#GenInterfaith: Parliament of the World’s Religions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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When One Religion Isn’t Enough

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

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

Here’s what I wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Night of Hanukkah, photo by Susan Katz Miller

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

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

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

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

Another year, I wrote a series of snapshots of Hanukkah, Advent, Christmas and Yule in our family, along with my photo of a Hanukkah cookie. It may have been the enticing cookie that lured WordPress into selecting the post to be featured on Freshly Pressed. (I am proud to use my own photos on most of my posts).

That year, I also wrote a piece for Huffington Post on celebrating both holidays in our family. In response, a blogger for the Forward wrote an outraged post in the form of a letter excoriating me. While her post was filled with misunderstandings (we absolutely do not celebrate Chrismukkah), I hope that our exchange helped to explain to a wider audience why many interfaith families are teaching their children both religions.

This year, I feel lucky because Hanukkah comes in that sweet spot on the calendar between Thanksgiving and Christmas: December 2nd to 9th. So we avoid that Thanksgivukkah nonsense. And we minimize any awkwardness in the overlap of Hanukkah and Christmas, for those of us who like to keep the December holidays separate.

And I do like to keep them separate. For our family, part of the point of celebrating both is giving each religion (and each holiday) proper space and respect and meaning. So, no Hanukkah bush or star-of-David treetoppers for us. A Christmas tree is a Christmas tree. And a menorah is a menorah (or a chanukiah, as some folks prefer to call them these days), even when it is made of plexiglass and holds glow sticks instead of candles, like the menorah I sent to our kids when they were in college (thanks to dormitory fire laws!).

Which reminds me, whichever holidays you celebrate in your family, treasure each Hanukkah, each Christmas, each Eid, each Diwali, each Solstice with your children. Too soon, they will be out and about in the great world, and you can only hope that they will be warmed by the nostalgic glow of holiday memories. At our house, we tried to take every opportunity, from both of our religions, to create those memories.

 

 

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

Losing My Father, Not My Religion

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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.

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.

Today Show, Sue Hoda Ben Kathie
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.