Launch! The Network of Interfaith Family Groups (NIFG)

Posted April 13, 2015 by Susan Katz Miller
Categories: Interfaith children, interfaith community, interfaith families, Interfaith marriage, Unitarian-Universalism

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Fireworks, photo by Susan Katz Miller

Today, I’m excited to announce the launch of the Network of Interfaith Family Groups (NIFG, prounounced “niff-gee”). This network will help interfaith families who want interfaith education for their children to find each other, across the country, and the globe. For now, you can find NIFG in the form of a facebook group created by and for interfaith families celebrating more than one family religion.

It’s all very well to live in one of the big American cities with a vibrant community of interfaith families providing interfaith education for interfaith children. But what if you are an interfaith couple in New Hampshire or Nevada or Alabama, or Europe or Latin America or Asia? What if you just want to find one or two or ten other families in your region who are celebrating both family religions?

I hear regularly from people who don’t have the support of formal interfaith family groups like the ones in Washington, New York, Chicago, or Philadelphia. We know (from the 2013 Pew study of the Jewish American landscape) that 25% of intermarried Jewish parents are raising kids “partly Jewish and partly something else.” Some of these families have found two houses of worship to support them (often a church and a synagogue) either publicly, or quietly. Some families find homes in “third space” communities that do not promote a particular religious dogma (such as Unitarian-Universalist, or Quaker, or secular humanist communities). But such families still might want to connect to other interfaith families doing both. In fact, I would argue that it is good for interfaith kids being raised with both religions to get to know other kids on that pathway, even if it is only at an occasional social get-together.

Many interfaith families seek me out because they would love to have a community designed by and for interfaith families, like the ones described in Being Both, but don’t know where to begin. In the book, I outline several ways to start a new interfaith families community. But the first step, finding a few other interfaith families who want to join you for a Shabbat meal or a holiday celebration, can seem like a big hurdle.

The new NIFG facebook group is designed to help any and all of these families find each other, or find existing groups. (Note, this network is for groups that are either independent of religious institutions, or have links to institutions and clergy representing both religions, not for groups sponsored by one religion only). One uploaded file has a list of links to existing groups (this list is also on my blog and on my author website). The other uploaded file has a new list of people willing to be the contact person in geographic areas that do not currently have active interfaith family communities—so far, Atlanta, San Francisco, and Seattle.

So, if you know anyone in those three cities that might be interested in meeting other interfaith families interested in interfaith education, please forward them this post, and the link to the facebook group. If you live in a different geographic area and want to meet other interfaith families doing both near you, let me know and I will add your name and email to the uploaded file at the NIFG group.

Remember, by adding your name to this file, you don’t have to commit to running a new organization all by yourself. You might just connect to a few other couples (with or without children), and get together for brunch to talk about interfaith life, or share resources about which local congregations are the most welcoming. While most interfaith couples in formal interfaith family communities are Jewish and Christian, maybe you are looking for other Hindu and Jewish couples, or atheist and Christian couples. Maybe you need to find local clergy to help with a wedding or baby-welcoming. Maybe you just want to make some new friends who understand your interfaith approach. Or maybe you want to launch a one-room interfaith education schoolhouse in the fall. The idea is that the NIFG facebook group can facilitate all of these conversations and connections.

P.S. If you’re in the Washington DC area, be sure to join me on Sunday at 6:30pm at Busboys and Poets, Takoma, for a very special Generation Interfaith event. I’ll be in conversation with one of the young adults portrayed in Being Both, a graduate of the interfaith education experience.

