Posted tagged ‘interfaith marriage’

“Being Both” in Ten Minutes: A Video Chat with Susan Katz Miller

January 13, 2014

Being Both book

If you haven’t had a chance to hear a Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family talk, here’s a video chat I had recently with Aslan Media. (Aslan Media founder Reza Aslan and his wife Jessica Jackley are one of the Muslim/Christian couples featured in Being Both).

Catch upcoming talks in MD, CT, PA and CA (go to susankatzmiller.com and click “Events” for dates). Contact me at susan@onbeingboth.com to set up a talk at your college, seminary, house of worship, library, or community center.

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.”

“Mixed-Up Love”: Interfaith Marriage Between a Rabbi and a Catholic

October 15, 2013

Mixed-Up Love

           It is long past time to abandon the idea that those who marry across lines of faith simply do not care about religion. The most obvious counter-examples have been the Christian clergy, including Harvey Cox, Donna Schaper, and J. Dana Trent, who have written memoirs about their interfaith marriages. And now, we finally get to read about how a rabbi and her Catholic husband stay deeply engaged in two religions, while embarking on an interfaith marriage.

            For many Jewish institutions, the idea of an intermarried rabbi is almost as controversial as, well, the idea of raising children with both religions. The major rabbinical schools all refuse to admit or ordain rabbinical students married to non-Jews. This has forced potential rabbis to live in the “interfaith closet” or abandon their studies, which in turn has finally forced official reconsideration of this policy, at least at one seminary.

            Rabbis are going to fall in love, and marry, people from other religions. Rabbi Michal Woll and her Catholic husband, Jon Sweeney, bring us the first dispatch from this new reality. Woll was already a Reconstructionist rabbi when she met Sweeney, an author and religion scholar raised as a Protestant but in the process of converting to Catholicism at the time they met. Together, they have written an intimate and revealing memoir about their courtship and marriage, entitled Mixed-Up Love: Relationships, Family, and Religious Identity in the 21st Century.  A lively read, Mixed-Up Love is most compelling as a textured and nuanced portrait of one brave interfaith marriage. (Those interested the broad, historical sweep of their ambitious subtitle might want to also read Erika Seamon’s recent academic book, Interfaith Marriage in America.)

            The joint memoir is a particularly useful format for an interfaith couple. One of the earliest examples is Mixed Blessings by Rachel and Paul Cowan, which described an interfaith marriage in the 1960s. Rachel eventually converted to Judaism and was ordained as a rabbi, and their book, while useful, heavily promotes the choice of Judaism, and conversion. In contrast, Mary and Ned Rosenbaum, in another early joint memoir, Celebrating Our Differences, testified to the fact that their marriage strengthened, rather than diminished, their own devotion to Catholicism, and Judaism, respectively. While Ned was not an ordained rabbi, he was a Jewish studies scholar and lay leader of Jewish communities. In their memoir, Mary and Ned recount their pioneering interfaith marriage with great wit and honesty and tenderness, and also describe how they gave their three children education in both religions.

            Woll and Sweeney have decided to raise their daughter Jewish, and some of the reasons for their choice are obvious. Woll describes one congregation that refused to hire her as a rabbi because she is married to a Catholic. It seems evident that at least for now, an intermarried rabbi will have to raise children “exclusively Jewish” in order to be accepted by most Jewish institutions.

            Nonetheless, Woll and Sweeney talked to couples who had made different choices for their interfaith children, and researched some of the communities designed to support families raising children with both religions. In their book, they are thoughtful and open-minded about the possibility of raising children with both, although they chose another path. I found myself agreeing with the authors on many points: the importance of community support for interfaith families, the idea that interfaith marriage can be inspiring as well as challenging, and the importance for children of religious ritual in the home. In their conclusion, Sweeney and Woll write that there are “so many possibilities for creating lives full of spiritual meaning and practice in the world.”

            As in Celebrating Our Differences, Woll and Sweeney each contributed their own thoughts to this book in alternating passages, so that we understand their separate perspectives. Both their marriage and their child are still very young, but I suspect, and hope, that a sequel will eventually follow. In the meantime, Mixed-Up Love, the first memoir by a rabbi and a Catholic who share a marriage, is an important addition to the literature, describing the rewards and challenges of one of the many inevitable love stories in our increasingly interfaith world.

“Partly Jewish”: The Study, and the Book

October 8, 2013
A box full of Being Both books arrives on my porch.

A box full of Being Both books arrives on my porch.

You may be wondering what I thought of the new national study from Pew, entitled “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” which found 25% of intermarried Jewish parents raising children “partly Jewish and partly in another religion.” In short, I was not surprised. In researching Being Both, I found data on many individual cities (including Chicago, San Diego and Philadelphia) where 25% or more of such parents are raising kids with two religions. The Pew study confirms that our grassroots movement is important on a national scale. And now, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family will provide the first glimpse of the first generation of teens and young adults to grow up in dual-faith education programs.

Meanwhile, the publication day for Being Both is just two weeks away, and the first big box of books just arrived on my porch. As I make final preparations for the book tour, you can help spread the word by posting the Facebook event pages for the readings at Politics & Prose in Washington, and at Barnes and Noble on the Upper West Side in New York. I’ll be continuing on to Boston, Connecticut and California. Stay tuned for more book tour stops, coming soon.

