Archive for the ‘Interfaith Identity’ category

Women, Religion, and Interfaith Families

June 10, 2014

Why have most founders of interfaith family communities been women? Historically, how has the male domination of religious institutions affected interfaith couples? And does the idea that an interfaith child must be defined by the religion of the mother (in Judaism) or the father (in Islam) make any sense given the reality of families with one parent, with two fathers, with two mothers, or with non-binary gendered parents?

These are a few of the questions I explore in a new essay written for Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs, as part of their project on “Women, Religion and the Family.” More than a dozen thought-provoking essays and interviews are posted on the Berkeley Center website, by Catholic, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Protestant women writers. The project (which is co-sponsored by the World Faiths Development Dialogue) was designed “With the goal of building a knowledge base and promoting dialogue” by asking “a group of scholars, activists, faith and community leaders, and development practitioners to produce an original series of ‘think pieces’,” on the intersection of these topics, in order to “generate questions, explore curious topics, and suggest further study.”

It is worth sampling the diverse perspectives in these essays, and joining in the discussion on twitter with the hashtag #FaithFem.

 

Video: An Interfaith Boy, an Interfaith Community

May 27, 2014

 

When my mother, an interfaith families pioneer, watched this video, she said, “Well Sue, you don’t need to go out on speaking tours anymore–just have everyone watch this video instead.” I think she was kidding. I mean I hope so. But she has a point, because this charming and thoughtful credo, in the voice and words of a 13-year-old, makes the case for interfaith education, in under five minutes. So please do watch “The Interfaith Musings of Raphael B.”

I have known Raphael since he was a small boy with deep questions: questions that drove his parents to seek out an interfaith community. This spring, Raphael completed eighth grade, and the Coming of Age curriculum at the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington (IFFP). As part of that program, he spent a year reflecting on his interfaith education with psychologist Dan Griffin, his official mentor from the IFFP community. One result was this thought-provoking video, first screened at our group Coming of Age ceremony earlier this month. (And Rapha, thanks for the shout-out to my book, Being Both!).

So if you are worried that interfaith children raised with both religions will end up confused or disengaged, you could read my book for reassurance. Or, you could spend five minutes listening to Raphael as he describes how he feels, right now, about being an interfaith kid in an interfaith community.

 

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

 

Listen, Include, Engage: Progress for Interfaith Families

May 4, 2014

 

My parents, interfaith family pioneers, still kicking and strumming at 83 and 89

My parents, interfaith family pioneers, still kicking and strumming at 83 and 89

 

A couple of years back, the venerable Jewish Daily Forward published a blogpost in the form of a letter attacking my family for celebrating Christmas. I waited several days before responding. Meanwhile, readers and bloggers rushed in to decry the “snide” “condescending” “offensive” “anti-interfaith family” tone of the original post. One wrote that it “paints a scary picture for interfaith families in the Jewish community.”

But in the six months since the publication of Being Both, I have witnessed a different picture emerging. I have been honored to give talks sponsored by synagogues, Hillels, Jewish Community Centers, and a group of rabbis. I was invited onto an interfaith family task force by my local Jewish Federation. And The Forward chose my beloved rabbi, Harold M. White, the Jewish Spiritual leader of my interfaith families community, when I nominated him as one of the most inspiring rabbis in America for 2014.

Granted, progress comes in fits and starts. Sometimes a leader from a synagogue discussion group calls asking me to speak: these congregants are worried about intermarried children and grandchildren who are often “doing nothing.” They wonder if “doing both” might not be a richer experience for their grandchildren, and a better bet for Jewish continuity. Whenever I receive one of these invitations, I have to ask if they have checked with the rabbi. More than once, I have received a call back from a frustrated and embarrassed congregant dis-inviting me, and explaining that the rabbi sees my mission as counter to the mission of institutional Judaism.

And yet, everywhere I do speak, I see the religious landscape shifting, with extended families and religious institutions far more willing now to support interfaith couples and children, even when they must “share” them with another religion. And that means that interfaith families have many more good options for finding community than they did a generation ago, whether that community is Jewish, Christian, Unitarian-Universalist, secular humanist, or (like my own Interfaith Families Project) intentionally interfaith.

