Interfaith Families, Call to Action

On Saturday, on Shabbat, we experienced the most deadly attack on the Jewish community in US history, fueled by a climate of hatred coming from the White House itself. On Sunday morning, I was able to be with my community of interfaith families, mourning, but also embodying the idea that love can vault over boundaries and create peace. Today, I’m choosing to re-run the piece that Rorri Geller-Mohamed wrote for this blog in 2016, just before the last Presidential election. Rorri created a facebook page for Jewish-Muslim Families and also wrote this earlier essay for us on her Jewish and Muslim wedding. –Susan Katz Miller

 

Jewish Muslim Interfaith Child

 

(Dateline: August 2016) As we get closer to November, I feel myself becoming more and more worried and scared about what this election will mean for my interfaith family.  I’m shocked that a candidate with such blatant hateful, racist, and xenophobic rhetoric has made it this far in the campaign. Recently, my newsfeed on facebook has had multiple posts on how such a hateful platform can actually win this election. The outcome of this election will have a severe impact on the safety, emotional well-being, and daily life of my interfaith family. I am Jewish and my husband is Muslim. We have a one-year-old son who is both Jewish and Muslim. And so, as a Jewish and interfaith mother, I must speak out and fight for the best outcome to this election.

I was raised as a Reform Jew. Growing up, I remember learning in Hebrew School about the Holocaust and why we must remember it to make sure history is never repeated. I remember a school trip to the Holocaust museum in D.C. where I felt alone in this experience traveling with my non-Jewish peers. I remember visiting a concentration camp in Germany and feeling overwhelmed with how this atrocity could have ever taken place. But now experiencing this election process I am starting to understand. Sometimes we don’t fight because it feels impossible that this could truly happen.

I shouldn’t have to fear that my family will have to register and be monitored by the government because of our religion, our last name, or how we look. I shouldn’t have to fear that white supremacy will prevent my son from feeling proud about his mixed heritage. I shouldn’t have to fear that my husband’s status as a US citizen who immigrated here as a child from Guyana in South America could ever be revoked. I shouldn’t have to worry that people could legally be allowed to attack my family. And yet, these are some of my fears that surfaced out of this hateful campaign. As a Jewish Muslim family, I look forward to opportunities for us to freely study, observe, and celebrate both religions together. I look forward to teaching my son about his unique heritage and our values of social justice. The Southern Poverty Law Center published a report that “…found that the campaign is producing an alarming level of fear and anxiety among children of color and inflaming racial and ethnic tensions in the classroom.”  For us, and I’m sure for many other interfaith families, this is not the way we imagined raising our children.

As the Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel stated “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”  We must follow his teachings.  I ask you to join me and respond to this call to action.

Here are some ways we can take action in the next three months before the election:

  • Make sure you vote for the candidate that at least isn’t leading a hateful, racist, and bigoted campaign, even if you don’t like the alternative.
  • Help people register to vote. Organize people in your synagogue, church, mosque, other religious institution, or any other organization you are part of to help people register to vote.
  • Talk to anyone in your life that you think might support a candidate who incites hate. Work to educate them and remind them about history. This is especially important for people who have family and friends in swing state areas. These conversations can be uncomfortable and challenging but remember what is at stake if we stay silent.
  • Donate money to organizations that are helping register and get people to the polls on Election Day, especially organizations that are working to end Voter ID laws and other obstacles that prevent people who are marginalized from voting.
  • Stay informed through progressive news and social media about new and creative ways to help influence the election.

 

Rorri Geller-Mohamed (rorri@upowerchange.com) is the founder of www.upowerchange.com and a licensed therapist who specializes in multicultural relationships and families.  

Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family,. and the forthcoming book The Interfaith Family Journal. She works as an interfaith families consultant, speaker, and coach.

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Being Both: 5th Birthday!

Being Both box of books

 

Five years ago today, Beacon Press published Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family. For me, that publication day was the culmination of three generations of experience in my interfaith family. And it was the moment when I took a stand, after a lifetime of hearing that interfaith families are problematic, for a more objective journalistic and academic treatment of the benefits and challenges of being an interfaith family. I also hoped to shift the interfaith family narrative away from straight white Jewish/Christian couples choosing one religion, to encompass the kaleidoscopic interfaith family reality of many religions, many family configurations, and many interfaith family choices.