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

Interfaith Families, The Today Show, The Back Story

Posted April 9, 2015 by Susan Katz Miller
Categories: Interfaith Identity

Today Show, Sue Hoda Ben Kathie A week before Easter and Passover, out of the blue, I got an email from a Today Show producer. She was interested in putting together a segment on interfaith families celebrating both family religions, as part of a week-long series on faith. Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb would host the segment. I agreed to go on the show, of course. Over the next few days, we spent hours discussing my interfaith family and the research I did for my book. And at her request, I scanned and sent in old family photos for possible use during the segment. As the day approached, the producer suggested I put aside my habitual black wardrobe, get in the spirit, and wear some springtime colors. So I spent an afternoon at Nordstrom’s and Macy’s, dashing the hopes of multiple salespeople who wanted to be able to say they had “styled” me for the appearance. I was urged to buy an $845 St. John dress I knew I would never wear again. I tried on numerous pastel spring dresses, all of which made me feel like an Easter egg. In the end, I came home empty-handed, and wore a dress already sitting in my closet. Just two days before I was due to take the Acela to New York, the producer was looking at the great Bar Mitzvah photos of my son Ben (taken by my friend Stephanie Williams of @stephaniewilliamsimages). She picked up the phone and called to ask if Ben could be on the show too. He’s in the spring of his senior year, and missing a day of school didn’t seem like the end of the world, so I said yes. Actually, since he’s 18, I said the producer should ask him, which she did. Ben has led a successful indie band (Ladle Fight) for years, so I knew he would be poised and confident. Which he was.

Ben Miller, Bar Mitzvah

One of the photos that flashed on the screen during the segment. All four members of the Miller family. @stephaniewilliamimages

For the next 24-hours, we put aside the stress of choosing a college, and went off on a surreal New York adventure. We have always had family in New York, so we never had a reason to stay in a hotel in the city, let alone a hotel one block from Rockefeller Plaza. We checked into our tiny room, and wandered in the night through throngs of spring break tourists at the Plaza, under trees strung with fairy lights. We admired Paul Manship’s 1934 gleaming bronze sculpture of Prometheus, hovering over the skating rink, and the flags of the nations lining the Plaza. In the morning, we left the hotel early for more exploration of the art deco facades on the block. 30 Rockefeller Plaza was already mobbed by 30 Rock fans wielding selfie-sticks. As we approached the Today Show studios, we stopped in a souvenir swag emporium called the NBC Experience Store, with stuffed peacock logos, and mugs and T-shirts from The Today Show, Seinfeld, and The Office. I realized Ben and most people under the age of 25 have no idea which shows are on NBC. They watch them all online. I waxed nostalgic about the primitive era when there were basically only three channels on three distinct networks, and felt old. Rockefeller PlazaOutside the Today Show studios, tourists were standing and waving at the barricade outside the plate-glass windows, screened by black cloth that allows the cameras to film the onlookers outside the set, while those on the street can only dimly make out the live broadcast activity inside. We walked past them, into the great hall of 10 Rockefeller Plaza, dominated by murals of the History of Transportation, painted in 1946 as a tribute to Eastern Airlines, the original tenant. Then we glided down a great curved staircase in the center of the hall to the Today Show’s main green room (the hospitality suite where guests wait).

10 Rockefeller Plaza, History of Transportation mural

1946 mural at 10 Rockefeller Plaza.

The green room was overrun with a rainbow of small children in Easter outfits, accompanied by a flock of anxious stage parents trying to keep the children from melting down. A Christian rock band passed through, and then a woman with turquoise hair and an entourage. “That’s somebody,” murmured my son. “She looks familiar.” In fact, it was actress and former teen idol Hilary Duff. In the adjacent make-up room, Ben and I sat next to each other, simultaneously getting foundation applied to our faces. Next, in a tiny wardrobe room, a motherly wardrobe consultant ran a lint-roller over us, and gave me advice on whether or not to wear the scarf I had brought as a concession to the spring colors theme. The verdict was yes, and she tucked it around my neck for me.

Today Show, fuzzy green room selfie

Fuzzy green room selfie with iconic Today Show sunrise logo.

Back in the green room, we met up with Trish Epstein and her daughter Hannah, a local family joining us for our segment. They belong to the Interfaith Community (IFC), the New York area community that is parallel to our Interfaith Families Project in DC. The children in Easter dress were herded out for their segment, and we continued to wait. In the kitchenette, someone had provided some extravagantly gorgeous spring flower cupcakes, but I didn’t want to risk spoiling my make-up by eating one.

Spring cupcakes

Now wishing I had eaten one of these.

