Seeing the Sacred in One Interfaith Family

Posted November 19, 2014 by Susan Katz Miller
Categories: Christianity, holidays in interfaith families, interfaith books, Interfaith children, Interfaith marriage, Judaism

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Slowing Time, Barbara Mahany, photo Susan Katz Miller

 

Barbara Mahany describes her new book as a field guide to wonder. The essays in Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door at times bring to mind Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver, Anne Lamott, Karen Maezen Miller, Waldorf pedagogy, and mystics including Julian of Norwich. Mahany leads us through the cycle of seasons in the natural world, and in the life of a Christian and Jewish interfaith family. A former Chicago Tribune columnist (and former pediatric oncology nurse), Mahany writes as a parent, a naturalist, and a Catholic. Her voice—funny, humble, brave, affectionate—narrates this unusual volume, pulling together disparate elements into a moving whole, lovely in both form and content.

 

So, at the bottom of each page we find a running commentary of poetic field notes on the moon and other astronomical and agricultural changes through the year. Each section ends with a recipe, reflecting the spiritual and seasonal bounty (beginning and ending with winter, which gets two sections, and thus two recipes). And each season begins with notes acknowledging the agrarians roots of Jewish and Christian and secular holidays, and providing suggestions on how to infuse these celebrations with new meaning.

 

For example, I love this entry on the spring calendar, for a holiday with Pagan origins: May Day (May 1): Caretaker of Wonder Pledge: I will rescue broken flowers and ferry them to my windowsill infirmary, where I’ll apply remedies and potions, or simply watch them die away in peace.

 

In this one brief and surprising sentence, Mahany manages to avoid both the saccharine and the how-to, instead reflecting on the hard truths of the natural world, providing insight into her interactive and intentional approach to marking the seasons, and perhaps provoking us to join her in this novel contemplative activity.

 

For me, the fact that Mahany writes as a Catholic woman married to a Jewish man, raising children with both religions, provides an important key to experiencing Slowing Time. (For more on Mahany’s interfaith family story, listen here to her wonderful Holy Rascals interview with Rabbi Rami Shapiro). Often, I am asked if interfaith families celebrating both religions end up with a dry, intellectual approach, devoid of spirituality, as if we are studying the religions in a museum or academic course, comparing and contrasting, with all the sacred juice drained out.

 

These questions come from people who have never experienced life inside an interfaith family like Mahany’s. I like to say that we are religious maximalists, not minimalists, celebrating both, rather than nothing. Indirectly, quietly, without arguing or defending or setting out data (as I must do as an advocate and journalist), Mahany makes the case for the rich spiritual lives of interfaith families who intentionally immerse themselves in the earthly connections, and particularities, of these two sibling religions.

 

Or, as Mahany writes, while her family “encounters the Divine in the rituals and idioms of two faith traditions,” she finds that “the dual lenses refract and magnify both light and shadow, and that my sense of the sacred pulses throughout the year.” The sense of sacred pulses throughout this book, and throughout the lives of those of us who draw meaning and take inspiration from more than one ancestral religion. I am grateful to Mahany for her deep consideration of how this looks and works and feels for her, through many small moments, keenly observed.

 

Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller, available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press. Please support local brick-and-mortar bookstores!

Interfaith Family Community, Chicago Style

Posted November 10, 2014 by Susan Katz Miller
Categories: Catholicism, Interfaith children, interfaith community, Interfaith Identity, Interfaith marriage, Judaism

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The Family School. I am an Interfaith Ambassador

In writing Being Both, I set out to chronicle the rise of a grassroots movement centered on three great cities with vibrant interfaith family communities: New York, Washington, and Chicago. Each of these cities has a program with over 100 interfaith children being educated by paired Jewish and Christian co-teachers. Recently, I was in Chicago to celebrate the publication of Being Both (just out in paperback) with interfaith families there. Both interfaith parents and grown children from Chicago filled out the surveys that form the backbone of my research for Being Both. Most of them were from The Family School, the pioneering program for children in Jewish/Catholic families, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last year. (The video they created for the occasion features powerful, moving testimony from parents, children, and clergy, about the benefits of interfaith education). The school is so successful that families in the northern suburbs of Chicago used the curriculum to launch a parallel program, the Union School for Interfaith Families.

