Elazar Cohen had been born to good enough parents. Were they perfect? No. Was his father reasonable? Also no. Was his mother unconditionally supportive and always letting him know how proud of him she was? Don’t be ridiculous. Did they at least love each other? Maybe—it was hard to tell and impossible to imagine asking. But they had always kept a roof over his head. They had given him access to good Jewish books. Taught him how to fast on Yom Kippur and drink on Purim. Made sure he knew how important it was to honor his father and mother, that his days may be long upon the earth, but not so zealously that he had to live to an unreasonably old age and suffer bitterly like his great-grandfather. Even if they hadn’t also given him unsolicited career and financial and life advice, it would have been enough. They had done their duty.
Was his relationship with them sometimes strained? Obviously. They were his parents. As they aged, he watched them make choices he didn’t agree with. But that was a typical experience for grown children his age. Some of his friends’ parents got into marijuana for their little aches and pains or hung around doctors’ offices and pharmacies looking for other prescription drugs. They sent texts at all hours of the early morning and the night. Many fell for email scams that would make a man blush, filled their heads with crazy political ideas—who even knew what they were being exposed to these days?—and got into awful fights on the internet. His generation had not been raised in a way that prepared them for all this.
Aaron and Feige Cohen were hardly the most extreme examples of wayward parents, but a few years ago, they had started hanging out with the wrong crowd. They were reading books he wouldn’t be caught dead with. They started experimenting with strict abstinence from different substances. And before you knew it, they’d become Mormons. Genuine Mormons! As if that were an ordinary European religion and not a second-tier background menace from old novels about the Wild West.
But what could a son of his generation do? Everyone’s parents had gone some kind of crazy. At least his were sober and mostly stable, with the obvious mental and spiritual exceptions. Elazar’s hope that they were going through a phase had gradually dried up, but he could at least try to be tolerant and supportive. He wanted his days to be long upon the earth, didn’t he? Given the condition of the country’s health care system, it was going to take a lot of honoring on his part to make sure he got to watch his daughter grow up and grow old.
It would be worth the work. His hope was firmly with the next generation. Or at least with the very small corner of the next generation occupied by his daughter Zusa. She was a good, kindly girl. She helped out around the house. She kept up with her homework. She even helped tend her grandparents, keeping an eye out for signs of worse trouble. Elazar and his wife Shana never had any real reason to worry about her.
Until the day when, out of nowhere, she dropped a permission slip for a Mormon girls camp onto the counter and asked him to sign it.
At first, Elazar was simply confused. What threat to her grandparents did Zusa anticipate at a summer camp? He looked to Shana, Shana looked back at him, they both turned to Zusa.
“Is your grandmother going?” Elazar asked.
“No,” Zusa said.
“Is your grandfather going?” Shana asked.
“To girls camp?” Zusa said. “No.”
“Is something terrible going to happen there? Something you need to protect your grandparents from?” Elazar prompted.
But Zusa just said, “No.”
“What exactly does this have to do with taking care of your grandparents, then?” Shana asked.
“Nothing,” Zusa said. She looked down at the floor. “It’s a camping trip for teenage girls.”
At the same time, Elazar and Shana started asking the obvious follow up questions. Things like: What’s gotten into you? Why are you doing this to us? Have you lost your mind? They had barely started their interrogation when Zusa confessed to everything. That going to church with her grandparents was not just a chore but something she liked, that her closest friends were Mormons, and that it would mean the world to her to spend four days tromping with them through the woods.
Being good parents, Elazar and Shana greeted the news the same way any rational deer responds to the alien arrival of car headlights. They stared; they stalled; they seized an opportunity to bolt. But before they fled down the hall, Elazar took the unsigned permission form. He didn’t like seeing it in his daughter’s hand, but he resisted the temptation to crumble it up and throw it dramatically into the garbage can. It might be important for Zusa to feel that he was giving her alarming wishes an honest chance.
Several minutes after reaching the bedroom and closing the door, Elazar remained in a lingering state of shock. He could feel his heart racing. His skin felt cool to the touch. Where had he and his wife gone wrong? He had thought that letting Zusa tag along with her grandparents would be harmless. It had seemed so convenient that she was honoring them without him having to be there. Of course, he thought her pure presence might shield them a little from their most impulsive instincts. And he’d hoped that, by careful observation, Zusa might learn a thing or two from them about how she didn’t want to be when she grew up.
But it was one thing to show support for wayward elders, and quite another to willfully bring home a permission form. He looked down at the incriminating piece of paper with distaste, and thought of all the other forms it might lead to. If he let her go on this way, what was next? He could almost envision himself checking in on whether her room was clean, and noticing the tell-tale blue of a Book of Mormon hidden under her bed. How long until she’d be asking for permission to meet with missionaries? To get baptized? If he and Shana signed this papers for girls camp, would they one day find themselves signing her over to a full-time Mormon mission? And have to stand by and watch her pouring herself grape juice instead of wine at the Passover table for her entire adult life? He couldn’t accept that. This had to be stopped.