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With Kathie Lee, Hoda, and my teenage son.

These five years have been exhilarating, and at times magical. Being Both made it to The Today Show, The New York Times, NPR, CBS, Time, Salon, and over 100 other media outlets including newspapers, blogs, and podcasts. I was invited to speak about my work at the venerable American Academy of Religion, the Parliament of the World’s Religions, as a keynote speaker at the Unitarian-Universalist General Assembly, at colleges and universities, to groups of rabbis, and at seminaries.

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I am so grateful to all of you who continue to buy the book, talk about it with friends and family, write online reviews, and invite me to speak and give workshops. As a result of your support, I believe that Being Both has made a difference in how religious institutions and clergy view interfaith families, and in how we as interfaith families think about ourselves.

Another goal, in writing Being Both, was to help spur a whole new interfaith family literature, making space for the voices of people from Muslim/Christian and Hindu/Sikh and Pagan/atheist families. Together, we are doing that. And Being Both is now cited in academic literature, and taught in universities and seminaries, helping to build a field of serious scholarship around the topics of interfaith families, multiple religious practice, and complex religious identities.

Meanwhile, a steady stream of interfaith couples and families began seeking me out as a consultant or coach. So, I founded the Network of Interfaith Family Groups (NIFG) on facebook, to help families celebrating more than one religion to find each other in regions across the country, and to meet up, or even form new interfaith family communities. And I helped to inspire a lively and growing Muslim/Christian interfaith family facebook group.

IFJ CoverEventually, I realized that I could not personally meet with every interfaith family, and that in order to help more interfaith couples and families, I needed to write another book. The Interfaith Family Journal (coming this March from Skinner House) is for any interfaith couple or family, living anywhere, with any two or more religions in the family tree. This workbook, filled with interactive exercises and creative activities, takes couples or families through a five-week process to help them figure out how to amplify the joys of being an interfaith family, and surf through the challenges with confidence.

I read once that five years is the perfect spacing between siblings, because each child gets the full attention of the parents. And we know that each child has unique needs and gifts. I think of Being Both as a lively and challenging child, filled with what my Jewish father would call chutzpah, and what my Protestant mother would have called “animal high spirits.” It’s a book that is hard to ignore, full of ideas and stories, daring to claim space in academia and in religious institutions for families celebrating more than one religion.

In contrast, I think of The Interfaith Family Journal as a highly sensitive and introverted child: observing, asking gentle but profound questions, reflecting back. Rather than staking out academic territory, the Journal is entirely devoted to meeting the needs of interfaith families who are desperately seeking an objective framework for moving forward, a practical resource based on my decades of experience.

And while this newborn Journal will be, in some sense, a younger sibling, it has a broader and more universal goal. It will serve the whole wide world of interfaith families, including any and all religions, single parents, adoptive parents, LGBTQ people in interfaith families, intercultural/interracial interfaith families, those who want to choose one religion, those who want to teach their children many religions, and religious nones.

Often, folks ask me, “What’s your next book about?”

This book, and the next, and the next, will be about interfaith families. I have an entire library of interfaith family books in my head, clamoring to be written. The interfaith family is my life’s work–the work I was born to do–and I intend to bring you as many of those books as I possibly can.

 

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

Big News! The Interfaith Family Journal

IFJ Cover

 

I am thrilled to announce that my next book, The Interfaith Family Journal, will be published by Skinner House on March 15th, 2019. In the Journal, thoughtful questions,  interactive exercises, and creative activities will take you through a five-week process to untangle misunderstandings and enhance the joy of being an interfaith family. With the help of the Journal, you can find your own best pathway as an interfaith couple or family.

I really love the bright colors and crafty style of this book cover! The cover of my first book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, featured a Venn diagram with two overlapping circles. This book extends the metaphor, with circles of many colors, overlapping in a multitude of different ways, as our families do!

Whether your family is Muslim and Christian, Jewish and Buddhist, Hindu and atheist, or any other set of religions, this Journal will support you. Whether you are dating, engaged, married, a single parent, a guardian, a family with younger or older children, or empty nesters, this Journal will support you. Even if your family is made up of two or more people from the same religion, the Journal can help you in figuring out the best way to do religion together.

