The Problem with Gendered Descent

The author. Photo by Lucy Jean Brettler

Religions, many of them, lag and drag on issues of gender equality. We see this in the patriarchal texts and liturgies, the dearth of women in religious power, the resistance to full inclusion of LGBTQ+ people. A growing percentage of young adults no longer feel any need to affiliate, or any use for religious institutions. One reason at the top of the list is antiquated perspectives on gender and sexuality. Another interrelated reason: exclusion of interfaith families.

Gendered descent, the idea that religious identity is passed down, but only through the parent of a particular gender, is a corrosive, archaic, unworkable concept in the 21st century. It is deeply troubling to me as a “patrilineal Jew,” and as a human being. And it is found in multiple religions. The Orthodox and Conservative Jewish movements, and the state of Israel, go by matrilineal descent in deciding whom they consider to be Jewish. Meanwhile, many other religious cultures (from Muslims to Zoroastrians) traditionally go by patrilineal descent. Either way, interfaith families have a problem, and that means young adults who want to engage with religion, generally, are going to have a problem.

If we accept gendered descent, what is the religion of an interfaith child with two moms? Two dads? Two non-binary parents? Two trans parents? Multiple co-parenting parents? An egg or sperm donor? And, why should only one parent have the “right” to pass down a religion, based on their gender?

The painful absurdity of gendered descent is made plain, once again, in a recent decision by a rabbinical court in Israel. A Jewish mother gave birth to a baby conceived with an egg from a Jewish donor. But a state rabbinical court has now ruled that because the donor was anonymous, they can’t be sure the donor was Jewish enough and they refuse to register the baby as Jewish. (Was there a convert in the lineage somewhere? Were the rabbis who oversaw that conversion kosher enough?). So the baby does not get Jewish religious identity according to the state. This has real consequences in Israel, since, for instance, religious courts control marriage (there is no civil marriage) and interfaith couples have to fly to Cyprus or elsewhere to get married.

The decision takes place in a context of increasing bullying of the more progressive Jewish movements by Israeli rabbinical courts. These courts are now suspicious of anyone with Reform Jewish identity in ruling on who can immigrate, who can marry whom, who can be buried where. The Israeli theocracy seeks to disempower and disenfranchise Reform Judaism, pushing back on this movement’s adoption (in 1983) of gender-neutral policies on Jewish descent. In Israel, the religion of the father is chopped liver–irrelevant.

An egg has no religion. At birth, a baby has no religion. As adults, we create religious rituals to claim children. We create practices to immerse them in our religious culture. We create systems for their formal religious education. And then they grow up, and make their own decisions about beliefs, practices, affiliations, and identity. As the Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran writes: “They come through you but not from you, And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.”

And, none of this has anything to do with gender. Trying to police religious identity based on the gender of parents (and grandparents, and great-grandparents) is just one more way to exclude interfaith families, exclude LGBTQ families, and exclude those who might actually want to participate in what remains of progressive religious culture. It is past time for gender-neutral religion.

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 a workbook, The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Book Review: Darius the Great is Not Okay

We need to listen to the voices of kids from all sorts of interfaith families, not just Jewish and Christian families. Darius the Great is Not Okay, by Adib Khorram, is a poignant, lyrical, hilarious novel, with an unforgettable protagonist from a complex interfaith family. This award-winning 2018 Young Adult (YA) novel stars Darius Kellner, an American teenager who happens to have a Persian-American Zoroastrian mother, and a European-American secular humanist father. The novel centers on a summer when Darius goes for an extended visit with his grandparents in Iran. While there, he meets a boy who happens to be Baha’i.

Darius may seem, on some levels, like a universal YA protagonist: awkward, insecure, and struggling with the feeling that he is disappointing his parents. He’s a nerd who loves Star Trek and Tolkien, and hates gym class. As the plot progresses, he faces some of his demons and bullies, comes to understand his flawed parents better, and grows into a more confident young man.

But this coming-of-age narrative stands out for multiple reasons. The author, who himself experienced clinical depression as a teen, creates a nuanced portrait of a teen with inherited depression who benefits from anti-depressants. His depiction of Darius as he begins to realize he is attracted to another young man is subtle and poetic. And the exploration of Iranian religions and culture is compelling, especially to those of us who are religious history nerds.

