The Interfaith Family Journal: It Takes a Village

The publication date for The Interfaith Family Journal is less than a month away!

On March 15th, you can hold in your hands an interactive book designed to support interfaith families including Atheists, Buddhists, Christians, Daoists, Ethiopian Orthodox…the whole alphabet of religions and worldviews.

The Journal draws on decades of personal experience, surveys of hundreds of interfaith family members, years of facilitating workshops and coaching couples around the world, and conversations with all of you in person and online. Interfaith families helped to test drive the manuscript, spending hours working through the questions and exercises. Your feedback helped create a more perfect Journal. And your first reactions were humbling:

  • caused me to think deeply about why I think something or why a certain tradition is important to me
  • allowed self-reflection, helped us focus on issues in manageable segments, and encouraged us to really listen to each other’s viewpoint
  • helped us understand how we envision expressing our faiths to both ourselves and each other
  • invited us to have a conversation instead of leading us to choose a side.
  • had the feel of an unbiased, safe, non-judgmental couples’ counseling workshop

The test drivers thought the questions and exercises in the Journal were…

  • very helpful in determining what parts of our religious background are spiritually based vs culturally based, which was invaluable for us
  • a good mix of practical and deep
  • helpful because they covered so much ground and approached issues from a number of angles
  • a great tool for periodically checking in on growth or development in the course of the interfaith relationship (and especially during times of change, such as welcoming a child)

Different test drivers found different parts of the Journal particularly valuable, whether it was the interactive questions at the start of each chapter, the framework for talking about celebrations of life and death, the exercises designed to engage with extended family, or the creative family activities at the end of each chapter.

  • Something about answering a high number of questions in relatively quick succession felt very productive.
  • The Journal led to us calling our parents and grandparents to talk about their religious lives growing up. It was quite fascinating
  • We had never talked about death as it pertains to our religions. This section opened us up to that conversation for the first time.
  • We loved the creative sections. We were huge fans of the religions ancestry tree exercise. That is one that we plan on doing again when our children are old enough to participate.

This is the moment to pre-order copies for yourself and your interfaith family members, and to let friends and family know about the book by sending them a link to this page. My goal with this book has always been to help as many interfaith families as I can, around the country and the world, and I need your help to reach them.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (forthcoming in 2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

The Interfaith Family Journal: The Video

Breaking news!

The video book trailer for The Interfaith Family Journal is here.

While you wait for your pre-ordered journals to arrive on March 15th, I hope you get a kick out of watching this video featuring…

  • enthusiastic praise from experts
  • gorgeous cover art
  • and great indie music courtesy of Ladle Fight

…all packed into less than one minute.

For years, couples and families have been asking my advice on how to get joy from being an interfaith family. So I created the first and only book published to support any and all interfaith (or religious/non-religious, or completely secular) families. Whether your family roots are Hindu/Jewish, or Christian/atheist, or Pagan/Buddhist/Unitarian, this is the first interactive journal written for you.

The Interfaith Family Journal can help any and every family through a five-week process of discerning your own best path. How will you celebrate holidays? How will you honor births and deaths? How will you find a supportive community? And how will you create a positive way of engaging with extended family members who may not understand your plan, whatever that plan is?

In recent weeks, I’ve been describing the book to people I meet, and the reaction I get is either,

“Oh wow! We’re an interfaith family! We need this book!”

or

“Huh, that’s funny. We’re not even an interfaith family, but actually, this sounds like it would be really helpful for us.” 

So, seriously, this book can help anyone and everyone. The trailer gives you a sneak peek at some of the praise coming in from rabbis, ministers, authors, therapists, adult interfaith kids, and other experts. Stay tuned for more endorsements and book launch news soon, by subscribing to this blog, following my author page on facebook, and following on twitter @susankatzmiller

And please do post and email the direct youtube link to the video trailer for friends who might benefit from The Interfaith Family Journal. We are a global virtual community of interfaith families, of every configuration and persuasion. And though some of us still face resistance, we are rising up to support each other. So thank you for helping all of us by being part of this community!

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (forthcoming in 2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Five Reasons for Interfaith Empathy at Christmas

Gingerbread Village. Photo, Susan Katz Miller

From the archives. I wrote this essay back in 2010. It feels all the more relevant today! 

In my doctor’s office I heard Christmas music-–three full days before Thanksgiving. The ever-expanding Christmas season is upon us. Why do I call it the Christmas season, not the holiday season? I love Hanukkah, my kids love Hanukkah. But honestly, no one calls it the “Hanukkah season.” Hanukkah is just not that big a deal.

Christmas is a big deal. Every year, our interfaith families groupdiscusses how to integrate two sets of “seasonal” expectations, and how to empathize with each other as we do this. The Jewish partners work on understanding which Christmas rituals feed the souls of their Christian partners. The Christian partners work on understanding the Jewish mix of underdog pride and alienation. Each interfaith couple must come up with their own balance of accommodations, but also, their own ways of pouring new life and creativity into old forms.

This year, I distilled the elements of this perennial interfaith Christmas discussion into five topics:

1. The Music. For many Christians, the music that permeates malls and airwaves starting this week provides essential nostalgia and anticipation. One woman raised Catholic spoke of tracking down the Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley holiday songs that her father brought home from Viet Nam on a reel-to-reel tape. What could be more heart-warming? But then, a man raised Jewish spoke up about experiencing his Jewish home as a refuge from the onslaught of “Christmas bling” and holiday music in malls, radio, school concerts. While some Jews enjoy the Christmas spirit, others hear carols and feel wistful and excluded.

So, some Jewish partners develop a taste for instrumental Christmas jazz but continue to reject the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Other interfaith families, despairing of lame traditional Hanukkah songs, are exploring the hipster Klezmer revival. Still other families negotiate a deal where traditional Christmas music is reserved for Christmas day.

2. The Lights. What could be bad about a “secular” display of sparkling cheer to dispel the darkest nights? But for many interfaith families, the line gets drawn here. My parents have been intermarried more than fifty years, and have a gargantuan tree and oyster stew and roast goose, but never lights outside. For some Jews, blinking lights signal “this house is Christian” to the neighbors. As one intermarried Jewish woman declared, “If we’re celebrating both, I’m okay with announcing that to the world with lights.”

3. The Creche. The nativity scene is, understandably, completely beyond the pale for interfaith families raising Jewish children. Some intermarried Jews never become terribly comfortable talking about Jesus, let alone seeing him in a Playmobil manger. Others see the celebration of the birth of an important Jew as less problematic than the celebration of his resurrection at Easter. For those raising children with both religions, a creche brings the actual story of the birth of Jesus into what could otherwise be a secular or only vaguely religious holiday.

4. The Tree. Much has been written about the tree. It’s Pagan, It’s an embarrassing reminder of assimilationist Hanukkah bushes. More than one interfaith couple tiptoes into the tradition with a tiny live rosemary tree in a pot from Whole Foods. Another Jewish spouse admits he’s been enjoying a Christmas tree for decades, but has never told his parents about it. Others manage to mix the Christian and Jewish in-laws together at tree-trimming parties.

5. The Food. Our rabbi calls Christmas “the most Jewish of the Christian holidays” because it centers on an elaborate home-cooked meal. For this reason, he compares Christmas not to Hanukkah, but to Passover. So eating and talking with the family, what’s not to like? But one Jewish partner bashfully admits, “Now that I’m in an interfaith family and we celebrate Christmas, I kind of miss the Jewish tradition of going to the movies and then going out for Chinese, bonding with other Jews doing that.” A Christian partner from another couple adapted this tradition to her own purposes: “I really wasn’t interested in spending all of Christmas day cooking, like my mother always did. So in our house, we open the stockings and presents, then go out for Chinese with all the Jewish families.” For this interfaith family, it’s the best of both worlds.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (forthcoming in 2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.Advertisements

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4 Replies to “Five Reasons for Interfaith Empathy at Christmas”

  1. Thelma ZirkelbachNOVEMBER 23, 2010 AT 1:32 PM EDITOh, this is delightful. Negotiating same-time-of-year rituals is always interesting. I could never handle a Christmas tree, although we hung stockings on Christmas Eve. And yes, the movie and Chinese are an absolute must Christmas Day tradition for my family, one that my kids have continued since my husband’s death.Reply
  2. Mandy KatzNOVEMBER 23, 2010 AT 4:04 PM EDITSue, what a fun post! And refreshingly un-prescriptive. I doubt there’s a Jewish-Christian couple in the world that wouldn’t find something to identify with here. For me, it’s sharing your parents indoor-outdoor schizophrenia on Christmas traditions. I, too, notwithstanding the gaudy, ceiling-scratching tree inside, say, “No way, Moishe,” to lights in the windows and on the shrubs. Thanks!Reply
    1. Christine IntagliataNOVEMBER 24, 2010 AT 1:40 PM EDITAnd in our Jewish/Jew-by-choice household, there’s never a tree, but I lovingly hang blue “Chanukah lights” every year . . . inside, but where you can see them through the windows. I love to turn off the regular lights and sit in the blue glow. And I know that’s Christmas nostalgia!Reply
  3. ipondereugeniaDECEMBER 2, 2010 AT 8:43 PM EDITA very well written and detailed article and interface holidays. thank you – I will forward it to my friends living in such families.
    Warm regards
    Eugenia Budman
    shewrites.Reply

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#GenInterfaith: Parliament of the World’s Religions

Quilt of Belonging, Parliament of the World’s Religions, 2018.   Photo, Susan Katz Miller

I love seeing people from #GenInterfaith, those from interfaith families, or with complex religious affinities, taking their places as leaders in both interfaith activism and interfaith scholarship. It’s happening in organizations devoted to interfaith understanding, and in academia. So this year, I decided to create a space to celebrate our coming of age, at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Toronto.

The Parliament is, very simply, the biggest and liveliest interfaith tent of all. And I love that guarding of the tent flaps by dominant religious institutions is minimal. This was my second Parliament experience, and of all the interfaith events I have attended through the years, the Parliament is the best at decentering white Christian norms, and including a huge indigenous presence from the Americas and around the world. Where else would I get to hear a Yanomami elder from Roraima, Brazil, take white people to task for global warming, in his own language, before an audience of thousands?

In the Red Tent, at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, 2018.  Photo, Susan Katz Miller

I also love the Parliament because outside of the formal presentations, there are so many spaces to interact and get to know each other, from the daily langar meal provided by Sikhs, to the Red Tent space for women of all religions or none to recline on pillows together, to the stages filled with music and dance throughout the day.  To my academic friends who skip the Parliament because it is not serious enough–you are missing the point! Especially for those who are struggling to elevate voices of women, indigenous people, and people of the African diaspora in academia, I highly recommend the Parliament.

So, in my second experience speaking at a Parliament, I knew what to do: hand over the mic, and listen. I used my speaking slot titled #GenInterfaith to encourage a roomful of people with complex religious bonds to talk about their own experiences and declare their own multiple religious affiliations or influences or ties. Having created a safe space for these stories, we heard from people with connections to African diaspora religions, atheism, Buddhism, traditional Chinese religions, Christianity, Hinduism, humanism, Islam, Judaism, Native American religions, Paganism, and Unitarianism. Many were speaking up about their complex religious lives for the first time in public. And they told me that this hour together was incandescent, empowering, and deeply moving.

While my first book, very frankly, drew primarily from the Jewish and Christian worlds of my childhood, my forthcoming book is designed to work for people from any and all religions (or none). The timing feels right. After five years of speaking to and about Jewish and Christian interfaith families, from coast to coast, I am ready to dwell in a larger tent. I will continue to commit my life to making space for interfaith families and people with complex religious practices. But whenever I can, wherever I can, I am determined to share my platform, and hand over the mic. So if you are inspired to tell your interfaith family story, or your story of complex religious practice, I invite you to write for this blog. Or better yet, let’s plan an event, and tell our stories together, in conversation.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (forthcoming in 2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

When One Religion Isn’t Enough

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It brings me great joy to celebrate the recent publication of When One Religion Isn’t Enough: The Lives of Spiritually Fluid People, by Duane Bidwell, who is a Buddhist, a Christian minister, and a scholar at the Claremont School of Theology. If you follow this blog, you will want to read this book.

Note: I am not the least bit objective about Bidwell’s work. I count the author as a friend, discussed the ideas with him over many years, and encouraged Beacon Press to publish this book. I knew it would help create an academic foundation for our nascent field, and greater acceptance for all of us with complex religious lives. Bidwell cites my work, including reprinting the Bill of Rights for Interfaith People I adapted from Maria Root’s work. And it is an honor to be quoted on the back of the book, alongside academic luminaries Paul Knitter, John Thatamanil and Peniel Jesadason Rufus Rajkumar.

