Posted tagged ‘Interfaith children’

Mourning Andrew Pochter: Bridge-Builder from a Christian and Jewish Interfaith Family

July 1, 2013

Olive Branch, photo Martha Katz

            The tragic death of 21-year-old college student Andrew Pochter, killed during protests in Egypt last Friday, hit close to home for more than one reason. Pochter was from the Maryland suburbs of DC, and attended schools in the same school system as my college-aged daughter. But also, like me, he was the child of a Christian mother and a Jewish father. I believe Pochter displayed the positive hallmarks of that interfaith heritage: he devoted his life to building metaphorical bridges. He had the desire and ability to immerse himself in the experience of the “other.” According to friends and family, he had extraordinary empathy, a drive to transcend boundaries, and a gift for seeing connections.

            Pochter had studied Arabic while living in Morocco, and had intended to acquire additional Arabic dialects in Egypt and Jordan. On a Facebook memorial page, his family writes of Pochter’s plans to live and work in the Middle East “in the pursuit of peace and understanding.”

            Meanwhile, I am shaking my head as I watch a familiar process of media confusion over his religious identity unfold. Do they label him Jewish? Christian? Here is how Kenyon College, where Pochter would have been a junior in the fall, described his religious journey: “Raised a Christian, he was reared in a home with both Christian and Jewish parents, said his mother, Elizabeth Pochter, and he had become interested in his Jewish heritage.” It did not surprise me at all to learn that Pochter was a religious studies major, or that he had become a leader in Kenyon’s Hillel House. In reporting on children raised in interfaith families for my upcoming book, I noted a tendency for interfaith children to explore and study religion at the university level.

            In some Jewish media, Pochter is now being described as Jewish, with no reference to his interfaith family. At the same time, the all-too familiar bullying comments immediately cropped up in the comment sections, denying that a patrilineal Jew can be Jewish, or opining that if he was Jewish he should have been studying Hebrew, not Arabic.

            Meanwhile, one New York Times article declined to characterize the complexity of Pochter’s religious identity, by avoiding describing him as either Jewish or Christian, or from an interfaith family. On Twitter, one writer found the fact that the paper of record “doesn’t mention he was Jewish” to be “odd.”

          I don’t find it odd. Perhaps the New York Times did not want to reduce Pochter’s complexity to a single religious label of “Jewish” when he is no longer here to declare or describe his own identity. The identity of people from interfaith families can be fluid, flexible, multi-layered, vibrant. Sadly, we will never learn where Andrew Pochter’s journey might have taken him, geographically and spiritually. What we know is that he was not afraid to reach across the divides between religions, between countries, between people. May his memory be for a blessing, and inspire us all to work harder for peace and reconciliation around the world.

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

Being Both: Interfaith Book Events in Boston, New York, DC

June 24, 2013

Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family

Starting in the fall, I look forward to some lively discussions with all of you as I travel around the country to talk about how raising children with both religions can be good for your interfaith marriage, good for the kids, and even good for the Jews (and good for Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Pagans, humanists, and everyone else).

Although the publication date for Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is not until October 22, I wanted to let you know about the first four book launch events we have scheduled. Here in Washington DC, I will be speaking at Politics and Prose on Sunday, October 27, at 5pm. In New York City, join me at Barnes and Noble on 82nd and Broadway, on October 30th. And in the Boston area, I will be at Brookline Booksmith on November 13th, and at the Weston Public Library on November 14th, in an event sponsored by the Weston-Wayland Interfaith Action Group (WWIAG). You can find updates to this schedule and new events, or find out how to schedule an event in your area, at susankatzmiller.com.

These first four events all happen to be in cities with programs to teach interfaith children both Judaism and Christianity. If you belong to one of these communities, thank you for being part of the research for this book, which involved surveys with over 300 parents and children from these programs, as well as in-depth interviews with parents, children, teachers and clergy. Now, I am hoping you will join me for these events, to tell your stories in person, and hear about the results of those surveys. Come on out and help me explain to the world why parents are choosing this pathway, and how adult interfaith children raised with two religions can “end up” well-adjusted and happy. Or, if you are just curious about this whole idea and want to ask questions, or want to express your reservations or disapproval and engage in vigorous debate, please join us as well. In the spirit of radically inclusive theological conversation, all are welcome and encouraged to join the conversation.

