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“Aviva Levine”: The God of Her Fathers

By: Ardis E. Parshall - April 16, 2009

”Aviva Levine” is the pseudonym used by a woman who told of her conversion to the Church almost 50 years ago. Because I do not know her real name, I cannot update the story she told in 1964, and can only hope that her new life continued as it began.

Aviva was born in Hungary in 1932, the daughter of an observant Jewish father and a non-religious, possibly Gentile mother. She was exposed in her early childhood to Jewish practice – including the presentation when she was 7 of a beautiful silver-covered Haggadah, the Passover prayer book – but in 1942, when she was 10, Aviva and her mother were separated from her father by World War II. Her father died because he was a Jew; Aviva and her mother, being (or passing as) Hungarians, survived. In part because religion was unimportant to her mother, and in part because she could see little reason to practice a religion that had led to her father’s death, Aviva abandoned any pretense to Jewishness. She emigrated to the United States soon after the war, and Aviva grew to young womanhood thinking nothing of religion.

In her 20s, though, she became dissatisfied with a life focused entirely on the here and now. She studied philosophy and psychology, and investigated exotic Eastern religions. While she found nothing, at first, to fill her need for fixed guiding principles in her life, she enjoyed the search and often found an idea here, and understanding there, that helped her to make sense of her life. And while she did not return to Judaism as a religion, the knowledge that she was “of Israel” was never far from her mind, either.

She read the New Testament – a modern translation, she writes, although she does not identify which – and felt a completely unexpected reaction.

A great love and compassion filled my heart for the man, Jesus, who had given Himself so generously to the people He loved. I could almost see Him walking among us, trying to teach us the right way to live, trying to free us from the burden of sin. Yet we, His chosen ones, rebuked Him; we demanded immediate worldly advantages as proof of His divinity; and we rejected His teachings and ridiculed His claims. I knew then what it meant to be rejected by those you love and whose good you seek. I understood and cried for His suffering and felt myself at the same time flooded with an overwhelming abundance of love, love for all suffering, lonely, misguided humanity, love for my family and friends. Indeed, in that moment I felt I wanted to run and shout from the rooftop the good news that Jesus Christ was truly the Saviour and Messiah for whom my people had waited for so many centuries.

Converted to Christ, but feeling no need to associate with any particular religious body, Aviva began to seek for ways to incorporate Christ’s teachings in her life, but always privately. “A public discourse could only detract from this beauty and meaning, and an institutionalized religion could only stifle and retard my spiritual growth,” she felt. When once she confided to a trusted friend the story of her search, she felt betrayed by a lack of understanding when that friend invited her to attend church services with her.

At this point in her life, she unexpectedly received a small package from Hungary, from an aunt she had never known well and with whom she had not been in touch for more than ten years. She delayed opening the package, unsure she was willing to reestablish a connection with her own past. Finally, she unwrapped what turned out to be the Haggadah, the Jewish prayer book, given to her by her father when she was a small child.

I opened the book. On the first page was a letter addressed to me by my father and written in 1939 on the occasion of the Passover holidays. In the letter, my father foresaw that the storm then gathering above our heads would not pass us by unscathed; he had a presentiment of the suffering and loss we would have to endure in the coming years.

His heart cried out for me. He ached to think that I might lose my faith in God and give up the peace of my soul for temporal and material advantages. He feared that in such eventuality he might not be by my side to kindle the fire of faith in my heart with his own living words.

He reminded me of the passages in the Bible which state that in the last days God will turn the children’s hearts to their fathers and the fathers’ back to their children, and that young men will see visions and old men will dream dreams. He said that when doubt and disappointment assailed me, I should turn to his words, and to this book, and find renewed courage and faith from the suffering, endurance, and loyalty of our people.

He asked me for only one thing, and that was that I remain loyal to the God of my fathers, the God of Israel.

Moved by her father’s love and concern for her, Aviva was in turmoil.

How could I remain loyal to the God of Israel, when I knew without a shadow of doubt that Jesus was the God and Redeemer of this world, and that I myself had found redemption and a more abundant life in Him whom my people had rejected and crucified? Yet how could I turn a deaf ear to my father’s last wish? How could I throw away the values for which so many had suffered and died?

Soon after this, Aviva’s friend – the one whom she felt had not understood her search – gave her a copy of the Book of Mormon.

