“All of Us,”and Interfaith Families as Inspiration

Filming “All of Us” in Herald Square

All of my life, even before writing two books on the topic, I have worked to explain that interfaith families have expertise in interfaith peacemaking.

If you want to learn how to have interfaith work relationships, school relationships, community relationships, then look to interfaith families for clues. Talk to the people who embody interfaith relationships full-time.

Over a decade ago now, I wrote on this topic for Huffington Post, and and on my blog. And still, I see national “interfaith” organizations launch without any reference to the growing demographic importance of interfaith families. And still, international “World’s Religions” conferences do not keynote interfaith families as a driving force in interfaith understanding, despite our growing numbers.

I do see real progress in the evolution beyond the traditional top-down “three old white clergymen with beards” model of interfaith Abrahamic conversation (one rabbi, one priest, and one imam). I see real progress in the more contemporary and inclusive panels representing diverse races and genders and many religions, and even a secular humanist or two. And yet, too often, there is still no space at this table for people who openly represent interfaith families. In fact, often there remains a tacit understanding that some clergy come to the interfaith conversation only with the agreement that the whole topic of interfaith families is off the table, or a bridge too far. And yet, more and more of us embody those bridges.

And so, it is tremendously affirming to welcome to the world a Belgian documentary film, “Nous Tous,” (or, “All of Us” in English), that acknowledges interfaith families as an important example of interfaith peacemaking. And this week, until May 22nd, you can stream it for free on youtube HERE in conjunction with tomorrow’s UN International Day of Living Together in Peace. The film documents the inspiring stories of people creating community across religious difference in five countries: Bosnia, Indonesia, Lebanon, Senegal, and the US. Director Pierre Pirard first contacted me three years ago, while planning to visit the United States to film US footage for the documentary. I met the crew in New York, and was honored to be filmed as an expert on interfaith families.

With “All of Us” director Pierre Pirard in Herald Square

The portions of the film in the US and Senegal directly address interfaith families as peacemakers. Pirard and his crew went to Florida to film Rorri Geller-Mohamed (Jewish), her husband Arif (Muslim), and their extended Jewish and Muslim families, celebrating their two religions together. Then they traveled to Long Island to film the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities on the Brookville Multifaith Campus, a community I described for The Washington Post in 2016. At the heart of that campus, an Interfaith Community created by and for interfaith families provides Jewish and Christian interfaith education, though their central role is not described in the film. (For more on the roots of the Multifaith Campus, read Being Both, or my 2016 Q&A with Reverend Vicky Eastland).

Will “All of US” help more people to understand that interfaith families can be joyous, can be inspirational, can be role models–rather than a problem to be solved, or a threat? I think it will. The power of film–the images, the sound, the intimacy–is undeniable. I first noticed this when I appeared in the documentary Leaps of Faiths, which chronicles interfaith families in Chicago. I had written about these Chicago families in Being Both, on my blog, and in the press. But even for interfaith family members who had read all of my descriptions of Chicago interfaith family communities, seeing them on film, seeing the embodied love in families that mirrored their own, was profoundly moving.

The last two pandemic years have been difficult for all of us. But they have also created more awareness of our global interconnections. Give yourself the gift of spending 90 minutes with “All of Us”: stop in on four continents, and breathe in some hope, some inspiration, some optimism.

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 (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Ramadan, Passover, and Good Friday. Interfaith Families Making it Work

The crescent moon will appear this Saturday night, marking the start of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting and reflection. I am a Jewish and Christian interfaith kid who spent three years in Senegal, a predominantly Muslim country, so I pay attention to our intersecting religious calendars. And this year, we will have a great convergence, as all three Abrahamic religions mark important religious holidays on the night of April 15th. Good Friday falls not only on the night of the first Passover seder, but in the middle of Ramadan. So interfaith families, whether Jewish and Christian, Christian and Muslim, Jewish and Muslim, or encompassing all three religions, will need to do some extra planning this year.

It is not uncommon for Good Friday to fall during Holy Week (from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday). This is because both Christianity and Judaism are guided by an intricate dance of the moon and the sun–the lunisolar calendar–for these spring holidays . When Good Friday and the first Passover Seder fall on the same night, it can maximize the logistical and emotional challenges for interfaith families who celebrate both religions. (I first wrote about this convergence in 2012, and again in 2015, 2018 and 2019). Meanwhile, Ramadan is on a fully lunar calendar, so the month shifts through the seasons of our Gregorian solar calendar year.

Theologically, many interfaith families experience more cognitive dissonance in the spring holidays, than they do in December. Some Jewish and Muslim family members find it easier to celebrate the birth of Jesus with Christian family members, than they do to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus as the only son of God and the central event that led to the creation of Christianity. And for Jews, historically Holy Week was a time of pogroms and increased antisemitism in Europe, and that generational trauma can persist.

The idea that the Last Supper was a Passover Seder is a tantalizing point of connection, though historically debatable. But for Jews, this idea may also raise the red flag of supersessionism—the problematic idea that Judaism was simply a starter religion in the evolution of Christianity. The recent enthusiasm among evangelical Christian communities for holding “Christian seders” without Jews there to guide them has also created friction. Although to be clear, inviting Christians–whether family or friends–to a seder led by Jews does not pose the same problems.

The contrasting moods of Passover and Good Friday may also create a challenge. Good Friday is a solemn commemoration of the crucifixion. A Passover Seder is a joyous celebration of the exodus from slavery in Egypt, involving feasting and drinking. This joy is tempered by acknowledging the violence of the plagues, and the ongoing effects of slavery and colonial oppression worldwide. And the Exodus story, which turns on conflict between Jews and Egyptians, can trigger discomfort in interfaith families given ongoing conflict in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, in the realm of the practical, both Passover (no leaven) and Good Friday (no meat) involve culinary restrictions. And the emphasis on wine as a key ritual component of the seder can pose a problem for Muslim family members.

