The Lost Book of Mormon

  • Review
By – April 9, 2015

You might well ask what busi­ness a Jew­ish author has writ­ing a mem­oir about The Book of Mor­mon.

Absolute­ly none, if that author lives in Israel — all the more so if he lives in its reli­gious capi­tol; which is exact­ly how mem­oirist and for­mer prison librar­i­an Avi Stein­berg fell into it. Steinberg’s Jour­ney Through the Mys­tic Lands of Nephi, Zara­hem­la, and Kansas City, Mis­souri began with the delib­er­ate­ly futile quest for a copy of Joseph Smith’s opus as a means of pro­cras­ti­na­tion and escape while the author con­tend­ed with the sep­a­rate pres­sures of mar­riage and pub­li­ca­tion from his home in Jerusalem, where Mor­mon pros­e­ly­ti­za­tion (includ­ing its scrip­ture) has been banned since the mid-1980s. Steinberg’s hunt for the hereti­cal vol­ume was only one among many unlike­ly self-imposed sisyphean tasks under­tak­en for the sole pur­pose of avoid­ing the revi­sion process on his first book. From his post at a sleepy Mahane Yehu­da junk shop, our hero widened his search to a sojourn through the sup­posed land­marks of this much-wel­comed addi­tion to the shelf of Bible punk lit,” from the City of David to Cen­tral Amer­i­ca to upstate New York.

Intrigued by the book since hear­ing a syn­op­sis mid-make­out ses­sion in his sopho­more year of col­lege, Steinberg’s inter­est in the mythol­o­gy — It sound­ed like back­sto­ry to every Jew­ish Amer­i­can nov­el of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, to the kind of lit­er­a­ture that had got­ten me inter­est­ed in lit­er­a­ture to begin with” — grew into a fas­ci­na­tion with its author as fel­low writer, mega­lo­ma­ni­ac, and deeply mal­con­tent­ed young man. Hap­py peo­ple don’t think about angels,” The Lost Book of Mor­mon opens. And they cer­tain­ly don’t see angels. As for hold­ing extend­ed con­ver­sa­tions with them, that’s only for the tru­ly, irre­triev­ably miserable.”

With­out angels of his own with which to tra­verse the exis­ten­tial mis­eries of mod­ern day, Stein­berg fol­lows those spun into being in The Book of Mor­mon from their ances­tors’ alleged depar­ture from Jerusalem — and the delu­sion­al syn­drome asso­ci­at­ed with the ancient, holy city — through Mor­monis­m’s Mesoamer­i­can reli­gious land­marks and the annu­al Hill Cumorah Pageant off of I‑90. His mus­ings on the sto­ry, faith, and cul­ture in which he has immersed him­self are aid­ed and assist­ed by his own reli­gious upbring­ing: exam­in­ing The Book of Mor­mon brings about obser­va­tions on Judaism and its prac­tices and prophets in Steinberg’s sig­na­ture, knowl­edge­able humor. To study Joseph Smith’s life and lega­cy is, for Stein­berg, a refresh­ing reflec­tion on the Hebrew Bible, our hero’s child­hood in Jerusalem, the nos­tal­gia for belief of his youth. Hap­py peo­ple don’t write books, just as hap­py peo­ple don’t see angels,” Stein­berg dis­cov­ers upon reach­ing pur­port­ed­ly reach­ing Zara­hem­la (Chi­a­pas, Mex­i­co). The kind of per­son who writes a book is the kind of per­son who feels that some­thing real­ly impor­tant is miss­ing or lost or not right with the world, that some sto­ry needs to be told, to be pre­served. For peo­ple who write bibles, the sit­u­a­tion is even stark­er. The thing they are miss­ing, the lost cause they hope to pre­serve with their book, is noth­ing less than the sto­ry of faith itself. It is one of the great ironies, one of the secrets of reli­gion, that bibles are actu­al­ly writ­ten by those who have lost faith.”

Quirky, pro­found, and unequiv­o­cal­ly Jew­ish, Avi Steinberg’s sopho­more mem­oir is as com­pelling as its premise is bizarre: a Jew­ish read­ing of The Book of Mor­mon as a guide for the per­plexed, as a man­u­al for sto­ry­telling, and, pos­si­bly, as the Great Amer­i­can Novel.

Relat­ed Content:

Nat Bern­stein is the for­mer Man­ag­er of Dig­i­tal Con­tent & Media, JBC Net­work Coor­di­na­tor, and Con­tribut­ing Edi­tor at the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and a grad­u­ate of Hamp­shire College.

Discussion Questions