Here’s what I wrote:

“This groundbreaking book is essential for anyone who wants to understand the contemporary religious landscape. Bidwell offers up richly detailed personal stories told with great sensitivity. In telling these stories, this book documents spiritual fluidity as transgressive yet also life-giving, and as important and surprisingly common rather than marginal and exceptional.”

I think of Bidwell’s book as a necessary complement to Being Both. While Being Both describes people from interfaith families celebrating more than one religion, Bidwell puts these families into a more global context in which whole cultures celebrate more than one religion, and also explains why more adults in the U.S. are intentionally taking on a second religion.

A word on terminology: part of the difficulty with establishing this field of study, and bringing together people from different worlds to discuss it, is that there is no consensus on how we describe ourselves. Some religious institutions still use self-referential language, such as “intermarriage” and “partial” identities. Catholic theologians created the term multiple religious belonging, but many have now shifted to multiple religious practice or multiple religious bonds, since the individual does not fully control where they can belong. Multifaith,  interreligious, interbelief, and interworldview have all been suggested as alternatives to interfaith. Anthropologists and sociologists may use the terms syncretism, hybridity, or bricolage. And in what I call #GenInterfaith, young people are more apt to use terms like mixed, religiously non-binary or intersectional, or religiously queer.

I have stood by the use of the term “interfaith,” in part because I want people to be able to find these writings, and “interfaith family” is a succinct term and still the one they are most likely to search. And while some find the many different uses of “interfaith” confusing, I am intentional in linking interfaith families and interfaith identities with interfaith peace-making and interfaith activism. And I am intentional in pushing back against those who still believe any form of “interfaith” is dangerous.

Into this complex and frankly confusing semantic landscape, Duane Bidwell makes a bold case for using the terms religious multiplicity, and spiritual fluidity.  I worry that anything with“fluidity” makes us sound mercurial, when some of us feel very grounded and stable in our complexity. But I appreciate Bidwell’s thoughtful parsing of the options and implications, and if we converge on these new terms, I’m certainly going along!  

When One Religion is Not Enough describes how individuals come to be religiously multiple, how they navigate the world with these identities or practices, and also, how they contribute to the world. This last point will strike many who harbor lingering doubts as the most novel, and most challenging. And yet, Bidwell wisely insists, “monoreligious and multiple religious people can learn from each other.”

One key contribution of this book is setting these ideas in historical and geographical context. The author refers to how spiritual fluidity arises through colonialism, conquest, appropriation, and the overlay in time and space of religious traditions. And the interviews and anecdotes draw on the rich diversity of the United States, bringing us a host of marginalized voices.

Informants include a Catholic Tibetan Buddhist, a Canadian raised with Christianity and Hinduism, a Christian theologian who grew up practicing Santeria, and a Christian pastor who is also an Ifa priest. Each of us inevitably peers through our own lenses, and Bidwell’s lenses are clearly Christian and Buddhist. But one of the many strengths of this book is the acknowledgement of the importance of immigrant, indigenous, and African diaspora religious identities in this country.

Another key contribution is the way that Bidwell organizes people with complex religious bonds: those who choose complexity, those who feel called to it, and those who inherit multiplicity either from interfaith parents or multi-religious cultures. But then he gracefully concedes that disentangling such categories is not always easy or possible: “…the categories of religious choice, heritage, and invitation are not pure or exclusive.”

I look forward to a lifetime of wrestling with this material, in conversation with this author. Bidwell writes, “In the end, people choose complex religious bonds because multiplicity offers them more benefits than drawbacks.” This certainly affirms my conclusion in studying, and living in, interfaith families. And I am thrilled that this book places people from interfaith families in conversation with other people living religiously complex lives.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (forthcoming in 2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Hanukkah, in Interfaith Families Celebrating Two (or More) Religions

First Night of Hanukkah, photo by Susan Katz Miller

This time of year, interfaith families scour the internet for advice on celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas. For those who celebrate both December holidays, I post this roundup of just some of the many pieces I have written over nine Hanukkahs now in the blogosphere.