Most relevant here, Darius will fascinate anyone who is an interfaith kid. The novel, while absolutely unique, echoes some of the themes of previous YA books with protagonists from interfaith families, going all the way back to Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret (1970), up through the more recent books My Basmati Bar Mitzvah, and Mira in the Present Tense and including the brand new All American Muslim Girl. But the closest parallel may be found in prize-winning poet Naomi Shihab Nye’s Habibi. As in Darius, the protagonist of Habibi is a US-born teen with one European-American parent and one immigrant parent, who goes abroad to stay with grandparents, explores cultural and religious heritage, and makes a close friend of another religion. (In the case of Habibi, a teenage girl goes to stay with her Palestinian Muslim grandmother, and meets a nice Jewish boy).

Whether we grow up in Jewish/Christian, Muslim/Christian, or Zoroastrian/atheist families, interfaith kids share some common experiences. Darius describes himself as a “Fractional Persian.” He worries about whether he is Persian enough. He wonders whether he has the right to claim a Persian identity in Iran while feeling marked by his Persian identity back in the U.S. And he feels cut off from claiming Zoroastrianism because it is patrilinial (a barrier familiar to interfaith kids from other religions with gender-based inheritance traditions, including Judaism and Islam).

Darius also expresses a longing for unity across religious boundaries, and an attraction to learning about religious history, qualities many interfaith kids in my research share. He fondly notes the social solidarity of Persians in exile, who “celebrated Nowruz and Chaharshanbeh Suri together in big parties, Baha’is and Muslims and Jews and Christians and Zoroastrians…” And while in Iran, he speaks to the beauty of the muezzin’s call to prayer, the wonder of the Assyrian statues in Persepolis, and the power of the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence. Darius may identify with his father’s secular humanism, but he is also deeply engaged with his own complex religious heritage, and the religious landscape around him.

Last month, news broke that Darius the Great is Not Okay will become a film. And fans are eagerly awaiting a sequel novel due out in the fall: Darius the Great Deserves Better. A lot of the excitement around the sequel has focused on Darius’s coming out journey (Korram tweeted that one of the titles they considered for the sequel was Darius the Great is Not Straight). But I hope the film, and the sequel, also make space for Darius to contemplate his complex spiritual and cultural identity, as part of an extended interfaith family.

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 a workbook, The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Halloween in an Interfaith Families Community

Halloween is the quintessential interfaith holiday, with both pagan and Christian roots, and an enthusiastic following among Jews. When I was growing up, no one questioned that American Jews (or people of any other religion) should celebrate Halloween. But then again, it was an era when many Jews celebrated secular Christmas.

More recently, fear of assimilation and a shift among some progressive Jews to more traditional practice triggered a lively debate on whether or not Jews should celebrate Halloween at all. In my interfaith family, and and in our interfaith families community, our thirst for full educational disclosure drives us to explore the religious origins and meaning of the holiday, rather than staying on the secularized, commercial surface. And thinking about the history of this interfaith holiday, and even developing a specifically Jewish perspective on Halloween, enlivens and enriches the holiday, and imbues it with special resonance for me, as part of an interfaith family.If you’re wondering how this works, here is a description of our interfaith family community’s celebration back in 2009, the year I created this blog. The Spiritual Leader of the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington, Reverend Julia Jarvis, stood in front of the hundreds of members of our community on Sunday morning and explained the pagan origins of Halloween, and how a Roman Pope encouraged the incorporation of this pre-Christian festival into the Catholic calendar, and the distinctions between All Saints and All Souls Days. A Catholic member of our group, married to a Jew, recounted with wise humor how praying to Saint Gerard, patron saint of motherhood, gave her comfort and strength when she was facing infertility.

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

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

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

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

This essay is adapted from an essay on this blog from November 3, 2009.

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 a workbook, The Interfaith Family Journal (2019).

The Interfaith Family Journal. Wait, What Is It Again?

So I recently ran into a friend at a party who asked me, “Didn’t you publish a calendar or something this year? Based on your first book?”

I tried to be very calm in replying. Note: words in parentheses are words I was thinking but did not say.

