Archive for the ‘Interfaith Identity’ category

Interfaith Epiphany: On the Magi

January 5, 2014

For the Feast of Epiphany, I thought I would re-post this essay from 2010:

As an interfaith child growing up as a Reform Jew, I always had a thing for the Three Kings. I identified with these magicians or astrologers as the outsiders in the Nativity story. Perhaps this is because depictions of the Holy Family in Massachusetts in the 1960s inevitably featured blue eyes and blond hair (WASP coloration) whereas the Magi were always swarthy, with my own dark curls and exotic brown eyes. (The idea that Jesus and Mary and Joseph were Jews themselves was not much mentioned in the New England of my youth.)

As a Jewish child, straining on my metaphorical tiptoes to peek at the forbidden baby Jesus, I felt kinship with the three strangers who appeared out of nowhere into this story to glimpse Jesus, deliver mysterious gifts, and then quietly disappear once again. Presumably, they were changed by their encounter, but the Bible does not describe how they felt after returning home. For all I knew, they remained sceptics like me, with affection and appreciation for baby Jesus but without necessarily forsaking their own religions. In fact, we know nothing about their religions, though one theory is that the term Magi used in Matthew (the only gospel to mention them) originally referred to Persian Zoroastrians. Matthew specifies only that they came “from the east”: some even believe they were Yemeni Jews. We do know for sure that they did not instantly become Christians–we don’t know if they ever met Paul or his followers as they began to build the church many decades later, long after the death of Jesus.

So this week, in honor of the feast that celebrates the Three Kings in many countries around the world, I claim the Magi as fellow interfaith beings. Perhaps they were not beings at all, but only literary devices created by a Christian storyteller who wanted to tie the birth of Jesus back to prophesies in the Torah about a messiah worshiped by kings. But in any case, through my interfaith lens, I cannot help seeing them as Zoroastrians who opened themselves up to strangers in Bethlehem, expanding their spiritual worlds with a mysterious and poetic encounter with the “other.” I imagine how their lives were enriched by straddling their “eastern” culture and religion, whatever it was, and this new experience.

But then, I get to thinking about how all of the early followers of Jesus were Jews, struggling with each other and with themselves over how to integrate the Jewish and the proto-Christian perspectives. In a sense, they were all interfaith children, inhabiting a liminal, in-between space. It was only later, through dark conflict and with tragic consequences, that folks were forced to check off box A or box B or box C: to confine themselves to the Jewish, or Christian, or Zoroastrian label.

Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wrote of the spiritual significance of entering into an  “I and Thou” relationship with the other, with the stranger.  Ever since Rabbi Harold White re-introduced me to Buber’s thinking, this idea has woven through all of my thoughts on interfaith identity. It is interesting to note that Buber married a non-Jew (though Paula Winkler did convert to Orthodox Judaism), and that he advocated strenuously for a two-state solution in Palestine even before the founding of Israel, and continued to advocate for equal rights for Palestinians in Israel and for interreligious communication.  As I embrace these three Magi strangers, I wonder what Buber would have thought of my insistence on viewing the world through my interfaith lens, and on viewing religious history as a continuous evolution formed by encounters with the other.

Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller, available now in hardcover and eBook from Beacon Press.

Thanksgivukkah, Syncretism, and the Luxury of Interfaith Humor

November 20, 2013
Centerpiece by Bethany Karn, ButterKup Flowers

Bethany Karn, ButterKup Flowers

I have to admit to ambivalence about Thanksgivukkah. Why do I feel this way? It has something to do with the fact that, as interfaith families who celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas, we spend a lot of time explaining that we don’t mix or merge holidays: we give each one specific religious meaning. I am happiest when Hanukkah and Christmas whirl to the farthest reaches of their orbital dance, at opposite ends of the winter calendar, giving each holiday the space it deserves. We don’t do Chrismukkah.