The Interfaith Family Journal does not promote one single way of being an interfaith family. Instead, the Journal process will inspire deep conversation, and create better understanding of how one religion, or two religions, or more, or none, would work for your family.

Creating this book, I worked closely with our global interfaith family village. So I am sending out huge thanks to all of the families who test drove the Journal, and to my colleagues with interfaith expertise from multiple religions who gave feedback on the manuscript.

I hope all of you, blog readers, are as excited as I am to be part of bringing this Journal to the widest possible audience next spring, to provide support to interfaith families across the country and the globe. Make sure you are subscribed to this blog, and follow my facebook page and twitter feed, for all the news leading up to the book launch. And stay tuned for more #InterfaithJournal news soon, as we put the finishing touches on the book and plan launch events across the country.

 

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

 

September: Interfaith Renewal

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“Do you remember, never a cloudy day…”

Earth, Wind & Fire is the soundtrack to my formative years, and the song “September” always gets me out on the dance floor. I was lucky to experience both the joy of nostalgia and the joy of celebrating love while dancing at two interfaith weddings in recent weeks: one Jewish and Christian, and the other Hindu and Unitarian.

This year, those recent moments of pleasure are helping to carry me through an unsettling first week of September. Yesterday was 9/11. Those of us in New York and Washington, in particular, think of the eeriness of the blue sky, the panic, the unfolding horror. And then we think of how many people in the U.S. from the Middle East, from South Asia, from Latin America–anyone with brown skin or a “different” name–have been harassed, targeted, and in some cases killed, in the years since then. And we think of how our government leadership has too often fueled that misunderstanding and hatred.

At the same time, on a very personal level, this week is both the anniversary of my mother’s death, and of her birth. September was always Mom’s month. I always associate the excitement of back-to-school with her excellence as a mother: the new school supplies, the thoughtfully packed lunch, the deep engagement with our lives. But now, the sudden coolness, the drop in humidity, the angle of light, the smell of September trees and plants, all of it signals my entire body to remember 9/11, and the morning that I was with my mother when she died two years ago on September 14th.

This year, these public and private sources of pain are bookmarked by the two Jewish high holy days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (always ten days apart). I grew up marking those days faithfully in my Reform Jewish family (with the support of my Episcopalian mother), attending hours of synagogue services at Temple Beth Elohim (“TBE”) in Wellesley, Massachusetts. And I still find the liturgy of reflection and renewal inspiring and restorative.

Here in the Washington DC area, we are lucky to have the Interfaith Families Project (IFFP), with high holy day services designed to be radically inclusive for anyone connected to Judaism in any way, and to acknowledge all that is good in our partnerships with Christians and people of other (or no) religions. Because it turns out that a service that does this is also an accessible and inspiring service for a whole range of people, including Jewish people.

What does a service designed by and for an interfaith families community look like? Each year is different, since there is a huge body of music and poetry and theology to draw on: traditional and contemporary Jewish liturgies, and sources from religions and cultures of the world. This year, we sang “Morning Has Broken” (a Christian hymn made popular by a man who later converted to Islam), and “If We Only Have Love” (a Jacques Brel chanson), alongside the traditional tunes for Avinu Malkeinu and many other parts of the service.

And we sang contemporary composer Noah Aronson’s lovely Bar’chu (call to prayer), “Am I Awake,” led by our own Rich Shegogue (who was raised Catholic). This provided a deep connection for me, since for many years, I have spent one of the high holy days with my parents at TBE, my childhood synagogue, where it just so happens that Noah Aronson was the longtime composer-in-residence. This is the temple where I became a Bat Mitzvah. (And also, the temple where the rabbi refused to officiate at my marriage). Since my family joined over 50 years ago, the synagogue has grown from 50 families to over 1000 families.

Sitting with my parents in the vast and glorious modern worship space at TBE, I have been lucky to learn many of his new tunes from Aronson himself, strumming his guitar as he leads thousands of voices. So, hearing “Am I Awake” this year in our more informal and intimate service at IFFP, served as an unexpected thread of connection between my experiences.