When it was almost time for our segment, we went to a smaller green room adjacent to the set, where we met a handsome young man in a shirt and tie, who turned out to be the guy inside the Easter bunny suit for the segment with the kids. I have no idea what he does for the rest of the year, but I thought it would be funny to ask if I could take his photo with Ben. Ben was only slightly mortified by this. We watched the monitors as Kathie Lee and Hoda interviewed Hilary Duff about how she dyed her hair turquoise because she wanted to look like a mermaid. When our turn arrived, we crossed the main set, where small children were still wandering beneath some fake cherry blossom trees, collecting Easter eggs. On a second set, six stools were set up, for Kathie Lee, Hoda, and the four guests in our segment. The hosts came in and hugged and kissed everyone, and we started an easy banter about interfaith families while waiting for the segment to begin. Kathie Lee talked about being born Kathryn Epstein, about her Jewish grandfather, and about celebrating Passover seders with her interfaith family. At age 12 she became an evangelical Christian. All of us, whether we’re from interfaith families or mono-faith families, grow up and make our own religious and spiritual choices. We talked about how the world has gotten easier for interfaith families as we become more common. I said we represent Team Love. Kathie Lee and Hoda liked that idea. And then, the cameras began rolling.
http://www.today.com/offsite/today/57201875

The four minutes flew by, and while I didn’t get to say everything I should have said, I think the four of us clearly represented the idea, still novel in much of America, that interfaith families can raise kids with both family religions without screwing them up. When they turned the cameras off, everyone hugged and kissed again, and our producer got a shot of us with the hosts. As I was walking off the set, a cameraman stopped me to say that he had grown up with a Jewish mother in a Catholic neighborhood, and that being part of an interfaith family is not always so easy. And this is true. I wanted to hear more of his story, but someone else was shooing me along so that they could move on with the show. On the grand staircase in the lobby on the way out, Ben walked past Hilary Duff and said, “You do look like a mermaid.” Apparently, she said “Thank you.” I’m glad he inherited Judaism, Christianity, and chutzpah. This extraordinary day together, as fellow adult interfaith children and equals on some level, seemed to mark a transitional moment in our family. A few minutes later, a town car provided by NBC whisked us back to Penn Station, and we each boarded a different Acela train, heading in opposite directions.

Town Car

The getaway car.

Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.

Easter as Metaphor: The Rabbi Explains

Posted April 5, 2015 by Susan Katz Miller
Categories: Christianity, holidays in interfaith families, interfaith community, interfaith families

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Spring daffodils by Susan Katz Miller

Every year, I find myself trying to explain how a nice Jewish girl can relate to Easter. Today, the spring sunshine is illuminating the daffodils, as you can see in this photo from my garden. I had an entirely crazy week, including an appearance on the Today Show, gathering in Boston with my Jewish and Catholic and Protestant family at the start of Passover, and then arriving back home just in time for our interfaith families community Easter service. But I had such a lovely Easter, I feel I need to describe once again how being in a room filled with hundreds of interfaith families, in a service led by a minister and a rabbi working closely together, can be a transcendent experience.

Years ago, before the Interfaith Families Project began holding Easter services, my husband and I went to various churches during Holy Week. He was glad to hear familiar hymns. I was vaguely uncomfortable with gospel readings that did not acknowledge the Jewishness of Jesus or put the role of “the Jews” in this traumatic story into any kind of historical perspective. In general, this can be the hardest week for Jews to accompany their Christian spouses or other family members to church.

Instead, this morning, we entered a space filled with couples holding hands, and babies, and toddlers in Easter finery, and visiting grandparents: all families raising interfaith children with interfaith education. As it turned out, every song we sang had interfaith connections, whether or not the community was aware of it. We sang “Morning Has Broken” (a hymn adapted by Cat Stevens, who later became a Muslim) and “Prepare Ye” from Godspell (a show with lyrics adapted by the Jewish Stephen Schwartz, from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer), and “Let My People Go” (an Exodus text beloved by Jews and adapted by African-American Christians). We told the story of Holy Week in part through singing verses of “Lord of the Dance,” a Shaker tune adapted by British poet Sydney Carter to tell the story of Jesus: “They buried my body and they thought I was gone, But I am the dance and I still go on.” Carter admitted that his lyrics were inspired in part by a statue of Shiva, the dancing Hindu god, he kept on his desk. And in Carter’s obituary, the Telegraph noted that the hymn contains “a hint of paganism which, mixed with Christianity, makes it attractive to those of ambiguous religious beliefs or none at all.” Well, so, yes, that is me, and many of the people in my interfaith families community. But I would also note that the hymn is used widely in Christian churches and communities (many of them filled, to be honest, with people with ambiguous religious beliefs themselves).