But why not merge the “secular” American holiday of Thanksgiving with a Jewish holiday when they happen to overlap? Certainly, these two holidays have a natural affinity and synergy: both celebrate religious freedom, both encourage gratitude, and both feature rich feasting. What’s not to like? And yet, I have found myself side-stepping (until now) the frenzy of menurkeys, pumpkin latkes with cranberry sauce, and Thanksgivukkah songs.

I would not be the first to note that part of the zeal for Thanksgivukkah this year is driven by commercialism, and that part of it seems to stem from a sort of sublimated or frustrated desire for the far-less-kosher Chrismukkah. And yet some of those who are reveling in the “hybridity” of Thanksgivukkah would be strongly opposed to interfaith families raising children with both family religions. The layers of complexity and irony here go deep, for such a giddy and essentially harmless holiday.

Speaking of Hanukkah and Christmas, this week, progressive Orthodox Rabbi Brad Hirschfield (and no, that is not an oxymoron) wrote a fascinating column about why he actually celebrates a new product called a Menorah Tree (a chanukiah wound with greenery and lights). I spend so much time and energy distancing myself from this kind of holiday mash-up. So Rabbi Brad kind of blew my mind by writing “What religious custom isn’t at least somewhat syncretistic? Every sacred tradition belonging to every religion I know was once an innovation, and most of them have their roots in, or were borrowed from, some other community.”

True! I made exactly that point in Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family. But many will hear the message more clearly (and with less resistance) coming from a traditional religious leader, than from an interfaith families activist. An Orthodox rabbi can get away with embracing a Menorah Tree, while a second-generation interfaith parent, not so much. I keep my distance.

So forgive me if the idea of turkey-stuffed donuts makes me (and, apparently, Kathie Lee Gifford) slightly queasy. We will take out our traditional brass menorah on Thanksgiving this year at sundown. It won’t be adorned with solstice greenery (we will celebrate the winter solstice on the solstice). The moment to light the candles for the second night of Hanukkah will probably arrive sometime toward the end of our Thanksgiving dinner. But I am not going to make a big deal about the overlap.

I really do not want to come off as humorless, or as the Grinch who stole Thanksgivukkah, especially since this convergence won’t come around again for an estimated 77,000 years or so. I was happy to loan one of my menorahs out to a friend–wildly talented floral designer Bethany Karn–so that she could create a Thanksgivukkah centerpiece for a local contest. I laughed with delight at her extravaganza of vintage pilgrim and turkey candles, gelt and dreidels, gourds and pheasant feathers. In fact, I am going to use it at a book launch event this week.

But I am always very, very cautious when it comes to religious humor. If you’re Jewish, you can get away with hilarious R-rated Hanukkah humor, like my friend Sean Altman (aka Jewmongous) does. (His website warns: “not recommended for children under 13 unless you’re raising them to be sailors.”) And I suppose if you’re Christian, you can do the same with Christmas. For those of us born into interfaith families, we have to be careful when we venture into religious comedy in either direction, because we may be seen as “others” rather than “insiders,” and thus lose the right to joke around with impunity.

So yes, I giggled at this off-color Thanksgivukkah horror film trailer parody. And I laughed til I cried watching Stephen Colbert’s attack on Thanksgivukkah. He can get away with this, I believe, as a Catholic, in part because of his ongoing dialogue with the (Jewish) Jon Stewart. And because, well, they are Stewart and Colbert. And I’m not. So I am just going to have to play it straight here. Happy Hanukkah. Happy Thanksgiving. Celebrate, and give thanks.

Interfaith Children Speak Out, #3: David

November 7, 2013

Being Both_Susan Katz Miller

To celebrate the publication of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, this is the third in a series of portraits drawn from my survey of young people who attended dual-faith education programs in NY, DC, Chicago and California. Since the survey was anonymous in order to encourage honest answers, I use pseudonyms in these portraits (although the book itself is full of real names). However, these portraits are all of real people: they are not composites. 