Just this spring, I realized once again how far we have all come when The Forward, the same media outlet that published that scathing letter addressed to me two years ago, asked me to join the roster of experts for their new interfaith relationship advice column, The Seesaw. The expert panel includes an Orthodox Jew living in Israel, a Christian spouse, and Rabbi James Ponet (Chelsea Clinton’s rabbi). I am the only panel member raising children with any formal religious education beyond Judaism.

If I were to design my own roster of experts to give advice to interfaith families, I would of course choose people raising children on many different religious and non-religious pathways. But given the chance to represent something other than the “you must raise kids exclusively Jewish” perspective,  I said yes. The comment section on The Seesaw is at times filled with sarcasm and intolerance, and at least one of my fellow respondents regularly despairs over my responses. But over all, I enjoy seeing how the respondents reflect diverse Jewish viewpoints, often displaying a deep sensitivity to the nuances and complexity of interfaith family life.

I advocate for the Jewish community (and all religious communities) to engage with, rather than exclude, parents who expose their children to more than one family religion. Given that Pew Research has found that 25% of intermarried Jews are raising children with more than one religion, the logic of including rather than spurning these families seems very compelling to me, even when viewed through the lens of preserving Jewish institutions. And this spring, I see a flowering of support for the idea of providing Jewish content to all families who want it, creating meaningful Jewish experiences for them, and allowing children to grow Jewish roots, even if they are putting down roots in more than one family tradition.

I celebrated my birthday this week, in my childhood home, with my pioneering interfaith parents (who are 83 and almost 90). It seemed like a fitting moment to look back on an exhilarating six months of public interfaith conversations. If you are in the Washington DC area, I hope you will join me for my final interfaith talk of the season, at the MLK branch of the DC public library this Wednesday at 7:30pm.

And if you haven’t been able to get to a live Being Both talk, you can watch two new videos. One is a webinar posted by Religions for Peace USA, in which I chat with Aaron Stauffer of Religions for Peace USA, and adult interfaith child Samantha Gonzalez-Block. The other is a video of an event at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs at Georgetown University, in which I appeared with Georgetown’s Erika Seamon, author of the excellent academic book, Interfaith Marriage in America. Erika’s history of interfaith marriage at the beginning of the program is fascinating, and don’t miss our lively Q&A with students and faculty at the end.

I already have plans for talks in Chicago and New York next fall. Let me know if your community wants to be included in either of those visits, or if you want to host a talk elsewhere in the country. I look forward to a conversation that will continue with all of you, growing deeper and wider and more complex, next year, and into the years ahead.

 

 

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

 

 

Passover: Aimee Helen’s Southern-Style Charoset Recipe

April 11, 2014

From the archives: Originally posted on March 24, 2010. Happy Passover, all!

In the late 19th century, my great-grandfather Emanuel Michael Rosenfelder left Bavaria and became a circuit-riding rabbi, serving Jewish traders and merchants along the Mississippi River, in Natchez, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans. When he registered to vote in 1876 in Ouachita Parish, Louisiana, the clerk, obviously unfamiliar with Jewish theology, recorded Rabbi Rosenfelder’s profession as “Minister of the Gospel.” In New Orleans, he met and married my great-grandmother, a teenager who had been living in a Jewish orphanage after her parents died in a Yellow Fever epidemic. Fleeing the threat of tropical illness, the Rosenfelders journeyed north up the river and settled in Louisville, Kentucky. My grandmother was born and raised there, one of eight children, and they gave her a Southern francophone name, Aimee Helen.