Nevertheless, despite the challenges and inspired by our differences, we create families across religious boundaries, and insist on marking holidays together, in all our complexity and diversity. So, in a year like this one, how to honor two or three religions, with grace under pressure? Keep in mind that every family celebration, especially when there are small children involved, is going to be imperfect. As multifaith bard Leonard Cohen reminds us, “Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

Here, I suggest some practical strategies for the spring holiday convergence this year:

  1. Flexible Scheduling. Many Jewish families celebrate multiple Seders–before, during, and even after the official eight days of Passover. If Christian family members want to fast and attend church on the night of Good Friday this year, consider shifting the first Seder to a night later in the week, when the mood could be more festive for both Jewish and Christian family members.
  2. Adapt the Seder Menu. Some Christians may be fine with going to a noon service on Good Friday, and then a first Seder on Friday night. And some interfaith families will feel they must hold the first Seder on the traditional date. In this case, it would be thoughtful to adapt the Seder main dish, if your Christian family members are avoiding meat for the Good Friday fast. So, salmon instead of brisket? This would also please pescatarians and those who don’t eat red meat. Or, explain to extended family ahead of time that your Christian family members may skip the brisket, and fill up on matzoh ball soup.
  3. Honor the Sunset. When holding a Passover seder during Ramadan in a Jewish and Muslim interfaith family, be sure to time the first seder foods for after sundown, which will not be until 7:45pm on April 15th this year on the East Coast of the US. This way, Muslim family members will be able to break their fast by sharing in the Passover meal. As early as 1806, Thomas Jefferson moved the time for an official White House dinner to sunset, in order to accommodate a Muslim envoy from Tunisia. Muslim and Christian families might also consider holding the Easter meal after dark this year, during Ramadan.
  4. Consider the Fruit of the Vine. Fancy sparkling non-alcoholic grape juice for children has always been a part of most seders. In our family, over the years, numerous family members have stopped drinking alcohol because they live with addiction, because they are elderly, or for other health reasons. With Muslim guests and family members in attendance, consider shifting to sparkling grape juice for all. Your relatives in recovery will appreciate it. And the blessing over the fruit of the vine works just as well!
  5. Honor the Iftar. The foods included in an Iftar meal to break the Ramadan fast vary with different cultures. Of course providing water is important, and many break the fast with dates. Why not include plates of dates on the seder table? And in the spirit of Passover as a celebration of social justice and liberation, some people include an olive on the seder plate for Palestinians and all oppressed peoples. Olives are typically included in an Iftar feast, and plates of olives to pass around the seder table feels like a welcoming gesture.
  6. Consider the Passover Liturgy. The haggadah, the booklet of prayers and songs and reflections to guide the seder service and meal, has myriad versions, including placing the Exodus story in conversation with civil rights, the plight of refugees, or LGBTQ+ experiences. Many families create their own haggadot, drawing on multiple sources. For a Jewish and Muslim interfaith family seder, you might want to take a look at this 2019 haggadah including Muslim prayers and readings from the Qur’an, created by and for Jewish and Muslim women holding a seder together with the Sisterhood of Salaam-Shalom.
  7. Adapt the Easter Menu. When Easter falls during Passover, look for ways to make Easter easier for Jewish family members avoiding leavened bread. For breakfast, we like to make matzoh brei (eggs scrambled with matzoh) instead of the traditional Easter pancakes—the savory protein dish offsets the sugar rush of Easter candy. And at Easter dinner, my interfaith family serves lamb, a Passover tradition in many Sephardic homes, rather than ham. (Be aware that there is a big debate about whether and what kind of lamb you can eat at Passover). Avoiding ham reduces the culinary dissonance for both Jews and Muslims in interfaith families.
  8. Try Not to Stress. Attempting to reenact every single family Passover and Easter and Ramadan tradition in one night may cause parents and children to melt down like Peeps in the microwave. Every family, whether monofaith or interfaith, instinctively curates the family traditions they want to preserve, and sets aside others. So, for instance, as much as I loved the idea of my mother’s traditional Easter cake made in the shape of a lamb, my family now skips this tradition. I don’t love cake made from matzoh meal, and the idea of cutting into a lamb cake would not amuse my vegan daughter now. Our preferred dessert for the weekend is matzoh toffee brittle.

As always, creating successful interfaith family holidays depends on putting yourself in the shoes of others, clear communication, and flexibility. If a strategy works for you, try to tune out the self-proclaimed experts telling you that you are doing it wrong, that your innovations are inauthentic, or that you have to do it all. Remember that all religious traditions change over time: they cannot be pinned down like desiccated butterfly specimens in a museum case. Be confident in the knowledge that the different ways to celebrate together are as numerous as the leaves of spring grass.

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 (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

In Memoriam: Sheila Gordon, Interfaith Families Leader

The interfaith families community movement has lost our most important founder and leader, Sheila Gordon.

Sheila was a passionate visionary. She did more than any other human being to forge the concept of a community providing interfaith education for interfaith children, and then to ensure that idea persisted in the world. She was co-creator of the very first interfaith families community, which became the Interfaith Community (IFC) in New York City. And then, instead of retiring, she dedicated the past two decades to leading IFC, branching off new interfaith family communities in New Jersey, Long Island, Connecticut, and elsewhere. As a movement, we exist in large part because of Sheila’s intellect, energy, and phenomenal dedication. She worked right up through what she knew would be her final months to ensure a legacy that would benefit interfaith families, on into the future.

Founder and Creator

The story of our national movement began in 1987, when a group of parents led by Sheila and Lee Gruzen created an afterschool interfaith education program for their interfaith children on New York’s Upper West Side. Lee wrote a book published that same year, Raising Your Jewish/Christian Child: How Interfaith Parents Can Give Children the Best of Both Their Heritages, and Sheila wrote a foreword to the book’s second edition, in 2001.

In that same year, Sheila retired from foundation work, and began dedicating all her formidable professional skills to the IFC program. She hired Christian and Jewish seminarians from Union Theological Seminary and Jewish Theological Seminary to co-write an interfaith curriculum for interfaith children, and to co-teach in the classrooms. One of her greatest legacies is the generations of ministers and rabbis who understand the importance of interfaith education for interfaith families, because they taught at IFC (including my friends and colleagues Rabbi Ari Saks and Reverend Samantha Gonzalez-Block). And she developed IFC into a template that could be replicated by other communities, providing advice and professional support from her IFC office in the famous “God Box” on Riverside Drive, close by both seminaries.

