Interfaith Families, The Today Show, The Back Story
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.
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. Outside 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).
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.
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.
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. Click this link to watch:
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.
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.