Pocatello, Idaho is not my first experience being a distinct religious minority in a small town. The first time I became known as everyone’s only Jewish friend was in DeKalb, Illinois, where I received my undergraduate degree in 1992 and graduate degree in 1997 from Northern Illinois University. 6 ½ years total spent living in the land of flying corn. Predominantly Catholic, I eventually learned why everyone had two middle names (saint names, you know), why everyone had a smudge of ash on their heads on that one Wednesday, and what that small paper scroll was hanging from everyone’s necks.
It was also here that a boyfriend told me about a mechanic who tried to “Jew him down (in his defense, he was properly horrified and ashamed upon learning why that expression was bad),” and I had a healthy argument with the student union cafeteria lady about why it was important to have Matzoh available during Passover.
While it was weird that the only Jewish fraternity at NIU was equally gentile, the DeKalb experience of being in a Jewish minority didn’t prepare me for the weirdness that comes from actually being referred to as a gentile. Which is what Jews, and all other non-Mormons, are considered in this part of the country.
When I was told at my job interview that the Pocatello, Idaho area was predominantly LDS (the official term for Mormons—Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints), I was immediately confused because I hadn’t seen anyone with bonnets or long beards cruising around in buggies during this first visit. I was not the full-fledged religious nerd I am today and thought Mormons were like Amish—and it all made sense to me when I saw an Amish family at the Salt Lake City airport on my return trip home. “Ah, there are the Mormons,” I said.
The attire and outward appearance of LDS members is not unusual come to find out, and many people outside the Mormon Corridor recognize members of the LDS Church as those pairs of young missionaries walking around in nice suits. The door-to-door salesmanship of Christ-based religion has been going on since the dawn of the common era, and at least now the people at your door are polite, well-groomed citizens with pamphlets or gold name tags. Just a few centuries ago, the people at your door were going to help you find Christ if it took every perverse, demonic instrument of torture they could design.
So proselytizing is a Christian thing, that’s always been the case, and the LDS Church based out of Salt Lake City is the latest Christian thing being aggressively marketed to the lost and soulless masses. There are many who claim the LDS Church isn’t “Christian;” and I suggest watching the first 10 minutes of Elizabeth starring Cate Blanchett (not for the faint of heart) to see that Christ-followers accusing other Christ-followers of “doing it wrong” isn’t anything new either.
The hot button issues between Jews and Mormons include the alleged affiliation between the two and the disturbing ritual of baptizing Holocaust victims and other Jews posthumously, which has since been discouraged by the LDS church. While I believe posthumous baptism is shocking and grossly misguided, It’s the issue of affiliation that provides the most consistent puzzlement living in the “Book of Mormon Belt.” I strive to manage this theological conflict gently, because often it’s more fun to try and get my LDS friends into a bar than get them into a religious debate where, ultimately, we’d have to agree to disagree. This certainly keeps me on my toes when it comes to my Jewish heritage; especially since, Mormon majority or not, Judaica out here is spread pretty thin.