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.

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.

Alif the Unseen: An Interfaith Protagonist

January 7, 2013

Alif the Unseen

One of my favorite books of the past year, Alif The Unseen (Grove Press, 2012), is a rip-snorting adventure tale of computer hackers and mythical genies set in an imagined Arab Spring, infused with a critique of the binary and an embrace of bothness. American author G. Willow Wilson previously wrote a graphic novel set in Cairo as well as a book about her own conversion to Islam while living in Egypt. She builds her latest story around characters who bridge worlds: two religions, two cultures, two classes, reality and fantasy, the seen and the unseen, the sacred and the profane, the digital and the analog, the love of computers and the love of books.

Alif, a shaggy young hacktivist and the eponymous hero, was born to an Arab Muslim father and an Indian mother who converted from Hinduism to Islam. Converts, expatriates, and interfaith children all share the experience of defending our identities when society attempts to label us in ways that cause cognitive dissonance. Wilson depicts this conflict, while at the same time celebrating the benefits of religious and cultural flux.

Neighbors taunt that Alif’s mother is “still secretly a Hindu.” Alif believes his father considers him “a problematic son with dark-skinned pagan blood in his lineage, the product of a union unsanctioned by his grandparents…” A friend, when angered, says, “…I could bash your half-Arab nose right in.” Such challenges will sound familiar to those of us in multicultural and multifaith families.

But at the same time, Wilson portrays the positive side of complex identity: the creative outside-the-box thinking, wry comic insider-outsider perspective, and empathy for the other. Alif’s crew of allies includes a half-man-half-beast jinn, a blond American convert to Islam, and a prince masquerading as a pauper. At the apex of a dizzying plot in which they battle dark political forces, crash computers, and flee through metaphysical time-zones, a friendly sheikh comments “…something fundamental has change about the world in which we live. We have reached a state of constant reinvention.”

Like Yann Martel’s much denser novel Life of Pi, Alif the Unseen is a global coming-of-age adventure tale with philosophical and religious themes. But this cyberpunk thriller, brimming with action and snappy dialogue, is a much quicker read.

Wilson portrays both Islam and the Middle East with affection as part of a 21st-century in which we are all recombining, defying dualism, traveling as a joyously motley crew into the future together. Those of us with complex identities (which, soon, will be all of us) will see ourselves reflected in Wilson’s genre-defying and very contemporary book. I plan to pass it on immediately to my two interfaith teenagers.

A Hanukkah Surprise for Interfaith Mom

December 11, 2012

Menorah Pin

Hanukkah feels strange and slightly melancholy this year, with our firstborn away at college. With only one teenager left at home, I declared the official end to kids hunting for little Hanukkah gifts hidden under sofa cushions and behind bookcases. My son was fine with this. Adults rarely give each other Hanukkah gifts in my extended family, and he is well on his way to becoming an adult. But as it turns out, I did not actually have the authority to make this abrupt and unilateral proclamation. Just because I represent the Jewish side in our interfaith family does not make me the boss of Hanukkah.

So after we lit candles and said blessings and sang “Rock of Ages” on the second night, my (Christian) husband surprised me by saying he had hidden little Hanukkah gifts for me and our son. I was touched, and irrationally excited: I hadn’t hunted for a present since I was a kid and my (Christian) mom instituted this Hanukkah tradition in our family.

My bemused son and I quickly located the little tissue paper packets–in a clay pot on the mantel, and on the windowsill behind the curtains. They turned out to be utterly fabulous, completely cheesy blinking LED Hanukkah pins–a menorah and a dreidel. I wore them both at a Hanukkah party the next night.

So my husband created a moment of role-reversal comedy (mom acting like a kid and receiving a goofy “kid” present). At the same time, he distracted us all from missing our college girl. And he paid sweet tribute to the interfaith family created when we got married 25 years ago, and to the tradition instituted by my pioneering interfaith parents, who are still happily married after more than 50 years. Such small gestures, combining tradition and innovation, respect and humor, bind interfaith families together.