I opened the book at random and began to read. I was amazed to find that it was all about Jews and the House of Israel. I opened it in another place. Still the same familiar style prevailed; the same familiar tone spoke to me describing a kind of relationship between a people and God which is so unique to Judaism and which I remembered reading and learning about when I was very young. I still find it problematical to define what exactly is the nature of the striking similarities between the Old Testament and the book of Mormon which I sensed so keenly right away.

Maybe it was that strong feeling of mutuality that exists in both books between God and men – God needing men to accomplish His purposes, like in the stories of Abraham and Joseph Smith – and men needing God to be able to live in freedom and happiness. Maybe it was because both the Old Testament and the Book of Mormon portrayed a God who was actively involved in the shaping of history, as well as in the personality of a people, like in the stories of Moses and Nephi. Maybe it was because both books were so down to earth, so realistic, their heroes so vulnerable and so human in their sufferings and so great in their accomplishments. In both books one can catch a glimpse of the heights of achievement to which the human spirit is capable of rising when in partnership with God, and of the depths to which it can sink when cut off from the source of enlightenment and guidance.

Within the Book of Mormon, she recognized a God involved with humanity and working within a chosen group, “not necessarily for their own benefit and glory, but for the good of the whole human family. [This was] so strikingly different from the gods of any other religion in the East or the West that I had no difficulty whatever in recognizing the voice of Jehovah speaking out of the Book of Mormon.”

Yet there still remained a missing link for me. Granted that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the Book of Mormon were one and the same, where did Jesus come into the picture; this Jesus to whom I felt a personal loyalty and love far above anything I ever felt towards the God of my fathers? And then I stumbled upon this passage in the Book of Mormon:

Behold, I am he that gave the law [to Moses], and I am he who covenanted with my people Israel … (3 Nephi 15:5).

Now the light was dawning quickly. I suddenly realized that the God of my fathers, Jehovah, and the God I worshiped, Jesus, are one and the same. It was Jehovah Himself who came unto His people and gave Himself to them and became one with them. How beautiful, how simple, and how logical! Who else should the Messiah be but Jesus Christ Himself? …

After I came to this knowledge, the way ahead became clear. I knew that I could carry out my father’s last wish to remain loyal to our God. There was only one way to do so, and that was by joining the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Aviva was baptized in 1959.

Since then I have learned from LDS revelations that, indeed, my people did not suffer in vain; that a glorious future awaits them in history; that the light of this world, Jesus Christ Himself, will have His throne among them; and that in the days to come the living word of God will proceed out of Jerusalem. …

All in all, I am content that I have done my own share in the linking up of the generations. I have not snapped the chain which my ancestors forged with their blood and their suffering. I have faith that after me my children will continue to serve the living God, and they will obtain His blessings until the day when we shall all become perfected in Jesus Christ.



16 Comments »

  1. Ardis, I don’t know why she used a pseudonym here, but she’s used her real name elsewhere in telling her conversion story.

    Comment by Justin — April 16, 2009 @ 9:56 am

  2. Annette Tilleman Lantos. Cool. Thanks, Justin. That account, judging by the first few paragraphs, is much more detailed than the one I found. A quick search shows that she and her mother owe their lives, in part, to Raoul Wallenberg, too.

    So the story is far better known than I could have guessed from the obscure place I found it. I hope it is still of some interest to readers who might not have read No More Strangers.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 16, 2009 @ 11:18 am

  3. Lantos? As in Rep. Tom Lantos?

    A quick look at wikipedia and a couple of other sources confirms that Annette Tillemann was his wife, and has a picture of the couple with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.

    Wikipedia notes that Rep. Lantos was the only Holocaust survivor to have served in congress.

    (The link from Justin is not fully viewable unless you’re a subscriber to the site.)

    Comment by Researcher — April 16, 2009 @ 1:04 pm

  4. Great catch, Researcher. This link to a news story about Rep. Lantos’ death claims Annette is a cousin of Zsa Zsa Gabor — this story is getting odder by the minute.

    And this one identifies Annette and the two Lantos daughters as powerfully LDS. Still.

    Here at BCC, at comment 43, “dmm” notes that we saw a Lantos granddaughter in Whitney’s “The Mormons” on PBS.