David is an example of a child of interfaith parents, raised with both religions, who ultimately chose Judaism. Raised in Chicago by a Reform Jewish mother and a Roman Catholic father, he had both a bris and a baptism. He writes, “Not knowing what the future held, I am glad that I was welcomed into both religious communities at birth.”

In Chicago, interfaith families raising children with both religions receive extraordinary support from both churches and the Jewish communities there. David started in the Jewish and Catholic religious education program for interfaith children at Chicago’s Family School when he was five years old, and stayed in the program into his teen years. He had a First Communion, a Christian Confirmation, and a Bar Mitzvah. Looking back, David writes, “The coming of age rituals were extremely instructive. It was the preparation and completion of these that guided me to the path I am on today.”

Given the opportunity to create or choose all kinds of complex religious identities for himself when he took the survey at age 20, David chose one word: “Jewish.” Asked how he developed his Jewish identity, David writes that he “chose it for myself” at age 17. He explains further, “The work and personal responsibility involved in Bar Mitzvah proved to be extremely gratifying. It drew me closer to the Jewish traditions than I had ever been, and I cherished it. I also went through a Catholic Confirmation, but upon completion, I knew that it was not for me.”

Theologically, David has made a clear choice. He does not view Jesus as a messiah, although he has great respect for the historical Jesus as a result of his interfaith education. When asked who Jesus is for him, he writes, “A very wise man, or even a prophet, who sent a message of peace in a time of struggle. His message was, and is too often, ignored.”

David reports that he feels comfortable in both churches and synagogues, but having made a choice, he now attends only synagogue. Asked whether he found his education in two religions confusing, he says no, and explains: “It really isn’t all that confusing. It does require some thought, but isn’t that exactly what we should be doing? It is our responsibility to be informed about our decisions. How can we do so without being given all the facts?” And when asked how an interfaith education affects his worldview, David replies, “It has really helped me to be accepting and helped made me so eager to learn about the past and futures of both religions.”

In fact David, like most of interfaith children raised with an interfaith education who took this survey, wants to raise his own children someday with an interfaith education. He sees being an interfaith child as more of an advantage than a disadvantage, and he believes his parents made a good choice in raising him with both religions, in a community that allows children to feel positive about their interfaith status.

In college, David reports that he attends Reform Jewish services, Hillel events or community service every week, is involved in interfaith dialogue, and took a class in Eastern religions. On campus, he writes, his Jewish identity “has grown substantially. There is a great wealth of knowledge to be learned, and such a warm community to get involved with.”

People sometimes challenge David’s right to claim Judaism, because of his interfaith education, but he writes, “I am very proud of my background. If anything, it gave me a wider perspective than is conventionally possible. I am what I am, I chose this path because I believe in it. There is nothing to debate.”

Ask Interfaith Mom: Is it OK for Interfaith Parents to Adopt Interfaith Identity?

June 27, 2013

Path Through Dunes

Dear Interfaith Mom,

I’m the Jewish parent of my interfaith family. My husband and I are raising our children in both traditions. He grew up Methodist. What we are discovering is that we don’t want our interfaith children to have a different religious identity from us so we’ve decided to call ourselves “interfaith” also. I try to celebrate and dive into Christmas just like my husband dives into the Hanukkah nights. Now we are all “interfaith”!  What do you think of this?

–Interfaith Family

Dear Interfaith Family,

First of all, if it’s working for you, it’s working! And I like your feisty and creative attitude. What I see as important here is that you feel a sense of unity, and mutual appreciation, and you are giving your children knowledge of and access to their complete religious heritage. The labels are less important.

Families want to feel unified. For some interfaith families, the solution is to choose one religion and have that be the family religion (whether or not the “out-parent” converts). This choice can work if there is one parent willing to forgo, or minimize, their religion. Other families decide to unify around being secular humanists or join ethical societies, dropping religious tradition and ritual altogether. This can work if neither parent feels attached to the God concept, or the specifics of their original religion. And still other families choose to unify around a “third” religion, such as Unitarian-Universalism (UU), Buddhism, Baha’i, or Quakerism.