National Expert

In addition to running IFC and supporting all of its branches (including communities in Boston and Denver at various points), Sheila stood out as the most experienced national leader representing the idea of interfaith education for interfaith families. In the 1990s and 2000’s we met up as presenters at the national Dovetail interfaith family national conferences. She brought a delegation of IFC folks to DC to visit my community, the Interfaith Families Project (IFFP). I visited Sheila and her beloved husband Robin Elliott in New York, when I interviewed her for my book Being Both, and again to celebrate that book’s publication. In 2015, she wrote a guest post for my blog, analyzing a new study on interfaith children. And in 2017, she wrote an academic paper for UNESCO entitled “Interfaith education: A new model for today’s interfaith families.

In 2020, when the pandemic challenged the functioning of all our communities (and all communities generally), Sheila joined us on Network of Interfaith Family Groups zoom calls to strategize, despite her illness. On those calls, she advised couples from around the country on finding and creating interfaith family communities. And in zoom calls with leadership of the NY, Chicago, and DC interfaith families groups in the last year, we strove to ensure that this work, her work, would live on, and receive the national recognition it deserves.

Personally, I have lost my most important interfaith families mentor. It feels daunting, and lonely, to imagine doing this work without her advice and support. Sheila exemplified both the compassion and stubborn determination required for this job. All of my work on interfaith families is only possible because of all of her work. She understood both the frustration and the necessity of engaging with resistant religious institutions. And she understood the satisfaction of going ahead and providing that interfaith education with or without those institutions, and building community around it.

The task was endless, but she never desisted. She led us through narrow places, and her legacy is assured in the myriad ways that interfaith education for interfaith children has taken root. Her memory will be a blessing to thousands of interfaith families today, and into the future.

You can make a donation in memory of Sheila Gordon to support interfaith families through the Interfaith 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 (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Spring Interfaith Holidays 2022

Lizas HexTop
Glorious Color quilts by my cousin, Liza Prior Lucy

This post has become an annual tradition. Over more than a decade writing this interfaith blog, I have posted multiple essays on many of the spring Jewish and Christian holidays: PurimSt Patrick’s DayPassoverEaster. But the complex, interlocking quilt squares of #GenInterfaith now go far beyond Judaism and Christianity.

My latest book, The Interfaith Family Journal, is designed for all interfaith families, of any or all religions, or none. And while we make many different choices about what to believe, how to practice, and where to affiliate (or not), all of us in extended interfaith families (and increasingly, that is most of us) benefit from these spring multi-sensory celebrations with extended family, neighbors, and co-workers.

This year, spring holidays kick off tomorrow with the convergence of Mardi Gras (Shrove Tuesday) and Maha Shivaratri. And, head’s up for all my Jewish and Christian interfaith families: 2022 is one of those years when the first night of Passover falls on Good Friday.

Below, I list some of the highlights of the dense schedule of spring holidays in March and April (for a more complete list go here). Note the ancient connections many of these holidays have to the spring equinox, and often, to each other. Religions and cultures are not static, but change in response to neighboring religions and cultures, just as we change and grow through our interconnections in interfaith families.

March 1, Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras). For Roman Catholics and some Protestants, this day marks the end of feasting before the beginning of fasting for Lent. Shrove Tuesday is the finale of Carnival (Shrovetide), with notable multi-day celebrations in Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago, New Orleans, Venice, and some Protestant regions. Carnival may have many historical ties to the pre-Christian celebrations of the return of the sun.

March 1, Maha Shivaratri, a major Hindu festival honoring Lord Shiva and his marriage to the Parvati (Shakti), combining their energies. The celebration includes staying up all night to meditate, chant, and dance, in the darkest season.

March 2, Ash Wednesday, for Roman Catholics and some Protestants, marking the start of Lent. Lent is a period of prayer and penance in commemoration of Jesus’s 40 days in the desert, and in preparation for Easter. Many practitioners make a Lenten sacrifice, giving up a specific luxury food (chocolate, all sweets, alcohol) during Lent.

March 17, Purim. Jewish commemoration of the Biblical story of Esther in ancient Persia, celebrated with costumed reenactments (Purim spiels), three-cornered pastry (hamantaschen), carnival games, drinking, and charity. Some believe Esther is connected to the ancient fertility goddess Ishtar, and there may be a historical connection between Norooz and Purim.

March 17, St Patrick’s Day. Catholic commemoration of the Feast Day of St Patrick, primarily celebrated by Irish-Americans with parades, drinking, and the wearing of the green, as a way to connect with Irish heritage. Now celebrated in America by people of many religions. Possible historical connection to Ostara.

March 18, Holi. Hindu commemoration of the arrival of spring and love, celebrated with bonfires, throwing powdered color pigments and water on each other, music, feasting, forgiving debts, repairing relationships, and visiting. Popular even with non-Hindus in South Asia, and increasingly (and not without controversy over appropriation) throughout the world.

March 18-20, Hola Mohalla. Sikh celebration including processions, ceremonial battles, poetry reading, and music. There is a historical connection between the Hindu festival of Holi, and Hola Mohalla.

March 20, Spring Equinox. Ostara, ModernPagan/Wiccan commemoration of the spring equinox and Eostre, the Saxon lunar goddess of fertility. Celebrated with planting of seeds and nature walks. Possible historical connections between Eostre/Esther/Ishtar, and between Easter, Passover, and Norooz.

March 21, Norooz (Nowruz, Naw-Ruz). Zoroastrian/Bahai/Persian celebration of the New Year on the spring equinox. With roots in ancient Iran, people of many religions may celebrate Norooz together in the Balkans, Caucasus, Central and South Asia, and the Middle East, with spring cleaning, flowers, picnics, feasting, and family visits. Afghan refugees in your neighborhood may be celebrating Norooz. Possible historical connection between Norooz and Purim.

