I grew up in a strange household religiously. My parents divorced because they couldn’t decide if I would be raised Jewish or Catholic. One would think this is a decision that would have been reached before having a baby (especially when you’ve been married a decade before the baby comes into the picture), but alas, religion opened a hole in their marriage that my parents found impossible to bridge. My father was Jewish, my mother Catholic, and despite living full-time with my mother, I decided I would be Jewish. My mother told me Jews were “people of the Book,” and I liked books. My favorite food, then and now, was also matzo ball soup, and once my mother told me that recipe was also Jewish, well, I was sold. And so, at the wise age of 7, I declared I was Jewish, and almost 25 years later, I still am.
I was raised in an unexpected place for a mixed Jewish-Catholic household: the Finger Lakes region of Upstate New York, right outside of Palmyra—the birthplace of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. My Catholic mother was “enchanted” by the Hill Cumorah Pageant, and a devoted attendee. She was a fan of the theatre and would come home raving about how enthralling the show was, how detailed the costumes were, and how overwhelming the show was in size and scope. I would go with her once a season, but having an attention span permanently marred by television I never found it nearly as captivating.
However, because of the show, and having grown up around so many members of the Church, I knew the cliff-notes version of its origins, and that it all started just a stone’s throw away from where we were living. Despite this, I always just assumed the pageant was the entire draw, that the once-a-year show took over an otherwise deserted hill.
Last summer, I learned how wrong I was. I made a visit back to my hometown to drop my kids off with a dear childhood friend while I took a once-in-a-lifetime trip to South Korea for a week. I factored in a few days before I departed to get my kids used to her home, and my number one request for how we would spend that time was to get to know the history around Palmyra that I had neglected my entire childhood.
The dear childhood friend I was leaving my children with had converted to the Latter-day Saint faith when we were still teenagers, turned on to the faith by her then-high school boyfriend. The two of us, with six kids between us, certainly looked the part of Latter-day Saints, and I enjoyed “passing” as Mormon most of our tour through the area, as she was my own personal tour guide for the day. We visited the press where the first Book of Mormon was printed and the Smith family farm. It was fascinating from a historical perspective alone, seeing how books were printed and how life was lived in the time of Joseph Smith. But there was something special about it that felt like more than just historical site. Several times throughout my adult life, I’ve visited Jerusalem, touring holy sites of every other major world religion. It was an incredible experiencing a similar reverence and awe while touring sites just a stone’s throw from where I grew up. The Sacred Grove felt sacred, not necessarily because I subscribe to the narrative about what happened there, but because of how other people treated the site. This was a special and holy place, and it felt like it because the others there treated it as such. We only grazed the outlying area of the grove since several of our children had “had enough”, and it felt intensely disrespectful to have screaming children in such a sacred space. Much like ushering a screaming child out of church services, we ran them away from the Grove as fast as our legs could carry us.
But I have not run away from learning about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Due to my lifelong fascination with your church, I’ve read a great deal about its history, origins, religious practices, and rites. My husband and I recently toured the Philadelphia temple while it was open to the public, and I jokingly asked him, “Why aren’t we Mormon? Everyone is so nice, and they have a lot of kids too!” To which he replied, “Yes, they are nice. You are not… I mean…you were meant to be Jewish.” And yes, he’s right on that. The entire basis of Judaism is essentially arguing—something I am incredibly skilled at.
When I discuss my love of your church with fellow Jews, I often hear questions about “strange” religious practices of Latter-day Saints. The fact is, however, your religious practices aren’t much different from ours. Jews have our own version of your garments—it’s called tzitzit and it’s an undershirt my husband wears with long knotted strings on each corner that always gets tangled in the wash. And don’t even get me started on the concepts of family purity, an eruv,or kapparot(click the links if you’re interested in traveling down a rabbit hole). If you want to talk about religions with “strange” practices, Jews own the market.
I often wonder if the general public’s reaction to Judaism would be similar if we were as “new” to the major world religion scene as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Perhaps your missionary work would be easier if Church members pointed out how weird every other major world religion is, but y’all are definitely far too nice for that!
Bethany Mandel is a writer and homeschooling mother of three living in the D.C. area.