“You Don’t Know My Father,” New Era, Mar. 1982, 32
As soon as the snow started to fall that day in January, I began listening for Jeremy. He was due back around 3:00 P.M., and I knew there wasn’t much chance of his plane being early. But every time I heard footsteps in the hall, I found myself watching for his head to poke through the door of our dorm room.
It wasn’t a question of missing him, although I guess I did. I can easily survive ten days without that skinny intellectual. The problem was, I was curious. Had his father shot him or not?
Jeremy was my roommate. The first day I walked into the dark cell that passes for our dorm room, Jeremy was sitting at his desk listening to classical music and reading a chemistry text as if it were a light novel. I hate classical music.
I walked in and set my luggage down on one of the two beds—the one that didn’t have crackers spilled on it. “Hi,” I said, holding out my hand across the narrow room. “I’m Paul Jones. I guess we’re roommates.”
“Jeremy Kahn,” he said, taking my hand and crushing it in fragile-looking fingers that felt like steel cables. I have milked cows all my life. Consequently, I have strong hands. I squeezed back hard to teach him a lesson—and made no impression whatsoever. I retrieved my mangled hand, and he smiled.
“I guess you’ve heard about my abnormality,” he said.
I checked him out for signs of leprosy, but he seemed pretty much intact.
“I’m Jewish,” he said.
“Oh, I should have known,” I said. “You look Jewish. But believe me, we Mormons have the greatest respect for the Jewish people. In fact—”
“What do you mean I look Jewish. He was frowning now.
“Oh, well, you know, Curly hair, dark eyes …”
“Go ahead, why not say it—‘big nose!’”
“Well, you do have a big nose.”
“So, do all Christians have small noses? Yours is no beauty.”
“Look,” I said, “I’m sorry if I offended you. There’s nothing wrong with looking Jewish.”
“There’s no such thing as looking Jewish,” he said. “I have Jewish friends with straight blond hair and blue eyes and pug noses.”
“So you look more Jewish than they do. You should be proud of it.”
He slammed down his chemistry book on the desk. “Stereotypes! You’re full of stereotypes. All you Mormons are!”
“Hey, watch it; that’s a stereotype!”
He looked at me for a moment as if deciding whether he should laugh or throw his book at me. Then he laughed. “I should warn you,” he said. “I’m going to be a problem.”
“Why are you going to be a problem?” I said. “Are you a genius or something? Do you practice black magic? You don’t look like much of a problem to me.”
“Actually I’m only a near-genius,” he said, “but I’m going to be a problem because you’re going to try to convert me to Mormonism, and I’m not going to convert.”
I held up my hands as if in shock and looked as innocent as I could. “Me try to convert you? Whatever gave you such a wild idea?”
“Because I’ve already had one guy in here mumbling something about the stick of Judah and the stick of Joseph. The dorm mother had to tell me that she was of the tribe of Ephraim before she would give me my sheets. And then a guy with a Bible surgically attached to his right hand came in and informed me that I would never be happy until I accepted Christ as my Savior. And I’ve only been here a half hour!”
“The gospel is very precious to us Mormons,” I said. “We feel that we should share it with others.”
“Oh, yes,” he said. “And a Jew would make a really fine trophy, wouldn’t he? You could have my head mounted and hung over your desk. And another endangered species bites the dust.”
“You’re being a little oversensitive, aren’t you?” I said, beginning to unpack.
“Yeah? Well, I guess you don’t know much about Jews, do you? Or about being a minority.”
“Look, buddy,” I said, “I’ll admit I’ve never known much about Jews. Or Buddhists. Or nuclear technology. But that doesn’t mean any of them is bad. And while we’re on the subject, I might add that every human being is a minority of one. Nobody else knows your heart, your mind, your fears, or your hopes because they’re yours alone. So let’s not be Jew and Mormon this year. Let’s be me and you. We’ll never really know what it would be like to be each other, but we can compare.”
When I finished he began to applaud. “Bravo!” he said, with his already-familiar sarcastic smile. “Where do I send my 25 cents for additional copies?”