March 30, Magha Puja Day. Buddhist commemoration of Buddha delivering the principles of Buddhism, on the full moon. Celebrated in Southeast Asia with temple visits, processions, and good works.

April 3, start of the month-long daytime fast for Ramadan in Islam, commemorating the revelation of the Qu’ran. Muslim holidays are on a lunar calendar, so move through the seasons over time.

April 14, Mahavir Janma Kalyanak, the Jain holiday celebrating the birth of Lord Mahavir with temple visits, charity, rallies promoting non-violence and veganism, and running events.

April 14, Viasakhi, the Sikh New Year and harvest celebration marking the founding of the Khalsa order, a group of highly devout warrior-saints founded by Guru Gobind Singh. The holiday is marked by parades, community service, music (kirtans), and visits to the gurdwara.

April 14, Maundy Thursday. Protestant and Roman Catholic commemoration of The Last Supper. There may (or may not) be a historical connection between The Last Supper and the Passover seder.

April 15, Good Friday. Protestant and Roman Catholic commemoration of the Crucifixion of Jesus, with church services and fasting.

Sundown on April 15 to April 23, Passover (Pesach), Jewish commemoration of the flight from Egypt described in the book of Exodus. Primarily a home-based celebration with one or more festive Seder meals of ritual foods, songs, and prayer. As with Easter, Passover incorporates (presumably pre-Judaic pagan) spring equinox fertility symbolism (eggs, spring greens).

April 17, Easter. Protestant and Roman Catholic commemoration of the Resurrection of Jesus, celebrated with church services, family dinners, and baskets of candy for children. Fertility imagery including bunnies and eggs may, or may not, have a historical connection to pre-Christian rituals and the spring equinox.

April 24, Orthodox Easter (or Pascha) in many of the Orthodox Christian traditions using the Julian rather than Gregorian calendar, including Bulgaria, Cyprus, Ethiopia, Greece, Lebanon, Macedonia, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine, as well as millions of people in North America. Many of these cultures include a feast of lamb (connected historically to Passover) and hard-boiled eggs (possibly connected to more ancient fertility traditions).

New Bordered Diamonds Cover
Glorious Color quilts by my cousin, Liza Prior Lucy

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 (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Valentine’s Day in My Interfaith Family

Snowdrops. Photo, Susan Katz Miller

This was another long, hard winter, with the pandemic continuing, and too much isolation for all of us. Today, on Valentine’s Day, we had flurries of snow here in DC, but the delicate snowdrops are already blooming with the promise of spring.

Valentine’s Day, for me, always means remembering the epic interfaith marriage of my parents. They got married on February 13th, 1960, in a snowstorm in upstate New York. When they woke up the next morning, they ate a one-pound chocolate heart for breakfast on Valentine’s Day together in bed. And every year, for Valentine’s Day, my father drew awkward and hilarious valentines for my mother, and for each of his four children, on the cardboard that came from the dry cleaners with his folded business shirts.

Valentine drawn by William Emanuel Katz

So Valentine’s Day has always been a family tradition for us. Every day for over 50 years of marriage, until death parted them, my parents demonstrated for me the idea that you can have a successful interfaith marriage. All of my work is a tribute to their joy, their creativity, their way of accentuating the positive.

And as a result, I look forward to the fact that I get to retell a bit of their story every year, when I get calls from media wanting to talk about interfaith love stories as Valentine’s Day approaches. This year, I was honored to be part of an hour-long show this weekend about interfaith families, on Interfaith Voices, the radio show broadcast on 90 radio stations across the country. And I have more podcast appearances coming up, so stay tuned.

I am also appearing at more than one interfaith couples workshop this season. My parents taught me that being in an interfaith relationship depends on deep communication skills. So I am always eager to talk to couples just starting out on their journeys together, and to provide them with the tools and advice built into The Interfaith Family Journal .

Even after more than a decade of talking about interfaith families professionally, I am finding new ways to see the world through the lens that is my legacy. Right now, I am putting together a new talk for college students on Complex Identities and Interfaith Relationships, after an invitation to return to Lafayette College this spring. I look forward to bringing that talk to more colleges, universities, and seminaries, so contact me now for 2022 bookings.

And coming up soon, on Sunday February 27th, I have the honor of co-facilitating a completely new interactive workshop with Rabbi Mark Sameth, entitled “Non-Binary God, Non-Binary Spirituality.” Watch this video, in which we get excited about the workshop. And register now to join us. I know my father, the grandson and nephew of rabbis, would have been proud of this new work. He wanted me to be an engineer, like him, but I know he also understood why making space for interfaith families became my calling.

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 (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

A Cloud Never Dies. Interfaith Families and Thich Nhat Hanh

Photo, Susan Katz Miller

In the most well-known dharma talk by beloved Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, he contemplates drinking a cloud in a cup of tea. The cloud never dies–it transitions to a raindrop, to a river, to the tea in his cup. Yesterday, we learned of the peaceful transition at age 95 of Thich Nhat Hanh, or Thay (“teacher”), as he was known to those who followed his mindfulness practice. We must now look for him in the clouds, in the rain, in the steam rising from our tea.

Thich Nhat Hanh was an author of many influential books, and a peace activist nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967 by Martin Luther King Jr. His teachings were the primary inspiration for Engaged Buddhism. And his practice had particular significance for many interfaith families, and multiple religious practitioners including Buddhist Jews, and Buddhist Christians.

My interfaith children have been known to describe their identities as Jewish and Christian swirl with a ribbon of Buddhism. Their formative introduction to the teachings of Thay came through three family friends and teachers: Paul Wapner, Sharron Mendel Swain, and Reverend Julia Jarvis. Julia was our longtime Spiritual Leader at the Interfaith Families Project. She came to us as a Christian minister, but she also infused our gatherings with Buddhist meditation and teachings, and brought us Buddhist teachers including Mitchell Ratner, and Kaira Jewel Lingo. So my interfaith children grew up listening to the ringing of bowls, and the silence that follows.

