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.
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.
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Joanna Brooks is the author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith.
Joanna Brooks is the author ofThe Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith.