Interesting Jewish/Mormon story in the New Yorker!
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?