Raising Children With Two Religions: At Hanukkah

November 26, 2012

This time of year, interfaith families scour the internet for advice on celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas. For those who celebrate both December holidays, I thought I would post a roundup of the many pieces I have written on how we celebrate Hanukkah in our “raising them both” family.

My interfaith kids have always loved Hanukkah, even though we also celebrate Christmas. And my mother and husband, both Christian, love harmonizing as we sing around the candles. One of my most popular Hanukkah posts was the five reasons you do not have to fear that Hanukkah will be overshadowed by Christmas.

By the time our kids were teens, we put most of the Hanukkah gift emphasis on the importance of giving to others. Although we also treated them to a Matisyahu concert one year. I later admitted that going to a rock club on a weeknight did contribute to interfaith holiday burnout that year.

Last year, I wrote an overview of celebrating Hanukkah, Advent, Christmas and Yule in our family, along with my photo of a Hanukkah cookie. It may have been the enticing cookie that lured WordPress into selecting the post to be featured on Freshly Pressed. (I am proud to use my own photos on most of my posts).

I also wrote a piece for Huffington Post last year on celebrating both holidays in our family. In response, a blogger for the Forward wrote an outraged post in the form of a letter excoriating me. While her post was filled with misunderstandings (we absolutely do not celebrate Chrismukkah), I hope that our exchange helped to explain to a wider audience why many interfaith families are teaching their children both religions.

This year, I feel lucky because Hanukkah comes relatively early (December 8th to 16th), minimizing any awkward overlap for those of us who like to keep the holidays separate.

And we do keep them separate. For our family, part of the point of celebrating both is giving each religion (and each holiday) proper space and respect and meaning. So, no Hanukkah bush or star-of-David treetoppers for us. A Christmas tree is a Christmas tree. And a menorah is a menorah (or a chanukiah, as some folks prefer to call them these days), even when it is made of plexiglass and holds glow sticks instead of candles, like the menorah I am sending today to our daughter, who now lives far away in a college dorm where she cannot light candles because of the fire laws. Sigh. I know I will see my daughter at Christmas, but it is hard to realize that she will only be nearby for Hanukkah on the years of crazy holiday overlap.

Which reminds me, whichever holidays you celebrate in your family, treasure each Hanukkah, each Christmas, each Eid, each Diwali, each Solstice with your children. Too soon, they will be out and away in the great world, and you can only hope that they will be warmed by the nostalgic glow of family holiday memories. At our house, we try not to miss an opportunity to create those memories.

Atheist, Plays Well With Others…

November 6, 2012

Most of us are consumed with the election today. It also happens to be the publication date of a boundary-defying and yet somehow sweetly patriotic memoir from my publisher, Beacon Press, entitled Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. While still in his 20s, Chris Stedman has written a brave and moving account of how he became an evangelical Christian, realized he was gay, left Christianity for atheism, and now devotes himself to interfaith dialogue with religious people.

Faithiest will appeal to many interfaith families, as an intimate chronicle of an “atypical” religious (and non-religious) formation, illuminating the intertwining influences of family and society on religious identity. Stedman quotes my favorite Buddhist thinker, Thic Nhat Han: “If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors.” For those of us who are heirs to two or more family religions, this statement has deep resonance.

Stedman seems to have written one of the very first memoirs by anyone in his generation. So I was fascinated to note that the idea of being raised with both religions appears early on, and in a positive light. Stedman writes of his childhood friendship with a neighborhood girl who “…celebrated Hanukkah and Christmas, Passover and Easter, and maintained practices from both traditions…” He goes on to describe his own brief infatuation with Judaism as a result of this encounter.

A longing for community drives Stedman, as a tween, to a Christian youth group. The tension between evangelical Christianity and being gay eventually drives him away. But after he becomes an atheist, that same longing for community alienates him from the strident, anti-religious “New Atheism,” and eventually sends him into the arms of the kinder and gentler community of secular humanists.

Secular humanism has long provided a safe haven for interfaith families who agree to put aside the question of God. So Stedman’s description of his discovery of the benefits of humanism will interest many secular interfaith families.

More broadly, those of us in the movement to educate our children in both family religions find ourselves arrayed across the entire religious and non-religious spectrum: religious, spiritual but not religious, skeptics, agnostics, atheists.