But I had not anticipated what an emotional experience it would be, to return to Chicago and stand before these interfaith communities, with my book in hand. Over the past year, I have spoken in churches and synagogues, bookstores and libraries, universities and community centers. Usually, I face an audience including listeners who are deeply skeptical. And I’m fine with that. My goal in writing this book was not to preach to the choir, but to document our experiences in order to shift the thinking of those who harbor grave doubts about the wisdom of interfaith education. So usually, when I prepare to speak, I line up my anecdotes, hone my arguments, memorize my data, and gather answers to tough questions. As an adult interfaith child, I have spent my entire life facing these tough questions, and I am not easily shaken.

Except that, at Old St. Pat’s, I stood looking out at a gathering of about a hundred interfaith family members, from both the Family School and the Union School, and I was verklempt (in Yiddish, overcome with emotion), unable for a moment to launch into my book talk. For suddenly, I realized I was in a room full of people who already understood everything I wanted to say, who had already experienced the benefits of interfaith family life. I arrived suited up in my usual book-talk armor, and instead felt completely disarmed by the love of these families, for each other. I was faced with a great big roomful of love transcending boundaries.

Over the course of four days in the Windy City, I also had time for long talks with David and Patty Kovacs, two of the original founders of The Family School. Their children are grown and flown, but they still to put their hearts and souls into The Family School. (Patty continues to develop and update the school’s Jewish and Catholic curriculum, in a huge stack of spiral-bound notebooks). Patty Marfise-Patt, the current school coordinator, presented me with an “I am an Interfaith Ambassador” button: a button inspired by a phrase from Being Both, and given out to all their students at the beginning of this school year. And I got to meet Barbara Mahany, a teacher in this year’s Family School eighth-grade, who brought her entire class to hear me speak. (Barbara, a former Chicago Tribune columnist, just published a book of essays, in part inspired by her own Catholic and Jewish family, called Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door).

While in Chicago, I also did outreach work, describing how interfaith family communities work to a Humanistic Jewish congregation, to a group of interfaith-curious Chicago rabbis, and during a podcast taping for Things Not Seen radio at the WBEZ NPR studios on the Navy Pier. But it was the inreach work that really fed my soul: reconnecting with my sister communities in Chicago, and especially with the interfaith teens there, who all “get” my interfaith identity in a natural and intuitive way that adults, even interfaith parents, sometimes cannot. Now, I wait with great anticipation for those who grew up with interfaith education to go out into the world, take leadership roles in interfaith activism, and write their own books. The world needs to hear their voices of the next generation of Interfaith Ambassadors.

Cloud Gate by Anish Kapoor. Millenium Park, Chicago.

Cloud Gate by Anish Kapoor. Millenium Park, Chicago.

 

Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller, available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press. Please support local brick-and-mortar bookstores!

An Interfaith Family Community Welcomes a Torah

Posted November 5, 2014 by Susan Katz Miller
Categories: holidays in interfaith families, Interfaith children, interfaith community, Interfaith Identity, Interfaith marriage

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As a parent determined to connect my children to Judaism, as a writer who loves storytelling, as a Jew who grew up wrestling with our ancient texts, I wanted my children to experience Torah. This word, Torah, represents our collective Jewish narrative and thus, more broadly, all of Jewish teachings and practice. But I also wanted my children to interact with the physical Torah: the five books of Moses, hand-lettered on parchment scrolls, dressed in embroidered velvet.

And so it was with great joy recently that I witnessed my community, the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington, welcoming our second Torah, as we celebrated the holiday of Simchat Torah. We have been very lucky to have the long-term loan of a Torah for many years now, affectionately known as the teeny-tiny Torah. This first, diminutive Torah was the perfect size for my small son to carry, leaning it gently across one shoulder on his Bar Mitzvah day. And it was not too heavy for my father, then late into his 80s, to pass to me that day, and for me to pass to my son. We will always cherish our community’s first Torah.

Ah, but our new Torah is large and lovely, with an exquisite calligraphy, easy to read, and comes with a fascinating story. And it is a gift to our community, for all time. When one of our members, David Quigley, ran the Hebrew study program for our interfaith children, he consulted with his own inspirational Hebrew teacher, renowned Jewish educator David Norman Furash. Furash was leader of the Community Hebrew School of Dutchess County in New York when David Quigley was growing up.