Here’s how the American Library Association’s Booklist, a resource for librarians, described Being Both last week:

Beginning with the story of her family of origin, Miller surveys the burgeoning phenomenon of families who observe two religious faiths. Her Jewish father married an Episcopalian…So began a multigenerational interfaith reality, which Susan continued as another Jew married to a Christian, this time in a ceremony that honored both religions. Four years later, the couple joined the Interfaith Families Project (IFFP) of Washington, D.C., whose mission is to raise member families’ children as Jewish and Christian. From the members, clergy, and teachers of IFFP and similar organizations elsewhere, Miller gathered the stories of how these families successfully raised children who are happily interfaith and intend to raise interfaith children themselves. Miller concludes this fine resource with a look at the next wave of, this time, Christian-Muslim and Christian-Hindu interfaith families.

Successful Hindu and Christian Interfaith Marriage: Saffron Cross

October 1, 2013

The Saffron Cross

What the world needs now is inspiring models for interfaith families. Because love is essential, but not sufficient. This month sees the publication of my book Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family. But I am thrilled to be sharing my publication month with two other books on interfaith families (our books were featured together recently in Publishers Weekly). Rabbi Michal Woll and Catholic writer Jon M. Sweeney are publishing Mixed-Up Love (I look forward to appearing on a panel with them in the spring). And today is the publication day for Saffron Cross: The Unlikely Story of How a Christian Minister Married a Hindu Monk, a memoir by Southern Baptist minister J. Dana Trent, about her marriage to Fred Eaker, a devout Hindu.

A lively read, Saffron Cross describes how the couple met through the Christian online dating site eHarmony. We then follow Dana as she and Fred attempt to figure out how to fit their religious lives into one marriage. The couple is determined not to “water down” their respective traditions in order to find common ground. Dana and Fred live and breathe theological debate and do not shy away from addressing differences. On a trip to India to gain deeper understanding of her husband’s religion, Dana lives with Fred in a temple compound and struggles through her own doubts, culture shock, and hilarious religious blunders. She proves a humble and charming guide, even when at times she is gripped by insecurity and tears.

But the point of this book is not how hard it is to be in an interfaith marriage. Unlike books warning couples away from intermarriage, Dana celebrates the rich texture of the life she creates with Fred, and the joy they experience exploring religion together. One of the secrets to their success is the “no separate worship” rule, which they developed after considering and discarding the rather lonely alternative as the “interfaith version of segregation.” So Fred goes to church with Dana. And Dana goes to temple with Fred. Yes, this requires a lot of time and they each have to compromise, as do any two people in a marriage. But when you agree to study and celebrate and worship together, you grow together, even, and perhaps especially, when studying and celebrating and worshiping in two different religious languages. This couple is new and young, their interfaith journey just beginning. Someday, I hope Dana and Fred will write a sequel on raising their (future) interfaith children. But for now, I am grateful for a new book celebrating one of the infinite possibilities for successful interfaith marriage.

Successful Interfaith Marriage: Reza Aslan and Jessica Jackley

July 29, 2013

Zealot

Reza Aslan’s newest book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, had already reached the bestseller list when a video clip of the author went viral this week. The religion scholar appeared on Fox news to explain his latest work, but the host repeatedly and outrageously questioned why a Muslim would be writing a book about Jesus.

Aslan–the acclaimed author of No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam–demonstrated extraordinary grace and patience on the show, explaining over and over that religion scholars write as academics, not as adherents. Buzzfeed asked if this was “The Most Embarrassing Interview that Fox News Has Ever Done?” Meanwhile, in the course of the interview, Aslan mentioned that his wife and mother are both Christians.

As it happens, I tell the story of this high-profile interfaith family in my book Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family. About a year ago, Aslan tweeted: “I’m in a blissful interfaith marriage with my Christian wife. We are raising our children to respect all faiths and choose 1 for themselves.” When I read that tweet, I contacted him, and he and his wife agreed to be interviewed for my book chapter entitled “Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists: The Next Interfaith Wave.”

Aslan’s wife Jessica Jackley is prominent in her own field, as the co-founder of Kiva, the pioneering microfinance non-profit. But Aslan’s engagement with Christianity did not begin with marriage. In Being Both, he describes his own journey as the child of a family of Iranian refugees who were “cultural Muslims,” to a period of evangelical Christian zeal beginning in high school (during which he converted his own mother to Christianity), to rediscovery of Islam while a student of religions.

One of my themes is how being part of an interfaith family can inspire deeper understanding of one’s own religion(s), in the religion of a partner, and ultimately in the religions of the world. In describing their courtship and marriage, Jackley, who comes from an evangelical Christian family, told me, “He knows the Bible better than I do. He’s writing a book right now on Jesus. He understood my life better than most Christians.” That book eventually became Zealot.

Aslan and Jackley are now raising their twin sons with the values shared by both family religions, and with stories from diverse traditions. “What we’re going to teach our kids is the values, the beliefs, the activism, the worldview,” Aslan told me. “And when it comes to the stories, we’ll give them all of them.”

Being Both includes more on the marriage of Aslan and Jackley, the reaction of their interfaith families, and how they are raising their sons. They are two, perhaps the most prominent two, out of the hundreds of people who entrusted me with their interfaith family stories. Aslan, who received an advanced copy, calls the book, “A gorgeous and inspiring testament to the power of love to not only transcend the divides of faith and tradition, but to bring faiths together and create wholly new traditions.”

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


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