I was just about to get mad then, but he held up a skinny hand, and his face broke into a real smile. “Shalom, Paul,” he said. “The fact is, I liked your speech, and I accept the Jones doctrine of co-existence. I think we can be friends.”
Just then I noticed an old tennis shoe on my side of the room, “What’s that?” I said.
Jeremy observed it carefully. “It appears to be my tennis shoe,”
“Well what’s it doing on my side of the room?”
He sighed and picked it up. “Just my luck,” he said. “Ten thousand roommates to choose from, and I get Felix Unger.”
When I came back from the bathroom a few minutes later, he had made my bed. I thanked him, never suspecting that he had short-sheeted it.
That night as I sat on my innocent-looking bed, I pondered my fate. Jeremy had not really been as different as I had expected. I hadn’t seen him wear a skull cap, and there was no menorah in sight. He’d eaten everything on his plate at dinner and had spoken English all day. I knew there were different kinds of Judaism as there are different kinds of Christianity, and I assumed that whatever kind he was, he knew what he was doing. We didn’t talk about religion at all that day, though we were together a lot, buying books and eating in the cafeteria and reading countless bulletin boards. But as I sat on my bed exhausted just before midnight, I realized we’d reached a moment of truth. How do you pray under scrutiny?
I decided I’d better get used to it and slid off the bed to my knees. My head sagged to the mattress in its usual way as I took my usual deep breath and started my nightly mumble in the mind. But I felt eyes burning holes in my back. I wondered why Jeremy’s eyes could chastise me so painfully while knowing for all my 18 years that “angels above us are silent notes taking” had never made me bat an eye. I straightened up and began again.
It was a longer than usual prayer because there was a lot more to discuss here than there’d ever been back home. Then I got up with aching knees and sat on the bed to wind my alarm clock. Somewhere down the hall a door slammed as heavy feet tore past our door. There were voices coming from every direction. I guess it’s true that dorms just get going at midnight.
“That was a long prayer,” Jeremy said. “Did you really memorize all that?”
“We don’t memorize our prayers,” I said. “We just pray from the heart.”
“Makes sense,” he admitted. “That way you know you’re on the right page.”
With that mountain crossed, I threw back my covers and thrust my feet as far as they’d go into the bed—which was all of about 30 inches.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Jeremy said. “I thought Mormons slept kneeling.”
Much later I was scoring a lay-up for the Boston Celtics in overtime when something woke me up. I forced my eyes open wide enough to see Jeremy sitting on his bed in a warm-up suit, tying up his jogging shoes.
“What on earth are you doing?” I asked.
“I’m putting on my prayer suit, can’t you see?”
“Look, Jones, you commune with the infinite by praying. I do it by jogging.”
I squinted at the clock. “It’s 5:45 A.M.,” I said.
“I know,” he said, going to the door. “I overslept.”
As the weeks went by, Jeremy and I discovered that we got along pretty well. For my part, once I got used to his dirty socks and used Bic pens being scattered on my side of the room, his 5:30 jogging schedule, and his devotion to classical music, I kind of liked the guy. Occasionally I had to challenge him to a game of one-on-one basketball to put him in his place, and it didn’t hurt my opinion of him that he could dribble behind his back and had a sweet jump shot from the top of the key. (Of course, he couldn’t afford to miss because I could outrebound him ten to one.) We talked (and argued) about a lot of things together, but the one thing we never talked about was his family. That surprised me because I had always heard that Jewish families were very close. I also made it a point not to preach religion to him, not yet anyway, knowing how he felt.
It was during general conference in October that things changed. During the Sunday morning session, which I was listening to on the radio in our room, he looked at me and asked, “Who are those guys you’re listening to?”
I explained General Authorities in about two sentences. He nodded and said, “That one talking now sounds just like my dad. If he were a General Authority, all he’d talk about is how Judaism’s dying out because of the rebellious young generation.”
“Does he really think it is?”
“He knows it is. In fact, it took me months to get him to say I could come to school here. He went crazy when we first talked about it. Said I’d turned my back on my heritage.”
