The Jewish Side of “The Book of Mormon.”
by Amanda Walgrove
Joseph Smith first published The Book of Mormon in March 1830. About 180 years later, The Book of Mormon made its Broadway debut at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre. Tag-lined as “God’s Favorite Musical,” the hysterical satire is unsurprisingly offensive and appalling, but wrapped around a heartfelt and sympathetic tale. Written by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, along with Robert Lopez of the Tony award-winning and equally groundbreaking Avenue Q, this original musical tells the story of two young men sent to Africa on their Mormon mission. Thrown into a God-loathing culture plagued by AIDS, murder and maggots, Elder Price and Elder Cunningham easily demand sympathy as they naively travel through their own religiously fueled bildungsroman.
Lopez, who studied religion at Yale with Harold Bloom, said that he quickly developed an interest in the Bible as literature. In an interview with the New York Times, Lopez said, “I had thought about doing the Bible Part III, but then I realized, that’s the Book of Mormon. That’s the Bible fan fiction.” Controversial material aside, the plot unfolds traditionally, even parodying certain musical forms, presenting the uncomfortable context in an agreeably recognizable structure. In an interview with USA Today, Parker crooned over the optimism of Rodgers and Hammerstein productions he saw as a child, while Stone says his exposure was limited to the Fiddler On the Roof soundtrack, adding, “My mom’s Jewish, so she wanted me to be Jewish.” Despite the satirical undermining of organized religion, Parker proudly described the show as a pro-faith musical.
While Mormonism and Christianity are dominantly exploited, Judaism plays an inevitable role in the story as well. In one powerful number, “I Believe,” Price belts out a string of peculiarly Mormon teachings, including the idea that ancient Jews sailed to America and that the Garden of Eden was located in Jackson County, Missouri. Opening the second act, Hitler shows up in Elder Price’s guilt-induced “spooky Mormon hell dream” along with Genghis Kahn and serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. Faced with the responsibility of converting the Ugandans, Elder Cunningham admits that he hasn’t actually read The Book of Mormon. The awkward, stocky teenager manages to weave an embellished tapestry of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings stories, which famously have their own cult following, into his preaching. The product of this is the song, Joseph Smith American Moses performed by the Ugandans for the mission leaders. Arguably the most shocking religious faux-pa occurs when the Africans perform, Has a Diga Eeboawi, which, in English, is a profanity directed towards God.
While the musical introduces its own mini cultural Mormon revolution, Mormonism is garnering media attention through Mitt Romney, a possible GOP presidential candidate. This Passover, on a smaller scale, Jews and Mormons have been exploring ties as well. Over Passover, Brigham Young University — a school where 99% of 33,000 students identify as Mormon and only three as Jewish—held widely popular Seders with more than 160 students, faculty, alumni, and “townies” in attendance. Many of them identify with the Exodus narrative, given their ancestors’ flight from the Midwest to their own “Promised Land,” in Utah. Victor Ludlow, the BYU religion professor who runs the Seders, says Mormons and Jews increasingly inhabit the same communities as more Mormons move east and Jews move west.
David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, once said to Latter-Day Saints President Ezra Taft Benson, “There are no people in the world who understand Jews like the Mormons.” Earlier this year Mark Paredes and Christa Woodall blogged about Jews and Mormons in Jewish Journal and J.online, two California-based Jewish news websites. Paredes, a former diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, spoke at the Salt Lake City JCC about the ways in which Mormons can develop relationships with Jews and show support for Israel, highlighting connections between Jewish and Mormon history. Paredes said, “We believe, as a people, we are modern-day Israelites who build temples, have the priesthood, are led by prophets, believe in Elijah’s second coming, claim the blessings of the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, and support the establishment of the state of Israel.”
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has issued a statement regarding The Book of Mormon musical, positing that “the production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening,” but that Mormon scripture “will change people’s lives forever.” Widely lauded by critics and even members of the Mormon community, the show should have a successful run, provided attendees are willing to follow the story but not take it too seriously. Stone, recalling friendly Mormon neighbors as a child, pondered, “Do goofy stories make people nice? What if, in their goofiness, these stories somehow inspire that in the right way? Is that a social good?” While the basis of the coming-of-age story is relatable, the humor lies in the hyperbolic absurdity of events that can easily be construed as disrespectful. Only a month into its Broadway run, viewers can decide for themselves whether the creators have succeeded in producing a blasphemous tale, a social good, or just another goofy story.