For families in which both parents want to continue to celebrate a religion, and share that religion with children, we now have interfaith family communities providing dual-faith education, and the opportunity for families to sit and sing and reflect together as equals, with no “out-parent.” This can work when both parents are open to learning about and sharing, on some level, the spouse’s religion. Clearly, this is the case in your family.

You are not alone in feeling that the interfaith identity label, the label more and more of us have chosen for our children, has unique benefits and positive associations. I feel that way myself. In telling your story, you still identify yourself as the Jewish parent. It makes sense to continue to embrace the fact that you are the parent who brings Jewish extended family and Jewish history to the family. Surely your children know this, even if you have all adopted the interfaith label. I don’t think this complexity of religious identity will be confusing to them. It represents a reality. They have one parent from a Jewish background, and one parent from a Christian background. As an interfaith family, you practice together, unified by shared rituals and love.

Those of us in complex families often give more than one answer when we are questioned about our identities, as psychologist Maria Root has documented. I continue to claim my Jewish label, particularly in the presence of anti-Semitism, and I expect my children to do the same. But I also claim the right to celebrate my interfaith identity, as my children do. And you have that right, as every human being has the right, to self-identify in whatever way best describes your very individual and interior religious and spiritual landscape.

In short, I think it is marvelous that your whole family shares an interfaith identity. You must be prepared to have to explain how this works to those who will question and challenge you. But as interfaith families, we will face questions of one sort or another, no matter which pathway we choose. What I love is the joy you have found in sharing traditions with each other. Your children will benefit from this joy.

Interfaith Mom

Twelve Hours in New York with Books and Interfaith Reflections

June 7, 2013

Book bubble free library, West 4th Street, NYC

This week, I found myself in Greenwich Village, in the soaring spaces of Hebrew Union College, explaining my book, Being Both, to a Jewish audience. On entering the doors of the Reform Jewish seminary, I thought of my great-grandfather, an early Reform rabbi who plied his trade up and down the Mississippi River.  And I thought of my great-uncle, Rabbi Joseph Rauch, a pioneering Reform rabbi who dedicated much of his life to interfaith dialogue and community service. He was ordained at Hebrew Union, got a doctorate at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and was a founding member of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. In their memory, and because of my love for this religion, the religion my interfaith parents chose for me, I educated my children in Judaism.

Mingling with hundreds of other Jewish authors and book-lovers at Hebrew Union, I was struck, once again, by the support of the Jewish community for literature. At a moment when print media and books on paper seem to be receding and evaporating into a shrinking sea of concentrated nostalgia, I found lower Manhattan still standing in a deep and refreshing literary culture.

Strolling back up to Penn Station to catch my train home, the city kept tempting me with books. I passed Shakespeare and Co., the Strand, and freelance second-hand booksellers arranging classic hardbacks on sidewalk folding tables. Magically, a “free library” of whimsical clear plastic bubbles filled with books-for-the-taking sprouted on a public terrace.

As I approached East 10th Street and Broadway, the Gothic revival masterpiece that is Grace Church, a landmark Episcopal church dedicated in 1846, rose up from an oasis of green gardens. It was as if my wandering through the city had led me straight from my Jewish yin to my Episcopalian yang.

 Grace Church, Episcopal, 1847

My children have a great-great-grandfather who was an Episcopal bishop of Newark. They have a great-uncle who is an Episcopal priest, and an uncle in the process of ordination. This branch of the family has included journalists, authors, and an English professor. They, too, are people of the book. To ensure that my children would understand the significance of this family history, and the practices and beliefs they represent, I chose to educate my children in Christianity, as well as Judaism. How does that work? In short, I wrote my book to answer that question.

