Could Joseph Smith be a new branch on my family tree

Apparently I’m descended from Mormons. Who knew, right? All this time I thought my ancestors were nice, devout Jews from the shtetls of Poland and Ukraine. And none of them, I was sure, had ever been to Utah — even to ski.

But it turns out I was wrong. Well, sort of.

A few weeks ago, on a lark I decided to type my name into, a genealogy Web site that (unbeknownst to me at the time) is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

A search for “Freedenberg” came up with a whole slew of results, mostly Social Security death records. Then there were a few from something called the International Genealogical Index. I recognized three of them: Bernard, Morris and Gerald. The first two were my great-uncles Ben and Morris; the last was my father’s cousin Jerry.

Clicking on their names, I learned that Jerry was buried in Plano, Texas, and that my great-grandmother Golde’s maiden name was Sadowski. Interesting stuff, but not quite as interesting as what I found at the bottom of each page: “Record submitted after 1991 by a member of the LDS Church.”

If you read the Nov. 14 issue of j., you’ll know all about the Mormon practice of posthumously baptizing Holocaust victims into the church. This couldn’t be that, since Ben, Morris and Jerry had all died in America after 1980. Still, my mouth dropped open. I quickly fired off an e-mail to my father: “Was anyone in our family converted to Mormon? Could this be?”

His response: “Yeah. We’ll discuss.”

I was dumbfounded.

Later that day, I got at least part of the story from my mother. Apparently I have a second-or-so cousin who converted to Mormonism and wanted to posthumously baptize some of our relatives. He called my father’s cousin Phil, who said no. But I’m betting my cousin didn’t take that for an answer.

What did this mean? Had my relatives been baptized Mormon? To find out, I called the public relations office of the LDS Church in Salt Lake City.

Kim Farah was one of the most disarmingly nice people I’ve ever spoken with. She had stayed late in the office to talk to me; I could hear the night cleaners vacuuming in the background.

“Most of the time, if [people are] on the IGI, they probably have had some ordinance work done,” Kim said, using the LDS term for proxy baptism. “But it isn’t definitive.” She sounded almost apologetic.

That was about as far as I got, though; Kim said the actual ordinance records were private, so she couldn’t tell me for certain if and when my relatives had been baptized.

After getting off the phone, I wasn’t sure what to feel. Did it really matter if my relatives had been baptized if they lived and died as Jews? After all, as Kim reminded me in an e-mail the next day, “This ordinance work is an offering that we believe is not binding unless accepted by those that have passed on.”

In her e-mail, Kim also sent me a link to a blog by a Jewish woman named Manya Brachear, who discovered that her grandfather had been posthumously baptized by her Mormon cousins. In Manya’s essay on the topic, she concluded that because the baptism was done out of love, she could accept and appreciate the gesture.

I’m not so sure. While I respect my cousin’s freedom of religion, why should he be allowed to baptize our relatives into a faith they didn’t believe in?

Baptizing someone after they’re dead seems, well, sneaky, like cutting someone’s hair while they’re asleep. My relatives had a choice when they were alive — they chose Judaism. Disrespecting that choice when they can’t speak for themselves feels very wrong to me.

I guess I can accept that my relatives might have been baptized — there’s nothing I can do about it now. But, unlike Manya, I can’t appreciate it. Would Ben, Morris and Jerry appreciate it? Is this what they imagined would happen to their names after they died? Is this how they wanted to be remembered?

I’ll never get a chance to ask them those questions. But I think I know the answers.

Rachel Freedenberg is a copy editor at j. She can be reached at [email protected].