Interesting Jewish/Mormon story in the New Yorker!

Judaism Literature

I’m sure I don’t have to tell you guys how much the Mormons love to compare themselves with the Jews (or, if you do need a hint, read this post). This comparison is usually kind of one-sided — Mormons love to contemplate the parallels, and the Jews are (usually) blissfully unaware of their Utah-based secret admirers. Until now.

Nathan Englander’s story What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank is far more about Jews than it is about Mormons. However, his discussion of Mormonism is so exactly what the Mormons would like the Jews to be saying about them that I had to google the author to check whether he was really Jewish and not Mormon. For example, in the story, a secular Jew complains about how disrespectful it is when the Mormons perform baptisms for the dead on behalf of Holocaust victims, but the faithful religious Jew blows it off as a trivial concern. Also, they can relate on the basis of religious-based dietary restrictions:

“I’ll tell you,” Mark says. “That’s got to be the No. 1 most annoying thing about being Hasidic in the outside world. Worse than the rude stuff that gets said is the constant policing by civilians. Everywhere we go, people are checking on us. Ready to make some sort of liturgical citizen’s arrest.”

“Strangers!” Shoshana says. “Just the other day, on the way in from the airport. Yuri pulled into a McDonald’s to pee, and some guy in a trucker hat came up to him as he went in and said, ‘You allowed to go in there, brother?’ Just like that.”

“Not true!” Deb says.

“It’s not that I don’t see the fun in that,” Mark says. “The allure. You know, we’ve got Mormons in Jerusalem. They’ve got a base there. A seminary. The rule is — the deal with the government — they can have their place, but they can’t to outreach. No proselytizing. Anyway, I do some business with one of their guys.”

“From Utah?” Deb says.

“From Idaho. His name is Jebediah, for real — do you believe it?”

“No, Yerucham and Shoshana,” I say. “Jebediah is a very strange name.” Mark rolls his eyes at that, handing me what’s left of the joint. Without even asking, he gets up and gets the tin and reaches into his wife’s purse for another tampon. And I’m a little less comfortable with this than with the white bread, with a guest coming into the house and smoking up all our son’s pot. Deb must be thinking something similar, as she says, “After this story, I’m going to text Trev and make sure he’s not coming back anytime soon.”

“So when Jeb’s at our house,” Mark says, “when he comes by to eat and pours himself a Coke, I do the same religious-police thing. I can’t resist. I say, ‘Hey, Jeb, you allowed to have that?’ People don’t mind breaking their own rules, but they’re real strict about someone else’s.”

“So are they allowed to have Coke?” Deb says.

“I don’t know,” Mark says. “All Jeb ever says back is ‘You’re thinking of coffee, and mind your own business, either way.'”

A bigger compliment comes later in the story when (as the title suggests) they talk about Anne Frank, and speculate that — in the event of another holocaust — Jeb the Mormon friend would definitely risk his own safety to hide their family.

The part that really jumped out as echoing our own discussions of “Is it a religion or a culture??” was this:

“There is such a thing as Jewish culture. One can live a culturally rich life.”

“Not if it’s supposed to be a Jewish life. Judaism is a religion. And with religion comes ritual. Culture is nothing. Culture is some construction of the modern world. It is not fixed; it is ever changing, and a weak way to bind generations. It’s like taking two pieces of metal, and instead of making a nice weld you hold them together with glue.”

It’s interesting because I could swear I’ve heard an argument like this from the Mormon side, but the Jews were the ones who (supposedly) were supposed to be a culture and an ethnicity in addition to a religion… What do you think?

11 thoughts on “Interesting Jewish/Mormon story in the New Yorker!

  1. “If one has the same wife for decades and a beautiful family personally, but advances a corrupt ideology which runs counter to his own religion and destroys the religious cultural values of society, he is like a rabbi who says; ‘I would never eat pork but I will force-feed pig to thousands of people.’ Pig remains not kosher and he too is not kosher,” Levin said.

    Of course! Because Romney forced thousands of men to marry other men!

    I’ve always thought of it more as a cookie, since it forms the basis of a cheesecake’s cookie-crumb crust.

  2. I just read a bunch of pamphlets I got from a Jewish Hanukkah thing at the town’s arts center, and I think there are some (like in the story) who’d like it to be a religion and not also a culture. There were fundamentalist sermons about how the Greeks tried to be inclusive of Judaism while contributing their own culture, and how this was wrong and the Maccabees had to fight to defend Jewish purity. The oil that had to burn for eight days was all that was left that was sacred after the gentiles defiled the temple.

    I’m rambling here, but there was a lot of “these are G-d’s commandments and his ways are higher than our ways” and insularity and rejection of pluralism and stuff.

