Two American cultural icons died this week–author J.D. Salinger and historian and social activist Howard Zinn–and both of them had interfaith connections. Salinger perches near the top of any list of prominent “half-Jewish” writers–along with Marcel Proust, Gabriela Mistral, Dorothy Parker, Adrienne Rich and Mary Gordon. The fictional Glass family depicted in many of Salinger’s works, including Franny and Zooey, mirrored his own family: a Jewish father and an Irish Catholic mother. Salinger created what may have been the first important fictional treatment of an interfaith family: the theme of half-Jewishness was clearly resonant for him, if also troubling.
Zinn, on the other hand, was culturally Jewish, though his work for peace and justice put him in the vanguard of those working across religious boundaries, starting in the Civil Rights era. “I find inspiration in Jewish stories of hope, also in the Christian pacifism of the Berrigans, also in Taoism and Buddhism,” Zinn told Tikkun magazine.
Zinn had an important connection to two prominent black/Jewish interfaith families. Author of the essential People’s History of the United States, Zinn spent most of his career as a history professor at Boston University. But from 1956 to 1963, he taught at Spelman College in Atlanta, where he mentored both Alice Walker and Marian Wright Edelman, both of whom went on to marry Jewish men.
Alice Walker called Zinn “the best teacher I ever had.” Her later marriage to a Jewish lawyer was brief, but her daughter Rebecca Walker has written an important memoir on being a biracial, interfaith child. Marian Wright Edelman has had a long and happy marriage to law professor Peter Edelman. In her book Lanterns: A Memoir of Mentors, Edelman wrote about the profound effect Zinn had on her, an impression that I cannot help but think opened her mind to the eventual possibility of interfaith marriage. “Howie not only lived what he taught in history class by breaching Atlanta’s segregated boundaries, but stretched my religious tolerance beyond childhood limits,” wrote Edelman, a minister’s daughter. “I felt shock and confusion when he announced in class that he did not believe in Jesus Christ. There were few Jewish citizens in my small South Carolina hometown. Through him I began to discern that goodness comes in many faiths and forms which must be respected and honored.”
The admiration was mutual. In 2006, when asked to assess the possible candidates for President, Zinn described Barack Obama as “cautious.” His suggested candidate, he said, would be Marian Wright Edelman.