It would be accurate to say that my journey from a 47-year old working woman, divorced and somewhat worldly by the standards of the 1980’s, and long independent of the religious rigors of Judaism, divorced also from all family ties – to the ultra-conservative, humbling and obedient lifestyle of one devoted to the Gospel of Jesus Christ was a miracle of a sort that mortal minds cannot easily understand. I don’t mean a miracle of conversion from Jew to Christian, thought that is also in today’s world an unlikely event, but a miraculous happening of proportions no less than life altering in the most profound sense.
My conversion story is, of course, miraculous in a number of ways. Initially, I received a call from my brother somewhere in the morning hours of a day in the early 70’s. He gave me the news that he had joined the Mormon church and that it was, for him, a life-changing experience. He described to me how he had been baptized in warm water, had hands laid upon his head while then invited to accept what a Jew would call a “Shekinah”, the Holy Ghost. I was completely baffled by this sudden phone call and even more so by my recently married twenty-something brother. I’d left home at 17, running away to parts eastward while he, a mere 10-year old, had to remain at home with our mother, several years divorced from our father and now quite poor, as I gathered from her letters to him asking for enough money to buy food for the week’s meals.
Jack and I were never really friends. I didn’t really know my only sibling, seven years my junior. My life centered at that time on avoiding or, alas, enduring our father’s angry diatribes upon his family. For many years I suffered from a legitimate fear of our father – I was the first-born, an unblessed occurrence in a Jewish family. He was not a large man, 5’ 11”, but very strong. He was a genius. He worked as a one-man construction company and made very good money. We never went without anything. But, whenever my mother told him I misbehaved, he reacted with anger and vowed to straighten me out. Many, many days and nights his abusive backhand and large brown belt left Jacks upon me – those that could be seen, yes; but even deeper, scars that left me in deep pain and heart torn. I knew I was of no value to him and not of much help to my mother. In fairness, she suffered beneath his cold, unloving demeanor and long bouts with depression. She was afraid of him and he several times gave her reason. I only wondered that she didn’t pack up and run away.
Mom worked at the Los Angeles Veterans Administration hospital. She was an RN and worked with paraplegics. Her hours were long and hard and her life was unhappy. She many times attempted suicide. I have many memories of returning home after school, only to find her being carried out on a hospital gurney to the local infirmary, her wrists slashed, her face tear-stained face drained of color and fixed in a hopeless stare. Between the two of them, it’s a miracle I made it to 17!
Looking back now, I see that my desire to be loved and accepted for the innocent child I was and the confused woman I was becoming settled deeply within me, as a second, soundless self. I think then I began a very long, lonely search for a happy time, a bit of joy, a way to like who I was, even if no one else did.
Our religious life seemed mundane. We were Jews, we attended synagogue on a somewhat regular basis, choosing the Orthodox way for a while. Dad went to High Holy Day services yearly. I remember him wearing the tallit around his shoulders, the kippah anchored on his head. I was proud of him. Eventually, due to the great restrictions the Orthodox Jews place on about every facet of life, my parents felt so restricted that we began attending the Conservative meetings on Saturday. I studied at Hebrew Sunday School and was confirmed (graduated) when I reached 14.
Looking back, I still wonder that I knew something was missing from my synagogue attendance. I remember that night – my mother was so proud of me. I looked at her and said “I won’t be returning here, mom.”
“What?” She was so startled I thought she was going to faint. She did have fainting and crying spells.
“Well, I just feel there is something missing. I don’t know what it is, but I know that I will find it if it takes the rest of my life.”
Just like that. I knew. The synagogue was an empty place for me. Oh, I believed what I was taught, I loved studying Hebrew, I accepted the traditional meals and celebrations… but my “other, second self” was watching from another vantage point – quiet, serious, searching. Something was wrong. The picture wasn’t complete. For all my success and graduation from Hebrew School, it was no more than a lonely point of light whose brightness did not penetrate my sad, dark spirit.
I attended college – numerous colleges, and finally San Diego State University. I moved there in the late 70’s and went to work in hospital administration. Mom and I were not close; dad decided he hated me and told me not to come around anymore. I married, and several years later, having no idea how to live with a man in marriage, I divorced. Due to various problems of a “female” kind, I had to surrender my ovaries to the cutting room floor, and so having children was made swiftly impossible for me. Fortunately, I found that creative writing gave me an outlet for my dreams and feelings and helped me to understand the life I was growing. I even attended a Conservative synagogue (somewhat liberal) and then a Reform synagogue (much more liberal) here and there, mainly to keep in touch with my heritage – I am a Czechoslovakian and Ukrainian Jew – but, though I felt welcome and lucky to be a Jew, that silent second self languished. What was missing? Where to look, how to ask? There must be more.
