When Jews and Mormons swap lives, it’s as awkward as you’d expect


Mira Fox, The Forward

This story was originally published on October 27,  by the Forward. Sign up here to get the latest stories from the Forward delivered to you each morning.”

Ava DuVernay is best known for hard-hitting films that take on race in America, whether that’s “Selma,” a historical drama about the M.L.K.-led voting rights march, or “13,” a documentary about mass incarceration. Her newest work, “Home Sweet Home,” grapples with race and diversity as well, but does so more in the mold of the 2000s-era reality show “Wife Swap.”

“Home Sweet Home,” currently airing Fridays on NBC, asks families to switch homes for a weekend, stepping into the shoes of a family who doesn’t live quite like theirs, cooking their recipes, having dinner with their friends and doing their hobbies or even religion. The trailer shows a Sikh family wrapping a turban, an Asian child smiling, a line of kids marching out of a home. Surprised exclamations —“Oh, they’re vegan!” “Oh, they’re Jewish!” — overlap with heartwarming statements about how, at the end of the day, we’re all human.

The fun of shows like “Wife Swap” was how unabashedly trashy they were, and “Home Sweet Home” sheds all of that in an attempt to teach lessons, making it so didactic that it can be nearly unwatchable. But Jewish representation on a primetime, network TV show, especially one about exposing people to unfamiliar practices and lifestyles, was exciting enough to be interesting.

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The Jewish family featured in this particular episode, the Silversteins, live in Los Angeles. The dad, Joshua, describes himself as “an artist, activist, educator, Black Jew, actor, beatboxer” and the mom, Cynthia, is a Mexican immigrant and photographer; they have three kids. They swapped houses with a troop of four children, two adopted and two biological — though you’d never guess from the four kids’ matching mops of blond curls and freckles.

It’s nice that they chose artistic Jews of color instead of a family that feels like the template for the nebbishy Jewish doctor-lawyer stereotype, showing the diversity of the Jewish community. The Silvermans are not particularly observant — the book of house activities and rules they leave for the Mormon family says both parents are agnostic, and their son says the Shabbat blessings each Friday.

This is a little unfortunate from a representation standpoint, though I would be surprised if anyone who values a kosher kitchen would be willing to turn theirs over to non-Jewish strangers. Instead, we see the Mormon family light the candles, wave their hands three times over them, and stumble valiantly through the Hebrew blessings.

“It’s cool because it’s like the sacrament, you know,” says the mom as I winced while watching from my couch. Then they blow out the candles and kneel for their own prayer.

Meanwhile, the Silversteins are suspicious of their temporary Mormon lifestyle. Cynthia, the mom, flinches at every Jesus in the house, of which there are many. “Maybe this is the paranoid person of color in me,” she says. “But in the back of my head, I’m like, are they hoping that if we’re not of the LDS faith, and we’re not Christians, that this experience might — like, would that be a win?”

Though each family is ostensibly changed by the experience, it is clear that one family is the open-minded, boundary-breaking one and the other is there to learn lessons about their internalized prejudices. In one episode, a Greek Orthodox family was paired with a Black two-mom family, and the Greek dad pondered aloud whether fathers were really as necessary as he’d thought; the Black moms’ big lesson was that they wanted to create a family tradition of cooking.

In the Silverstein episode, the very white Mormon family wrestled with the fact that the Mormon church did not allow Black members to enter its holiest spaces or serve in its priesthood until 1978. (Throughout the episode, they still made copious claims about how they teach their kids about everyone’s underlying humanity, which feels quite close to a declaration of “We don’t see color!”) Meanwhile, the Silversteins learned that not all Mormons are as bigoted as they used to be and aren’t always trying to convert Jews.

Of course, it would also have been nice to see a more Orthodox family participate because of the amount of persecution and Othering that visibly observant Jews face. (I asked NBC for screeners of any “Home Sweet Home” episodes with a Jewish family, and this is all I was given, so it seems safe to assume that this is the only example.) It also would have been nice to hear about the Mormon church’s history of antisemitic practices, such as baptizing Jews after their death, in addition to their racist history.

Still, the Silversteins capture a certain type of Jew quite well: the secular family who is still proudly Jewish, an identity that often bewilders Christians. In fact, at the end of the episode, when the families meet, the Mormon dad explicitly challenged that: “In our faith, we believe that we are basically distant cousins to the Jews, because of the covenants, so it’s hard for me to understand how you can be a Jewish practicing Jew and not believe in God,” he said.

The Silversteins’ oldest kid took on this issue that, honestly, can puzzle some Jews as well. “There’s the Jewish religion and there’s the Jewish people, they have the same beliefs, but not all of the Jewish people have to believe in God,” he said.

“That’s the cool thing for me about being a Jew, that it’s an ever-evolving experience and culture and faith,” added his dad.

Even though this is a clunky show, I was surprised by how well it actually captured the way I actually understand the heart of Judaism in those two sentences. No single family can represent an entire tradition, but if we had to pick one, I’m glad it was the Silversteins.

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