Whether we identify with no religion, two religions, or many religions, those of us in interfaith families who do not belong to a synagogue or church find ourselves grouped with Stedman by demographers as part of the fast-growing “religious nones,” the statistical category for those without religious affiliation. As “religious nones,” we are a complex, rich, and varied group on the rise, just beginning to discover each other, and I am very pleased to share this space with a mensch like Chris Stedman.

By the end of his memoir, Stedman finds twin interwoven missions–convincing interfaith activists to welcome atheists, and convincing atheists to engage in interfaith activism, and join college campus groups (such as Eboo Patel’s Interfaith Youth Core) in performing community service together.

Stedman and others have achieved notable success in making a place for secularists, alongside Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and others, at the interfaith roundtable. But is there a place at that table for intermarried people or interfaith children claiming our ties to more than one religion? Or is our presence so disturbing, our blurred boundaries so threatening, that we are left off the guest list?

The dogma of interfaith dialogue has long been that you cannot engage with the “other” unless and until you have a strong and singular religious identity. Stedman successfully makes the case that the non-religious should be exempt from this requirement. I am making the case that those who marry into or are born into a state of interfaithness should also be exempt, and welcomed as people with unique qualifications for interfaith dialogue.

Stedman writes, “Interfaith dialogue strives to usher in religious pluralism, and it is realized primarily through the personal stories of its practitioners.” Members of interfaith families in general, and adult interfaith children in particular, want to tell their stories, whether they currently identify with one, two, many or no religions. As people who engage deeply with the “other” on a daily basis, whether that “other” is a spouse or partner or sibling or parent or a part of our own being, we bring unique skills and perspectives to more formal interfaith encounters. We want to be part of the quest for greater interfaith understanding and an end to religious violence, through interfaith education. As members of interfaith families, we are already on that quest, whether or not our role is recognized by those from monofaith backgrounds. I am hoping that those of us from interfaith families can be as convincing as Chris Stedman in articulating our desire to be included in the movement for interfaith cooperation.

Interfaith Children, College Applications, Religious Identities

October 5, 2012

For families with high school seniors, autumn means navigating the turbulent waters of the college application process. A year ago, our daughter was in the midst of this process, and along with many other formative lessons, it forced her to rehearse how she would present her religious identity to the world. It turns out that the “Common Application” used by most colleges asks for the applicant’s “religious preference” (though some colleges make a point of insisting that they screen out and do not consider that religion information). My daughter wrote, “Interfaith: Jewish and Christian.” Goodness only knows what college admissions officers made of this bold declaration. Presumably, the colleges that do look at this information are seeking some kind of religious diversity on campus. To paraphrase Martin Buber, I hope they embrace the “other.”

While surfing around trying to figure out why colleges ask for religious identity, I came across an interesting post from a college applicant from an interfaith family on College Confidential, the online site populated by stressed-out college applicants and their parents. This applicant wrote, I have a Jewish name, but I’m Christian. If I put Christian & the admissions people know my name is Jewish, will it look like I’m lying?Her conundrum resonates with me: many interfaith children face the fact that society assigns them a different religious identity from the one they chose (or the one their parents chose for them). And please note that these identity challenges occur whether our parents choose one religion, two religions, or no religions for us.

Meanwhile, my husband took on the task of filling out the financial aid forms, and was surprised to learn that those forms also ask for the student’s religion. I can only imagine that this information helps colleges match students with scholarships reserved for students of a particular faith. That idea set me off on an extended reverie in which I somehow become a wealthy philanthropist, and dedicate myself to funding projects to help interfaith families. Perhaps I would set up college scholarships for students who claim the interfaith religious label, and ask the applicants to write an essay on one of these topics:

1. What do you see as the benefits of being an interfaith child?

2. How has your education in more than one religion contributed to your ideas about religion, faith and spirituality?

3. How do you plan to use your interfaith knowledge and background to make the world a better place?

Come to think of it, I have no scholarships to offer at this time, but if any interfaith high school or college student wants to answer one of these questions in an essay, submit it to me at susan@onbeingboth.com and I will consider running it as a guest blogpost. And who knows, it might come in handy on college or graduate school applications.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 279 other followers

%d bloggers like this: