LATTER DAY JEW

Why I left Mormonism behind for Judaism—and couldn’t be happier

Erendira Mancias/FUSION

When somebody learns that you were raised Mormon, the first question you get asked is, “Did you grow up in Utah?” Because I was raised Mormon and grew up outside of the promised land, I often find myself giving a mini-history lesson on the faith.

“No,” I say. “Mormons actually started in upstate New York, then left for the holy soils of Missouri, where nobody wanted them and many were killed—so then they moved to Salt Lake City. My family is from Missouri. Clearly we’re survivors.”

Growing up in a state with very few Mormons wasn’t easy. You’re always answering questions about your religion, whether you’re in a cult—and more popularly, how many moms you have. Even though we were a fairly relaxed Mormon family, I still felt a ping of discomfort every time I was forced to defend a religion that I didn’t like all that much in the first place.

You see, I was never meant to be Mormon. I always had an uneasy feeling about the faith—a feeling that somehow I didn’t belong, that I could never be like the “good Mormons” I saw all around me. I knew it from the day I was baptized.

On that day, the day of my baptism, my family and Mormon friends gathered to watch 12-year-old me step into the temple waters–basically a jacuzzi–and declare myself a committed devotee of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The ceremony took place in a large church conference room used mainly for baptisms and funerals (and occasionally, for a baptism for a dead person—sorry, Anne Frank). I stood nearly naked before the crowd, covered only by holy white undergarments that barely fit over my plus-sized frame.

This day didn’t come without a healthy dose of questioning and a few tears from my mother over how long it took me to agree to follow in the footsteps of generations of my relatives. But finally, there I was—a kid who sounded like a mix of Woody Allen, Barbra Streisand, and Bette Midler, about to succumb to the little Joseph Smith I’d been told was inside me but whom I knew wasn’t there.

I was joined in the jacuzzi by a few church elders, what Mormons call men recently accepted into the priesthood. An elder would recite the baptism prayer, and a missionary would do the actual dipping. The missionary assigned to my ceremony may be the only reason I agreed to be baptized in the first place. I don’t remember his name, but I remember he was lean and blond and in his early 20s—and he was about to hold me in his hunky arms as he lowered me into the water.

As the elder recited the prayers, I thought only about my doubts. Why was there such a focus on heaven? And, oh—where were all the black people?

Everyone’s response to every question was to have faith. But I didn’t. I needed proof. I wanted proof that heaven existed, proof that there was no hell, proof that Joseph Smith really sat with an angel in upstate New York and wrote the Book of Mormon with magical spectacles.

Missionary hunk grabbed my shoulders and lowered me into the water. It was cold, but that didn’t bother me. It was as if time froze—not because I was overwhelmed by the gravity of the moment, but because I was inches away from missionary hunk’s package. Suddenly, the only thought running through my mind was, “Penis, penis, penis.”

See, I told you I was never meant to be Mormon.

I come from poor redneck Mormons, and we’re damn proud of it. We were basically the affirmative action family of our church—they kept us around to make it seem like they were welcoming to all types of families. The other congregants appeared so perfect, so put-together—often wealthy and always white. We struggled to make ends meet, practiced a “live and let live” approach to life, and boasted several non-white friends.

My mother’s strict Mormon upbringing, meanwhile, consisted of all Mormons, all the time, every day, every night. As she grew older and had her own family, she wanted to remain faithful, but with a more casual approach. To really show her independence, she married a Catholic dude (my dad), and then divorced him. Somehow, the church let her remain a member. Possibly because of her gooey butter cakes—they’re very good.

Mormons aren’t allowed any drugs, which includes caffeine. That means no chocolate, no soda, no fun. I weighed 275 pounds at 16 years old—do you really think people believed I wasn’t eating chocolate and drinking soda? In fact, even many seemingly devout Mormon families I knew kept a secret refrigerator in the garage or basement stocked with everything the missionaries aren’t supposed to see during their unscheduled prayer visits. We had one in the garage and the basement, thank you very much.

