H. Alan Scott is an American stand-up comedian, writer, podcaster, Golden Girls obsessive, and cancer survivor. He was brought up as a Mormon but, as a recently completed documentary (it’s currently being edited), Latter Day Jew, will show, converted to Judaism, and never looked back.
Growing up far from Utah, in a suburb of St Louis, Scott chafed against Mormonism from early childhood. In fact, he had so many questions that his baptism, which should have taken place at eight years old (the “age of accountability”), was repeatedly postponed.
“They kept delaying it,” he says from his home in LA. “And then, finally, when I was 12, I just gave in. It was important to my mother, and you really don’t know any different.
“There were no Jews [and not many Mormons] in my area, so I didn’t know that a lot of the things that I was feeling and questioning were Jewish.”
Scott was obsessed with TV, idolised Oprah Winfrey, and says one of his earliest memories is realising that he felt more connected to the diverse community he saw on screen (his nascent homosexuality may have had some influence, although he doesn’t refer to it in this context) than to the relatively ethnically homogeneous composition of his church.
“I would only see white people,” he recalls, “and I was like, ‘It doesn’t make sense.’ It really threw me off and that was my first real, visceral reaction to it. It was like, ‘this is wrong. This feels like a place that I don’t relate to anybody.’ Whereas, at home, when I was watching Oprah, I related to people.”
As time passed, he also disagreed with much of what he was hearing, especially concerning the after-life. “I don’t know if heaven exists or not, but who cares,” says Scott. “It seems silly to me to be basing your entire belief system and knowledge on something that may or may not happen, and seems like living like you’re going to win the lottery some day. Go eat the doughnut! Go have fun!”
He didn’t realise it but he was already heading in the direction of Judaism. Unknown to him, all of his favourite artists — Woody Allen, Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand, Nora Ephron, the Golden Girls’ Bea Arthur — were Jewish. And, while the Streisand movie Funny Girl was a beloved Christmas staple in his blue-collar household, it wasn’t until his early 20s that he grasped that it was a Jewish story. “I had no idea that [all these people I admired] were Jewish until I got older and I started figuring all that out.”
In college, when he learned more about different cultures and religions, he discovered that the questions he’d been asking as a child were “fundamentally Jewish questions.
“So I started exploring more of that and, in my mid 20s, I sort of realised: ‘Oh, I’m kind of a Jew.’ Most of my friends were Jewish, and all of the guys I was dating were Jewish. And all of the artists that I loved were Jewish. And then I just assumed I would marry a Jew one day, when I got that legal right. So, in a way, I was curating this sort of culturally Jewish life without actually being a Jew.”
It wasn’t until he developed testicular cancer, and had chemotherapy, though, that Scott decided to convert. “Coming off of cancer, my priorities changed,” he explains. “Before it, I was bouncing around very much being an individual, asking people to pay attention to me, read my stuff, watch my comedy, whatever, but I had no base. And, after that, I realised I needed some sort of grounding. Some sort of identity to keep me straight.”
He insists that his decision to convert wasn’t a reaction to what he’d been through, “because it was fundamentally what I felt”.
Rather, it was him deciding that he didn’t have to wait for a reason, such as marrying a Jew. “I thought it’s kind of stupid of me to wait for someone to make me what I know I am.
“I’ve never done that in my entire life. I’ve never waited for someone to give me something. I’ve always done everything myself. As an artist, the fundamental base of who I am is being a self-starter. So I just decided to convert.”
Telling his mother was harder than coming out because she’d always suspected — and accepted — that he’d probably grow up to be gay. However, whereas his sexuality was out of her control, she’d given him his religion and he’d chosen to go through with the baptism.
“But then I rejected it, and I rejected what she felt was best for me, and so, in a weird way, it’s a statement saying, ‘I don’t want what you gave me. What was important to you at that time is not important to me any longer.’ I’m not a parent but I can imagine that being a very hard thing for a parent to take.”
In LA, Scott committed to Judaism before a beth din, and then immersed himself in the mikveh at American Jewish University. “The mikveh isn’t a requirement of a Reform conversion,” he says. “But I wanted to do it because if I’m going to do it [convert], I’m going to do it all, you know?”
Compared to his public baptism in what was “really just like a jacuzzi in a church”, the ritual was private, “personal” and “impactful”. Now all he had to do was figure out what kind of Jew he was and what his place was within the Jewish community.
“I was never going to be the born-and-raised Jew that has all the experience. No, I’m a new Jew and I’m learning a lot as I go. And, in doing this film, one of the things I am learning is that the Jew I am is the Jew that talks a lot, and that talks about my experience, and where I come from, and, in a way, I am trying to create a stronger Jewish community through my own experience and hope that others will take something from it.”
When he grew up Mormon and gay, Scott was part of two minorities. Now he has joined a third, and couldn’t be happier. “I love being in a minority,” he says, adding that as an artist it is where he thrives, because he can make unique observations as a writer and comedian. “So being different doesn’t really scare me all that much.”
I ask, though, how he feels about joining the tribe at a time of rising antisemitism. It turns out Jew hate isn’t new to him. When Scott appeared on CNN before his conversion, people already assumed he was Jewish and bombarded him with antisemitic abuse. “There were very few anti-gay comments,” he says. “I was very surprised. I was like, ‘how can they assume that I am Jewish and go to this much hate?’”
His hope now is that, by being someone who’s been a part of different groups, he can help bring people together through a recognition of their shared humanity.
“I really think having that middle person who bridges a lot of different communities and is a lot of different things to a lot of different people is a good person to have to bring about some community and some understanding that we’re all kind of the same, and maybe we shouldn’t be doing the things we’re doing.”