In 2011, I was lucky when Julia invited me to the Warner Theater in Washington DC to see and hear Thay. Arriving, I was slightly skeptical about spending an entire evening listening to a diminutive elderly monk seated on a stage. But then, I was riveted by Thay’s quiet presence, the depth of his words, his compassion, and his humor as he described that cloud in his cup of tea. May his memory be for a blessing!

Photo, Susan Katz Miller

Buddhism has long had a following among adult interfaith children and interfaith families. Our friend Sharron was raised by one Jewish and one Christian parent. She found a spiritual home in Buddhism in her 20s, and spent time in Plum Village, the Buddhist community created by Thay in France. She went on to teach in our interfaith families community, worked in UU religious education, and eventually converted to Judaism.

Years ago, I asked Sharron about the appeal of Buddhism for her, as someone born into an interfaith family. Today, I reprint our Q&A here, in memory of Thay.

Susan: Why does Buddhism seem to have particular appeal for some interfaith families and interfaith people?

Sharron: The beautiful thing about Buddhism is that it never, in my experience, asks someone to choose.  For example, in the Plum Village tradition in which I practice, it would be unthinkable to ask someone of mixed race parentage, “are you Black or are you White”?  Same with asking someone with Vietnamese parents who was raised in the US:  “are you Vietnamese or are you American?”  Anyone who’s been around for any time would get it that you’re both!  It would be like asking a child “are you your father’s child or your mother’s child”?  Of course you are the child of both. . .

One of the central tenets, if you can call it that, of this practice is the notion of “interbeing.”  Interbeing is a deep recognition of how intricately interconnected our world is, from the subatomic level to the level of the cosmos.  Looking deeply, it is possible to see that Christianity cannot exist without Judaism, and Judaism as it is today cannot exist independently of Christianity.

For me, it is as if Christianity and Judaism are two rivers of my family’s experience flowing into the ocean of my life and experience.  Buddhism is the one place I have found that is big enough to embrace the whole ocean, never asking me to choose.

Susan: Do you see Buddhism as having particular benefits for interfaith people/families?

Sharron: Buddhism doesn’t concern itself with the same questions, and is therefore focused on something other than the arguments that have been plaguing Christians and Jews for centuries, if not millennia.  The Buddha himself said he was not interested in the question of whether or not there was a God, and therefore focused his efforts and attention in a whole different direction.  Buddhism (when not practiced in a rote or devotional way, like anything else) is deeply experiential by nature.  It has a built-in “out” in that the Buddha basically said “look, try this, and decide based on your experience, not what I say.”  This is extraordinarily appealing to folks who have probably already broken a number of rules by venturing far enough outside their birth faith to marry someone raised in another faith.  Buddhism has countless practices that, if applied skillfully, can significantly assist in the process of transforming suffering, no matter what someone’s “religious” orientation may be.

And, an ironic thing about Buddhist practice is that it almost invariably leads the practitioner into a much closer examination of, and often deeper appreciation of, the religion (family, etc.) with which they were raised.  This often helps people arrive at a much more mature appreciation of the treasures buried in their birth traditions, and an ability to see the “garbage” for what it is.

Susan: Why do you think it seems to be easier for some people to practice Buddhism with Judaism, or Buddhism with Christianity (as theologian Paul Knitter does), than it is to practice Judaism and Christianity?

Sharron: The Buddha is completely innocent when it comes to the question of Christ’s death. Jews have been burdened for centuries with false allegations around this event, and all manner of prejudice and discrimination that flows from that.  Neither the Buddha, nor Buddhists, to my knowledge, participated in Crusades, or Inquisitions, or other bloody ways of spreading their faith.  Jews also, in many cases, have developed a strong (and justified) “fortress mentality” in the face of centuries of persecution.  The fact that the Holocaust was the experience of the older generation of Jews that is still living has undoubtedly created cultural and generational wounds that may take centuries to heal.

Nonviolence and nonharm are central to Buddhism.  People come into Buddhism with all kinds of wounds and baggage, but if they stick with it long enough, it helps transform all that.  There’s a recognition, perhaps like the Christian acknowledgement of sin, that we all suffer, but there’s no judgement with that.  It’s more like “we are alive, and so we suffer, we feel rage, we discriminate, etc. And we have the power to transform that suffering.  We’ve got all the ‘wholesome seeds’ within us, too.  This means that no matter how much anger or hatred is in us, we can shift the focus and nurture the altruism, the forgiveness, the kindness, and so on.”

This is a profoundly healing perspective, and when it is combined with skillful teachers and real practice, it changes lives.

1. The First Mindfulness Training: Openness

Why: Could you expand on the idea of Interbeing, a concept that sounds very relevant to interfaith families?

The first three mindfulness trainings of the Order of Interbeing (at least in Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition) may give some insight into what Buddhism offers:

Photo: Susan Katz Miller

Aware of the suffering created by fanaticism and intolerance, we are determined not to be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist teachings are guiding means to help us learn to look deeply and to develop our understanding and compassion. They are not doctrines to fight, kill, or die for.

2. The Second Mindfulness Training: Nonattachment from Views

Aware of the suffering created by attachment to views and wrong perceptions, we are determined to avoid being narrow-minded and bound to present views. We shall learn and practice nonattachment from views in order to be open to others’ insights and experiences. We are aware that the knowledge we presently possess is not changeless, absolute truth. Truth is found in life, and we will observe life within and around us in every moment, ready to learn throughout our lives.

3. The Third Mindfulness Training: Freedom of Thought

Aware of the suffering brought about when we impose our views on others, we are committed not to force others, even our children, by any means whatsoever – such as authority, threat, money, propaganda, or indoctrination – to adopt our views. We will respect the right of others to be different and to choose what to believe and how to decide. We will, however, help others renounce fanaticism and narrowness through practicing deeply and engaging in compassionate dialogue.

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 (2019). Follow her on Twitter @susankatzmiller.

On This Pandemic Solstice (and Yalda Night)

Author Susan Katz Miller, circa 1969.

And so we reach the darkest and shortest day of the year, at the close of a very long, dark year.