In preparing for the Passover Seder next week, I turned to Grandma’s charoset recipe, written out for me in her shaky handwriting on a translucent scrap of onion-skin paper. The typical Ashkenazic (European Jewish) recipe for charoset is a mix of chopped apples, almonds, cinnamon and sweet kosher wine, and in many families, the big debate is whether to include raisins. Meanwhile, the Sephardim (Jews from Spain, Portugal and the Middle East) make charoset with desert fruits including dates, figs, pistachios and pine nuts. Charoset, served on matzah as part of the ritual Passover meal, is meant to represent either the mortar used by Jewish slaves when building the pyramids, or the sensual foods mentioned in the Song of Songs.

But Aimee Helen Rosenfelder Katz’s charoset reflects the sojourn of her family  in the Deep South, surprising us with oranges, bananas and pecans. I grew up on this charoset at Passover each year, and I love the tart sparkle of the oranges, the smoothness of the bananas, the sweet pecans. She was a bit of a southern belle, my Jewish grandma, with very proper manners, and a private girls’ school education. But she was also an intellectual role model, with a French degree from the University of Louisville, and graduate studies at Barnard. During Word War I, she taught French to American soldiers heading off to fight in Europe.

Someday, her first great-grandchild, my daughter Aimee Helen, will inherit the charoset recipe, a tangible reminder of the uniquely American story of her Jewish ancestors. At the Passover Seder, we are commanded to explain the religious significance of each of the seemingly incongruous objects arranged around the Seder plate: the egg, the roasted shank bone, the parsley, the horseradish… In the same way, I feel commanded to explain to my children the significance of each disparate family tradition, each story, each character on the colorful plate representing their heritage. Given the complexity and depth and resonance of the stories from our Jewish family, I cannot imagine raising my children solely as Christians. But neither can I imagine ignoring everything else on their family plate.

Aimee Helen’s Southern-Style Charoset

3 peeled and grated apples

2 peeled and grated oranges

2  chopped bananas

1 squeezed half-lemon

1 cup chopped toasted pecans

½ cup chopped raisins (optional)

½ tsp cinnamon

1 tbs sweet kosher wine

Sugar to taste

Mix all ingredients and give it some time for the flavors to mix and deepen. It only gets better the next day. Aimee Helen noted, “I prefer pecans, but almonds if you prefer.”

 

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

Being Both: Interfaith Cross-Country Tour

April 4, 2014

California Poppies

I spent most of March traveling and speaking and having amazing conversations around Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family. In California, I found these translucent red, orange and yellow poppies imitating the overlapping and intersecting circles on the cover of my book!

Lafayette College, Being Both

The month started out with a full day with the students, faculty and staff of Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. I facilitated a Brown Bag lunch discussion on Interfaith Dating to a packed room of students, and gave an evening lecture on Being Both, in the lovely Kirby Hall of Civil Rights. The visit was co-sponsored by the Office of Religious & Spiritual Life, Friends of Skillman Library, Hillel, Newman Association, and the Interfaith Council. College Chaplain Alex Hendrickson remarked on the pent-up demand on campus for talking about interfaith relationships, interfaith families, and complex religious identity. I loved seeing all of these groups in conversation with each other: this will be my model for campus visits going forward.

My next talk, at the historic Bush-Holley House in Cos Cob, Connecticut, was also sponsored by a collaboration–in this case, the Jewish Book Council Authors Network, the Jewish Community Center (JCC) of Greenwich, and Jewish Family Services of Greenwich. I am very encouraged to see organizations with religious affiliations support the idea that it is important to understand families who are raising interfaith children in both family religions.

That theme of engagement continued in California, where I spoke at historic Temple Emanu-El in San Jose, in a panel discussion with authors Rabbi Michal Woll and Jon Sweeney, co-sponsored by the Jewish Book Council, the JCC of Silicon Valley, and interfaithfamily.com. It was wonderful to see old friends from the Bay Area interfaith families communities there, including Oscar Rosenbloom, who wrote the Interfaith Responsive Reading used by my interfaith families community at our gatherings.

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The next night, both family and friends turned out at the lovely Book Passage in Marin, one of the liveliest bookstores in America, in terms of the number of top authors who read there. It was great to be hosted by our dear friend, noted Marin author Julia Flynn Siler. And my brother and his wife, the chefs of Panevino Food for Wine in Napa Valley, came down to hear my talk and brought their incredible breadsticks for all to share.