The point here is not that we do or do not subscribe to a particular Christian creed or dogma. The point is that many of us are spiritually inspired, and often deeply moved, by the religious interconnections that led to the creation of these songs, and to the opportunity to sing them together with other interfaith families in a room filled with people from many races, cultures, religions, and worldviews.

Meanwhile, I sit facing my beloved rabbi, Harold White, on the eve of his retirement. And I see him, arm and arm with Reverend Julia Jarvis, his partner as spiritual leaders of our community. He is singing along with gusto, celebrating both the Kumbaya songs (for really, must we always mock the lovely spiritual that is Kumbaya?) and the more specific Christology of the iconic Protestant hymn, “Christ The Lord is Risen Today.” Sitting next to me, my husband gets the chance to boom out the harmonies in his rich baritone, harmonies learned in his youth as an acolyte.

But the rabbi? How can a rabbi sing “Death in vain forbids Christ rise”? So, here is how our rabbi helped us, a community of Jews and Christians and atheists and Buddhists, to understand the symbolism of Easter, this year. He told a parable of a King who sends his son, a Prince, to live with peasants to understand the reality of suffering in the world. When he calls the Prince back to the palace, the peasants are sad and do not want to let him go. Obviously this sounds like God sending Jesus to earth, and then calling him back. But the rabbi’s point was that the Prince represents the soul, and that every soul that must be embodied in order to experience the reality of life. But ultimately this is a temporary condition, and at death the soul rises, or if you will, from a more secular perspective, the energy of life is transformed and merges back into the energy of the rest of the universe. Every religion has some way of explaining this transformation from life into death, and the idea that the soul or energy is somehow conserved or cyclical in nature. The story of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus is one version of this universal story.

Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.

Passover, Good Friday, and Easter: When Interfaith Holidays Converge

Posted March 30, 2015 by Susan Katz Miller
Categories: Interfaith Identity

This year, I am fielding calls from reporters wanting to know how we handle the dilemma of Passover starting on Good Friday. I know that, especially for young couples just starting their interfaith journey, this convergence of important holidays may create stress. Say, for instance, your in-laws are expecting you for a raucous Passover seder featuring four glasses of wine and glazed brisket: this could be an alienating experience if you are also commemorating the crucifixion of Jesus and avoiding meat on the solemn Friday of Holy Week.

As interfaith families become the norm in our culture, rather than the exception, all of us must learn to empathize, to see our own practices through the eyes of the “other.” And as each interfaith couple learns to listen deeply and to support one another, I can imagine that serving salmon, rather than brisket, might be a reasonable accommodation in some families this year. Note that I am very pleased to report that chicken broth is apparently acceptable for those fasting from meat, so matzoh ball soup is “kosher” for interfaith families even on Good Friday!

Of course, it’s important for this kind of welcoming and respect to work both ways. So when our interfaith families community has an Easter gathering on Sunday, we follow it with the traditional pancake breakfast, but also fry up matzoh brie (matzah in scrambled egg), on separate grills, for those keeping kosher for Passover (pancakes have leavening, so they are not allowed during Passover).

I have to admit that rather than adapting our seder menu, our family is doing what an awful lot of American families are doing these days with all sorts of holidays: moving the date of our celebration. Somehow, this does not seem sacrilegious, since many of us attend multiple seders each year anyway, often spread out over weeks. Our community interfaith seder was last week, before everyone started leaving town for the school spring break to have Easter and Passover with family. Other themed seders such as women’s seders, or social justice seders, are often held well ahead of Passover week for the same reason. And families and friends may schedule multiple seders throughout Passover week, in order to celebrate with more than one group.

My interfaith clan won’t have our seder this year until later in the week, because being together is more important than the precise day we celebrate, and because we want to respect the climax of the Christian liturgical year. Moving our seder will allow for a proper and separate day of celebrating Easter, since our extended interfaith crew includes both practicing Catholics (who will go to an Easter service) and small children (who will want to eat chocolate and dye eggs). Part of respecting the differences between our two familial religions involves giving each holiday proper space to breathe, and avoiding blending them together. But I suspect that inevitably this year, some of us will spend Easter making matzoh balls.

After years of blogging around the cycle of Jewish and Christian holidays, I thought I would provide a round-up of links to my past posts on Passover and Easter in interfaith families. For culinary musings, you can read about my Grandma’s southern-style charoset with bananas, oranges and pecans, about the “Easter” recipes in her 19th-century German Jewish cookbook, and about what to do with leftover matzoh, jelly bean, and Peeps. And on Joan Nathan’s blog, alongside her terrific flourless chocolate cake recipe, you can read my tips for making the Passover seder more accessible for both Jewish and interfaith guests.

To address the “Spring Dilemma” head on–-the theological harmonics and feedback produced by the proximity of Easter and Passover, read about how one father talked to his young interfaith daughter about the story of Jesus, about my experience of Easter as a mystery and a metaphor, and about being Jewish at a sunrise Easter service.

And for more about how my motley interfaith clan celebrates, you can read about it in this post, and in my infamous “Interfaith Easter, Oy!” essay from Huffington Post (with 240 passionate comments).

However you celebrate, wherever you are, I hope you have time to slow down this holiday weekend, to take in the rebirth of spring, to appreciate the old people and the babies and the tender teenagers gathered round, as we partake in these ancient rituals together.

(NOTE: a version of this post ran in 2010, when Passover and Good Friday also converged).

Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.

The Identity of Interfaith Children: Downton Abbey Edition

Posted March 2, 2015 by Susan Katz Miller
Categories: Interfaith children, Interfaith Identity, Interfaith marriage

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downton-abbey-s5-valentine-love-ss-02-scale-690x390

I don’t always blog about fictional interfaith families, but when I do, it’s because they’re discussing the identity of interfaith children. Season 5 of Downton Abbey, which concluded this week in the US, featured the courtship and interfaith marriage of Rose (niece of Lord and Lady Grantham) and Atticus (son of Lord and Lady Sinderby). But for me, the most interesting episode aired last week, when we witnessed the following conversation between Lord Sinderby and Atticus:

Lord Sinderby: “The second Lord Sinderby may be Jewish, but the third will not…”

Atticus: “Any children we may have will be brought up to know both sides of their heritage.”

Lord Sinderby: “Your children will not be Jewish. Don’t you understand that! Their mother will not be Jewish, and neither will they.”

Atticus: “They may choose to convert. Or are you implacably opposed to giving anyone a free choice.”

 Lord Sinderby, quietly: “How easy you make it sound…”

Although the episode takes place between the two World Wars, that conversation sounded very familiar, very modern, and possibly painful, to a lot of contemporary interfaith families. I was not surprised to learn that it was based on an experience the writer Julian Fellowes had himself, while dating a Jewish woman. Interfaith couples today still face worried and frustrated family members who try to discourage interfaith marriages based on the following myths:

1. The myth that the children cannot be Jewish, if their mother is not Jewish. This is no longer the policy of Reform Judaism, the largest Jewish movement in America, and it hasn’t been since 1983. We now have rabbis with mothers who never converted to Judaism, including Jewish luminaries such as Rabbi Angela Buchdahl.

2. The myth that you can’t raise children with both religions. I did it. Hundreds of families are providing interfaith education to interfaith children in organized interfaith family communities. And clergy and religious institutions are beginning to acknowledge this choice as part of the religious landscape. A Chicago rabbi recently told me that fully half of the interfaith couples he marries plan to raise children with both religions. And, I would argue that there is a level on which all interfaith children are exposed to both heritages, even if you give them a single religious label. So Atticus may have sounded naive to Lord Sinderby, but I would argue that he was simply ahead of his time.

3. The myth that Judaism is so strongly tribal that you cannot convert into it. Many people choose Judaism and convert. And some interfaith children can and do choose to convert in order to gain full membership in the movement of their choosing. Sadly, Lord Sinderby is right that it isn’t always easy, and Jews-by-choice still face exclusion, restrictions and prejudice in some Jewish communities. But that’s not a reason to avoid interfaith marriage, or avoid conversion. It is a reason to continue to press for policies that will include and welcome interfaith families.

