I belong to one of the ten tribes of Israel. No, seriously. I have the documentation to prove it. All Mormons are taught that they are of the House of Israel and therefore can lay claim to the blessings given to one of the tribes, so much so that until perhaps the middle of the last century, Mormons referred to non-Mormons as “Gentiles.” And a lot of Mormons have told me that there are amazing similarities between our frontier American restorationist Christian beliefs and those of honest-to-goodness Jews. Being a seventh-generation Mormon, I grew up knowing that I was one of the chosen people, even if no one else knew it. At seventeen, I visited my local Patriarch, who laid his hands on my head and “declared my lineage”: It turns out I am of the tribe of Ephraim.
But what about the original chosen people, the Jews? Well, we knew that before Jesus’ Second Coming, the entire House of Israel would be gathered into one fold, the Jews to Jerusalem and the other tribes to the “New” Jerusalem, which of course is to be built in suburban Kansas City (no, I am not making this up). Our job, if we chose to accept it, was to help gather the rest of the lost tribes by turning them into Mormons.
At the age of six, I got my chance: we moved into a heavily Jewish neighborhood on the northwest side of Los Angeles. I would guess that between 40 and 50 percent of our neighborhood was Jewish. Every year the important Jewish holidays (Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah) were holidays from school simply because so many children would be absent anyway that it made no sense to hold classes. So it was that I found myself an Israelite in a sea of Jewish Gentiles.
At six years old, no one is consciously trying to win converts to Mormonism, at least I wasn’t. But for those six years it had been drummed into me that I was an example of the believers: people were watching me to see if I would stand up for what I believed. So I was the best little Mormon I could be in the hopes that I would measure up. I was literally “trying to be like Jesus … in all that I say and do.”
But our new neighbors greeted us with more bemused curiosity than anything else. In a neighborhood full of small families and expensive German cars, we were the weird people with a million kids (actually, just six) and the enormous van. Unlike the rest of the neighborhood, we didn’t vacation in Vail or Hawaii, we didn’t go to summer camp, and we actually did our own yardwork and housework.
So, we didn’t fit in exactly.
“You left one of the m’s out,” said Terry, the neighborhood bully, one day.
“What do you mean?” I asked completely innocently.
“It’s not ‘Mormons,” he sneered. “It’s ‘Morons.’”
“Yeah,” chimed in the obnoxious kid down the street with the puka-shell necklace. “I heard they can’t even eat peanut butter or drink root beer.”
Explaining was useless. They had latched onto the one thing that made us outsiders: our peculiar Utah religion. There was nothing we could do about it.
My brother Danny responded to our new pariah status by constantly getting in fights, no matter how much bigger the other kid was. I on the other hand just tried to maintain a low profile, keeping to myself for the most part, which wasn’t exactly capturing the missionary spirit of my ancestors. Saving the Jews would have to wait, as surviving elementary school was far more important.
So for the most part I made my peace with my Jewish neighbors. One of my best friends was Howard , a computer-obsessed kid who didn’t care a bit about religion, neither his nor mine, and I was happy to leave it that way. But our respective religions nevertheless pulled us apart in different ways. Howard and my other Jewish friends went to Hebrew school in preparation for their bar mitzvahs while we went to Primary meetings at church on Tuesdays and spent pretty much all day Sundays in church. Because of this, we developed two circles of friends: those we saw at school, and those we saw at church or temple. Those circles almost never overlapped.
Life went on just fine until middle school, which of course is one of those brutal times of life when adolescents tend to distinguish themselves by being as cruel as possible to the smaller and weaker (I was both, unfortunately). Once again, religion became a way to divide and conquer. Not being Jewish, we weren’t part of the majority, and not being Catholic or Protestant, we didn’t quite fit in with the Christians. One cheerful Evangelical (aptly named Calvin) told me one day that, sad to say, I was going to hell. Of course, I quietly thought the same thing about him. About the only kids lower in the social order were the Iranians, but then this was 1979 and a lot of kids were afraid of them. Not surprisingly, I started hanging out with some of the Iranians.