David Furash’s father rescued this Torah after a fire shut down the “Emerald Street Shul” (Knesseth Israel) in Boston’s South End. The damaged Torah was lovingly stored for 36 years, traveling with the Furash family through years in Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire, Louisiana and Oklahoma. After David’s death, his wife Sylvia Karkus Furash decided that the best home for the Torah would be in a community that would actively cherish it. And so she came to visit her husband’s former pupil, and our community, and see our children singing and parading behind her family’s Torah, our new Torah.

Master craftsman Pete Flynn, the guitar player who is the heart and soul of our community band, created an Ark (a portable cabinet) for our new Torah with his interfaith son Andrew, out of acacia wood. In the Torah, the followers of Moses used acacia wood to build the Ark of the Covenant, in order to carry the Tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments. As someone who used to live on the edge of the Sahel, in West Africa, the acacica has special resonance for me. This tree has iconic status as one of the few drought-resistant trees that can grow on the semi-arid plains of Africa and the Middle-East (you may know it as the umbrella-shaped tree in the logo for the PBS program Nature). For desert animals, the leaves, thorns, seedpods and nectar of the acacia are a rare source of sustenance.

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Like an acacia tree, our interfaith families community is tough, resilient, sometimes bristling with defensive thorns, but nourishing to those who cross metaphorical deserts to find us. On the day we welcomed our new Torah, we sang: “It is a tree of life to them that hold fast to it, and all of its supporters are happy.” In interfaith family communities, all of us are supporters of the Torah. Whether Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, Unitarian-Universalist, Quaker, Buddhist, or secular humanist, all of us are teaching our children Torah. We are holding fast.

 

Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller, available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press. Please support local brick-and-mortar bookstores!

 

Being Both: The Paperback

Posted October 21, 2014 by Susan Katz Miller
Categories: interfaith books, Interfaith children, interfaith community, Interfaith Identity

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Opening the first box of paperbacks. Random House pattern echoed in my grandfather's Persian carpet.

Opening my first box of paperbacks.

 

Today, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family comes out in paperback. For me, the paperback release also marks one full year on the road with Being Both. In DC, Maryland, Virginia, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and California, I have entered into deep interfaith family conversations, with Jews, Christians, Muslims, atheists, Buddhists, Bahai’s, Mormons, Unitarians, Pagans, Hindus, and those with complex religious identities, with theologians, seminarians, religious studies professors, ministers, rabbis, parents, grandparents, and interfaith children.

One of my goals in writing this book has been to encourage adult interfaith children to speak out about their own experiences in interfaith families, and to encourage those from interfaith families to bring their skills to interfaith activism. I see that happening now. Whether we are Hindu and Muslim, atheist and Buddhist, or Jewish and Christian, we’re here. And we have our own stories to tell. This is the end of the era when people could write or lecture about us, without us.

For delivering this book to the world, and for supporting Being Both through a very successful first year, I must again thank agents May Wuthrich and Rob Weisbach, and my visionary Beacon Press team, starting with Amy Caldwell, Will Myers, Travis Dagenais, Tom Hallock, Pam MacColl, Jessie Bennett, Jenah Blitz-Stoehr, Alyssa Hassan, Rob Arnold, Daniel Barks, and extraordinary cover designer Gabi Anderson. Beacon Press publishes books that leap across traditional boundaries and challenge readers to think (and live) outside the traditional boxes. I am profoundly grateful that they took a chance on Being Both, and that the readers of the world have endorsed that leap of faith(s). I also must thank Gabi in particular for the fact that this book (whether in hardcover or paperback) glows with warmth and beauty. Yes, it’s available as an eBook, but I think you will find the physical object very pleasing.

And now, on to year two of traveling, speaking, and sharing interfaith conversations with all of you. I’m planning California and Oregon, Philadelphia and New York. Contact me about a Being Both event in your community.

Reminder, Upcoming Events:

Chicago, Friday October 24 at 8pm, Kol Hadash Humanistic Jewish Congregation, at North Shore Unitarian Church, in Deerfield IL. All are welcome!

Baltimore, MD, Wednesday November 5 at 6:30pm, Book Talk and Signing, Enoch Pratt Free Library, 400 Cathedral Street.

Frederick, MD, Sunday November 9, Adult Education talk at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick (10am) and Book Talk and Signing, Curious Iguana Bookstore (4pm)  RSVP on Facebook.

Takoma Park, MD, Sunday November 16 2014 1-3pm, Book Signing and Paperback Release Celebration, at Now & Then. Refreshments, including Being Both M&Ms! RSVP on Facebook.

Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller, available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press. Please support local brick-and-mortar bookstores!

Being Both: Paperback Release Events!

Posted October 7, 2014 by Susan Katz Miller
Categories: interfaith books, interfaith community, Interfaith Identity

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Being Both M&Ms

Dear readers (interfaith families, interfaith activists, therapists, visionary clergy, theologians, sociologists, historians of religion), I am so very thankful to you for joining the conversation around Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, over the past year. With your help, I have been able to bring the stories of interfaith families engaged in interfaith education to churches and synagogues, libraries and bookstores, colleges and universities. And because of our success, Beacon Press is honoring the one-year anniversary of Being Both by releasing a paperback edition on October 21st. (Random House handles distribution for Beacon Press, thus the lovely box that just arrived on my front porch, pictured below).

If you have been waiting for a lighter and less expensive edition of Being Both, with plans to order a whole stack of them for Christmas and Hanukkah gifts, for your in-laws, for the clergy and therapists you know, this is the moment!

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And to celebrate the paperback, I’ll be signing the book at a number of appearances this fall. (Books will be available for sale and for signing at all these stops). So if you have friends or family in Washington DC, Frederick MD, Baltimore MD or Chicago, please let them know about these upcoming events:

Washington DC, Sunday October 19,  7-9pm, I’ll be giving a 3-minute talk, along with 16 other authors, and signing the brand new paperbacks at the DCJCC Literary Festival Local Authors Fair. FREE but you’re encouraged to Register, because space is limited!

Chicago, Friday October 24 at 8pm, I’ll be giving the Shabbat talk and leading discussion on interfaith families at Kol Hadash Humanistic Jewish Congregation, at North Shore Unitarian Church, in Deerfield IL. All are welcome! This is my only public appearance in the Chicago area on this trip.

Baltimore, MD, Wednesday November 5 at 6:30pm, Book Talk and Signing, Enoch Pratt Free Library, 400 Cathedral Street.

Frederick, MD, Sunday November 9, Adult Education talk at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick (10am) and Book Talk and Signing, Curious Iguana Bookstore (4pm) Please RSVP on Facebook.

Takoma Park, MD, Sunday November 16 2014 1-3pm, Book Signing and Paperback Release Celebration, at Now & Then. Refreshments, including Being Both M&Ms!

My calendar is now filling with events for spring and beyond, so contact me if your church, synagogue, college or book club wants to sponsor a talk. Every interfaith family deserves to encounter the idea that interfaith families have real benefits (as well as challenges). And every clergy member needs training in how to support interfaith families. I plan to continue speaking out, wherever I am invited to go, until interfaith families feel heard, and feel appreciated in their role as skilled interfaith ambassadors and peacemakers. Please join me!

PS In case you missed it, check out this great review of Being Both by atheist author Dale McGowan, over at Patheos on the Secular Spectrum channel. And also, I think you would be interested in my latest Huffington Post piece, Letter to an Interfaith Child, in honor of the birth of Charlotte Clinton Mezvinsky.

Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller, available now in hardcover and eBook from Beacon Press. Pre-order your paperback now. Please support local brick-and-mortar bookstores.

High Holy Days: Now With Great Poetry

Posted September 19, 2014 by Susan Katz Miller
Categories: holidays in interfaith families, interfaith books, Judaism

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Two blog posts this week hinted at the struggle many interfaith families, and many Jewish families, have with the intimidating length and inaccessibility of traditional High Holiday services. In The Forward‘s interfaith advice column, I responded to a woman who feared these services would alienate her interfaith husband from Judaism. And over at Kveller, a mother admitted she was not going to require her children to attend services, even though they are an otherwise deeply-engaged Jewish family. One response to such questioning has been to blame those who are disaffected: if you only knew more Hebrew, and more Torah, (if only you hadn’t intermarried), you wouldn’t be fidgeting at the three-hour mark. And in the other corner, we have Rabbi Rami Shapiro (a self-defined Holy Rascal), explaining why he avoids the “medieval worldview” of conventional High Holiday services himself, calling them unfulfilling. He says he would rather go take a contemplative walk in the woods.