It was during those years of my thirties that my brother brought me a Book of Mormon and told me that I needed Christ in my life. Another miracle. He said the Spirit had sent him to me. I didn’t know what he was talking about and promptly denied it and stuffed the book in my bookcase where it sat quietly for a dozen years,while I continued to search for meaning in my life. I was at that time involved with a Jewish man and his children. We all attended synagogue. We had Shabbat meals on Friday nights. We celebrated Chanukah. Not the time, I told myself, to study a Christian book. But I kept it.
That situation broke suddenly and unhappily. I moved away and lived alone again in San Diego, working extra shifts at the hospital, very much a loner, wondering about the meaning of life in general, mine in particular. What was the point of it all? Then in 1976, Jack sent me missionaries. I let them in only because my brother had sent them. They were, of course, young and lovely and so eager to teach me, a Jew. Though they knew nothing about Judaism, they courageously explained to me the Plan of Salvation. Wow, I said to them. That is the most wonderful thing I’ve ever heard, but I can’t accept that. I am a Jew. We have our own beliefs. And so it went for a month or two. They took me to the Mormon Battalion Church. I wouldn’t go inside. Jews don’t enter churches, I told them. But when I touched the door handles, I began to cry. I didn’t know why, of course. But they smiled broadly.
After a while I sent them away. I am a loyal person. As a Jew who had seen pictures of the Holocaust, heard my grandmother cry year after year because our cousins in Ukraine had been murdered in Hitler’s war, read sacred Torah portions in synagogue and loved the Hebrew songs and prayers, I could not leave my faith behind for any other. But, though I felt secure in my ethnic beliefs I continued to search for a more meaningful life. I think that when someone carries sadness within for many years it becomes like a suit of dark inner skin. No light can enter, and there is none to give away.
A full twelve years later, 1987, brother Jack called from his home in Oregon. His wife, long a cancer survivor, was dying. I loved Mahala. She was Tongan. Her father had translated the Book of Mormon into Tongan, and the family was adopted into the royal lineage of Tonga. But there was no financial prize for that achievement. She and Jack lived hand to mouth then, and they had four small children to raise. He was in a tough spot. Come on up here, he offered me. You can be very useful. I agreed to check it out. Why not? Maybe family ties could be re-established.
I immediately fell in love with Eugene, Oregon, and after two weeks determined to move up there, which I did a short time later. In the house behind Jack’s lived a couple who were at that time set apart senior stake missionaries. They came after me with a vengeance. I, of course, refused. Just let’s be friends, I told them. I know about your religion but I am devoted to my own. Sure, they said, no problem there. But every day they helped out. Every evening they came over to smile in my face, to see how we all were doing, to bring food, to help, help, help. It was terrible. I was learning to love them. I hated it because I knew what they were trying to do, but how to resist all that loving care? I may be loyal to my Jewishness, but, alas, I was also a lonely woman…
It wasn’t long before they moved to a small farm outside of town and invited me to come live with them The farm they purchased was poor and small and not productive, but they had five children of their own to raise and little extra for improvements. I thought I could help out and so contributed money and we built a room onto their barn. It was a comfortless place – one hanging light – a baseboard heater on one side, a slab for a bed – the very least in modern accommodations. I had to travel to the main house to use the bathroom, but I did set up a table for reading and eating, a place for books and my essentials. I moved in. As I think back now, that small square space just adjacent the goat barn and a few feet from the milking stand, was my own private birthing place. It offered me silence and contemplation – except for those damn, noisy goats – for I had agreed finally to study the long-shelved Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price. What a victory those stake missionaries had won!
But they didn’t have me yet. I also took with me the Hebrew Bible and many other books just as fervently Judaic as the BofM was Mormon. I will prove all of this wrong, I told them all. Then I can get on with my life. Of course, I had no husband or children or a job with any future… why was I still breathing? Where did I come from and where, oh where was I supposed to be going? So I tied the knot in my rope of life and hung on.
I cannot emphasize enough the need for isolated, intense, dedicated study. In our busy world we donate precious little time to spiritual things. For almost half a year I left the world behind and lived in the world of the spirit, much as I did on my mission years later. Clearly that time is what made this time possible. I read and prayed, walked the streets and talked to God. Read and prayed some more. I learned the ways in which Heavenly Father communicated with His children of old. I read the prophets. I read the New Testament for the first time. Oh! What an amazing record. I had no idea of the life of Christ. Jews are told never to read that testimony; never to read about the man whose appearance and teachings have caused the Jewish people so much bloodshed at the hands of men who would convert us at the point of a sword and a guillotine.
Then, quite suddenly one day, after hours of contemplation, while in my car at a stop sign I heard a voice twice say to me “Jesus Christ is the savior of the world.” I pondered it.
I remember an incident that just preceded the appearance of that holy being. I was having a heated discussion with Karen, in whose barn-room I was living. Suddenly she stopped me and said:
“Do you really understand your Torah? Do you know the meaning of the blood spilt upon the altars of Solomon’s temple? Do you know why the Hebrews smeared lamb’s blood across the doors of their homes when Pharaoh came searching for all the first born males?”
