Dr Jason Olson is author of a new memoir called “The Burning Book.” He details his Jewish upbringing, and how he became interested in the LDS Church. Check out our conversation…
Elder Christofferson’s Call
Jason 04:54 And so it was a version that I had told when I was 18 years old. Well, I gave a fireside at my home stake in Scottsdale, Arizona. And so just a couple of days before General Conference, I got a phone call. And it was Elder Christofferson’s wonderful assistant, Judy. And she said, “Hey, is this Jason Olson?”
Jason 05:18 I said, “Yes, it is.”
Jason 05:19 “So, I have I have other D. Todd Christofferson here on the line. He wants to speak with you.”
Jason 05:26 And I was like, “Okay.” I was looking at my wife, and I she was like, “Who is it?”
Jason 05:31 I said, it said, “It’s D. Todd Christofferson!”
Jason 05:34 She was like, “Okay.”
Jason 05:36 And then he said, “Hi, Jason.”
Jason 05:39 And I said, “Hello, Elder Christofferson.”
Jason 05:41 He said, “I’d like to share your story in General Conference in a few days. Are you okay with that?” I wanted to ask you directly.”
Jason 05:51 And I said, “Yes, I’m okay with it.”
Jason 05:54 And then he just kind of asked me some questions about my family. So anyway, he shared it. A lot of my friends reached out to me who know some of the story and they were just kind of freaking out. “Oh, my gosh! I heard that I heard your name in General Conference, and I heard your story.”
Jason 06:15 But then, I had felt impressed for a long time to get this down in a whole book format. And that was really the catalyst. A lot has happened since I was 18 years old since I was newly baptized, and I wanted to capture that. Most of it is that I came to terms my own Judaism, as you’ve read in the book now, and my own Jewish identity and having to explore that. And while getting baptized at 18, I made that decision and have been true to it. But I still spent the first 18 years of my life as a Jewish person. And I had to reconcile with that and engage with that and understand that. So, a lot of The Burning Book is about dealing with those questions and those issues. I didn’t want my 18-year-old self to tell my life story for the rest of my life. Right? I wanted to be able to someone with maturity, someone who served a mission, who graduated from Brigham Young University, someone who went to Israel and had emigrated to Israel for a time someone, who received a Ph.D. in Jewish Studies, someone who served as a chaplain, I wanted that version of myself to tell the story with the nuance and the complexity. And so that’s how we got the book.
Mixed Faith Upbringing
Jason 08:10 Yes, yes. So my mother is 100% Jewish, going all the way back centuries to the land of Israel, where the Jewish people were forcibly exiled (for those who know their history) by the Romans. And my father is Lutheran, a very conservative branch, mostly raised in Missouri Synod Lutheranism. And, I characterize my father is, as a Bible-believing Christian with obviously a great love for the Jewish people since he’s been married to my mother, his entire life. Neither parent has ever considered conversion one way or the other. So, they’ve stayed happily married, but in their own religious traditions. And so, that was always something very curious to me. I like to think that I was raised inside religious pluralism and I got to see pluralism happen in my own home. It was also compartmentalized in the sense that we celebrated Hanukkah, in the family room and Christmas in the living room. So, we had compartmented pluralism in my home and we literally celebrated different traditions in different rooms. But I saw that pluralism can be done and people can love each other and be a family with different religious traditions. Once I had chosen the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we had to work our way through that as a family to add Mormonism into the pluralism of our family composition. And so I’m grateful for that. And I’ve learned a lot from my mother and father’s religious traditions and they still influenced me, obviously.
Intro to LDS Church
Jason 12:40 Sure. So as a middle schooler, in Scottsdale, Arizona, I became best friends with a young man named Shea Owens. And so, our friendship story is we had our first and only detention together. So we were in math class.
GT 13:09 You were spray painting things, breaking windows?
Jason 13:11 It was our life of crime. We were being really unruly in math class. And my buddy was a prankster. And he knew just what to do to trigger me. He would poke me in the back of the neck with a pencil just to get a reaction out of me. And so one day in class, I turned around him and I just yelled at him. And I said, “Stop it! I’m sick of you doing this!”
Jason 13:49 And he was like, “Whoa.” Because I kind of tried to ignore him, but he was trying to get the reaction. So he finally got it. And the teacher saw it and said, “Both of you are getting detention.” We were like 12 years old. So, so we both went to detention. And, so then we had to sit together. It was just me and him, this Mormon kid and this Jewish kid. And then we started talking and we actually realized we really liked each other. And, we had a lot of things in common. And Shea was this naturally, religious guy, even though he’s a prankster. He wanted to be a good kid. And, I wanted to be a good kid. And, so we just realized we had so much in common. So we became best friends after that, and never really interested in religion. I invited Shea to my Bar Mitzvah, and he was always very respectful of my Judaism. And he couldn’t come to it. But in high school, we continued our friendship.