Finally, Atticus makes reference to free choice in religious practice. In the US, we are lucky enough to have the freedom to choose our own religious identities and practices, to love across traditional boundaries, and to educate our children as we see fit. And our children, whether born into single-faith or interfaith families, will grow up to do the same.

 

Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.

Let Us Check More Than One Religion Box

Posted February 20, 2015 by Susan Katz Miller
Categories: Interfaith children, Interfaith Identity, Interfaith in the News, Interfaith marriage

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Interfaith Sweater by Susan Katz Miller

Imagine for a moment that you are a teenager, arriving at college for your first year, and that you come from an interfaith family. Perhaps you were raised in one religion, but now, you feel drawn to explore the other religion in your family background. Or perhaps you were raised with both religions, and plan to stay connected to both. Or perhaps you were raised with neither religion, but now plan to explore both family religions, or all religions.

Now, imagine you are handed a survey and asked to choose one religion, and only one religion, as your identity. Your only other choices are to choose “none,” or “other religion,” or to skip the question altogether.

I went through this thought experiment as I read “The American Freshman,” an annual report released earlier this month, based on a survey of more than 150,000 college freshmen in the annual CIRP (Cooperative Institutional Research Program) survey, produced by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA.

The survey only allows students to pick one religion as their “religious preference.” I suggest that as a result of this restriction, the researchers are missing an opportunity to better understand the changing landscape of American religious identity. As summarized recently by Robert P. Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute, that landscape includes the following: one in five Americans is religiously unaffiliated, a quarter of the unaffiliated still see themselves as religious, one in six Americans follow the teachings or practices of more than one religion, and about one quarter have a spouse or partner of another religious background.

This year’s American Freshman survey found that nearly 28% of the students chose “none” as their religious preference, up from some 15% in 1971. And yet, more than 16% of these “religious nones” in 2014 rated their own spirituality as “above average” or in the highest ten percent. I asked Kevin Eagan, the director of HERI, for additional information on the students who came from interfaith families. In 1973, about 22% of students reported having parents with two different religions or denominations (or having one parent with no religion). By 2014, almost 30% had such “religiously discordant” parents.

When I asked whether the researchers had considered allowing students to check more than one religious preference, Eagan replied in an email:
“Unlike race/ethnicity, we have not heard feedback from students or institutions that respondents have felt boxed in by restricting them to just one preference for religion.” I can only reply that both my college-student daughter and my college-bound son do feel boxed in, as do I. And based on the college students I surveyed and interviewed for Being Both, my book on interfaith families, I suspect we’re not the only ones.

I also asked Eagan what he thought of the idea that students from interfaith families would check “none” if they could not check more than one box. “I would think that students who wanted to check multiple religions would either skip the question entirely (i.e., be coded as missing data) or choose the option of ‘other religion’ rather than choose ‘none’,” Eagan wrote me.

As someone who claims an identity formed by both my Jewish and my Christian heritage, I would not choose “other religion,” a category that seems designed for Sikhs or Jains or Pagans. Interfaith is not a religion: it is an identity based on the synergy and symbiosis of two distinct family religions. Often, those of us honoring both family religions are accused of trying to form a new religion. In order to avoid feeding this kind of concern, I would make a point of not checking the “other religion” box. My 18-year-old son says, “At least checking ‘other’ sends the message that they need to expand their options.” But does it send that message?

The choice to just skip the question creates the unfortunate result that people with complex religious identities from interfaith families will not be counted or included in the study results on religious identity. And we are tired of not counting. I agree that some students might just skip this question since there would be no way to express their true religious preferences within the parameters of the survey. My argument is that by allowing them to check more than one box, researchers would be able to gather data to better understand the religious identity of these students.

Why would students who feel connected to more than one religion choose “none”? Those of us who are interfaith children grow up hearing “you can’t be both” and “if you try to do both, you’re really nothing,” and being told that clergy, or religious texts, do not accept the existence of interfaith families. A survey that does not allow students to check two or more religion boxes, but does allow them to check “none,” effectively steers respondents from interfaith families to the “none” box. And yet, this is clearly an uncomfortable box for interfaith children who celebrate more than one religion. My 18-year-old son explains, ” ‘None’ strips you of your religion. They’re saying that because you don’t fit into one of our categories, you can’t have any religion.”