That gave me a chance to bring up something I’d always wondered about. “Why did you come to school here?”
He laughed. “Because it was as far away from my father as I could get. I love him, but I needed to get away from him before he swallowed me up.”
Then I cleared my throat and really walked out on thin ice. “Jeremy, what do you think about your religion?”
He sat down and thought for a moment.
“I am a Jew,” he said. “Millions of people have suffered and died so that I could say that, and I’m not going to forget. I will always be a Jew. I’m more proud than I can say of being Jewish. But I’m talking about culture and tradition and heritage. When it comes to religion, well, I think it’s a good religion, like all the others. But bits and pieces of other religions I’ve run into make a lot of sense too. It seems to me that if dad would dare let me study religions and make my own decision, if Judaism is the only truth, I’d find out and be a better Jew. And if not … well, I don’t know, I’ve never considered that possibility. And then there’s Christ. It’s strange, but I find myself wishing it were true about him. It must be very comforting to believe in someone who loves you that much, even …” He was quiet for a moment. “And then there on the radio, all those men are saying stuff about faith and charity and morality, and it’s good stuff. Can’t some of it be right too? Of course, you think it is, and millions of others too, but my dad wouldn’t even listen. He’d condemn it in a minute. He misses a lot that way, I think.”
“Well, he’s not alone in that.”
“But if he’s wrong? What then? And if he’s right, what will become of all your little old men on the radio?”
I didn’t think I could say anything as effective as keeping my mouth shut, so I just sat back and let him think. In a minute he continued.
“It’s been bothering me for a while. I love my dad, and I love my heritage. For centuries my people have looked for a Messiah, and you Christians say he’s come. It would be so nice to surrender and stop looking. You Mormons paint such an attractive picture—eternal life after death with those we love, eternal progress. It would be nice to believe, easy almost. But we Jews have never taken the easy way. I’d rather stay out in the cold than come into a warmth that is only wishful thinking. My heart is divided in two. How am I supposed to put it back together?” He shifted his position at the desk. “Can you turn the radio up a bit? I guess I need to listen.”
Jeremy seemed to go into hiding during the next three days. He’d slip into our room late at night, sleep till around 6:00, and be gone again. I never saw him in his jogging outfit anymore, and he quit playing practical jokes. That worried me the most. If he wasn’t putting honey on the toilet seat or smearing shaving cream on the phone, he just wasn’t happy. Life had really gotten dull without all that. I assumed he was studying for midterms. He was premed, and his organic chemistry book alone weighed more than my mom’s Volkswagen. I thought I glimpsed him a couple of times going into the library, and once I was sure I saw him at the fourth floor reference desk, but by the time I got close, he had disappeared into a corner somewhere. I didn’t talk to him for almost a week until one day I came home from a ward football game to find him sitting on his bed reading a worn-looking paperback copy of the Book of Mormon. He jumped up, grabbed his sweater off the floor, and turned to leave.
“Hey, don’t leave,” I said. “I haven’t had a chance to talk to you all week. Is something wrong?”
He turned slowly from the half-opened door. “Yes,” he said bitterly. “Something is wrong. Everything is wrong! You and your Nephi and your little old men have ruined my life! I had a good life. I had a close family, a promising career, and not a complication in sight. And then you and your crummy Church came along and destroyed it all. Your stupid Book of Mormon is true and you know it! And you know what that all means, don’t you? Your whole crummy Church is true! Now I’ll have to get baptized and start being a Mormon. Don’t smile, Jones; it’s not funny. My dad’s going to kill me and then disown me. I’ll have no family or future or anything else. Sure, your family is forever. Now mine won’t even be for this life. It’s all your fault! What am I going to do?” He stared for almost a full minute at my speechless bewilderment. Then he flung the door open the rest of the way and was gone, the Book of Mormon clutched tightly like a life preserver in a drowning man’s hand.
A few weeks later I watched the water in the font close briefly over Jeremy’s head and open up again as he emerged grinning in his wet, white clothes. A few days after that I listened as he bore his first testimony from the stand.