I froze. What was I hearing? She continued. “That lamb’s blood was in similitude of the blood of the Lamb of God. Jesus Christ. His blood. He gave it willingly, for you and for all mankind.”
A seismic shock slammed my brain. I screamed and stopped and screamed again. The neighbors came running to her door. That day was a turning point. I knew she spoke the truth, and I knew in that moment that I was being rescued. Blinders prevent the light of understanding.
That next Sunday I braved Jewish tradition, asked God to protect me and marched into Mormon Sunday school. There were my stake missionaries teaching the Plan of Salvation, just for me. This time I opened my heart to that timeless message of deliverance. I pondered it, but still didn’t make a move, because I knew in my heart that this was nothing to fool with. If these things really are of God, then they are truth, not a folktale, not tradition, I had to seriously respond to it. Step up to the plate. So there I waited upon the precipice.
One day standing outside the barn, a miracle happened. I was given a visual revelation. The Holy Ghost then spoke to me. He said only this: “You must remember that it’s all in how you think about it.”
Truth came at once into my soul! I began to vibrate uncontrollably, from toe to head, filling with joy and light, and at that instant I understood the meaning of full freedom to choose. Blinders fell from my eyes. I finally could accept the fact that long ago in Palestine there was a man, a Jew who came to teach the Kingdom of God. That he, finishing the Hebrew Passover with his disciples, walked from that table to the Garden of Gethsemane to begin an infinite atonement for mankind. He pointed the way to God. What he did there split history down the middle and echoes through eternity.
I was given the knowledge at that moment that all of it, everything I had read and heard, is true. My heart pounded. I felt I was growing a new one to fill up new space. No need to ponder now, time to act. I was baptized soon after, on April 6th, 1988, and I have never doubted since that moment. When I was set apart as a stake missionary soon after baptism, it was revealed to me that my life mission is to be an Esther to the Jews, through their brethren Latter-day Saints, that they may know the ways of God and His great plan for the reunion of Judah with Joseph.
Why, then, was I born a Jew? To walk the road, to experience the long preparation of pre-Latter-day Saint history. To learn that truth is a tapestry of all true prophecies, faith, obedience, repentance and unyielding hope. The Old Covenant is not old, the New not new, Book of Mormon not newer, they are all part of one fluid, moving record. Why are we moving forward? Hebrews 4:16 tells us: Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace – that we may obtain mercy.
I work in the Seattle Washington Temple. Sometimes, looking down at the baptistry at the 12 oxen beneath the font, symbols of the kinship of the 12 tribes of Israel, I realize anew that on the backs of history is born and carried the future of mankind. I know that the journey of the human spirit from despair to joy involves a resounding and determined leap of faith that has to be made in order to receive the gifts and blessings that are promised each person who has ever lived. When I was changed on that spot outside the barn, speaking with a heavenly presence, I received the strength to make that leap of faith.
So many people search for the parts of themselves they cannot find, and do not know they are looking. Yet, when they are lucky enough to be blessed with the fruits of their search, oftentimes they turn the other way, denying it, downplaying it, running from it. For me, there came a time I could no longer run, but had to turn and face my doubting self and admit that I was teachable – more, that I wanted to be taught. I wanted to learn, to find a reason to care, to hope, to achieve, to conquer my fears, to find the best within me, and to have a happy, even a spiritually uplifting life.
Because I have great faith in Christ, I have done all I can to learn about him. I am a returned senior missionary – 1995-6. I have served in numerous ward, stake and church missionary callings. I give firesides on my conversion and the similarities/differences between Mormonism and Judaism. I have authored seven books to support the life mission I have been given and hope to write another. I hope to spend all my life here and afterward in the service of my Savior who did indeed save me. His Hebrew name is Jeshua (Yeshua) and it means “he who saves”.
In the Gospel of Jesus Christ as taught by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints I found the truth of all of these things. I remain a Jew – by blood and heritage – AND I am a Christian … not complete, for learning and repenting and humbling never end, but now the Iron Rod of Truth is firmly within my grip and I am on the road home to my God and my Christ. We are the architects of our lives. What we do remains as our private heritage and we must welcome the opportunity in this “Second Estate” to build an everlasting foundation upon which we can then erect throughout the years of our lives an enduring, righteous and impenetrable home in which our eternal spirit can live in peace and joy. Happiness is obtainable and peace is our birthright.
Never give up, never give up. The truth does set you free, and we humans were invented to find, live and share it. Do so. I leave this testimony with you in the sacred name of my Savior, Jesus Christ.
May the Lord bless and keep you and shine his light upon you.
Marlena Tanya Muchnick, LDS speaker, author
Jesus Christ in Mormonism
Mormons and Jews