Meanwhile, many of the most progressive Jewish communities have been working to create services that will honor tradition, while also breathing new life into Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (as well as all the rest of the days in the Jewish calendar). One of those visionaries is Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, an accomplished poet and Jewish Renewal rabbi often known by her blogging moniker, The Velveteen Rabbi. This year, Rabbi Rachel has published (with Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser) a gorgeous new Machzor (the prayerbook specifically for the High Holidays). Days of Awe inspires with new translations, lively illustrations, and poetry that avoids platitudes. Along with her own marvelous poems, she includes poems from Yehuda Amichai, Leonard Cohen, Marie Howe, David Lehman, Alicia Ostriker, Omar Khayyam, Phillip Schultz, Hannah Szenes, Herman Taube, and Rumi. The translations and interpretations come from rabbis including Shlomo Carlebach, Jill Hammer, Burt Jacobson, Marcia Prager, Rami Shapiro, David Shneyer, Hannah Tiferet Siegel, and the much-beloved Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of Jewish Renewal.

In addition to infusing the services with carefully curated poetry and translations, this prayerbook invites and welcomes all (interfaith, disaffected, seeking) by explaining the sense and structure of the services. For instance, the repetition of the Kaddish through the services can seem bewildering and stultifying. Rabbi Rachel stops to explain that the Kaddish acts as a door to mark the transition to each new section of the service, and her Machzor illustrates this concept with a series of lovely photographs of different doors inserted with each recurrence of the Kaddish.

One poem from Days of Awe holds perfectly the tension between the desire to return to ancient communal prayer, and the desire to renew with a walk in the woods instead. Do both. (Ah, bothness…the favorite theme of all interfaith children). In the moving and elegiac poem “For I will consider your dog Molly,” by David Lehman, the poet takes us from a Rosh Hashanah morning service, in which he mourns his father and is comforted by “Hebrew melodies,” to an afternoon ramble with a companion and her dog to perform the traditional Tashlich ritual of throwing sins into the water. This poem, a narrative with characters and unexpected moments of humor and pain (and echoes of Ulysses), has nothing in common with some of the bland, cheesy verses that seem to end up in prayerbooks edited by committees.

As a small child in New England, the highlight of Rosh Hashanah for me was indeed the family tradition of afternoon apple-picking, not the long hours of services, though eventually I did grow to love the services too. With Days of Awe as a prayerbook, more families, interfaith and otherwise, will be able to both return and renew. Rabbi Rachel writes, “Take risks. Try new things. (Try old things!)” I expect Days of Awe will become the standard prayerbook in many Jewish Renewal communities, and, I hope, exert an influence throughout the increasingly diverse and complex Jewish world.

 

High Holidays with an Interfaith Community: 2014 Edition

Posted September 17, 2014 by Susan Katz Miller
Categories: holidays in interfaith families, interfaith community, Judaism

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Fall Maple Leaves, photo Susan Katz Miller

Each year, I have taken to posting a set of links to Jewish High Holiday (or High Holy Day) services designed by and for interfaith families. Of course, many such families now feel welcome and included at progressive services in Jewish communities around the country. But there is still something different, and deeply moving for many of us, about gathering with an intentionally interfaith community. Of course, you don’t have to be in an interfaith family to attend these radically inclusive services. At our services in Washington DC, for instance, you will find curious people of other religions who aren’t even married to Jews, and entirely Jewish families just looking for accessible High Holidays. All are welcome!

The very first High Holiday services designed by and for interfaith families took place in Manhattan in the 1980s, and those services continue today. Now, families from the Interfaith Community chapters in Manhattan, Long Island, Westchester, Orange/Bergen/Rockland Counties, Danbury, Connecticut, and Boston gather to celebrate together, both at their own events, and with local Jewish communities.

In Chicago, Jewish and Catholic families have been teaching children both religions since 1993. In downtown Chicago, families from the Interfaith Family School and the Jewish Catholic Couples Dialogue Group, and suburban interfaith families from the Interfaith Union and Union School for Interfaith Families gather together at local synagogues for the High Holy Days.

And in Washington DC, my own community, the Interfaith Families Project provides a set of five traditional, progressive High Holy Day services (plus a break fast). The services are specifically designed by and for interfaith families, will be led once again by our rabbi, Rabbi Harold White, who is the retired chaplain of Georgetown University.

Each fall provides a new chance to connect with other interfaith families, to begin religious education for your children, to discover or rediscover the beauty of the Jewish holidays. As the days grow shorter–return, renew, rejoice in the many options for interfaith families.


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