At IFFP, we remain a DIY (do-it-yourself) community–even the special high holy day cover for our torah was made by a community member, appliqued with a pomegranate to symbolize the sweetness of the new year (photo above). What makes our services feel especially inclusive? Maybe it’s the moment when a couple gets up and talks about Rosh Hashanah from their perspectives as partners–one Jewish, one Mexican Catholic–and what this community means to them. Or maybe it’s the fact that our rabbi, Rain Zohav, feels free to draw on Christian mystics (including Julian of Norwich and Meister Eckhart) for her Rosh Hashanah talk on protecting the earth.

The high holy day opportunity to meditate, reflect, ask forgiveness, and renew vows to make the world a better place–all of this will help to get me through my mother’s yahrtzeit (the anniversary of her death), and her birthday, and another year of living in Washington DC. And tonight, midway between the two high holy days, I will be writing postcards to get out the vote in a neighboring state for the midterm elections. Because the high holy days inspire me to work for justice. And because, in September, all of us have the opportunity to begin again.

 

Susan Katz Miller is a speaker and consultant on interfaith families and interfaith bridge-building, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family.

High Holy Days: Interfaith Connections

Heads up! Rosh Hashanah starts early this year, on the evening of September 9th. Over the past decade, in some of my over 300 essays here, I have written about many different aspects of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, from the context of an interfaith family. Here is one of the most popular essays from that collection. –SKM

 

When we experience the religious rituals of the “other,” we usually cannot help but respond with an internal running commentary, seeking connections to our own past. I know that whenever I heard the blast of a conch shell at an Afro-Brazilian rite during my years in Brazil, my mind would skip back to the sound of the shofar in my childhood temple.

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, many Christians (and Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists) find themselves attending services with Jewish partners, or parents, or other family members. These services, while tremendously important to Jews, can be difficult for those without Jewish education to access, due to length, solemnity, and the density of Hebrew.  Nevertheless, I always strongly recommend that those of other religions accompany their Jewish partners or parents to synagogue services, both to keep them from feeling lonely, and to learn and reflect.

In our Interfaith Families Project, a community of interfaith families raising children with both Judaism and Christianity in Washington DC, for a decade we had the great fortune to have annual High Holy Day services led by Rabbi Harold White (may his memory be a blessing), a rabbi who spent 40 years working with Jesuits at Georgetown University. Years ago now, he shared with our community these interfaith interconnections to look for on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur:

  1. Awe. Since the highest of holy days in Judaism is actually the weekly Shabbat, many rabbis prefer the term “The Days of Awe” to describe Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Think of awe not as fear, but as a mystic trembling meant to “stir up divine sparks.” Rabbi White compared the swaying of Jews at prayer (known in Yiddish as shuckling) to the quaking of Quakers and the shaking of Shakers.  Rhythmic body movement during prayer, whether it’s dancing or repeated bowing, occurs in virtually every religion, from Africa to Asia to American Indian traditions: the mind and body come together, self-consciousness falls away. Says Rabbi White, “Evangelicals have the right idea on this, with hands thrown up in the air.”
  1. Mystical numbers.  Yom Kippur marks the end of an annual 40-day spiritual quest in Judaism. All three Abrahamic religions share an obsession with the number 40, which Rabbi White describes as “a magical number in the Middle East. Moses was on Sinai for 40 days, Jesus was in the desert for 40 days, even Ali Baba and the 40 thieves. You think it’s a coincidence. It’s not.”
  1. Asking for Forgiveness.  The liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur hinges on the idea that all of us have sinned. “I know that sounds very Christian, but it’s very Jewish at the same time,” says Rabbi White. “There is no one on the face of the earth who hasn’t sinned.”
  1. Praying for Material Well-Being. For most of the year, Jewish prayer focuses on praise and adoration, rather than petition. Asking for direct intervention tends to be more closely associated with Christian prayer. But Rosh Hashanah is the exception, when Jews pray for health and life. “We don’t ask for anything the rest of the year,” says Rabbi White. “But on the Days of Awe, we ask.”
  1. Birth of Three Faiths. On Rosh Hashanah, the Torah reading describes the arrival of Abraham’s two sons: Sarah gives birth to Isaac, Hagar gives birth to Ishmael. Sarah becomes the matriarch of Judaism (and thus Christianity), Abraham sends Hagar into exile. But in Muslim writings, the heroic Hagar (Hajir) becomes the mother of Islam. Charlotte Gordon (an adult interfaith child) has written a sensitive analysis of the story of Hagar in her book The Woman Who Named God: Abraham’s Dilemma and the Birth of Three Faiths.
  1. Miracles. Sometimes Jewish students approach Rabbi White and assert, with a certain smugness, that Christianity requires belief in miracles and Judaism does not. The Rabbi points to the miracle of the birth of Isaac, when Abraham and Sarah are in deep old-age (Abraham is 100). Genesis specifies that Sarah not only has suffered from lifelong infertility, but is post-menopausal.  Virgin birth, post-menopausal birth, both miracles.
  1. Songs and Canticles. The Biblical passage known as the Song of Hannah, a reading from the prophet Samuel, is the haftara reading chosen to complement the Torah reading on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. The infertile Hannah has prayed for and been given a son, and her song of Thanksgiving is thought to have inspired the most famous of all canticles in the Christian liturgy, the Song of Mary, known as the Magnificat.