Next, I zipped down to the Claremont School of Theology, and spoke to a class of Christian, Jewish and Muslim seminarians (who bought a big stack of my books). Our conversation helped to convince me that I want to get to every seminary in America, because every chaplain and clergy member needs to be prepared to support interfaith families. Understanding the shifting religious landscape in America, including families who span religions, is going to be critical in this century for pastoral counselors, and for family and marriage therapists.

Finally, last night, I was honored to speak at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs, alongside Georgetown’s Erika Seamon, author of what I think is the most important book ever written on interfaith marriage in American history. Georgetown’s Melody Fox Ahmed moderated our discussion, which included faculty and students from all over the globe.

Two Interfaith Family Books

Coming up, I’ll be speaking at the University of Virginia, and then at the the MLK branch of the DC Public Library on May 7th. Contact me now to set up events for the fall: I would love to speak at your professional conference, synagogue, church, community center, university, college, seminary, library or bookstore. I feel like we are just at the beginning of a great, national conversation on religious flexibility and fluidity, religion and spirituality, the religious “nones” and religious institutions, and the role of inter-religious families in interfaith dialogue.

 

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

Passover: Three Generations of Interfaith Family

April 3, 2014

Passover and Easter are fast approaching, and I am still immersed in speaking and traveling in support of my book, Being Both. So I am reposting some essays from the archives. This one dates from the spring of 2010. Enjoy!

 

Our spring break starts today, and my two teens are genuinely ecstatic anticipating our annual family gathering in Florida. Every year, my parents reserve beachside condos, have a rental piano delivered, and invite all four of their children, the spouses, and seven grandchildren for a weeklong family swim, gab and jam session. If we’re lucky, and this year we are, we get to celebrate both Passover and Easter together. For the Seder, all of my mother’s family, her sister and children and grandchildren, join us. My father will lead the Seder with Haggadot shipped down each year in a box full of beach towels.

As in many families, we go around the table, each person reading the next Haggadah passage in turn. We clap along when we sing Dayenu. We fill the cup and open the door for Elijah. We sing Had Gadya, the allegorical cumulative Aramaic song about the water that quenched the fire that beat the stick, and recite all the Who Knows One? riddles in a single breath.

It is neither the longest nor the shortest Seder in the world, nor is it particularly progressive, though I have introduced an orange to the Seder plate, as a reminder of those who have been excluded. I suppose it is a fairly typical Reform Seder in America. The funny thing is, my father is the only one at the table, of the twenty or more family members, who is “100% Jewish by blood.”  The rest of us are a family tapestry of three-quarter Jews, half-Jews, quarter-Jews, Jews-at-heart, Jewannabes, agnostics, atheists, secular and practicing Catholics, and other assorted Christians. What we have in common, besides our family ties, is a high degree of familiarity and comfort with this central Jewish ritual meal, built up over the the fifty years of the happy marriage of my interfaith parents. As far as I’m concerned, everyone at the table is part of the interfaith spectrum, part of my tribe.

My father, the patriarch at 86, has spent fifty years teaching all of us the art of the Passover meal, tending this motley flock, quietly spreading, by example, his understanding and joy in Jewish practice. He has succeeded, to the point where my young French-Canadian-Italian-German-Irish-Scottish-English cousin, who does not have one drop of “Jewish blood,” whatever that is, but who grew up celebrating Passover with my family each year, went off to college, and, too far from home to join us, tried calling her campus Hillel to see if she could have Seder with them. The answer was no. Which reminds me of the time I was rejected from a Seder table for being a patrilineal half-Jew. But that’s another story.

And so I return to my recurrent (some would say obsessive) themes. Interfaith families can be close and happy and successful. Interfaith families can be “good for the Jews” in that they educate both interfaith children and extended Christian family about Judaism. But also, many Jewish institutions still exclude rather than welcome, even at Passover, when it is traditional to “welcome the stranger.” And this exclusion drives some of us to seek out the network of independent interfaith family communities in which to raise our children.