“(Dude!!!!) it’s not a (flipping) calendar, it’s a (completely awesome) interactive journal, or workbook. (And by the way, I put my heart and soul into creating it).. And it’s not based on my first book, (which is a chronicle of interfaith families doing both). The Interfaith Family Journal  is a resource (filled with entirely new content) for anyone and everyone, whether or not they practice any religion, and no matter which religions or how many religions they practice.”

In this awkward social moment, I realized, once again, that it is not immediately obvious what the Journal is, who it is for, or what it can do for you. So I thought I’d write down some thoughts on how individuals, couples, and communities can use the Journal.

ON YOUR OWN

Any individual person, married or partnered or single, LGBTQ+ or straight, of any culture or religion, whether or not they are a parent, whether or not they grew up in an interfaith family, can use the Journal on their own. It is designed to deepen your understanding of your relationship with your formative religious or spiritual or secular experiences as a child and adult, and your dreams for the future. So indulge your-journaling-self and buy a copy!

For therapists, clergy, and religious leaders, and those considering religious leadership, working through the Journal supports the process of self-discovery and discernment. And the Journal is an essential tool for therapists and religious leaders as they counsel interfaith couples and their extended family members, including jittery parents of brides and grooms. So give a gift copy to the therapists or religious leaders in your life.

WITH A PARTNER OR PARTNERS

For those in relationships, the Journal provides a safe and supportive, intimate and private way to work through ways to engage with each other’s religious heritages and experiences (good and bad) and families, to figure out what to celebrate and when and where and how, and to explore different religious, spiritual, or secular pathways together. The Journal does not promote a particular pathway, but instead inspires deep conversation on how to be your own happiest and strongest interfaith family.

An engaged or married or partnered couple or group can best benefit by each having their own copy of the Journal, and meeting weekly (or on your own schedule) to swap Journals and read and reflect on your responses together. Your Journal partner could also be a child old enough to want to engage in questions of religion and spirituality, or a beloved friend or mentor, especially one who is helping you to raise a child.

IN COMMUNITY

A group of people and families may want to meet together, book-club style, on a weekly basis over a period of five weeks to engage together with the questions raised in the Journal, share experiences and resources, and support each other. How did you mark life cycle transitions in your family? Do you want to invite family elders to be religious or spiritual or cultural teachers for your children? Which family traditions do you want to pass down, and which ones do you want to leave behind?

If you are a religious leader or religious educator, organize a course or workshop for your community around using the Journal. Or, anyone can invite a few other interfaith couples or families to join in a five-week meet-up to go through the chapters together. You can even include children—there are downloadable coloring pages at interfaithfamilyjournal.com, and the Journal describes other creative activities for children to help with, such as drawing illustrations for your own Interfaith Family Cookbook. (You could share those family recipes at the meet-ups).

It could also be inspiring to use the Journal for community-building, with a group of neighbors who may span cultural, racial, and/or socioeconomic barriers. Imagine creating an Interfaith Neighborhood Cookbook! You don’t have to think of yourself as an interfaith family in order to benefit from the prompts and exercises in the Journal.

NEXT UP: Join me this Sunday at the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington DC as we welcome Chicago filmmaker David Kovacs, a founder of the Chicago Interfaith Family School, and see excerpts from his interfaith families film Leaps of Faiths.

On November 3rd, I’ll be facilitating the first of a two-part Interfaith Couples Workshop at the Interfaith Families Project in DC. A rare opportunity to get support from a minister, a Catholic priest, a rabbi, and me, live and in-person. Sign up now!

And, join me in Chicago for a book talk and signing on November 10th. Free and open to 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 a workbook, The Interfaith Family Journal (2019).

Sukkoth in an Interfaith Families Community

Sukkah

(This essay is adapted from a post from 2013).

The three great agricultural festivals in Judaism–Sukkoth, Passover, and Shavuot–tie us to our ancient origins, when we lived in intimate relation to nature. During the week of Sukkoth, we build temporary outdoor huts (or tabernacles), cover them with branches, and festoon them with harvest fruits. We are commanded to eat and sleep in the Sukkah–to look up through the branches at the stars, and sense our own fragility, and the infinity of the universe. Sukkoth appeals in part because it draws on every child’s fantasy of living in a treehouse– of living off the land in the primal way depicted in My Side of the Mountain.