    And this one says that the home teacher of a daughter while attending Yale was Jeffrey Holland.

    It looks like I’m one of the last to catch on to this story. Well, well.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 16, 2009 @ 1:20 pm

  5. I did this post last year:
    I was interested in the story of the home schooling Tilleimann-Dick family (Kimber was the bubbly newlywed, Charity the opera singer suffering from pulmonary hypertension). So I did a Google search, and they are a very interesting family. First of all, the kids have all taken their mother’s hyphinated name (their father is named Timber Dick).

    Also, their maternal grandfather is Tom Lantos, a California Democrat who has held a seat in Congress since 1980. Lantos is a secular Jew from Hungary, who was imprisoned in a Nazi labor camp for a time before he escaped and joined the resistance. He is the only Holocaust survivor to serve in the US Congress.
    http://lantos.house.gov/HoR/CA12/About+Tom/A+Holocaust+Survivor/
    After the war he moved to the US, got a PhD in economics from Berkeley, and married his childhood friend Annette Tillman, a Hungarian from a prominant family (she is a cousin of Zsa Zsa and Eva Gabor). Annette and their two girls, Annette Tillemann-Dick and Katrina Swett, joined the LDS Church at some point, although Lantos has not joined the Church. He appears to be a devoted an principled congressman, I did not read much about him I did not like. Here is a nice piece by his granddaughter Kimber.
    http://www.lifestylesmagazine.com/website/past/stories/191/Lifestyle_05-2004_005.html

    Katrina Swett is married to Richard “Dick” Swett, also a Mormon, and a Democrat from New Hamshire who served in Congress in 1991-1995, lost a Senate bid, and was ambassador to Denmark in the late 1990s.

    Comment by Andrew H. — April 16, 2009 @ 1:31 pm

  6. The original post is fascinating, and the comments are a real treat.

    I love the connections she makes with the feeling of the Book of Mormon. One of my soapbox issues is that we need to stop using it primarily as a doctrinal proof text and more as it was used in the early church (and in this account) as a testament. There’s a difference, and it is profound.

    Comment by Ray — April 16, 2009 @ 2:09 pm

  7. Timber Dick died from burns suffered in a single vehicle accident in April 2008. He and his wife have 11 children. At the time of his death, he was about to be given an award from NASA for his design for a vehicle engine. A remarkable family all around.

    Comment by Raymond Takashi Swenson — April 16, 2009 @ 2:15 pm

  8. I wonder if she felt the alias was necessary in 1964 – when being married to a Mormon would have been much more detrimental to her husband’s career.

    Comment by Ray — April 16, 2009 @ 2:17 pm

  9. I worked in the US House of Representatives in the mid-80s and knew of Rep. Lantos and his LDS wife. But I never knew her story until now. So interesting. Thanks.

    Comment by Martin Willey — April 16, 2009 @ 3:03 pm

  10. Simply incredible!!! Wow!

    I also liked her connection to the Book of Mormon–To the convincing of the Jews…

    Comment by Steve C. — April 16, 2009 @ 3:19 pm

  11. Great story, Where did you find it, Ardis ?

    Comment by lacy — April 16, 2009 @ 6:48 pm

  12. […] is nothing on Earth better than a good conversion story, and Mormon historian Ardis Parshall has a magnificent one she found digging through the archives […]

    Pingback by Points of Interest, v2, #7 « Mind, Soul, and Body — May 4, 2009 @ 11:27 am

  13. I am familiar with the family and Annette’s mother Mary was certainly Jewish.

    Comment by lora — June 9, 2009 @ 11:41 am

  14. Thank you for the clarification, lora. You can follow in the comments our discovery of who “Aviva” really is — the account I worked from originally was written under a pseudonym, making it impossible to check any detail that was ambiguous there, as this one was.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 9, 2009 @ 11:58 am

  15. […] is nothing on Earth better than a good conversion story, and Mormon historian Ardis Parshall has a magnificent one she found digging through the archives […]

    Pingback by Points of Interest, v2, #7 | Mormon Bloggers — December 11, 2009 @ 12:25 pm

  16. Her granddaughters have a blog I follow called the five td sisters. I always enjoy hearing the stories they tell about their grandmother.

    Comment by Anne — June 27, 2013 @ 6:29 am

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