Even my being gay wasn’t a problem for my Mormon family. When my mother would say to me and my brothers, “When you grow up and have kids…,” she would always add an alternative for me, “…or adopt.”

And yet, despite both my church and my family’s acceptance of me and my so-called sins, my last real day as a Mormon was the day I became one. After I was baptized, I was never pressured to go to church, participate in anything or pursue a mission trip. And I didn’t. For years, I opted out of organized religion, until—while attending a Catholic university—I discovered I was actually meant to be a Jew.

My Jewish awakening didn’t come quickly—rather, it slowly consumed my mind and life in small yet powerful ways. Eventually, though, the signs were too blatant to ignore. While a student at DePaul University in Chicago, I discussed my Mormon upbringing with my Jewish academic counselor, explaining the doubts I’d had before my baptism.

“I thought you were Jewish when we first met,” she confessed. She was not the first person to tell me this, which I assumed had something to do with my obsession with Woody, Barbra, and Bette, and my tendency to imitate their way of talking or point of view, especially comically. But that wasn’t why my counselor thought I was a Jew.

“It was because of the questions you were asking. Your need for knowledge, for answers, your faith in history and words,” she said. She went on to say that “it should have been clear you were Jewish by all the questions you say you asked before your Mormon baptism.”

My meetings with this counselor marked a turning point—before our conversations, Judaism had only been part of comic identity. Now it was becoming my spiritual one, too.

My counselor set me up with a local rabbi, who lent me basic books about Judaism to read. And for most of my 20s, from Chicago to New York City to Los Angeles, I quietly studied the religion, participated in Jewish activities, and made Jewish friends. (I also accumulated a long line of Jewish ex-boyfriends.) I knew that one day I would take the next step and convert. I wasn’t in a hurry. I had my whole life ahead of me. It could wait. Or so I thought.

When you get cancer, everything else in your life grinds to a halt.

On Aug. 8, 2012, I found out I had testicular cancer. The diagnosis was followed by emergency surgery, which was followed by months of chemotherapy. I had just moved to Los Angeles with dreams of building on the decade I had spent performing comedy in New York City. Unfortunately, my body had other plans.

If my life were a TV movie, I would probably tell you that my cancer made me face my mortality, which then inspired me to convert—but that’s not what happened. The real reason I decided to convert then was because I had the time. During my treatment, I alternated between sitting for hours in a chemo chair or recovering from chemo—what else was I going to do?

That said, I can’t deny one very powerful reason for wanting to convert at that particular moment, and it had to do with children. The biggest change I felt in myself after chemo was the desire to have kids. It remains the only thing I want. Every essay I write, every job I take on, it’s all preparing me to have a child someday. And I’m going to do everything I can to prepare myself for this future child, which included accomplishing one of the most important things I had been putting off: officially becoming a Jew.

But how do you become a Jew? My only context for Jewish conversion was from Sex and the City, when Charlotte gets turned away three times. I knew that wouldn’t happen to me—unlike Charlotte, who was converting to Conservative Judaism, I wanted to be a Reform Jew—but still, where do you start?

Well, if you’re in Los Angeles, you ask your psychiatrist. I had visited a few synagogues, none of which inspired me. After telling my psychiatrist about my experience, she suggested I meet with Rabbi Zach Shapiro of Temple Akiba in Culver City, California.

“He’s gay, but the temple isn’t, and he’s married to the Controller of Los Angeles,” she said. Jewish, gay, and married to a powerful man? Clearly, this was the rabbi for me.

Tall, thin, with dark curly hair and glasses, Rabbi Shapiro fit the bill for a good Jewish boy. We weren’t even that far apart in age, which made our rapport more informal. I immediately felt at ease, and knew I had found the friend I needed to finally take this next step in my life.

