By Harriet P. Gross
I’m always fascinated by the presence of Jews and Judaism where I least expect it. Case in point:
I was in Salt Lake City, hub of the officially named Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Followers of this faith (they maintain it’s the world’s fastest-growing religion) call themselves “LDS.” Most of us know them as Mormons.
Salt Lake is a beautiful city. One of its most striking features is the wideness of the streets, as “ordained” by Mormon founder Joseph Smith. When he arrived there from mid-America in the mid-1800s with his band of persecuted followers and declared, “This is the place,” he also ordered that the streets be built to accommodate the easy turning-around of his large wagon and the team of horses that pulled it. Smith’s first church ultimately expanded into today’s huge complex of buildings, cheek by jowl with the Versailles-like palace that is Utah’s state capitol.
It’s also a place of amazing religious contrasts. I was there for a presswomen’s conference, where the to-be-expected Gideon Bible in my hotel room nightstand was accompanied by an unexpected (to me, at least at first) Book of Mormon, the scriptures of Smith’s faith. But in the same hotel, a favorite tourist gift shop purchase is an unsubtle T-shirt that proclaims and illustrates polygamy!
So, where does Judaism come in? As our group of women from around the country took a walking tour of the city center, our young guide peppered his speech with interesting sidelights, pointing out such anomalies as the busy Starbucks, which seems at odds with a majority faith that eschews caffeine as well as alcohol. “I’m not a Mormon,” he told us with a smile. “I like my coffee!” When the place first opened, it was a virtual tomb, he said; but decaf has since caught on in a big way. Then, inside the palatial capitol building, this happened. …
The guide told us about the beauty and richness of the structure, emphasizing that the Mormons did all the building themselves, carting marble and stone from quarries more than 20 miles away before they had steam engines to help them. “It was like building the pyramids of Egypt,” he said.
Later, I cornered him alone for a moment and said (rather snidely, I’m afraid), “I hope you read that ‘other’ Bible, too. Constructing this place would have been much easier if the Mormons had had thousands of Hebrew slaves to help them!” His totally unexpected reply: “Oh, I know that. My mother is Jewish.” (Please insert here a string of virtual exclamation points to illustrate my surprise!)
That evening, I attended a rehearsal of the famed Mormon Tabernacle Choir, more than 300 voices on stage with a full orchestra and bell choir as well. I had a bite to eat nearby, where the young man who took my money at the end of the cafeteria line answered my question about why Nauvoo — a name I’ve always associated with native Americans of southern Illinois and Missouri — is so prominent here: Patiently, he explained that that very area was the major one from which Smith and his followers had been ousted (chased out, he emphasized) because of their beliefs and practices, which included polygamy.
I left the city with some local sea salt and honey (Utah is called “the bee state”) but no polygamy T-shirt. At the airport early Sunday, as I was thinking ahead to using these purchases in my preparations for the coming New Year, the man who inspected my ID and boarding pass smiled broadly and said, “Isn’t this a beautiful Sabbath morning?” On the plane home, I read Deseret News, the Mormon daily paper with a worldwide circulation and emphasis almost totally on family values. And I thought: What if we Jews, all of us together, could be as dedicated to our Shabbat and everything it stands for — all the rest of the week, too?
May we all be so inspired in 5774!