I am troubled, as are many others, by the concluding Seder words ”next year in Jerusalem.” Most of my interfaith tribe rebels against the idea of an Israeli state that promulgates exclusion based on religious identification. So no matter what my mouth says,  my brain will probably be thinking, ”next year with my family, in Florida again, please.” For Passover, there’s no place I’d rather be.

 

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

Being Both: Notes from an Interfaith Book Tour

February 21, 2014
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StephanieWilliamsImages

I am being being both these days: both encouraged and challenged by readers and audiences since the launch of Being Both last fall. Here are some brief highlights:

In October, a packed house celebrated the book launch at the magical Washington DC bookstore, Politics & Prose. I was touched that David Cohen, husband of the late Politics & Prose founder Carla Cohen, chose to introduce me. David called Being Both a “very important book,” noting that he’d done “a lot of introductions” and that Being Both garnered the second-biggest applause. (The most was for Civil Rights icon Congressman John Lewis!). You can listen to an audio recording of the event here.

Politics & Prose

StephanieWilliamsImages

A few days later, I got off the train at Penn Station and promptly received an email from my agent Rob Weisbach saying that the New York Times was about to publish my Op-Ed. At that moment, I was on my way to give a book talk at the Barnes & Noble on the Upper West Side. After thanking old Newsweek colleagues, college friends, and family for coming out to the bookstore, I dashed out to respond to the New York Times fact-checker and editor. Late that night, I was roaming Broadway, looking for a copy shop to fax my contract and tax forms by the midnight deadline. As a result, I completely missed watching my beloved Red Sox win the final game of the World Series. At least I was able to grab a slice of pizza. It was a New York moment.

Barnes & Noble

Barnes & Noble, Upper West Side

That Op-Ed became the most emailed piece on the New York Times website for the next day and a half. In the comment section, both angry atheists and scandalized theists posted critiques, while interfaith families poured out their own stories. After 613 comments, the website administrator closed the comment section. Of course, I am aware that Jewish law is traditionally based on the 613 mitzvot, or commandments. Call me a mystic, but I don’t think the fact that there are 613 comments on my Op-Ed could possibly be a coincidence. I just don’t know if the secret message was meant as a subtle chide, or a salute. It’s a book tour mystery!

Next up was my hometown Boston, for three appearances, and a visit to the WBUR studios to tape an interview for NPR’s Here & Now with Robin Young. The interview aired over Thanksgiving weekend, and I ended up listening to it at a rest stop on the Pennsylvania Turnpike on the way home from Thanksgiving with my extended interfaith family.

My Beacon Press team

My Beacon Press team

In Boston, I had the joy of being able to celebrate the book launch with my parents, now 89 and 83–stars of the memoir chapter of my book. While staying with them at my childhood home outside Boston, I went through old photo albums and began brainstorming for my video book trailer.

Back in Washington, NPR’s Diane Rehm Show fulfilled one of my dreams by inviting me to be a guest on the show. In the last four months, Being Both has also been featured on an irreverent Slate podcast, in the Utne Reader, Time, the Forward, and Andrew Sullivan’s blog The Dish. (For a full list of reviews and features, go to http://www.susankatzmiller.com/press/.) The book is now in its second printing, so if you bought a copy in the fall, hang on to your first edition!

I am well aware that not everyone approves of the idea of educating children in both family religions. I receive hate mail. Debate over the book has been fraught and fiery at times, and I plan to write more on that soon. But for now, I want once again to thank all of you who have supported my work over the years–readers, friends, family—but also, and especially, those who have asked hard questions and pushed me to better explain my interfaith world and the interfaith world of the 21st century, at each stop on this exhilarating book tour.

Politics & Prose

StephanieWilliamsImages

For more photos, take the full photo tour at http://www.susankatzmiller.com/book-tour-photos/.  And for a full schedule of spring appearances, go to  http://www.susankatzmiller.com/events/. Book now for fall book talks!

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


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