Baptism & LDS Mission
Jason 17:39 That was the moment where I could get baptized. I had tied up my Jewish identity. I was still studying with the rabbi. I broke up with the Jewish girlfriend, and so I now I’m ready for something new. I’m ready for something radical. And yeah, well, I have to preface it before I get baptized. I spend three full days with Rick Ross, who’s a who’s an anti-cult specialist. And I mean, you can read that in the book. That was heavy. And he just punched me in the face, metaphorically speaking, not physically. But he just punched me in the soul, I guess you could say. He punched me in the soul with anti-Mormon everything that he could muster. But I do not respond to secularism. That’s the thing. I mean, I can be respectful. I can, but I just don’t have a secular bone in my body. I’m just completely wired as a religious human being, so I just get along a lot better with the rabbi’s, so I didn’t I didn’t have a good experience with Rick Ross because he’s very secular. And it just wasn’t a good approach.
Jason 19:21 But it caused me to run away from home. And I ran away to Utah. And Rabbi Raphael said, “Hey spend one last Shabbat with the Jewish people before you get baptized,” and I’ll never forget that. And, I should have. I should have, but I was just like, “Rabbi, I’m going to Utah.” I’m running away. Because the Rick Ross experience was very, very traumatic. It was it was spiritual bullying, and I have no problem saying that. I think Rick Ross was a bully to me. And he was taking advantage of me. I’m 17 years old. But yeah, so I went with Dave and then I came back and I was finally baptized. And, it wasn’t in secret, just to tie that knot. Lots of people were there. And even, the Jewish ex-girlfriend came, and she was the only Jewish person there and we forgave each other, and we reconciled. She was like a best friend. So, even though she didn’t agree with what I was doing at all, it was just to have some closure and as a friend just to support my new life that I was lto embark on.
Jason 20:58 So, yeah. I go to University of Arizona, and then I get I get sent to New Jersey, on my mission. So, and it’s everything I dreamed of, because I I get this time to join the circus, so to speak, and just get to know myself and it come to terms with all this drama and complexity of my coming of age. I loved being a missionary. I was very aggressive. I think what’s most curious about it is my final area was Rockland County, New York. And I go to New Jersey Morristown, but we have a little piece of New York. Right? But also New Jersey is very Jewish as well. So, it’s ironic that I’m even called there. But my fellow missionaries were we’re always talking about the legend of Rockland County. And, it’s like everybody in the mission was just hoping for the time to come when elder Olson would go to Rockland County. Everybody was talking about it “When is Elder Olson going to go to Rockland County? When’s he going to go?”
Jason 22:31 And the mission president, being wise and just allowing me to try to mature as much as you can in two years, saves Rockland County for the end. If you want to Wikipedia it, I think it is the highest concentration of Jewish people in any county in the United States. So now, here I am. I mean, what do I do? And I’m surrounded by Orthodox Jews. So I mean, I study with Rabbi Raphael. And I was familiar with this tiny little Orthodox community in Arizona. It’s grown more now in Arizona. I mean, these are sometimes ultra-Orthodox Jews, Haredi. And I’m surrounded by Jewish covenants that I had just, like, kind of run away from, but not really. I mean, that’s the whole paradox of this whole story.
Jason 23:42 I mean, it’s like, I ran away from it, but here it is. And I see Rabbi Tovia Singer again, that I told you about before. (the role-playing Mitch.) My companions were so nervous. We’re going to be alright. No, I think I just had one companion. Yeah. And hopefully, hears this episode. Elder Cofield.
GT 24:15 You’ll have to send it to him.
Jason 24:16 Yeah. And we’re still friends. And we find him in the yellow pages. Right? Because, those days you go to look up in the Yellow Pages. I think Rabbi Tovia Singer is in this area. And I look him up. And sure enough, there he is. I call him up.
GT 24:38 This was back when we had phone books, right?
Jason 24:39 That’s right, the Yellow Pages. And I look up his number in the Yellow Pages. And I said, “Rabbi Tovia Singer. This is Elder Jason Olson. You came to my synagogue in 1999.” And so now we’re in what 2006? “I want to come talk to you about my journey since I last saw you.” And so we go in, my companion and I. My companions really nervous because this guy is a trained counter-missionary. “Everything’s going to be alright elder. Everything’s going to be okay. We’ve got to do this.” I can’t be sent to this area and not see the rabbi, and just see what happens. Right?
Jason 25:39 So we go in there into his apartment and he’s so gracious. Like I said, I’m a religious guy. I really just don’t have a secular bone in my body or my soul so, I still I have reverence for the rabbis. And he says, “Jason, Hashem has brought you back to me.” Hashem being the name of God that the Jewish people will call God. Hashem [is Hebrew for] “the Name.” That’s the caveat.
