Judaism, conversion and The Church of Jesus Christ

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When you are born into a faithful religion with customs, practices and beliefs, it’s not just a religion with a basic understanding of who God is and what the point of life may be, it’s a culture, a family — religion becomes your way of life.  (Allie Kneeland)

When you are born into a faithful religion with customs, practices and beliefs, it’s not just a religion with a basic understanding of who God is and what the point of life may be, it’s a culture, a family — religion becomes your way of life. 

Jason Olson and James Goldberg describe this religious devotion in Olson’s memoir which takes the reader through his conversion process as he works to incorporate his devout Jewish customs and beliefs into his new identity as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As Olson describes his conversion story, he explains how grueling of a process it was to step away from family tradition and expectations, thereby disappointing many members of his family whom he loves and respects. He had to give up on his own lifelong aspirations of potentially becoming a rabbi or marrying a Jewish woman with a typical Jewish ceremony. 

He sacrificed his time, money and schooling to serve a two-year mission preaching about Christ, which would disappoint his teenage self who had sought to counteract and disprove all Christian missionaries. Yet, through the sacrifices and disappointments, Olson stayed true to what he found to be a clear testimony given to him by God, that the Book of Mormon was true and therefore so was the gospel of Jesus Christ which can be found in its fullest and truest form in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

“The Burning Book: A Jewish-Mormon Memoir” perfectly demonstrates how God is in the details of our lives. It also does a phenomenal job of showing how similar Judaism and Latter-day Saint doctrine are. One of the greatest points that this book brings to light is that although The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is typically thought to be a younger and newer religion, its roots and traditions follow ancient customs found in Jewish culture. 

When you are born into a faithful religion with customs, practices and beliefs, it’s not just a religion with a basic understanding of who God is and what the point of life may be, it’s a culture, a family — religion becomes your way of life. 

Olson expresses multiple times in his memoir that although it was difficult to leave behind a religion with deep-rooted traditions and ancient lineage, he found comfort that within the gospel of Jesus Christ and in the Church of Jesus Christ those traditions were still very much alive through ordinances, scripture and teachings. All of the teachings he had been taught as a child about Judaism had prepared him to more fully accept and understand the teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

Through telling his conversion story, Olson manages to educate about Jewish beliefs and traditions while also providing a glossary explaining Jewish words or phrases. He also encourages sharing beliefs with others in a respectful and loving way as we all have more to learn about God and religious convictions that can strengthen our own. Olson even taps into the divine spirit of Elijah that brought him to Israel as a young adult to better understand his Jewish roots and how he can still honor and respect them in his newfound Christianity. 

While reading the book, I couldn’t help but think of my grandfather, Peter Goldberg, who has a similar conversion story as Olson. He was 14 years old when he first came in contact with the church while living in a Jewish orphanage in Queens, New York, in the spring of 1962. His father was a Jewish man and his mother, born a Roman Catholic, had tried to adopt Jewish traditions and raise her children under those same customs and beliefs after Peter’s father went to prison when Peter was a young boy. 

Due to such a hard family situation with an absent father and his mother constantly looking for work, my grandfather resided in a Jewish orphanage and was only allowed to see his mother once a month in her home in Brooklyn. On one of those visits, he first came in contact with the Latter-day Saint missionaries as they had been teaching his mother. Every time he visited, he would listen to the lessons and found that the church felt like an extension of the Jewish teachings he had been brought up with. 

After choosing to get baptized in December 1963, he quickly went inactive due to a lack of welcoming from his home branch. He later found the church once again in 1970 while at basic training for the military and then fully embraced it as a part of his life. However, like Olson, he never was willing to give up all of the ancient Jewish traditions that made up so much of his childhood. To this day, he celebrates and incorporates many Jewish traditions into his newfound Christian identity such as celebrating Hanukkah and the Passover Seder dinner each year.

Even without Jewish ancestry or connections, Olson’s story is still relevant and relatable. His story depicts the pull of God in a direction that was never expected or anticipated. It exemplifies the importance of respecting and sharing beliefs with others. It draws on feelings of heartbreak, discovery and peace. 

As the book follows in chronological order of Olson’s life, it gives the reader a chance to get to know Olson and a sense of relatability. Olson and James Goldberg make it feel like Olson is seated in front of you telling you his whole story. He becomes a friend through the book as your heart breaks for him at times and leaps for joy at others. You can even sense the development of maturity throughout his life as experiences and deeper understandings start to shape him and the way he thinks specifically about religion. 

Although the book takes the reader through a journey weaving back and forth between Judaism and Christianity, Olson’s last message is that God is with each of us no matter what religious journey we may or may not be on. He expresses that God has His own timeline with each of us and that the invitation is always open to come unto Him in whatever state we may be in. 

The Burning Book is a must-read for all those who are curious about Jewish ties to Christianity. It’s a must-read for anyone who may be going through a faith crisis or is wondering what divine plan God may have in their lives. It’s a must-read for anyone who feels a strong desire to learn about other religions and beliefs and also share their own. It’s a must-read for anyone seeking to further their testimony of the divinity and miraculous wonder of God. This book burns in your hands as it equally testifies and tells a beautiful story of a man who found purpose, light and joy through a religious journey of discovery.

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