The Star and the Cross: High Holy Days

I was in heaven on Rosh Hashanah. My heaven consists of sitting with my entire nuclear family (my Episcopalian husband and both our teenage children), surrounded by interfaith families, listening to our beloved Rabbi lead us through evening and morning services featuring ancient, traditional chants, sixties folk songs and a pinch of Catholicism.

Okay, so it took me a few minutes to adjust to the fact that the first-ever Rosh Hashanah services created by our Interfaith Families Project took place in the sanctuary of a local church, with a huge wooden cross looming behind our little Torah in its home-made traveling ark.

As we walked in and looked up, my teenage daughter was a little bit freaked out. I had not warned her. Waiting for services to begin, we talked about what it would have looked like if they had draped cloth over the cross (disrespectful, and perhaps calling even more attention to the hidden object). We talked about our Rabbi’s defense of the crucifix hanging in Georgetown classrooms, and his understanding of the cross as a universal symbol of suffering. We talked about the particular and very warm relationship between our interfaith community and this very progressive church. And we talked about the fact that many Christian congregations in America share their sanctuaries with young Jewish communities, communities that cannot afford synagogues yet. Someday, we hope the Interfaith Families Project will have its own spiritual space, with neutral or balanced symbology.  In the meantime, I am glad we could borrow this soaring sanctuary: as a spiritual space, it had a lot of advantages over the high school auditoriums rented by many Jewish communities for High Holy Day services.

Eventually, we all settled into the pew, and our focus shifted to the primal call of the shofar, the familiar chanting of Avinu Malkeinu, the singing of “Turn, Turn, Turn” and “Morning Has Broken.” My 13-year-old son whispered to me, “Did Cat Stevens write that before or after he became a Muslim?” After the service, we shared honeycake with hundreds of people from interfaith families from across the Washington area. I had a chance to remind my son that “Turn, Turn, Turn” is taken directly from Ecclesiastes (my daughter knows this fact). And that Cat Stevens adapted “Morning Has Broken” from a Christian hymn, before he became a Muslim. And we talked about why including a version of the peace prayer by Saint Francis in the service seemed daring but also strangely appropriate in the midst of the peace-filled liturgy for the first morning of Rosh Hashanah.

Later, I thought again of my own reaction to the cross as a backdrop for the Torah reading, the blowing of the shofar. I do not usually like to use the world “tolerance” when writing about interfaith relations and interfaith families. Tolerance seems to imply something difficult, irritating, costly. I prefer to stress appreciation, cross-pollination, embrace.

But in this case, tolerance felt like the right word. I would not have chosen to have it there, but that cross symbolized, for me, my own ability to tolerate, and even support, all the members of an extended interfaith family, an interfaith community, an interfaith world. If we are to live together in peace, we must tolerate each other’s symbols, even when they make us uncomfortable: the cross on the wall, the star in the window, the crescent moon in the heart of the city.

11 Replies to “The Star and the Cross: High Holy Days”

  1. Since the Washington Post bothered to report on the fact that we were holding these services, I figured someone should report at least a little bit about how they went. I love the fact that this blog is helpful in building the sense of community we have at IFFP. At the same time, I am very gratified that what I write seems to continue to interest some folks who aren’t in interfaith families at all, but find these issues interesting.

  2. We felt so exhilarated when we left the service — finally a Rosh Hashana service where we ALL felt comfortable! Praying with our own community of faith instead of a borrowed one, guided by our own familiar spiritual leaders, just felt right to us. My Catholic-born husband (who now declares himself to be Interfaith) said “WOW, we actually had our OWN Rosh Hashana service! Finally!”

    I have to admit that the large cross on the wall, and the one on the tapestry that hung from the lectern jumped out at me when I first walked in as well, but I realized quickly the dilemma posed to those in making the decision to cover or not to cover them…to cover would be as though we were hiding the heritage of at least 50% of those in the room… saying “the cross is not appropriate or welcome here.” Some could construe it to mean “Christianity (and those who follow it) are not welcome here”…which is so NOT the message of IFFP. Suddenly the idea of covering the crosses seemed more offensive than seeing them. It just didn’t seem to matter after a while anyway…I look forward to next year’s RH and YK services!

  3. Marci–
    Very well said–you describe exactly my own thought process. Though I think it is easier for some of us “old interfaith timers” to shift rapidly from discomfort to acceptance than it is for, say, newly-intermarried couples.

  4. Levitation with your feet on the ground. All your reporting on the details of self/family, place, and participants lends weight, without detracting from the spiritual aspect. If you have your own house of worship someday, you will deserve it.

  5. This Nice Jewish Girl from an interfaith family has fond memories of singing “Morning Has Broken” during her time at an Episcopalian all-girls’ school here in town 😉 — and being pleased to discover that the words were by childrens’ writer Eleanor Farjeon, whose volume _The Little Bookroom_ was on my parents’ shelves…

    Some of my most meaningful High Holy Day services have taken place in the borrowed context of a college chapel: trinitarian symbols painted on the highly-decorated walls, and New as well as Old Testament themes in stained glass windows, are permanent features that cannot be erased or hidden, so we did our davening within the framework of “tolerance” for the symbols of this other belief.

    But the gestures that make sense within family are not quite the same as those within a circle of friends: as it was not an interfaith service but a Conservative Jewish one, it seems appropriate that there was no cross immediately visible behind the ark; if there was one usually there, it may have been temporarily moved or covered. And I was proud to lead parts of the high holy day services there, on the three days a year that the campus’s “Battell Chapel” (its name is pronounced with the accent on the 2nd syllable) became “Beit El,” the house of God, for those worshipping there on the Jewish Days of Awe.

  6. Miriya–
    Thank you for such a detailed and marvelous description of your experiences. You have inspired me with at least two more blog topics:

    I too love Eleanor Farjeon–several of her poems were set to music by Alec Wilder and illustrated by Maurice Sendak in one of the most gorgeous books of all time, “Lullabies and Night Songs” (now, sadly, out of print). These lullabies have provided a non-denominational spiritual experience for two generations in my family.

    And also, someone could and should write a book about the many ways in which Jewish and Christian congregations (and more recently, other religious communities) have shared space through American history…we need to reclaim this spirit of co-existance, especially right now.

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