Recently, John Shelby Spong, a former Episcopal bishop and the author of many groundbreaking books (including the forthcoming The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic), wrote about Being Both: “A moving, personal story that opens new dimensions of life in general and religious life in particular that rise out of an interfaith family…Its insights moved me deeply.” I am so grateful for these words.

Arriving home in Washington this week, disembarking from the train at Union Station, I averted my eyes from a temporary wall covered with ads for an international clothing store chain, coming soon. The wall sealed off a dead space that had housed a bookstore, only a few weeks before. At least this time, I refused to let the loss of another bookstore bring me down. I was still floating in my swirling, iridescent bubble of books. And I plan to stay there.

Being Both: The Final Stages of Book Labor

May 7, 2013

Being Both, ARC

Two shiny, colorful, three-dimensional copies of Being Both arrived at my house this week. These Advance Reader Copies (ARCs), or galleys, have not been through the copy-editor, proofreader or indexer yet. They don’t yet have cloth covers, or dust jackets. But they are tangible proof that, after a decade of dreaming and advocating and writing, the book is about to be born. And as with any birth, I am excited, but also a tiny bit terrified: I need to think about breathing slowly and deeply.

In order to calm my nerves, I head over to my new author website, susankatzmiller.com, to read the responses to Being Both from early readers. I am deeply humbled by these words: “an inspiring and gorgeous testament to the power of love,” (Reza Aslan, author of No god but God), “it may help you live more courageously” (Rabbi Rami Shapiro, author of The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness), “a must read” (Sheila Gordon, President of the Interfaith Community), “engaging, comprehensive, nourishing” (Mary Heléne Rosenbaum, co-author of Celebrating Our Differences) and “a singular contribution to the future of religion in America” (Joanna Brooks, author of The Book of Mormon Girl). I am so grateful to these readers for their willingness to spend time thinking about Being Both.

I also want to take this opportunity to thank the wise advisors who read complete early versions of the manuscript, including Marika Partridge, Rabbi Harold White, Reverend Julia Jarvis and Reverend Ellen Jennings. And for support and fierce editing through the many earlier years of book gestation, I must thank my writing group, the Calliopes, including Colleen Cordes, Christine Intagliata, Robyn Jackson, Mandy Katz, Diane MacEachern, Susan Fishman Orlins and Karen Paul-Stern.

Starting on publication day (October 22 2013), I plan to spend much of the next year traveling and speaking, reading from the book and listening to your interfaith questions and stories. If you are interested in hosting an event, scheduling an interview, or reviewing the book, please contact publicist Travis Dagenais at Beacon Press, at tdagenais@beacon.org. After living for so long in this online interfaith community, I cannot wait to meet as many of you as possible, to continue our interfaith discussions in person, and to celebrate the birth of this book together.

Breakthrough! Interfaith Families, Interfaith Engagement

February 8, 2013

Dali Museum, Figueres, Spain, photo by Susan Katz Miller

For years now, I have been advocating for interfaith families to be included in interfaith activism and conversation. Since 9/11, an inspiring interfaith movement has been growing, including interfaith activism on campuses. And just in the past couple of years, atheists and agnostics and secular humanists have been welcomed by many of these interfaith organizations, in recognition of the growth of these communities, and the idea that you do not have to have a faith to want to join the interfaith movement. All of this is good—very, very good.

But for those of us from interfaith families, the new focus on interfaith activism has raised two tricky (and intertwined) issues. The first challenge is linguistic. Interfaith families have always used the word “interfaith” to describe who we are. The pioneering intermarriage of my parents occurred in 1960. And since at least the 1980s, some of us have been raising interfaith children with both religions, and some of those children use “interfaith” as an identity label. So the word “interfaith” is being used both at a macro level to describe engagement between people of different faiths, and on a micro level to describe, well, engagement and marriage and identity in interfaith families. I don’t know if we should have or could have had different terminology to distinguish these two phenomena, but we don’t.