In this moment, how do we carry on? As winter descends, our traditions point us to flames, lanterns, sparkles, candles, moonlight, stars. We crave light; we create light. We gather like the first wolves that dared to approach the edge of a prehistoric campfire. Did those wolves stop to ponder why humans build fires? Did they struggle over whether or not to approve our campfire liturgies–the stories or songs we sing? Of course not. Just so, we humans can share wonder and a sense of peace when transfixed by the light of a menorah, of flames reflecting off tinsel, of an electric star perched on a cliff over a little town, of a blazing Yule log in a hearth–whether or not we claim these rituals as our own. Allowing ourselves to feel calm or delight or awe does not require a common language or theology.

The winter solstice is a moment we experience together as denizens of the northern hemisphere. You may see the solstice as a simple scientific fact–without need for supernatural belief of any kind. Or you may embrace the solstice as the inspiration for rituals that date back to the earliest gatherings of humankind. Whether our celebrations are indigenous, Pagan, Abrahamic, Dharmic, or purely astronomical, we gather in the darkness to reassure ourselves that we have each other, and that the light will return.

When my children were in preschool, the very wise teachers left religious celebrations to the families to explain or celebrate at home. They understood that school or government-sponsored Santas would exclude some children. Instead, they created gorgeous paper lanterns with the children in December, and then led a solemn winter solstice parade through town, culminating in hot cocoa. The celebration was secular, and yet profoundly moving. The children learned something of the science of the earth and sun, rotation and axis, but also, the universal human impulse to create warmth and light (and taste sweetness) in darkness.

Just days ago, on Hanukkah, I found myself wrapped in a blanket, gathered around a firepit, in the backyard of a friend who recently welcomed two Afghan refugees into her home. Our guests had never experienced Hanukkah before. We lit the candles, said a blessing, and sang the song about “kindling new the holy lamps,” culminating in these lyrics:

Yours the message cheering, that the time is nearing, which will see, all set free, tyrants disappearing.

For people who had just fled the Taliban, the theme of freedom clearly resonated. But Hanukkah has several intertwined themes, and so I mentioned how the timing of this holiday reenforced the theme of light in the darkness for those in the northern hemisphere, connecting Hanukkah with Diwali, Christmas, Yule.

Hanukkah 2021, photo Susan Katz Miller

One of our new Afghan friends immediately saw and explained the connection to the solstice celebration of Yalda Night (also known as Chelle Night) in Persian communities–including in Iran, Afghanistan, the Iranian diaspora in southern California, and now, of course, Afghan refugee communities in a new diaspora. Yalda Night predates Islam, and is tied to the birth of the Zoroastrian sun god, Mithra.

In Persian cultures today, people of all religions celebrate Yalda Night with traditions including staying up all night, reading the Persian poetry of Hafez, and eating pomegranates, watermelon, and charming cakes shaped like watermelon. The red color is thought to represent life blood and the red of dawn. Tonight, our new friends will celebrate their first American Yalda Night around a firepit in Maryland, in a household of Muslims, Jews, Christians, and atheists.

I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness the astonishing light of your own being. –14th-century Persian poet Hafez

We wait for the light, for spring, for relief from this tenacious virus, for the ability to travel and gather without fear, for tyrants to disappear. As we wait, we reach for poetry, song, sweets, and fire, to sustain us. And we reach for each other, even if it must be in masks, even if it must be at a safe distance, like wolves wary and skittish at the outer edge of the campfire.

Tonight is the solstice. Feel the warmth of the fire. The sun will return.

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 (2019). Follow her on Twitter @susankatzmiller.

Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and the Flood of 1942

Vintage postcard depicting our temple

On the first night of Hanukkah, I returned from my ancestral homeland, Honesdale, PA. This town, where my great-great grandparents are buried, lies in a deep valley in the foothills of the Poconos, at the confluence of the Lackawaxen River and Dyberry Creek. In Honesdale, we gather together from across the country every Thanksgiving. And on the night after Thanksgiving this year, we arrived at our teeny tiny ancestral temple for Shabbat prayers with my extended family, a mixed multitude of Jews and Christians and blood relatives and relatives-by-choice. This year, my young cousin Elizabeth led the prayers in the sanctuary where my father became a Bar Mitzvah.

Throughout our history, since my great-grandfather helped found Beth Israel congregation in 1849, we have often led services ourselves. Some weeks, in some years, rabbis drive over from New York City to lead Shabbat for us, but my family has been leading prayers on Fridays at our temple through four generations now. This week my cousin Liza, the current president of the congregation, arrived early and lit the electric yahrzeit (memorial) lights next to the names of all our family members–including my father and my (Episcopalian) mother–lighting up half the yarhrzeit plaques in the room. Once, this temple was thought to be the smallest in the world. We are small but historic, proud and persistent–the second-oldest synagogue in the country still occupied by the original congregation.

Earlier that day, I sat in the living room of the house my grandfather built for my grandmother in 1922, and listened as my son recorded his grandfather’s sister–still sharp and witty at 94–on his iPhone. Aunt Corinne told the story of the flood of 1942, when she was 14. It was a Friday night, and she went to temple with my grandparents and her little sister for the informal lay-led Shabbat prayers. Keep in mind that the temple is perched directly on the riverbank, just blocks downstream from the point where the Dyberry flows into the Lackawaxen.

No photo description available.
1941, The Swing Seven, Bill Katz (age 16) at the piano

Typically, in the 1930s and 40s, in winter, after 20 minutes of Shabbat prayers the whole congregation would go over to Honesdale High School for the weekly basketball game. My father’s band, The Swing Seven, would play for the dance after the game. But by 1942, my father had graduated and gone off to MIT. And it was May, not basketball season, and the waters were rising, so they all hurried home after the prayers, to the house ten blocks upstream, on Dyberry Creek.