Jeremy went home at Christmas to break the news to his family. He hadn’t known how to put it in a letter, and he couldn’t say it over the phone. So it was going to happen face to face, like David faced Goliath.
“But not till I’ve slept in my own bed once, and seen my nephews and my little sister, and had a chance to gather my valuables,” he said. “Because the minute it’s out, my dad is going to throw me out of the house.”
“Have a little faith, Jeremy. Think of the pioneers and all they went through.”
“I’m not going to have to think about it. I’m going to know how they felt because when my dad’s through with me, I’ll have to cross the plains on foot myself, if I can cross them at all. Do you know what disown means? Do you realize this will be the last time I’ll ever see my mother?”
I laughed. “Don’t overdramatize. You know it’s not true. Your dad might be a bit shocked, but he’ll get over it.”
“You don’t know my dad at all. He’s going to kill me. He keeps loaded guns in the house for just that purpose.”
“Would you shut up and get on the plane.”
“Take a good look at me. You’ll never see me alive again.”
And so I waited anxiously as 3:00 approached on the day of his return. I was excited to hear his story and anxious to find out how he stood with the father he both loved and feared. I wore a trail in the carpet as I paced and finally went out to shoot some baskets to pass the time. I returned at about 4:00, hoping he would be there.
He was. I grabbed him from behind as he bent over a drawer stuffing socks in a corner. He whirled in surprise and threw one arm around my neck in a wrestling hold. We went down and struggled on the floor until I knew I was beat.
“Uncle!” I choked, just before he pinned me.
Then he talked about skiing in New England and his friend Bernie at MIT and his nephew’s latest invention. I only heard half because I was listening beyond it all for something more. Finally I interrupted.
“And your dad, how was he?” Jeremy didn’t bat an eye. “Fine, he didn’t feel real good, because he always gets a cold about this time of year, but he was better toward the end and even went skating with us at Central Park. Did I tell you I saw my old girl friend? She’s married to a guy she …” He slowed down under my steady gaze and finally stopped.
“I didn’t tell them.”
The clock ticked. A girl laughed in the lounge far down the hall and around the corner. Jeremy’s eyes were trained on his shoes.
“Well, it’s your decision. But …”
“At least I’m still part of my family.”
“Are you really? You’re really part of a lie. They think you’re something you’re not.”
“If it makes them happy, why worry about it? Let them go on.”
“Go on living a religion you know isn’t the whole truth? Go on living without the blessings you could show them how to receive?”
He sighed. “I couldn’t. My mom would love me anyway because she’s my mom. And my sister and brothers would at least try to understand. But my father … you don’t know how he gets. He used to beat me. He used to have this belt. I love him, but he’s got this awful temper, and in his eyes, I’ve done worse than murder. I’ve betrayed him and my family and their God.”
My silence was deafening. He looked steadily at me. “I wanted to tell him,” he said. “But … you don’t know my father.”
I returned his steady gaze. “No, Jeremy, you don’t know my Father.”
“My Heavenly Father.”
The snow piled against the window silently while we sat facing each other. I finally stood and left the room. I tried to watch the TV in the lounge for a while, but the silence of the still mostly empty halls bothered me. I wandered outside without my coat to the snack bar and idly ate a hamburger. I wandered up on campus until I realized how cold I was and how wet the snow had become. I tramped back to the dorm in the darkness, half expecting Jeremy to be gone. The light was off in our room, but I paused outside the door, thinking I heard a voice. I tried to discern who was speaking. The voice was too low to really hear, so I finally turned the knob and slid into the room. As my eyes adjusted to the dusk inside, I saw him just replacing the telephone in its cradle.
I couldn’t believe it. He was crying! He turned quickly away to hide his tears and then walked to the window.
“That was dad.”
There was a long pause, then, “I told him.”
“Is everything okay?” I asked his back.
He thrust his hands into his pockets. “He didn’t say anything for a long time. Then he said he didn’t know who I was and hung up. All I heard was the dial tone.”
The snow still fell as he stared at it.