The second issue is that official interfaith conversations between representatives of different religious institutions have not always welcomed interfaith families and those with interfaith or dual-faith or multifaith identity. We represent a blurring of boundaries, and that ambiguity can sometimes make people uncomfortable.  And yet, people from interfaith families have skills to contribute to interfaith conversations and programs. We practice the art of communicating across religious divides, day and night, throughout our marriages, or throughout our lifetimes if we are born into interfaith families.

This week, I felt like I witnessed a breakthrough. I was invited by interfaith activist Sana Saeed to co-sponsor a twitter chat, alongside a group of interfaith organizers, leading up to a DC Young Adult Faith Leaders Summit tomorrow, organized by Faith in Action DC.  (Note: You can follow the Summit on twitter at #DCFaith). I started to buzz with excitement when I saw that the Summit will include people who “belong to traditional religious institutions, have multiple affiliations, no affiliations, or are somewhere in-between.” In other words, the summit is inclusive, on a whole new level.

In the twitter chat, I dove in and asked two questions: What can people from interfaith families, or who claim more than one religion, bring to interfaith activism and conversation? And, what are the challenges of including people with dual-faith or multiple-faith identities in interfaith conversation?

It was thrilling to read the responses from people who work full-time on interfaith engagement. Usra Ghazi of the Interfaith Youth Core tweeted that “interfaith families are like religiously diverse communities: great places for interfaith literacy.” Bud Heckman of Religions for Peace USA agreed that people from interfaith families bring their “lived daily experience” to the conversation, “But also assumptions/positions that are threatening to ‘single faith’ others. Benefit & barrier.”

And so, on to those challenges. Ghazi tweeted that interfaith conversations “tend to put people in a box. You can’t do that with ‘seekers’ and multi-faith identities.” InterfaithYouthCore responded that people with dual-faith or multifaith identities challenge “the norm that certain faiths are exclusive of others.” Faith in Action DC confided that, while organizing tomorrow’s Summit, they had the “challenge of placing multifaith participants. Which group are they in? So we created “Multi” category! #simple!” I am not sure everyone will find it that simple. But this chat felt like the beginning of a beautiful, and radically inclusive, conversation.

(Note: Some twitter abbreviations have been expanded in this post, to ensure greater comprehension by those over 30)

Inauguration: Celebrating President Barack Obama and Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

January 17, 2013
Inauguration 2009, copyright Susan Katz Miller

Inauguration 2009, copyright Susan Katz Miller

Four years ago this week, we awoke before dawn, bundled our children into layers of clothing, and walked from our house to the Metro station. We wedged our family onto a subway car with throngs of neighbors and tourists, and emerged in downtown Washington DC, just as the sky began to turn pink. As we sleep-walked past the grand Constitution Hall heading towards the Washington Monument, I told my children how the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) prevented opera singer Marian Anderson from performing in that Hall in 1939. They were amazed that their own grandparents had lived through such times.

At the base of the Monument, we found a place to wait, and wait, and wait, for hours in the freezing cold, far from the Inaugural stage, facing a huge video screen. We found ourselves part of a vast, diverse crowd, our collective spirits so high that we were able to endure the long hours standing on the frosted grass, packed in side by side. The point was not to try to glimpse the tiny figure of the distant President, so much as it was to be a part of this sea of humanity–to find ourselves part of the America we had voted for when we elected President Barack Obama.

Four years later, I could complain about whether President Obama has been progressive enough. But it remains true that our image of ourselves as a country changed forever, and for the better, with his election. And his re-election proves that we meant what we said the first time. We want to try to live up to the dream Obama represents, the dream of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

The convergence of this year’s Presidential Inauguration and the remembrance of Dr. King’s birthday heightens the significance of both events. For those of us in interfaith families, some of whom are also in mixed-race families, Dr. King’s dream has special resonance. The vision that “all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands” inspires us as we hold hands every day with our partners, spouses, children.