Jason 26:22 “Hashem has brought you back to me.” And I’m just puzzled. And so here he is being himself. And I’m thinking, “All those years ago when he was Mitch. Have I accepted Jesus in my heart?” And now he said, “Hashem is has brought you.” And I’m like, “Has God brought me back to Tovia Singer?” I’m asking myself the same question; this charismatic rabbi. And I’m like, yeah, maybe he’s right. Maybe God [has brought us together.] I mean, I don’t know what that means.
Call to Israel
Jason: And, Rabbi Singer is like, “Okay. Thanks for sharing that.” And he’s like, “I want you to return to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” Okay, I mean, this was a real dialogue. And, and I think we talked a little bit about Israel. You know, Rabbi singer said, “If you don’t want to study at the yeshiva here, that’s okay. Why don’t you go study at a yeshiva in Israel, and really get in touch with your roots before you just decide to give your whole life to the church?”
Jason 30:06 Okay. I mean, I missed studying with Rabbi Raphael. I mean, here I am just my companion and I doing our morning scripture study, which is great. It’s not the same as staying with a trained rabbi. So I’m thinking of this. Rabbi Singer talking about return to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Return to the Torah. Return to the land of Israel. And I cannot get it out of my, my mind or my heart. I’ve got to return. I’ve got to return. So, I go to BYU because I’m like, “Okay. I’m going to start studying the Bible in Hebrew. And so, I take all the Hebrew classes at BYU that first year. I’ve got two modern Hebrew classes, two biblical Hebrew class; so four Hebrew classes. I’m like, “Okay, I’m going to take Rabbi Singer’s challenge. But then I’m thinking about how am I going to get to Israel?
Jason 31:16 So, of course, I was just like, “Oh, I’ll just apply to the BYU Jerusalem Center. That’s an easy way. I can go study Hebrew there. And I could you go study the Scriptures? Because I’m like, I don’t want to go to the yeshiva. I don’t need to go to the Jewish Yeshiva. I could, I could study in the BYU yeshiva. I guess was my thinking. But I didn’t get in. I didn’t get into the BYU Jerusalem center. So even though, in my application, I was like, “I really need to go guys.” But it was it was a lottery. Right? So it was a lottery.
Jason 31:59 So I go back to Rabbi Raphael. And “I’ve got to go to Israel.”
Jason 32:03 And he’s like, “Yeah, yeah. Let me help you.” So Rabbi Raphael goes to the birthright Israel trip foundation people and [writes,] “Jason has had this complicated life. He’s made some un-Jewish decisions, but give him a chance. Let him go to Israel with the birthright. He’s born a Jew.
GT 32:34 Now, you had already applied to this and been denied once before.
Jason 32:37 That’s right. I was denied by birthright before. And then now I was rejected from the BYU Jerusalem center. So I’m just a poor little college student. How am I going to get to Israel?
GT 32:47 Third time’s the charm, though.
Jason 32:50 Third, time’s the charm. So, Rabbi Raphael intervenes. “All right. Let’s get you to Israel.” And he’s hoping, maybe I’ll study in the yeshiva. But I kind of take like this high tech, secular Israeli road. So I go to greater Tel Aviv. And I go. We’re doing an internship at the Center for Jewish/Arab economic development, and I’m trying to help Israeli Arabs, Israeli Palestinians, increase their economic and social mobility. And I’ve always been very committed to equality in Israel and peace and human rights with the Palestinians. I mean, literally my first job in Israel was to help Palestinians economically.
Jason 33:52 But nevertheless, I was a Zionist. I am a Zionist. I felt I needed to return to the land as a Jewish person as a Latter-day Saint from the tribe of Judah, whichever way you want to look at it. So, I went to the Western Wall. I also went to the temple mount with a State Department friend. This is where we talk about the midichlorians that you experience in Star Wars. That when I went to the Temple Mount and the Western Walls, yeah, I felt this concentration of divinity and holiness. That just felt that God was so present. They’re so concentrated, so thick. Just the air is full of divine particles. What the Jewish tradition calls Shahina, the presence of God, literally. And so I felt that the magnetism, the compass, the true north for me and why I finally learned why Jewish people pray towards Jerusalem three times a day. If you’re doing it logically, because that’s the source. That’s where things are clustered. And I felt it. I mean, there’s no doubt. It was a sacred experience.
It’s just been really interesting seeing how Jason combines his Judaism with his Mormonism. He really hasn’t left Judaism behind. He’s simply adding Mormonism to his Judaism. Have you read the book? Do you know people like him? Have you visited the Holy Land?
I appreciate this posting — thank you!