The most intense thing you have to do when you want to join the Reform movement of Judaism is take a few classes, which I did. Upon entering the first class, I saw that I was an anomaly. The class consisted of young couples getting married or elderly people. Turns out there aren’t that many single, gay, former Mormon, 33-year-old converts out there. Who knew?

I excelled at the class, mostly because I had basically been studying for this moment for my entire adult life. The hardest thing I had to do during this period was tell my mother. My mom is cool, there’s no doubt about it—but no matter how cool she is, I still was rejecting her belief system in a profound way. And I could tell that hurt. She wouldn’t say so in so many words, but when you tell someone you’re converting to a different religion and their response is, “That’s interesting”—well, you know there’s a lot not being said.

But over time and lots of good Jewish food, she came around—and showed the same “live and let live” generosity that she had modeled for me growing up. So much so that she’s now teaching her grandkids about Jewish customs and holidays. Someone send her the Mother of the Year award immediately.

After a year of coursework and a couple months after chemo, I was ready to officially convert to Judaism. In order to do that, I needed to once again take a dip in some holy waters—only this time they wouldn’t be in a jacuzzi, but a Jewish bath known as a mikveh.

On the day of the ceremony, I stood naked in front of the mirror of the changing room at Los Angeles’s American Jewish University’s mikveh. I wanted to get one last look at myself as a Mormon. Unlike my baptism 20 years earlier, this time I had no doubts—and no ill-fitting while undergarments.

I looked at my pelvis, where a 3-inch line marks where a tumor once lived, and I thought about how that little tumor was part of the reason I was standing there in the first place. I took a deep breath and then walked to the mikveh waters next door, where Rabbi Shapiro and two of my close friends were waiting for me.

The water was tepid, shipped in as large ice chunks and then melted to meet the kosher standards of the mikveh. But immersed in the water, I looked up at my Rabbi and saw warmth. He spoke briefly, then I dunked and recited a prayer:

Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu melekh Ha’olam, asher Kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al ha-tvilah.

Blessed are you, Eternal God, ruler of the universe, who sanctifies us through mitzvot and has enjoined us concerning immersion.

Hebrew still foreign to me, I spoke the words as best I could. I thought of my family, and how much I loved them, even though I was choosing a different path for myself. And I thought about my future, the kids I will have, the long life I hope to live. I dunked again.

Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu melekh Ha’olam, sheh-hecheyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higianu, la-zman ha-zeh.

Blessed is the Eternal, the God of all creation, who has blessed me with life, sustained me, and enabled me to reach this moment.

I let the water engulf me completely, covering every inch of my body. It felt as if all of the Jewish community was hugging me, welcoming me, assuring me that this was the right decision. I took my final dunk.

Shema Yisrael, Adonal Eloheynu, Adonai echad.

Hear O Israel, The Eternal Our God, The Eternal Is One.

I emerged from the water a Jew.

Once the process was complete, everyone left the room and I was allowed time to reflect. As the door to the mikveh shut, I started to shake and then cry. What I thought was a panic attack began swiftly. What had I done?

But it wasn’t a panic attack. Instead, it was a physical reaction to the moment, as if my body and mind just couldn’t take all this newness. I slowly caught my breath and let the chill from the water bring me back to reality. My new reality. My Jewish reality.

When friends ask me what it’s like to choose your own religion, I tell that don’t see my conversion that way. I see my conversion as choosing a community to belong to—a community to stand with and declare myself part of, a community with which to put in my lot fully.

My rabbi often tells me that I have a Jewish soul, but I’m not sure that’s entirely true. Just like my mom rejected having the Mormon faith define her family through her independence, I refuse to let my Jewish faith define me. Instead, I’ll let my words and actions define me, and hopefully my faith and the community I now claim as my own will help shape those things.

Just as I questioned everything as a child, I hope to continue to do so now. For me, God isn’t a person in the sky, a tangible being, but rather in my mind—literally inside me. My Jewish identity gives me the freedom to fully believe this more than I felt it could as a Mormon.

And for that, I feel blessed.