January 25, 2007
When I walk into the Santa Monica restaurant, it's easy to spot the Sisters, as they are young, fresh-faced, sitting straight backed, looking expectantly at the door.
They're not nuns, but missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which means Mormon by the way, although I know as little about their religion as they know about mine.
I promised a Mormon friend I would meet with them. They had met with some Orthodox rabbis, but my friend thought I could give them a broader, nondenominational perspective on Judaism.
"We wanted to understand your religion," says one of the sisters in a lilting South African accent. Incongruously, she works Beverly Hills and Bel Air.
"There are a lot of Jews there," she says ruefully implying that it's not easy for a black, South African Mormon missionary to go cold-calling there.
"We want to know about all religions," says the other, a blonde-haired, rosy-cheeked 22-year-old straight from Central Casting (Salt Lake City).
What they want from me is a basic understanding of Judaism.
"Why?" I ask.
"We don't want to say the wrong things, come at the wrong times. We want to know who we are talking to."
"Talking to about what?" I ask.
"The message of Jesus," they say.
Duh. They're missionaries.
It's at this point of the lunch that many others would walk away, or maybe start a covert disinformation campaign ("Jews have horns and worship the grass and they eat shoes") just to thwart them.
But I don't. Hasn't Borat done enough?
Besides, aren't Jews meant to be a light onto other nations?
They pull out their questionnaire.
"What are the fundamentals of the Jewish faith?" they ask.
Hmm. Good question.
"What's a fundamental?" I ask.
"What do Jews think about the afterlife? Do they believe in reincarnation? What do they think about the Messiah?"
"Did you ever hear the phrase, 'Two Jews, Three Shuls?'" I say.
They shake their heads keenly, as if I am about to pass on a most important tenet of my faith. I consider telling them the joke about the Jews stranded on the desert island (the one with the punch line: "that's the synagogue I don't pray in.") but I could tell from their earnestness they aren't ready for the subject of Jewish humor, cynicism and a long tradition of apostasy, Jesus being the prime example.
Even though I can readily explain the concept of the World to Come ("Did you hear the one about the rabbi in heaven posted next to the blonde in the bikini?"), eschatology isn't my really my strong point, and I'm not sure it's the point of Judaism.
"The point of being Jewish is here on this earth: To follow God's commandments, create a Jewish family, contribute to the Jewish community, make the world a better place," I say.
God help me, I'm beginning to sound like them, I think. On the other hand, my rabbis would be proud.
"There's so much to learn," Sister Salt Lake City gushes.
Oh, you don't know the half of it, sister.
Sister South Africa looks slightly overwhelmed, like she didn't know how to use any of the information I'd given her in the tony neighborhood of Beverly Hills.
"Are there any times I shouldn't go into a Jewish house?" she asks.
I decide to be honest with her, poor girl. First apartheid, now this. Why didn't they send her to an easier neighborhood, like South L.A. or Watts?
"Look, it doesn't matter when you knock on someone's door, because if they're Jewish they're probably not going to talk to you no matter what," I say. "They see your name tag, and the words 'Church' and 'Jesus' and the door will slam."
She nodded miserably. The past week she'd spent four hours in a Jewish neighborhood and didn't get invited into one home.
"Jews don't like missionaries," I explain. "We've had centuries of being persecuted, corralled and decimated -- often by the Catholic Church or its adherents -- and so we're not about to convert to Christianity." (Mormonism is a sect of Christianity, apparently. Who knew?)
"But I don't want to convert them -- I can't hardly convert Christians. I just want to get the message across," she says. "And I want to get to know them."
Hmm. Get to know them. Why would a Jew want to get to know a missionary?
"Well, maybe you could tell them that," I say. "That you know they're Jewish, and they don't like missionaries, but you wanted to have a discussion on the tenets of your faiths," I offer this though I doubt it will work. But if they only need to say their message, not convert anyone, then who knows? It's like taking a flyer from an underpaid temp on the street. Even if you're going to toss it, it helps them.
She looks cheered at the prospect of a new tactic. She recalls some successes: a group of teenagers in Beverly Hills, an old Jewish man who said he didn't believe in any religion. Nothing to get into heaven with, if you ask me.
As we walk down Colorado Boulevard, they with copious notes they plan to hand out to other missionaries, Sister South Africa wonders aloud why she hasn't been sent to some place easier, to Kenya, for example, where "my own people are."
But, "Los Angeles is a strange place," she says. "There are a lot of lost souls here."
I don't know whether I've helped her or hindered her, helped my own people or set myself on a path straight to our version of hell, but on this one point, if no other, I have to agree.