“I listened to that dial tone for a long time. Finally a recording came on and said, ‘Please hang up.’ I couldn’t believe it.”
Suddenly he whirled and pounded his desk top so hard it rattled. “Why did I ever think I could make him understand? I’ve always been afraid of him. Now I’m not afraid; it just hurts. I didn’t know anything could hurt like this.”
School started again, and Jeremy got a job shoveling snow and doing winter maintenance on the lawn sprinklers. His parents never called anymore, and even though his mother still wrote sometimes, there was no word from his dad. Jeremy buried himself in his calculus and chemistry and, in general, wasn’t much fun anymore. They came around with a sign-up sheet for basketball intramurals, and we couldn’t get Jeremy to sign.
So I played alone.
It got suddenly warm in February for about a week. Jeremy was out maintaining sprinklers while I sat on the window ledge one day, hoping I wouldn’t be noticed as I drank in the warming air, pretending to read a history book. The mailman went past. I dragged myself inside again with a sigh and got ready for my only afternoon class. On the way out, I halfheartedly checked the mail.
The letter was unmistakably from Jeremy’s dad. The first. I laid it conspicuously on his pillow and hurried out.
When I ran into Jeremy in the cafeteria several hours later, I managed a casual “How’s your dad?”
“Okay.” He stirred his mashed potatoes.
“I saw he sent you a letter.”
“Well, is he still mad? What did he say?”
“Just asked how school was, said if I didn’t make it to med school he’d kill me, and said everybody’s fine at home. Just like nothing happened.”
Jeremy shrugged. “Basically.”
“Did he say anything about the Church?”
He shook his head.
“Well, at least he wrote.”
“Yes, he will always love me because I’m his son, not because he thinks I deserve to be loved.” He buttered a roll and went on, talking around a mouthful of peas. “It’s not enough that he has cooled down to the point where he’ll write to me again. I want more than that. I want to be able to talk to him again, to teach him the gospel.”
“Who says you can’t?”
“What I like about you, Jones, is how you avoid the facts.”
“You obviously don’t know him as well as you think. You never expected a letter, did you?”
“I sent him a Book of Mormon. He didn’t even mention it.”
“And he won’t. Until he believes it.”
“He’d have to read it first.”
“Maybe he is.”
Three weeks followed with three letters. The night of the fourth letter, Jeremy showed up to play basketball with the ward team, and he was grinning. As we sat on the bench waiting to play, we finally got to talk.
“Did you see I got another letter? It was pretty much the normal I-am-fine, how-are-you stuff for the most part, but at the end he got down to business. He told me he has thought a lot about my ‘betrayal’ and thinks he understands.
“He says that the whole thing turns on the Messiah. As far as he’s concerned when the true Messiah comes, he can make whatever changes he wants, because his changes won’t reject Judaism but perfect it. The trick is to tell the true Messiah from the false ones.”
“That’s very profound,” I said. “Of course it is. It’s the same thing I told him in my last letter. Anyway, he says that although I’ve made a fool of myself, it took courage for me to become a Mormon knowing how he felt about it. In fact he compared it to Moses leaving Pharaoh’s court and David facing Goliath. I humbly agree with him.”
“Before you start writing a second book of Psalms,” I said, “ask yourself if David left his dirty socks on the floor.”
He ignored me and went on. “He says that when I get home this spring we’ll examine the evidence and argue it out man to man. Right now he’s reading the Book of Mormon so he can really tear it to shreds. Good luck, dad. Oh, and there was a P.S. too. He says that if I’m going to be a Mormon, I’d better be the best Mormon there is because I’m Solomon Kahn’s son and his honor is at stake.” He laughed. “I have a feeling that by the time I become a priest my first assignment may be to baptize my own dad. And then who knows? How do you think I’d look in a dark suit?”
I stifled a nasty remark about his looks in anything.
He bounced a basketball on the floor for a few moments and then looked at me. “You were right, Jones. I didn’t know either of my fathers very well. I thought it was all up to me.”
The whistle blew, and we ran onto the floor before I had time to answer.