Jewish Journal

Latter Day Jew Wants Jews to Hear His Story of Love and Conversion

Photo by Dusty St. Amand

“I was raised Mormon, poor, in the Midwest; turned out kind of gay, got a little cancer, then converted to Judaism. Try putting all of that in a Tinder profile,” writer-comedian H. Alan Scott quips in the trailer for “Latter Day Jew,” a documentary-in-progress about his life’s journey.

The film will follow Scott, 35, as he prepares for his bar mitzvah at the Reform Temple Akiba in Culver City on Nov. 9.

In the trailer, Scott stumps a prospective party planner when he jokes, “How do you feel about a public bris?”

In his Silver Lake apartment, the comedian turned serious when asked why he was drawn to Judaism.

“I love the questioning, that I have freedom of thought, that I can question God, that I’m belonging to a community,” he said. “And I find Shabbat to be a very beautiful, spiritual sort of ‘timeout.’ Of course, I just also love challah bread.”

Scott was sitting in his living room, which sported an Israeli flag, books on Judaism and the Jewish icons he has loved since childhood (Woody Allen, Barbra Streisand, Nora Ephron and Lenny Bruce). One of his arms was adorned with a tattoo of TV’s “The Golden Girls,” including Bea Arthur, another of Scott’s Jewish celebrity fetishes. (He has a podcast devoted to “Golden Girls.”) His black-and-white cat, Frasier — named for another of his favorite shows — wore a magenta collar affixed with a gold-sequined bow tie.

Scott grew up in not-very-Mormon Kirkwood, Mo., a St. Louis suburb where, he said, “people would ask me if I had three moms.”

In a telephone interview, his one and only mother, Kathleen Giamanco, said she was abandoned by her parents at the age of 8, sent to an orphanage, and then adopted by a devout Mormon family. She said the Mormon upbringing she gave her son was much less strict than how she was raised.

Yet, Scott chafed at the beliefs of the Mormon church, especially its emphasis on the afterlife. “That’s a waste of time, because we’re here right now,” he said. “I’d rather focus on what I’m having for dinner.”

Scott’s baptism, at age 12, was hardly a religious experience. Decked out in a white robe too tight for his chubby adolescent physique, he was lowered into a hot tub by a hunky young missionary. “I wasn’t thinking about anything except that my head was just a couple of inches away from this attractive man’s member,” he said.

Scott’s baptism, at age 12, was hardly a religious experience.

Later, while studying at DePaul University in Chicago, Scott confided to his Jewish academic counselor that he was drawn to Judaism. She promptly forwarded him to local rabbis and Scott began reading about the religion in earnest. He continued his studies into his 20s, while working as a stand-up comedian in New York.

He thought he had plenty of time to convert — until he began feeling a persistent pain in his groin. Just after he moved to Los Angeles in the summer of 2012, Scott was diagnosed with testicular cancer and endured grueling rounds of chemotherapy.

It was at that time he decided to convert to Judaism, he said, not because the cancer made him face his mortality but “because I had the time. There was nothing grounding me and I felt lost.” He also thought the time was right to convert because he aspired to become a father one day and wanted to raise his child in a religiously grounded home.

His Jewish psychiatrist suggested he reach out to Rabbi Zach Shapiro at Temple Akiba, who happens to be gay.

“H. Alan asked me if it was common for a young, single male to convert to Judaism, and I said, ‘No, it’s not,’ ” Shapiro recalled. “He’s an incredible young soul with lots of questions.”

Temple Akiba Cantor Lonee Frailich agreed: “To see this particular person on such a unique and different journey — and do it with such grace and humor — is a beautiful thing.”

While there are no statistics on the number of former Mormons who have converted to Judaism, Rabbi Emeritus Fred Wenger of Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City — that city’s largest synagogue — said he has presided over the conversions of about 60 former Mormons over the past few decades.

Devout Mormons feel an affinity for Jews, in part, because of their own exodus, due to religious discrimination, from upstate New York to the Midwest to Salt Lake City, Wenger said.

Andrew Reed, a Mormon and a professor of Jewish studies at Brigham Young University, noted that the Mormon church — formally known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — donated land for two Jewish cemeteries in Salt Lake City in the 1860s, as well as space for local Jews to hold High Holy Days services. The church’s love for the land of Israel also led its leaders to send an emissary to then-Palestine in the 1940s.

But, Reed said, there have been some rifts between the Jewish and Mormon communities, one of which resulted from Mormon church members’ pursuit in years past of their belief that they could posthumously baptize Holocaust victims such as Anne Frank.

Wenger said he has spoken to church officials about discontinuing Mormons’ proselytizing efforts aimed at Jewish youths.

Scott said he also took issue with the posthumous baptisms, as well as the church’s support of California’s Proposition 8, approved by voters in 2008, which would have banned same-sex marriage. A federal court in 2010 ruled the proposition unconstitutional.

About two years ago in Los Angeles, Scott professed his commitment to Judaism before a beit din, or rabbinical court, and then immersed in the mikveh at American Jewish University to complete his conversion.

“I love the questioning, that I have freedom of thought, that I can question God.” – H. Alan Scott

After he emerged from the water, Scott recalled, he started to shake and cry. Initially, he thought he was having a panic attack. “I kept thinking, ‘What have I done? Have I gone too far?’ ” he said. “But then I realized that it was this complete embracing of the history of Judaism and Jews. It felt so right.”

Thereafter, Scott struggled to understand how he could be “a good Jew and give back to the community.” He attended retreats of the Jewish organization Asylum Arts and, among other efforts, twice visited Israel, where he met with gay activists.

Then he met with director Aliza Rosen, who had created a CBS series on the murder of JonBenet Ramsey that Scott wanted to feature on his “Talking Crime” podcast.

Rosen recalled that during their first dinner together, she was “completely distracted because he was wearing this very prominent Magen David necklace. I asked, ‘What’s the deal with the Jewish star?’ He went on to tell me his whole story. I put down my fork and said, ‘We’re making a documentary.’ ”

Scott, who writes about gay issues and other topics for publications such as Newsweek, said he is saving jokes about becoming Jewish for his upcoming one-man show, which will be filmed as part of the documentary. He quips that his conversion means he’s finally gone Hollywood.

“In doing this documentary, I want to create a story for the Jewish community,” he said. “I want it to be an affirming story about what’s great about being a Jew.”