Beside him, Shana was shaking her head. “I wish our daughter could rebel like a normal child,” she told him. “Why couldn’t she dye her hair blue? Or start a band that makes noise and calls it music? If only she would come home and complain about her homework, even just a little . . .” She raised her palms in a gesture that struck Elazar as almost a supplication, as if hoping that God would let a little such rebellion fall from the sky to bless their home.
He put an arm over his wife’s shoulders. “You know I would love it if our daughter were making any of those mistakes,” he said. “But you mustn’t blame yourself.” He pulled her closer. “We should blame my parents.”
“That’s true,” Shana admitted. “And of course I do blame them, but what are we going to do about it? You can’t very well teach a child to be a good Jew by asking her not to honor your father and mother.” She shook her head. “They’ve trapped us in a commandment. It’s the oldest trick in the book.”
He sighed. Shana was right. Being in the responsible generation between grandparents and their grandchildren was a terrible sort of rock and hard place. There wasn’t a way to keep them together without risking cross-contamination. He should have been wise enough to anticipate that.
Shana stood up and began to pace. The movement comforted Elazar, because pacing always helped her with thinking. Even if she was staying in the same room, enough walking somehow got her to the next idea. “We should have kept her home on Sundays,” Shana noted first. “I just forgot it was such a danger. I’ll bet Christians specifically moved the Sabbath to confuse the earliest converts’ parents and make them think everything was still normal.”
But it wouldn’t have done any good. “It’s no use. They’re doing some sort of Mormon thing every day,” Elazar said. “Service projects. Activities. So much visiting. Now this camp. You can’t quarantine that religion by keeping her out of the church.”
“We could talk to her,” Shana said. “I know she’s already past the age when children usually listen to their parents, but maybe she’s developmentally slow. We can at least hope?”
Elazar looked down at the permission slip. “If disappointing your parents is a normal milestone, I think she’s caught up,” he said.
And with that, Shana’s pacing stopped. She sat down wearily beside him. “Then what do we do?” she asked.
If Shana had finished walking, they must have almost reached an answer. Elazar puzzled over the question, but there was nothing there. And then it occurred to him: nothing was the most obvious solution. “What if we never mention this again?” he said, holding up the paper. “By not writing yes, we are effectively saying no. We don’t talk to her about the dangers of grandparents. Why should we? My parents won’t be on this camping trip. And there’s no commandment about honoring a daughter’s friends!”
Shana chewed at the side of her cheek, as if tasting the idea, then shook her head. “Even if she doesn’t go, she’ll still want to. And it’s the wanting, not the going, that’s the problem.” Her eyes lit up. “No…we need to find a way to let her discover some disinterest on her own.”
“Are you suggesting we sign the form and send her without a single word of condemnation or warning?” Elazar winced. “I’d feel like I was throwing her into the deep end of a pool without teaching her to swim.”
“Since we’re hoping, in this case, that she’ll sink,” Shana answered, “I don’t see the problem. The best thing would be if we tell her she has to go, and she hates it, and afterward she never asks again.”
Elazar sat for several moments, weighing the merits and risks of Shana’s plan. It was a terrible thing, trying to be a good parent. You could feed a child. Put a roof over her head, good books on her shelf. But it wasn’t enough. Even after doing your entire duty, you had to watch your child learn. Or forever fail to learn. Either way, it was torturous.
“But what if she doesn’t hate it?” he asked his wife. The permission form seemed to stare up at him, taunting him. “After all, when she goes with my parents, she must be enjoying herself—we were just too busy to notice the signs.”
Shana took one of his hands in hers. “Your parents may be difficult people,” she reassured him, “but Zusa is a sweet girl and she loves them very much. I think being around them changes the experience for her. It’s as if we’ve thrown her into the pool with flotation devices named Feige and Aaron and now she doesn’t understand that something as innocent as a little water can make a person drown.” She met her husband’s eyes and held his gaze. “People say it’s a bad religion. And as patient and cheery as she is, she is not someone who naturally loves to suffer—or see others suffer. That being the case, it seems obvious that the best cure for her interest in Mormonism is simply more Mormonism.” She gave his hand a squeeze. The confidence in her smile warmed his heart. “It’s like the children of Israel when they begged for quail. Sometimes the most instructive no is an aggressive yes.”
And so it was that, placing his faith in Shana’s irrefutable logic, Elazar Cohen picked up a pen and signed the permission form. He and Shana returned and made clear that, having asked, Zusa was committed to going and they would not hear any arguments against their decision. She needed to pack. She needed to practice. While at the camp, she needed to follow leaders’ directions to the best of her ability, even when it was hard.
Zusa was, tragically, delighted.
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James Goldberg is a poet, playwright, essayist, novelist, documentary filmmaker, scholar, and translator who specializes in Mormon literature.
Artwork by David Habben.