At that point my grandfather, as he had before in past floods, somehow hoisted the Steinway grand piano up onto stacks of books, hoping to keep it above the water rising from the floorboards. My grandmother and aunts retreated to the second floor. But then, my grandmother realized her children might get hungry, and went back down to the kitchen to get them some bread from the pantry. As she entered the pantry, the waters whooshed the door closed behind her, and almost trapped her. But she was a very small person (we are a family of small people) and she was able to squeeze out and slosh her way back upstairs. Late that night, the floodwaters on the Lackawaxen peaked at 50,000 cubic feet per second, killing 26 people and destroying 75 homes in Honesdale. The flood washed out every bridge in town, as well as the prized 1933 stained glass windows in the temple.

At the house of my grandparents, my aunt watched from the landing of the stairs as the grand piano rose up and turtled, floating upside down in six feet of water in the living room. The next day, from the safety of the roof, she saw a rowboat glide down her street, with a neighbor distributing bread to those trapped on rooftops. And she saw planes buzzing overhead, photographing the flood from the air.

The phone lines were out, and no one could reach my father with news they were safe. Several states away, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, an MIT classmate asked him, “Hey Katz! What’s the name again of your little town in Pennsylvania again?” My father replied, “Honesdale!” And his classmate said, “Well it’s flooded and it’s on the front page of the paper. Look at this photo!”

When the waters subsided, and the phones finally got reconnected, my grandfather called Steinway to report four grand pianos owned by different family members in town, all submerged in the Honesdale flood. Steinway declared them beyond repair, and my grandparents began a search for a new piano. As my aunt recounted this story, sitting in the living room of her childhood home, we all looked over at the replacement Steinway. The temple made the practical decision to replace the destroyed stained glass windows with plain glass. My aunts got sent away to a relative in the countryside for weeks while my grandparents cleaned and repaired the house. And eventually two dams were built–on the Lackawaxen and the Dyberry–to prevent another deadly flood.

I realized this week, in that temple sanctuary, and in the living room of the house of my grandparents, and at the Thanksgiving meal where we entertained ourselves with a fashion parade of Katz pajamas, that we were taking risks this year. Last year, we did not gather at all. This year, we made a fraught decision to gather in spite of the pandemic, fully vaccinated and with testing and masks, because one can only go so long without family. Each year is precious, because each year we remember together the new marriages and deaths, and listen to stories from our elders, stories that may be lost.

This year, because of the alignment of the sun and moon and the secular calendar, we just missed celebrating Hanukkah together. By the time Hanukkah arrived on Sunday night, we had all gone home–to San Francisco, New York, Boston, and Washington DC. As I lit the first candle in our window, alone with my husband and our pandemic puppy, I thought about miracles.

I thought about the connections between the Hanukkah miracle of light in the darkness, of the miracle of tenacity in hostile environments, of escape from narrow places, of self-sufficiency, of adversity as the mother of innovation, of physical and emotional repair. I thought about the miracle of diversity that enriches our given and chosen interfaith families. And I thought about how objects become imbued with history, with spiritual resonance. Sometimes a Steinway is lost, and we feel desperate to replace it. Sometimes stained glass windows are lost, and plain glass just makes more sense. Sometimes a temple is ransacked, and all it takes is a little oil to persist with rituals that heal and bind.

I have trouble letting go of the stories from each generation, the objects left behind. And that is how I found myself yesterday driving away from Honesdale, over the mountains, in a car filled with a rotary telephone, a hatbox, vintage Pyrex, embroidered linens, and photographs, desperate to preserve family history from the floodwaters of time. Inevitably I know that some precious objects, and some stories, will be lost, and some will be passed down. And I feel a sense of gratitude that my son wanted both my aunt’s words recorded on his iPhone, and that rusted enamel colander with the missing handle.

This year’s first night of Hanukkah, photo Susan Katz Miller

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 (2019). Follow her on Twitter @susankatzmiller.

Yes, We Celebrate Both (Hanukkah and Christmas)

Photo by Susan Katz Miller

And so we reach that most reductive time of the year, when the choices of Jewish and Christian interfaith families are judged by whether they celebrate Hanukkah, or Christmas, or both, or neither.

In my opinion, this is a poor method for understanding the textured and nuanced lives of interfaith families. To take just one example of our complexity, many “we are Jewish, period” families celebrate Christmas as a sort of cultural exception (in a secular way, or, say, with Christian grandparents). So, the choices an interfaith family makes around “winter holidays” provide only very limited insight into the spirituality, beliefs, practices, and identities of the various family members.

This year (as in every year), a number of families with one Jewish parent and one parent raised Christian are making emphatic statements about why they do not celebrate Christmas. What troubles me about these statements is not the choice these interfaith families made–it’s a choice that works for some families. What troubles me is the erasure of the spouse who is not Jewish, whose journey and feelings are rarely acknowledged by Jewish writers in the Jewish press.

One such essay this season is entitled “No, We Don’t Celebrate Both.” I take this headline as a sort of tribute, in that “doing both” is becoming a more familiar concept in our culture. In this essay, a Jewish mother rejects the label “interfaith family” (and also the label “interracial family”), detailing why she and her husband (who is Black) consider themselves only a Jewish family, and do not celebrate Christmas. She uses the familiar “we are celebrating someone else’s birthday” metaphor to explain to her children why, in spite of this decision, they bring Christmas presents to her husband’s Christian family. But she does not mention how or why she and her husband negotiated this choice, or the current religious or secular identity of her husband, who grew up Christian, and who seems to have no presence or voice in the essay.

And in the new animated short film “Blewish,” the protagonist is a boy with a Jewish mother and a Black father (a father who presumably was not raised Jewish, although we have no idea how he was raised, and of course multigenerational Black Jewish families exist). The boy faces a teacher and classmates who assume he celebrates Christmas, and white Jewish children who do not accept him as Jewish because he is Black, initiating a brief identity crisis. The six-minute film’s creator is himself the child of a Jewish mother and a Black father, and grew up in Conservative Judaism.