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

But yes, there are drawbacks. Celebrating both of these December holidays can lead to an overabundance of gifts. Some families have a tradition of giving small presents for Hanukkah instead of toys, such as socks, or lifesavers, or children’s books. (You can find my round-up of interfaith holiday children’s books here, and a new addition for South Asian and Jewish families here).

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

Another year, I wrote a series of snapshots of 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).

That year, I also wrote a piece for Huffington Post 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 in that sweet spot on the calendar between Thanksgiving and Christmas: December 2nd to 9th. So we avoid that Thanksgivukkah nonsense. And we minimize any awkwardness in the overlap of Hanukkah and Christmas, for those of us who like to keep the December holidays separate.

And I do like to 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 sent to our kids when they were in college (thanks to dormitory fire laws!).

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 about in the great world, and you can only hope that they will be warmed by the nostalgic glow of holiday memories. At our house, we tried to take every opportunity, from both of our religions, to create those memories.

 

 

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (forthcoming in 2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Losing My Father, Not My Religion

 

Bill Katz at the piano, Ben's Bar Mitzvah
Bill Katz at the piano. Copyright, StephanieWilliamsImages

What does it look like to be part of a lineage in which all the living descendants are interfaith, multifaith, of mixed heritage, religiously complex, or hybrids? The easy answer is that now, we look like the future. But in truth, I am only just beginning to contemplate this question. I suspect I will be thinking and writing about it for the rest of my days.

My father, William Emanuel Katz–the Jewish patriarch of our three-generation interfaith family–died at age 94 on November 10th. He was the last remaining grandparent for my children, and their only Jewish grandparent. My father was a strong leader, an alpha, a first-born, with outsized influence on our family structure. He raised his four children with Jewish educations and affiliation. His grandchildren are a mixed multitude: some Jewish, some Catholic, some claiming complex interfaith identities.

My father lived a long and very full life, centered on an extraordinary work ethic, and devotion to family, music, and my mother. He wanted a second line New Orleans jazz band to enter his funeral with a dirge, and exit playing “When the Saints Go Marching In.” And that’s exactly what we gave him. As I danced behind the soprano sax and trombone and snare drum, leading the congregation out of the warmth of our tiny family synagogue and onto a freezing slate sidewalk in northeastern Pennsylvania, some of my cousins looked mildly perplexed. But this musical send-off and homecoming was something my father had always said he wanted, in keeping with his lifelong avocation as a jazz pianist, and also as an homage to his New Orleans grandparents–a rabbi and a Jewish orphan.

For me, inviting in “The Saints” also served as a hat tip to my Episcopalian mother as a coda to an otherwise traditional Reform Jewish memorial service, since the song is based on a gospel hymn. The lyrics draw from the Book of Revelation, recalling for me how my mother both wrote and illustrated a thesis for her comparative religion major, based on the imagery of William Blake. But it also reminds me of my father’s passion for the many great musical genres inspired by Christian themes, from the gospel roots of the blues, to the traditional Christmas carols he played at our annual parties, to American songbook standards written by nice Jewish boys including Mel Torme’s The Christmas Song and Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, to the works of Bach (a devout Lutheran) my father worked on almost daily throughout his life, to the grand masses of Beethoven and Bernstein.

Because interfaith families still face so much resistance from religious institutions, I feel forced to forever justify my celebration of interfaith family life, however joyous and enriching and spiritually satisfying this life is for me. And so, I would note that we have lost my father, but we have not lost Judaism. I remain a member of our tiny temple, founded by my forebears in 1849. Five days after his burial, I returned to my father’s grave with a large and motley crew of cousins, to say the Kaddish for six generations of family in our cemetery.

I am the family scribe. I process by writing. And yet, it is not easy to share the sacred and liminal moments surrounding a death in the family. But because the epic interfaith love story of my parents is foundational in my work–in my first book, in the years of essays on this blog, and in every talk I give–I feel a duty to publicly mark this huge transition in my life, as I did two years ago for my mother.

My mother used to tease me, “For Pete’s sake, are you going to spend your entire career telling and retelling the story of your parents?” And more than ever now, my answer is, “Yes, Mom, I am going to do just that.” Because not only were they my parents, but their place in history as a wildly successful interfaith couple at the leading edge of a huge demographic shift made them worthy of lifelong study. And because I hope that these memories, and the inspiration of their love story, can forever be a blessing for us all.

 

Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (forthcoming in 2019).