There’s a simple solution to all of this. Allow students to check more than one box. Allow them to check both Buddhist and Jewish. Allow them to check, whether or not you agree that it is a valid choice, Jewish and Catholic. The results will be more complex, perhaps harder to summarize. And more true.

 

This essay was first published on Huffington Post.

Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.

 

Strange Wives: The Paradox of Biblical Intermarriage

Posted February 4, 2015 by Susan Katz Miller
Categories: interfaith books, Interfaith marriage, Judaism

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Stange Wives, by Ned Rosenbaum

 

Abraham, Moses, Ruth, David, Samson, Joseph, Esther, Solomon.

What do they all have in common?

They were intermarried.

 

Thus begins Strange Wives: The Paradox of Biblical Intermarriage, a comprehensive and compelling exploration of the formative effects of intermarriage in Biblical times. This book provides a very readable guide to the history of intermarriage in the mixed multitude of cultures and practices and beliefs coalescing gradually, over centuries and millennia, into the people Israel. The authors conclude that the “early willingness to reach across tribal and ethnic boundaries was a source of strength, which Jews later forgot or chose not to remember.”

Here, I am glad to claim my relationship to the three people who created this long-awaited book. Strange Wives was written by Stanley Ned Rosebaum, with Rabbi Allen Secher, and edited by Mary Heléne Pottker Rosenbaum. Ned and Mary co-wrote Celebrating Our Differences: Living Two Faiths in One Marriage, a groundbreaking chronicle of a dual-faith family. Rabbi Allen was the first rabbi working with interfaith families communities in Chicago. I met Mary, Ned and Rabbi Allen at a series of national conferences to support interfaith families, through the Dovetail Institute.

Ned studied at Hebrew University and the Sorbonne, got his PhD in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis, published scholarly books on Biblical topics, and spent almost three decades as a beloved professor of Jewish Studies at Dickinson College. Then in 2011, he died in a tragic automobile accident, leaving Mary and Allen to get this book out into the world. Which they did, and for which I am very grateful.

As an interfaith child, and an interfaith parent, I have often faced the argument that Judaism has always prohibited intermarriage. This book puts that idea to rest, with deep erudition, wit, and aplomb. Strange Wives is nothing if not thorough, with footnotes, a full bibliography, and plenty of credit given to academics writing on this topic. But this is a book for all of us, with crystal clarity, and lively tone.

Strange Wives draws on both Scripture and archaeology to describe the Biblical setting as a cultural caravansary at the nexus of Africa and Europe, and of the Indian and Mediterranean Oceans. The authors document marriages of Israelites with Ammonites, Amalekites, Moabites, Midianites, Samaritans, Canaanites, Amorites, Hittites, Egyptians, and Babylonians. The women who married into the tribes of Israel continued to worship their own fertility gods even after marriage, and early Israelite farmers continued to appeal to fertility gods to bless their crops, and saw their God as competing with, incorporating, subsuming, and possibly even (inter)marrying other local gods. “Tradition has forgotten,” the authors write, “if it ever knew, how religiously diverse early Israel was.”

The authors argue that the fact that Ezra the Scribe, on his return from Babylonian exile, called on Jews to divorce their “strange wives,” is simply proof that such marriages were indeed common. Rather than seeing intermarriage as a threat to some essential or pure monotheism, they write, “Without the contribution of all these foreigners, mostly women, Judaism would have had a vastly different shape—or perhaps no shape at all.”

But didn’t the wives (for they were mainly wives) convert to Judaism? Like Ruth? While the idea of Ruth as the “first convert” is popular in contemporary Jewish culture, academics have long understood that, as the authors puts it, “there was no conversion in any meaningful sense” until two thousand years after Ruth.

Rosenbaum and Secher, towards the end of this book, write that they both “share the standard fear for the future of the Jewish community.” However, they also write, “We feel strongly that the very positive role so many intermarriages played in Israel’s formative centuries…ought not to be neglected or, worse, misrepresented for partisan purposes.” As we enter yet another period of extensive interfaith marriage in the Jewish community, Strange Wives asks us to study, and remember, this part of our past.

 

Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.

 

 


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