  3. I think there are some (like in the story) whod like it to be a religion and not also a culture. There were fundamentalist sermons about how the Greeks tried to be inclusive of Judaism while contributing their own culture, and how this was wrong and the Maccabees had to fight to defend Jewish purity.

    Exactly. That conflict was one of the main themes of the story — the conflict between the secular Jews and the religious Jews. The first see Judaism as a culture/ethnicity, and view the religion as one (optional) aspect of it, whereas the latter insist that it is first and foremost a religion.

    Jewish purity is a big part of the story as well. The ultra-orthodox characters are concerned that their secular Jewish friends aren’t leading a Jewish life, but they’re even more concerned by the prospect that the secular-Jewish son might not marry a Jew. They call intermarriage a “holocaust.”

    This highlights one point where Jewish culture is different than Mormon culture. While some people argue that Mormonism can be considered a culture and an ethnicity (in addition to being a family of religious sects), most Mormons believe that once you stop believing and practicing Mormonism, you’re simply not Mormon anymore. Certainly no one would expect that if you’re an atheist who was raised Mormon that would mean that your kids need to marry people who also have a Mormon background.

    The oil that had to burn for eight days was all that was left that was sacred after the gentiles defiled the temple.

    I’ve talked to various Jewish friends about this, and the story I’ve heard is that Hannukah has an interesting and ironic mix of anti-assimilationist and assimilationist elements. Specifically, as you point out, the original holiday was a celebration of a very anti-assimilationist military victory. Yet, the story of the burning oil arose later (I think at some point in the Hellenistic period — I should try to track down my references) when celebrating Hannukah as a feast of lights would fit in with surrounding Indo-European cultures’ mid-winter festivals of lights. Gambling, for example, was a typical tradition for Indo-European solstice festivals, and is passed down in the Hanukkah dreidel tradition. (Up until a few centuries ago, gambling was a Christmas tradition as well, and was one of the reasons the Puritans outlawed Christmas.)

    Even today, Hanukkah is more important in places where Jews are frequently interacting with other cultural traditions that have their own mid-winter lights festivals. I understand that in Israel, Hanukkah is far less important than the high holidays, and is less emphasized. To make a bigger deal of Hanukkah than of, say, Rosh Hashanah, is itself an assimilationist act (because it’s a reaction to being surrounded by Christmas).

    TL; DR: Hanukkah has always been about the question of assimilating-or-not with neighboring cultures.

  4. @1:

    I find WND much more amusing

    How can 850 rabbis be ignorant of the fact that a governor cannot overrule a supreme court of a state?

    When it comes down to it, all Romney did was instruct whatever departments to follow the new law. In terms of Mormonism, Romney was following the 12th Article of Faith: “We believe in being subject to…magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.” He did take steps to try to reverse course, but to no avail.

    I can’t tell whether there’s anti-Mormonism there or just a lashing out at everyone who doesn’t make gay marriage not happen regardless of the boundaries of their influence.

  5. @4:

    This highlights one point where Jewish culture is different than Mormon culture. While some people argue that Mormonism can be considered a culture and an ethnicity (in addition to being a family of religious sects), most Mormons believe that once you stop believing and practicing Mormonism, youre simply not Mormon anymore.

    Outsiders often assume a Mormon-culture person is “Mormon” until that person emphatically insists they aren’t “part of the Church.” I think it would be good of the Church to adopt a more “secular Jewish” mentality about who qualifies as “Mormon.” It would show maturity.

    In terms of ethnicity, that raises a question in my mind about how long a people need to be reproducing amongst themselves to lay claim to the term “ethnicity.” I’m not sure that a couple hundred years qualifies. Also, given the fact that the Church is international (rather than diasporic), I would argue that “Mormon” includes many “ethnicities.”

  6. The deep dark secret of the homosexual community is the high percentage of its members that seek out sex with underage boys. Consider the following:

    ” * The Gay Report, published by homosexual researchers Jay and Young in 1979, revealed that 73 percent of homosexuals surveyed had at some time had sex with boys 16 to 19 years of age or younger.

    * Although homosexuals account for less than two percent of the population. they constitute about a third of child molesters. Further, as noted by the Encino, Calif.-based National Association for research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), “since homosexual pedophiles victimize far more children than do heterosexual pedophiles, it is estimated that approximately 80 percent or pedophile victims are boys who have been molested by adult males.

    * A nationwide investigation of child molestation in the Boy Scouts from 1971 to 1991 revealed that more than 2,000 boys reported molestations by adult Scout leader.

    * A study of Canadian pedophiles has shown that 30 percent of those studied admitted to having engaged In homosexual acts as adults, and 91 percent of the molesters of non-familial boys admitted to no lifetime sexual contact other than homosexual!” (Source)

  7. @8 to me that sounds like a humongous load of BS, but what do I know? I’d almost be tempted to attempt to analyze your claims objectively rather than just take your claims at face value…

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