But I was still very much an outcast. The aforementioned obnoxious kid had by that point given up the puka shells but had become in a way my personal nemesis. After school and in the summers we played baseball in the street, rode our bikes along the trails through the hills, and generally had a great time together. But at school he treated me with absolute contempt. I wasn’t popular, and he was, and that was that. But I forgave him time and again until the day he stuck his gum in my hair on the bus, apparently to show how cool he was. We rarely spoke again after that.
I went to several bar mitzvahs, though notably not the one for the guy with the puka shells. The year before I had at age 12 been ordained to the priesthood of God by my father in a quiet and private ceremony during which my mother had sobbed silently. A bar mitzvah was quite a different affair: very public and full of symbolism, and of course very joyous, loudly and boisterously so. Secretly I was jealous. I wanted someone to celebrate me, but then Mormonism isn’t really about that. It’s all about solemnity and simplicity, which is why Mormon chapels are so severely unadorned and almost corporate looking. Although we were of the same family, there was a wide gulf between us Mormons and our Jewish cousins. Yet we had faith that someday we would bridge the gap and welcome them home into the Household of God.
That day seemed to come one memorable night when I was 14 or so. As usual, my friend Craig and I showed up at our church for our Wednesday evening youth activity only to find a large Israeli flag standing in front of a painting of Lehi’s dream. The foyer, usually filled with young parents trying in vain to quiet unhappy children, was brimming with people, each man and boy wearing a yarmulke and a flowing tallit. Could this be it? Had the Jews finally seen the light and joined with us? Could Jesus’s coming really be that close?
No, it was Rosh Hashanah, and the local temple had rented our church for the evening, as it was large enough to accommodate those who naturally attended temple only on the high holidays. Jesus would have to wait.
My Israelite status was confirmed one day in my eighth-grade science class. Our teacher, Mr. Joseph, who was himself Jewish, bet one of the other teachers that he could correctly point out every Jew and every Gentile in our class. He started in the back and as he pointed to each student, called out, “Goy, Jew, Jew, goy, goy … ” until he got to me.
“Hmmm,” he pondered, his hand on his chin. “This one could go either way.”
Of course! I thought. My Ephraimite blood was throwing him off.
“Jew,” he said, hopefully.
I wanted to explain who I was, but another kid chimed in with, “No, he’s a Mormon,” as if I had leprosy.
I don’t remember any of my Jewish friends visiting our church, but then after the flurry of bar mitzvahs, I didn’t have any reason to visit their temple. Until I met Esther. My junior year in high school I had begun to emerge from my self-imposed exile of low-profile anonymity. I joined the debate team, and it was there that I met her. She sat next to me, and I thought she was one of the most beautiful people I had ever met, both inside and out. She always smiled and seemed to radiate kindness, and I was so glad I got to sit next to her and become her friend.
Then one night the president of the debate club called me and said, “I’m calling to let you know when Esther’s funeral will be.”
I was speechless.
“She killed herself this morning,” was all she said.
A few days later we filed into the temple, respectfully taking one of the proffered yarmulkes, and sat in stunned silence as the rabbi talked of Esther’s pain. He read the note she had left wherein she said that she was tired of pretending to be happy. I hurt so much for her, and for once I felt totally connected to someone else.
That was the last time I was in a Jewish house of worship until well into adulthood. By then religious differences seemed to fade in importance, though my odd religion occasionally came up, whether it was my firiend Mike explaining that his dad played golf with a foul-mouthed, beer-drinking Mormon bishop or Rubin joking that I probably couldn’t wait to go on a mission to save the heathens in Africa.
Then I left for Utah to go to school at Brigham Young University, as my mother had taught us a good Mormon should do. There were no Jews there, no Catholics, no Protestants, and certainly no Iranians. I didn’t really think about Judaism again until the day I received a letter from home when I was a missionary in La Paz, Bolivia. My sister, who had walked away from Mormonism as soon as she left for college, was getting married … to a Jewish guy. Not only that, but she was converting to Judaism. Here I was thousands of miles away from home trying to bring as many people into Mormonism as possible, and my own flesh and blood was abandoning our faith. She was even rejecting Jesus.
I was appalled. But I got over it. I quickly realized that my sister was happier than I had seen her in a long time, and that was good enough for me. We attended my nephew’s bar mitzvah earlier this year, and it was just as joyous as as I had remembered. As I thought about it, it seemed like the divide had been bridged, and we were one in the House of Israel, though not in the same way I had once imagined.