President Obama chose Christianity, and he chose to identify as an African-American. As Americans, we are lucky to live in a country that does not issue ID cards stamped with race or religion: we have the right to choose our own labels. At the same time, I recognize in Barack Obama the child of a global village. I know the stories of his white grandparents, his extended African family, his years in Indonesia, his Catholic school, his love for the diversity of Hawaii. As an interfaith child and an interfaith parent, this week I celebrate Dr. King’s dream, and President Obama’s re-election. Now, we have four more years to come a little bit closer to making that dream a reality.

Top Ten Interfaith Posts on This Blog

December 31, 2012

Interfaith Collage by Robin Allen

Pausing for reflection at the end of the year, I thought I would reveal the most popular posts from this blog on interfaith identity, interfaith parenting, interfaith children, interfaith families, and interfaith life. Below is a list of the top ten most-viewed posts since this blog began in 2009. In the comments, let me know which posts were your personal favorites of all time, and what topics you would like to see covered in the year to come.

  1. Ten Reasons to Teach Interfaith Children Both Religions. It seems fitting that the number-one post on this site is devoted to explaining the benefits of exploring both family religions with dual-faith children.
  2. Advent, Christmas, Hanukkah, Welcome Yule! Interfaith Families Doing the Most. This post includes vignettes from my family celebrating each of these holidays. It was selected by WordPress for their “Freshly Pressed” feature. It also benefited from traffic based on the provocative public letter addressed to me by a blogger for the Jewish Daily Forward who objects to intermarriage.
  3. Welcome Walker Diggs, Interfaith Child. Fans of intermarried Broadway and television stars Idina Menzel (Jewish and white) and Taye Diggs (Christian and black) have kept this post at the top of the hit list. When their baby son Walker was born, I wondered in this post how they would choose to raise him in terms of religion. The last I read, the couple is still figuring out their religious pathway for Walker.
  4. Interfaith Marriage: A Love Story. The post describing the long and happy marriage of my Jewish father to my Christian mother has become a perennial favorite on this blog. When they celebrated their 50th anniversary, I wrote about how their successful interfaith marriage has made it impossible for me to feel that intermarriage is a bad idea. Readers are scouring the internet, looking for signs of happy interfaith couples. The popularity of this post inspired me to start a whole series on successful interfaith marriages.
  5. Muslim and Jewish: Interfaith on “Shahs of Sunset.” Okay, so this post is popular because of a trashy reality TV series, featuring wealthy Jews and Muslims of Persian (Iranian) descent misbehaving in Los Angeles. Fans trying to figure out which character is Muslim, which is Jewish (and which is from an interfaith Muslim/Jewish family) end up on my blog. Intermarriage between Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews and Christians represents the next wave of multi-faith families. So I am glad the interfaith world beyond Judaism and Christianity is represented in my top-ten posts.
  6. Roger Williams, My Bat Mitzvah, and the “Lively Experiment.” I adore the fact that this tribute to a 17th-century religious rebel in New England remains a top post on my site. Roger Williams founded what would eventually become Rhode Island as a refuge for Quakers, Jews, Anabaptists, and anyone fleeing the religious oppression of Massachusetts Puritans. Williams himself ended up becoming a very early example of the “religious nones,” without institutional religious affiliation.
  7. Black and Jewish, Interfaith and Interracial, Hilarious and Offensive. A parody music video created by two pop culture stars who are black and Jewish inspired this post. It represents a pushback against the idea that Jews are by definition white, and a reminder of the rise of racial and religious intermarriage in our increasingly multicultural world.
  8. Successful Interfaith Marriages Ignored Once Again. This post critiques a Washington Post opinion piece that described interfaith marriages as doomed to frequent failure. The author is affiliated with a conservative think tank, and was fired this year from a blogging position at the Chronicle for Higher Education over a post described by some as racist. People searching for news of successful interfaith marriages stumble on this post, and I am glad that responding to an anti-intermarriage piece provided me with an opportunity to connect with more readers and bring them news of happy intermarriages.
  9. Celebrating Martin Luther King: Multiracial, Multifaith in the 21st Century. This post in honor of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday refers to his relationship with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched alongside King. I go on to describe how my community of interfaith families, composed of intermarried Jews and Christians, and intermarried blacks and whites, celebrates King’s birthday holiday and the Civil Rights movement.
  10. Interfaith Children: Born This Way. I wrote this post to respond to the blogger who was dismayed by the idea that my family celebrates both Christmas and Hanukkah. While making reference to Lady Gaga’s anti-bullying campaign and her hit song “Born This Way,” I describe how children from interfaith families benefit from claiming our interfaithness and discovering all that is positive about bridging two religions and two cultures. I am glad the idea that families can and should instill pride rather than shame in their interfaith children, made it into the top ten posts.