Finding a welcoming service, getting off work, arranging childcare, sitting through services, fasting, gleaning meaning from ancient prayers in an unfamiliar language: none of this is easy. But it is excellent experiential education for anyone connected to Judaism through family ties. For Jews, having the support of a partner in these days of deep reflection and soul-searching, of repentance and renewal, provides comfort and bonding. For interfaith children, having both parents sitting with them at services provides a clear message of respect and appreciation and love, by the parents for each other, and for the children, and for ancient ritual.

 

 

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

Interfaith Kids in Conversation: Q&A with Tahil Sharma

Tahil Sharma and Susan Katz Miller
Tahil and Susan at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Salt Lake City

Tahil Sharma and I have been engaged in an ongoing conversation for years now, both on social media and in person, on navigating the world as interfaith activists from interfaith families. Tahil is currently an Interfaith Minister in Residence with the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, and a Board Member of the Southern California Committee for the Parliament of the World’s Religions. The two of us will appear together this summer at the Reimagining Interfaith conference, July 29th to August 1st in Washington DC. Come on out and join us! Below, I provide a sneak peek in the form of a Q&A.  –Susan Katz Miller

SKM: I was born into a Jewish and Christian interfaith family, and that fact, and those life experiences, have inspired and informed my work as as an author. speaker, and interfaith activist. One of my goals is to create space for people from interfaith families to be interfaith leaders and peacemakers. And at the same time, I am working for recognition that those of us from interfaith families are already serving as interfaith leaders and innovators, but do not necessarily feel we can be open about claiming our interfaith family stories in the context of interfaith “dialogue” or activism. As part of this work, I’ve been keeping a mental list of other “interfaith kids” working as interfaith peacemakers, and you’re at the top of that list. Tahil, why don’t you start by telling us a bit about your background, and your experiences as part of an interfaith family.

TS: I was born in Los Angeles to a Hindu father from a business family and a Sikh mother from an Army background. Both of them immigrated from India in the 1980s and settled in Southern California, trying to figure out how to make their American dream a reality. I started learning about Hinduism and Sikhism from my family, then really began to explore these traditions for myself. This was just the beginning of a weird childhood as I got exposed to friends who were Muslim, Jewish, atheist, all sorts of Christian, and diverse in every other sense of the word. My parents encouraged me to love others as myself, and to learn about what makes other people thrive and understand the world around them. I’ve attended so many different kinds of religious services and events and they all contributed to my understanding of finding bliss and sanity in a consistently chaotic world. I looked back to my own traditions, even learning the languages of the sacred texts (Sanskrit and Gurmukhi) to enunciate and understand what my faith was all about. It made me curious about why we’re all so different yet so able to share a world with one another.

SKM: Your story sounds familiar to me as a fellow interfaith kid, even though we come from different religious and cultural backgrounds. You know, preachers’ kids refer to themselves as PKs. The idea behind that identity is that they share certain formative experiences, whether their parents are ministers or rabbis or imams. And people who grow up in one country but are citizens of another country call themselves TCKs, or Third Culture Kids, and they share certain formative experiences, whether they are military kids or diplomatic corps kids or displaced people or immigrants. So I’m going to refer to us as IKs (that’s “eye kays” not “icks”) for Interfaith Kids. I claim this as part of my identity because I feel we share certain formative experiences of religious complexity. Does that idea resonate for you?

