A Mormon Girl Among Jews
At Sunday school, I learned about the Israelites and end-times. Then bar mitzvah season began.
I managed to keep them separate for a while: the Israelites I learned about on Sundays, and the actual Jews I went to school with the rest of the week. But it all got a bit trickier to manage in seventh grade, the year of bar and bat mitzvahs.
Oh, those long Saturday mornings in synagogue with the rest of the goyishe girls, tied up in our Gunne Sax dresses, patiently abiding hour after hour, aliyah after aliyah, unable to disentangle all those baruch atahs or distinguish one Hebrew prayer from another. Perhaps the other kids could just tune it all out and fantasize about the hotel after-party. But I was seriously religious. And my young Mormon mind grimly tried to reconcile the American Reform Judaism in front of me and the epic scriptural story lines of my church.
The Sunday morning after my first bat mitzvah, wrestling mentally with the foreignness of the davening and the kissing of prayer books and the grandeur of the reception—where every child received his or her own personalized New York Yankees mini baseball bat!—I carved an especially pious confession in the pages of my journal. Oh, Israelites! I wrote. Only in time would you come to know Jesus as your Savior!
I was 12 years old.
It’s now three decades later, and I’ve been through a number of religious transformations, having moved from Mormon orthodoxy to a place on the spectrum you might compare to Reform Judaism—except that there is no organized Reform Mormonism. Yes, I attended Brigham Young University, but I followed it with a Ph.D. at UCLA, where I met plenty more real Jewish people. Including my husband, David.
Through his eyes (and my own), I notice anew the relish with which we Mormons like to make casual comparisons between our faith and Judaism. I hear Mormons describe ourselves as a “chosen people” who made an “exodus” (across the American plains) to build our “Zion.” In the American West, some Mormons even call non-Mormons “Gentiles.” And I now understand the hazards—big and small—that come with presuming too much familiarity between Mormons and Jews, hazards that reveal a disconnect in many LDS minds between Israelites as an abstract conception and the reality of contemporary Jewish life. The big hazards we witness every time posthumous LDS baptisms of dead Jews cycle back into the headlines. The small ones I observe whenever my husband sets foot into the world of my observant Mormon friends and relations.
Take, for example, the arcane Old Testament questions David gets from well-meaning Mormons. Like the time my sister earnestly started quizzing him about the ritual sacrifice of animals as described in Leviticus. As if this guy, raised Reform in Newport Beach, Calif., had any grip on Leviticus beyond his Torah portion. Or just last Sunday, when someone in our local San Diego congregation tried to strike up a conversation with my husband on the subject of temple eunuchs in the book of Isaiah by saying, “I know how important Isaiah is to the Jewish people.” You know what may be even more important than Isaiah to my husband? Citizens United, finding decent deli in San Diego, and the Lakers. Then there are the sweet 19-year-old LDS missionaries who eye him, tenderly, with anticipation. As if he were literally a chosen person and not just a guy who loves his Mormon wife so much that on Sunday mornings he’ll put on a nice suit and entertain himself by trying to make book over the U.S. Open with a Mormon buddy in the church foyer.
If some of my fellow Mormons don’t get contemporary Judaism—especially other-than-Orthodox ways of being Jewish—perhaps it is because we have yet to acknowledge other-than-orthodox ways of being ourselves. Through the framework of Mormon experience, early 21st-century Mormons have become accustomed to thinking of a religion as a monolithic institutional power rather than a multidimensional tradition, as a set of fixed truth claims rather than a set of evolving questions. Candid, self-aware, and critical examination of our own theology, history, and culture—that work is just beginning in Mormonism.
I once had a conversation with a wise Jewish person who told me, “When people say, ‘You dirty Jews,’ we say, ‘Look, you are wrong; we are clean.’ ” He held his arms wide. “But when someone says, ‘You dirty Mormons,’ you close yourselves off and turn away.”
I am waiting for that opening to arrive. Someday, more Mormon people will be ready to have a broad and open dialogue with ourselves about the reality of our own contemporary lives. And then we will be ready to have the same open dialogue with others, including Jews.
Please be patient. We are a young religion. Give us time.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Our book critic dives into Daf Yomi’s daily regimen expecting a law code, but instead finds a chain of questions