“Mixed Religion” on the United Kingdom Census

December 17, 2012

Multicolored Threads

This post ran on my Huffington Post blog.

This week, we learned of 23,000 people in England and Wales classified as having “Mixed Religion.” This news comes from the United Kingdom’s Office on National Statistics, which just released new numbers on religious identity from the 2011 government census. Most of the news reports have focused on the finding that from 2001 to 2011, the percentage of Christians in England and Wales fell from 72 percent to 59 percent. Meanwhile, the number claiming no religion almost doubled to 25 percent, paralleling the rise of the “religious nones” in the U.S. The numbers of Muslims grew most quickly, to almost 5 percent, and the percentage of Hindus, Sikhs and Pagans all increased as well.

But as someone who was born into an interfaith family and raised my children with two religions, my eye was drawn to the new evidence of people claiming more than one religion in their lives. Who are these “Mixed Religion” folks? How many of them are born Christians or Jews who find Paganism or Buddhism equally compelling? How many of them are in long-term relationships and find themselves practicing their spouse or partner’s religion as well as their own? And how many of them are adults raised with more than one religion in interfaith families?

Here in the United States, the government’s Bureau of the Census collected information on identity from religious organizations from 1906 to 1936, but then stopped. As a matter of separation of church and state, I understand that we do not want to ask about religious identity on the Census. The question about religion was added to the U.K. Census in 2001. Answering the religion question on the Census is optional, but only about 7 percent declined to answer.

For statistics on religious identity in America, the best source may be the Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. In the 2009 report “Many Americans Mix Multiple Faiths,” Pew researchers found that, even beyond weddings and funerals, almost a quarter of Americans sometimes attend services of a faith other than “their own.” But the Pew researchers did not directly address the idea of “Mixed Religion” as a primary identity.

I chose to raise my children with an education in both Judaism and Christianity, in a community dedicated to supporting interfaith families. Many of the young adult graduates of these interfaith education programs, which exist in several cities now, would claim “interfaith” or “Mixed Religion” or “Jewish/Christian,” as a religious identity in a census, given the chance. And so would some of their parents, who may have spent their entire adulthoods celebrating two religions together, as a couple.

The discovery of a cohort of “Mixed Religion” adherents in the U.K. serves as a reminder that the demographic reality of religious double-belonging among adults can no longer be ignored. Most religious institutions continue to urge interfaith couples to pick one religion for children, to beware of confusion, to stop blurring boundaries. The reaction to dual-faith adherence is too often panic and disapproval, and the attempt to close borders. But for the individual, especially an individual like me who was born into a family with more than one religious heritage, crossing borders can be exhilarating and bring great joy. Our celebration of both faiths goes beyond Hanukkah and Christmas, beyond all the history of tragic conflict and religious violence, to a place where love prevails over dogma. In this spirit, and in the season of light in darkness, I send greetings across the Atlantic to those who celebrate Christmas and Yule, Hanukkah and Diwali, all of the above, or none of the above.


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