I love that adult interfaith children are using their voices and creating art and commentary. “Blewish” begins to fill a significant gap, in depicting the experiences of Black and Jewish children from their own perspective rather than from the parents’ perspective. But once again, the Black father’s religious identity (or even cultural identity) is not represented in the film. Is he an atheist? A convert to Judaism? A practicing Protestant? In Jewish media, and art, the parent of another religious heritage too often remains silent. (Ironically, this is a silent animated film, so everyone remains silent). But my point is that the perspective in this film, like so much written for interfaith kids, is very firmly that of a Jewish family member, minimizing the input or representation of any immediate or extended family members who practice another religion.

One must note how often these stories come to us from families with a Jewish mother–families who feel secure claiming Judaism for children who are “matrilineal” in their Jewishness. The authors of these stories may not be able to fully empathize with the more complex issues facing “patrilineal” Jewish families. All of us with interfaith heritage face the exhausting push and pull of two kinds of statements from society: “You’re Not Jewish Enough,” and “You’re Not Really Jewish.” But the calculus of what to do with this unsolicited advice, with these aggressions from inside and outside the Jewish world, plays out differently for matrilineal and patrilineal interfaith Jewish children.

For two decades now, I have been working to increase awareness of the diversity of interfaith families, and of the right for families to choose the practices and identities that work best for them. My second book, The Interfaith Families Journal, is devoted to helping families through this process, whether that means no Christmas, a secular Christmas, or heralding the Christmas angels.

Of these pathways, doing both Hanukkah and Christmas, and being both Jewish and Christian, is a demographically significant choice. A recent study of Jewish Chicago found 21% of interfaith families with one Jewish parent raising children in two religions. In my opinion, this is an underestimate, given that the sampling drew heavily from mailing lists connected to Jewish institutions. (Other studies have found the percentage of interfaith families with one Jewish parent raising kids with both religions to be 44% in Toronto,  46% in western Massachusetts, and 34% in Minnesota’s Twin Cities).

Nevertheless, the annual Hanukkah/Christmas skirmish triggers a defensive backlash from people who don’t approve of interfaith marriage, or don’t approve of choosing both. The wildest year involved a Jewish writer comparing me to a Barbie doll dressed as a “fancy-hot-pants prostitute.” Go figure.

We are facing another long, dark winter of trying pandemic times. Let us all strive to be gentle with one another, and find ways to bring light, whether that is the light of Diwali, Hanukkah, Christmas, Yule, or all of them. And let us all work to channel empathy for other interfaith families, and the choices they make.

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 (2019). Follow her on Twitter @susankatzmiller.

An Interfaith Halloween, All Saints, All Souls

Fall Maple Leaves, photo by Susan Katz Miller

I am reposting this 2009 essay on how our interfaith families community celebrates this season, in dedication to Rabbi Harold White, may his memory be a blessing.

On Halloween, I was out late partying with people dressed variously as a dying newspaper, Facebook (the culprit), Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. On Sunday morning, I woke up, shook off my candy hangover, and went to celebrate All Saints and All Souls Days with our interfaith community.

Halloween is a quintessential interfaith holiday, with a tangled history of both pagan and Christian roots, and an enthusiastic following among Jews. When I was growing up, it was widely considered a secular holiday, celebrated in the public schools, and no one questioned that American Jews should celebrate Halloween. But then again, it was an era when many Jews celebrated secular Christmas.

More recently, fear of assimilation and a return to deeper Jewish practice triggered a lively debate on whether or not Jews should celebrate Halloween at all. As an interfaith family and community, our thirst for full educational disclosure drives us to explore the religious origins and meaning of the holiday, rather than staying on the secularized, commercial surface. And thinking about the history of this interfaith holiday, and even developing a specifically Jewish perspective on Halloween, enlivens and enriches the holiday, and imbues it with special resonance for interfaith families.

The Spiritual Leader of our interfaith community, Reverend Julia Jarvis, stood in front of the hundreds of members of our community on Sunday morning and explained the pagan origins of Halloween, and how a Roman Pope encouraged the incorporation of this pre-Christian festival into the Catholic calendar, and the distinctions between All Saints and All Souls Days. A Catholic member of our group, married to a Jew, recounted with wise humor how praying to Saint Gerard, patron saint of motherhood, gave her comfort and strength when she was facing infertility.

Next, our Spiritual Advisor, Rabbi Harold White, stepped up to give a Jewish perspective on All Souls and All Saints. He made the distinction between the Christian veneration of dead saints, and the mystical Jewish tradition of the 36 righteous people (Lamed Vav Tzadikim), akin to living Jewish saints, who walk the earth in each era. He also compared the restless souls of Halloween to the dybukkim of Jewish folklore: I imagine the Christian and Jewish spirits roaming together among the living, neither of them able to settle into their graves.

Then our folk band lead us in singing  Mi Sheberach, a prayer of healing, while community members placed rocks into a bowl in remembrance of their personal saints, or loved ones who struggle or are gone from us. This is a ritual our community adapted from Unitarian congregations, but by singing a traditional Hebrew prayer, we both comfort our Jewish members with a familiar song and help to create a connection in our children to Jewish practice.

So what did our interfaith community take away from our All Saints and All Souls gathering? The sizable contingent of adult atheists and secularists in our community enjoyed the cerebral and historical perspective. The practicing Catholics appreciated recognition of the spiritual side of these holidays, so often overshadowed by pumpkins and chocolate. Children heard an affectionate reflection on saints from a Catholic parent. They learned from our rabbi that this is a Christian holiday, but that Jews can have a respectful and appreciative perspective on it. And they learned about the Jewish tradition of the 36 righteous, and about dybbukim.

We mourned and provided comfort to each other as a community. And then, to emphasize the continuity of life even in the face of death, the band struck up a rowdy rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Community members leapt into the aisle and joined hands to dance in a line that wove around the room: it was a joyful interfaith hora, New Orleans style. My 12-year-old son darted from his place in the band and joined the dancers, playing a djembe strapped to his chest. I am betting that he will remember that there is more to Halloween than candy, and that he will feel in his bones that belonging to an interfaith community can be both a cerebral and ecstatic experience.

Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Familyand The Interfaith Family Journal. She works as an interfaith families consultant, speaker, and coach. Follow her on twitter @SusanKatzMiller.

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