TS: I am totally an IK. We’re a growing demographic around the world thanks to diverse parents creating unions that are unconditional and inclusive. If you had asked me about this 10 years ago, I’d probably have a different understanding of how my interfaith upbringing had an impact on my life. As someone who was always driven by service, I wanted to become a doctor for as long as I could remember. Then I considered being a lawyer for a little while, then a translator. But then came August 5th, 2012. I was in India visiting family when my cousin had told me that a shooting had taken place at a gurdwara (Sikh temple) in Oak Creek, WI. A white supremacist walked into the temple during services and began to shoot blindly, killing 6 people and wounding others, including a police officer who was shot 15 times and survived. This sent my world into a spiral of chaos and confusion, trying to make sense of an injustice towards a coexisting and loving community. Then I reflected on history and the travesties it had produced; injustice was not normal to me, but it was frequent enough to be normal for others. My anger and disappointment instilled a lot of fear until I remembered a word from the Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh scriptures) that referred to the Divine as The One who is Without Fear and Hatred Towards Creation.

I had an epiphany. I could not let this happen to my community ever again. But, in that selfish righteousness, I also remembered that the responsibility falls on the laps of all able individuals to bend the arc of the world towards justice and equity. If I would fight for the rights of anyone, it would be for the right of everyone. That decision led to 5 years of introspection and service that set a precedent in my life to strive for the well-being (sarbat da bhalla) of others because everyone was a part of my universal family (vasudhaiva kutumbakam).

The complexity of my religious identity is not just about ownership and understanding; my faith traditions were the sails on my lifeboat. The journey is tumultuous. but filled with the lessons and beauty reminding me of the splendor and majesty of the Divine. If I can help others do the same, then I know I will have left this world in better shape than when I was born into it.

SKM: Those of us raised in interfaith households, even though we are a growing demographic, are not well understood. In part this is because we haven’t had many opportunities to speak out and shape our own narratives. So, how do you respond to people who challenge the idea that you can claim or benefit from more than one religious heritage? 

TS: That’s simple. I challenge them to recognize themselves by a single identity. The human experience cannot be simplified to represent itself in a monolithic way. The plethora of belief systems around the world have experienced changes and mixtures that have withstood the test of time. Culturally, Hinduism and Sikhism do share some roots coming from South Asia even though they differ from one another. I don’t blink just one eye, I blink both at the same time. I don’t just love my mother or my father, I love them both equally. As such, I have been given the privilege of two blessed visions of the Divine that integrate with every part of my life.

SKM: So, we know that, throughout history and in particular as a result of colonization, entire communities, regions, and countries have practiced more than one religion simultaneously. And anywhere you have two religions sharing geographic space, you are going to have some form of mutual interaction, and some interfaith families. And yet, the topic of multiple religious practice, and of interfaith families, has often been excluded from traditional “interfaith dialogue” programming. Often, each participant has been asked to represent a single religious practice, so as not to “muddy the waters.” How do we work to convince those who are organizing and funding interfaith programming to include those with complex religious identities?

TS: It hasn’t been easy. I didn’t have a crisis of identity so much as I had a crisis of validity. Going around to different people and having to explain that my identity can exist, let alone trying to normalize it in multi-religious settings, is so challenging. There’s a lesser-known quote from Dr. King that speaks about the validity of identity that continues to resonate with me and the struggle for equity and justice: “I’m tired of marching…Tired of marching for something that should’ve been mine at birth.” For the growing number of people who identify with intersectional and multiple identities who march, the struggle continues.

I’ve had people tell me that I’m confused and misled for not choosing a path, or that I’m cherry picking from the religion buffet to suit my needs. But the fact of the matter is, I have adapted my life to grow and transform myself within two traditions that have given me solace and inner peace. So I don’t ask for validity anymore: I make an equal spot for myself at the table.

Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family. She and Tahil Sharma are both interfaith activists, speakers, and consultants. You can find them on twitter at @susankatzmiller and @InterfaithMan.