This week, I will celebrate with traditional prayers and rituals in a Sukkah with my interfaith families community. One of our goals in interfaith education is to go beyond the most obvious Hanukkah/Christmas/Passover/Easter rotation of holidays–to go deeper into both religions. The elemental, natural, pagan elements preserved in Sukkoth please my interfaith soul.

I see every religion as fundamentally syncretic (and that’s a good thing)–as a historical accumulation of evolving influences rather than as something static and pure and singular. On Sukkoth, we stand in the Sukkah and shake a fruit called a citron or etrog, and a bound bundle of palm and myrtle and willow branches (the lulav) in six directions (north, south, east, west, to the skies, and to the ground). The parallel between this ritual and Native American rituals involving the cardinal directions has not gone unnoticed (and feels especially resonant in a year when Sukkoth starts on Indigenous Peoples’ Day). The etrog and lulav are thought to originate in harvest fertility rituals that predate Judaism, with the etrog representing the feminine, and the lulav clearly phallic. When we shake the lulav, we hear the sound of the wind, and invoke rain at the start of the ancient rainy season in the Middle East.

As urban-dwellers, and people of the scroll, we need to get outside more often–close our books and turn off our electronic phones and tablets, contemplate the sun and the stars, and get in touch with the elemental. Sukkoth provides that opportunity.

In autumn, our interfaith families community tends to feel very Jewish. On the heels of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and Sukkoth, we will celebrate Simchat Torah. We want our children to experience all these holidays, and feel connected to Judaism through them. But we also keep in mind that the Christian members of our families are celebrating with us. We provide context for every prayer and ritual, and give them ways to not only participate, but to lead. And we weave in St Francis, and All Saints and All Souls, and see the parallels as well as the differences.

One year, our musical director Marci Shegogue led us in the Sukkoth prayers. And then her husband Rich, who was raised Catholic, stood under the Sukkah, and led us in singing an 18th-century Christian hymn, perfectly suited to a Jewish agricultural festival, adapted and set to music by a nice Jewish boy from Long Island, Stephen Schwartz:

     We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land,

     But it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand...

Schwartz took the words for “All Good Gifts,” along with most of the other Godspell lyrics, straight out of an Episcopal hymnal. As the daughter of a Jewish father and an Episcopalian mother, I find this fact resonant, and gratifying. The Hebrew prophet Zechariah predicted that in the end of days, all nations would celebrate “the feast of tabernacles” (Sukkoth) together. You could say that interfaith families gathered for Sukkoth are simply working on fulfilling this prophecy.

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 a workbook, The Interfaith Family Journal (2019).

Book Review: Dessert First

We need people from interfaith families to write a whole list of books–on love, birth, coming of age, aging together–written from diverse religious, spiritual and secular perspectives. So I am thrilled that J. Dana Trent is on her way to producing an entire canon from her perspective as a Baptist minister married to a Hindu. Her first book, Saffron Cross: The Unlikely Story of How a Christian Minister Married a Hindu Monk, described her interfaith courtship and marriage with humor and humility. Her latest book, Dessert First: Preparing for Death While Savoring Life, brings those same attractive qualities to writing about the idea that we are “all terminal.”

Trent has abundant experience with death. She spent a formative year as a hospital “death chaplain,” sitting with dying patients, and with grieving families. She has been, at a relatively early age, through the deaths of her father, her mother, and her father-in-law. And she has experienced both the death of a parent with whom she had a distant and troubled relationship, and the death of a parent with whom she had an extraordinarily close relationship.

There are many self-help books out there about grief. Trent’s book stands out, not only because of the interfaith family angle, but because her irrepressible wit leavens the inevitable pain and turmoil surrounding death. For instance, she describes trying to fill out the necessary paperwork and plan a funeral in the first days after a death as ” like assembling IKEA furniture in a wind tunnel.” Having recently been through the death of both my parents, I found this to be a very apt, and funny, metaphor.

