In the Washington, D.C., Jewish community, it was the thorny question that inevitably came up in discussions about Tom Lantos: what about the Mormon thing?
The late chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, who died Feb. 11 of esophageal cancer at the age of 80, was the only Holocaust survivor ever elected to Congress. And he was fiercely pro-Israel, using his powerful position to advance the pro-Israel lobby’s agenda.
Yet his wife, Annette, also a survivor, and daughters Katrina and Annette were Mormons. What role did this play in Lantos’ own beliefs? Did it affect his Judaism?
The respective answers came at his memorial service last week: apparently not much, and not at all.
“Tom didn’t believe in God in the way that most of us do,” his widow said at the service Feb. 14 in the Statuary Hall in the Capitol, where his family — including 18 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren — were present.
His friend, Rabbi Arthur Schneier of New York, recalled singing Hebrew psalms with Lantos days before he died. He also remembered visiting with Lantos several years ago at the Budapest synagogue where Lantos had his bar mitzvah.
“I presided over that wonderful, memorable celebration and we sang ‘Siman Tov Umazal Tov,'” a Jewish song of joy, Schneier said of that synagogue visit.
His daughter Annette said in her eulogy that her father was a man of “profound faith” and listed his beliefs: in the Constitution, in education, in friendship, in the responsibility to change the world for the better, even in the power of dogs to heal — but notably, belief in a deity was lacking.
Instead, the younger Annette suggested, he admired his wife’s beliefs but did not embrace them: “He had faith in the sustaining power of her faith in spirituality,” she said.
The question of Lantos’ faith had long presented a dilemma: Questions of taste and fears of Lantos’ notorious wrath kept it from being asked aloud while he lived.
Yet he was a politician who wore his Jewish experience on his sleeve. At least three links on his congressional Web site detailed his biography as the youthful fighter in the Hungarian resistance who discovered after the war that the Nazis had killed most of his family.
Those experiences permeated the memorial, which began and ended with blessings from Schneier, Lantos’ longtime friend and fellow survivor, who founded the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, which promotes religious freedoms.
“You remember that, Annette — being a step ahead of our persecutors?” Schneier asked Lantos’ widow. “Forgetting about our music lessons, forgetting about our ballgames,” he continued. “What a journey it has been from the Valley of Dry Bones to the heights of human achievement.”
A number of Jews in public life are intermarried, but Lantos’ wife had not merely converted, she had embraced a faith — the Church of Latter Day Saints — that until the 1970s had preached the inferiority of blacks and until the 1990s had conducted posthumous baptisms of Jews, including Holocaust victims. Moreover, it is a culture that encourages conversion and does not easily accommodate intermarriage.
Annette Lantos noted during the memorial ceremony that differences of faith with her husband informed even his final days, in the finality of death Lantos embraced the eternal life that her church preaches.
She noted that Lantos likened his life to a vacation at his beloved Lake Balaton in Hungary.
“But like all vacations,” she said, using his words, “there must be an end to it. We have to move on.
“And so he did. I do not believe in death. I do believe in different forms of life. And therefore I feel with great certainty that Tom is alive, and that he’s here right now listening to our farewell before he will depart into the light for a joyous reunion with his friends and deceased family.”
The entire memorial service was a gentle back and forth of Jewish and Mormon perspectives on remembering Lantos, who was cremated.
Tzipi Livni, Israel’s foreign minister, also delivered a eulogy. She recalled Lantos’ last visit to Israel in 2007, when they toured military installations along the northern border and heard pleas from military commanders to keep Israel safe. Afterward, they saw a film about the American failure to bomb Auschwitz.