom: “She thinks her son is a little Jesus!”
I started a bit, hearing the name of Jesus used in other than worshipful tones. Mrs. Schwarz caught my gaze in her rear-view mirror.
“Honey, when I say ‘little Jesus,’ what I mean is that she thinks her kid is God. But he’s not. Jews, we don’t believe in Jesus.”
And that was the end of that.
I found a brisk and delicious contrast between the world of the Jewish mothers and my own Mormon world, where women were supposed to be unflappably sweet and dutiful and line up to vote against the Equal Rights Amendment. Plus, Mormons were not supposed to disagree with each other, directly or in public. All our differences we swallowed, and we quietly treasured this superior truthfulness. We were, after all, God’s other chosen people.
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