Dessert First was clearly written by a Christian living in the Bible belt. So, Trent spends significant time thinking about–and writing about–the afterlife, heaven, and the way that Christians do, or do not, navigate these ideas as death approaches. More interesting, for me, were the brief moments describing the interfaithness of her family, and the way this interfaithness has expanded to include the parental generation. So, for instance, we see her Hindu husband chanting into his father’s ear as he lies dying. And we see her mother’s body, after death, with glass Protestant prayer beads in one hand, and wooden Hindu beads wrapped in the other hand. Trent shows, in these glimpses, how her interfaith family is starting to figure out their own way to honor the religion of the deceased, while also honoring the religious rituals of those left behind.

The interfaithness of the book is also reflected in the inspirational quotes at the head of each chapter, including not only Christian texts and theologians but Rabbi Harold Kushner and the Bhagavad Gita. And Trent, who is a professor of world religions, provides a brief synopsis of ideas about the afterlife in Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism. Dessert First also includes guidance on leaving instructions for your own death and funeral or memorial, in a section that complements the material on these topics in The Interfaith Family Journal.

My only significant qualm about this book is that the author expresses a strong preference for hospital deaths, versus home deaths. Trent is from a family of health practitioners (her brother is a doctor, her mother was a nurse) and her own experiences, both as a chaplain, and with her mother, were of hospital deaths. I’m not sure what informed her idea of “the trauma of dying at home.” Both my parents died in home hospice. I found these experiences peaceful and profound, and my only regret is that we did not bring my mother home from the hospital sooner. But inevitably, we each write from our own experiences.

Whether or not you are from an interfaith family, Dessert First makes a cogent case for discussing death early and often, for leaving explicit instructions, and for approaching this essential topic with curiosity and compassion, rather than fear and trembling. This is a slim and attractive book (with sprinkles on the cover!), filled with Trent’s stories and with her bravery in writing about this topic. Dessert First should provide succor, metaphorical balm, and even laughter, to all who read it.

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 a workbook, The Interfaith Family Journal (2019).

Where Do We Go? Interfaith Families, Fall Decisions

The Interfaith Family Journal

The kids are back in school. The Jewish High Holidays are fast approaching. Are you joining a synagogue? A church? A Unitarian-Universalist congregation? A Buddhist sangha? A Hindu temple? A secular humanist community? All of the above? None of the above?

Are you interested in finding or creating an interfaith families community in your geographic area? Or, are you confident that you can teach your children what you want them to know about their religious heritages, and the religions of the world, at home? Do the schools your children attend teach one religion, or teach about many world religions, or avoid religion entirely? Do you and your partner agree on where you want your children to develop religious literacy and interfaith self-esteem?

Have you visited the communities available in your geographic area that might be a good fit for your family? Are they welcoming to interfaith families? Do the clergy officiate at interfaith life cycle ceremonies? Would they fully accept your children as belonging? Or, are their restrictions on participation?

So many questions! Interfaith families can feel overwhelmed this time of year, or even paralyzed, and may end up putting off decisions for another year.

But this fall, for the first time, help is here. I wrote The Interfaith Family Journal  in part to help you through this process of figuring out which community or communities will be right for your family, at this moment. Whether you want to join one community, ,or two, or several, or none, the Journal will help. Whether you want to raise your children with one of your religions, or both of your religions, or a new religion, or many religions, or with purely secular and cultural education, the Journal will help.

The Interfaith Family Journal  takes you through an interactive process of figuring out what you want, what your partner wants, and what communities are available to you. It gives you a checklist of questions to ask any community you are considering joining, to make sure your interfaith family will be fully included. This is the moment to buy a copy for yourself, and one for your partner (or for your adult children, or grandchildren, or for your favorite therapist or clergy member).

In recent weeks, I have had deeply fulfilling experiences presenting my work on interfaith families in Spokane and Asheville, with groups of young interfaith couples and groups of rabbis, and to an international documentary film crew. Next up, I’m heading to Chicago to speak and to sign books. Let your Chicago friends know!

My intention for this fall is to support as many interfaith families as I possibly can, in every geographic region, whether or not I am able to personally coach them. The Interfaith Family Journal distills my decades of research, personal history, and coaching experience into a slim format to help you through these moments of transition. If it is helpful to you, please let me know, and post a review. Thank you!

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 a workbook, The Interfaith Family Journal (2019).