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).

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One Reply to “Losing My Father, Not My Religion”

  1. Thank you for this post, I *so* get this. I support a football team called ‘The Saints’ and that hymn is their anthem, so every time I hear it, I think of where I grew up and that team.

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