 

Interfaith Families, Beyond Chrismukkah

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Just before my son’s interfaith Coming of Age and Bar Mitzvah, I got a request from a graduate student who wanted to attend the ceremony as part of her ethnographic field work. My first reaction was, “no way.” As a journalist and a control freak, I am wary of being the subject. And I wanted to stay focused on this intimate family celebration, and not have to worry about being misunderstood. But in the end, I relented. The desire to educate won out over the desire to control my family’s narrative. And so, eight years later, Samira Mehta describes that ceremony in her new book, Beyond Chrismukkah: The Christian-Jewish Interfaith Family in the United States.

It is satisfying to feel seen and heard, as academics begin to acknowledge the rich complexity of interfaith families inside and outside of traditional religious communities. Mehta, now an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Albright College, provides an important historical framework for analyzing the choices made by interfaith families, from the 1960s to the present. (It’s a great complement to Erika Seamon’s Interfaith Marriage in America: The Transformation of Religion and Christianity). And she creates the most thorough and insightful academic analysis, so far, of those of us choosing to celebrate more than one family religion and culture. This is a book that all interfaith families, and those who love us, and those who study us, will need to read.

Samira Mehta and I have been in an extended professional conversation on these topics ever since that Bar Mitzvah, eight years ago. So this is not a standard book review, but rather an essay in response to Beyond Chrismukkah. Perhaps more objectively, Publishers Weekly called Mehta’s analysis “thorough and impressive.” They did quibble about a dearth of stories from actual interfaith couples. But here, I want to quibble with that quibble. Plenty of books (including my own) have told stories of interfaith couples. This book is valuable primarily for providing historical context and academic analysis, shedding new light on the family stories told in previous books.

The opening chapter of the book traces Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic institutional responses to interfaith marriage from the 1960s through the 1980s, decades when those institutions often worked to try to prevent interfaith marriage. (Both the rabbi who refused to marry my parents, and the rabbi who did marry them, are mentioned as playing key roles in this history). Also, Mehta’s close analysis of interfaith families in popular culture through the 20th century—in television, theater, films and children’s literature—illuminates when and why and how these families struggled for acceptance in our culture.

Beyond Chrismukkah does include several detailed stories of individual interfaith families. So, in a chapter on how race and ethnicity intersect with religion in interfaith families raising Jewish children, Mehta portrays two interfaith families—one with a black parent, one with a Latino parent. And then she makes the keen observation that the Jewish community more readily accepts incorporation of Christian elements in interfaith family practice when the Christian partner is a person of color (and thus seen as having an important minority culture of their own), as opposed to a Christian partner seen as a member of the dominant white culture.

Four additional detailed family stories illustrate four different ways that interfaith families are resisting the expectation to choose one religious affiliation, and raising children “partially Jewish,” (this is the Jewish survey terminology, not mine or Mehta’s). Mehta did extensive interviews with a family that is unaffiliated but incorporates home-based Jewish and Christian traditions, a family affiliated as Unitarian-Universalist but incorporates Judaism in that practice, a family that has separate dual affiliations in both a Jewish and in a Mormon community, and a family (my family!) that affiliates with an intentional interfaith community providing Jewish and Christian education to interfaith children. “Rather than finding such families unmoored from religious practice and moral formation,” writes Mehta, she found they “often developed a cohesive family narrative or sense of why they were together as a family beyond denominational constraints.”

As Mehta points out, (and as I have pointed out), much of the research on interfaith families has been funded by Jewish institutions, and thus has not been objective. In contrast, Mehta, as a scholar, “starts from an assumption that the religious lives and realities of the interfaith families themselves are as important as the official policies of their religious organizations toward such families.” This is indeed refreshing. And yet, this book still skews Jewish. Mehta includes two full chapters devoted to interfaith families raising children “only” Jewish, and hardly mentions interfaith families raising children Christian. At least in North America, Jewish institutional fears have largely driven the interfaith families narrative, and Mehta’s work still reflects that reality.

Nevertheless, the arrival of Beyond Chrismukkah signals that more objective academic exploration of interfaith families and complex religious identities has finally begun. Alongside a handful of new books studying “multiple religious practice,” (including Duane Bidwell’s upcoming book), Mehta’s work marks a new willingness to listen to the voices of those with complex religious lives. For, as she concludes, without grappling with “the many ways that those families live out their lives and with the hybrid identities that they create, it is no longer possible to understand religion in American.”

 

Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family.