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).

New! Online Interfaith Couples Workshop

Photo of author Susan Katz Miller
Photo: StephanieWilliamsImages

For years now I have led interfaith family workshops for specific groups (including rabbis, and Unitarian-Universalist religious educators). I have helped lead interfaith couples workshops in the DC area, and privately coached interfaith couples.

But this fall, for the first time, I am thrilled to facilitate a four-part online workshop for interfaith couples based on The Interfaith Family Journal. The workshop is open to those from any religion, or all, or none. It is open to those who plan to practice one religion, or two, or more, or all, or none. All are welcome. The sponsor is Reconstructing Judaism, the first of the four largest Jewish movements to ordain rabbis with a spouse or partner from another religion. I am honored to work with them to bring you this unique workshop experience. We will meet online for an hour on each of four Tuesday nights starting September 3rd.

I created The Interfaith Family Journal to help any family or individual, anywhere. Through writing prompts, interactive exercises, and creative activities, the Journal supports you in understanding your religious and cultural past and forging a plan for your own interfaith family dreams and visions. Those who have used it testify to the power of this slim workbook.

Now, with this workshop, we have the opportunity to come together as interfaith families, no matter where we live. Together, we will create a supportive mini-community while working through the Journal to share our thoughts and experiences, our challenges and our joys. There is nothing like hearing your own questions and formative moments reflected in the words of someone else in a group, someone you’ve never met before. By spending these intimate hours together, we have the chance to feel affirmed and supported, gather new ideas, and feel less alone when facing ignorance or exclusion. Together, we will create this new space, and feel free to celebrate all that can be joyful, educational, and inspiring about being an interfaith family–whatever that family looks like for you.

I cannot wait to meet those of you who sign up! I am spending my August making plans for how we will weave this community together, and how I can be most helpful to you in these hours online. I have that excited back-to-school feeling with September approaching. Who will be in my class this year? (Yes, I was that nerd who loved school, both as a student, and later as a teacher). So please join me, sign up here before the workshop fills (space is limited), and share this post with anyone you know who might benefit.

I hope to see you soon, online!

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).

Happy 10th, Being Both Blog!

Photo Susan Katz Miller

Happy birthday dear blog!

It has now been exactly a decade since I created this virtual space for interfaith families. Over ten years, I have posted 358 essays here. In that time 184,192 people have visited, and viewed these pages 347,715 times.

I like to think that together we have brought about a virtual global village of people who form families across religious lines. Thousands of people have visited this blog from the US, Canada, UK, India, Australia, South Africa, the Philippines, and Malaysia. Over 1000 people have visited from France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Singapore, Indonesia, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates. And hundreds of visitors have found this community from Sweden, Russia, Pakistan, New Zealand, Ireland, Brazil, Hong Kong, Spain, Nigeria, Turkey, Norway, Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco, Belgium, Switzerland, Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Japan, Bangladesh, Poland, Denmark, Finland, Ghana, Trinidad & Tobago, South Korea, Qatar, Argentina, Romania, Morocco, Sri Lanka, Greece, and Thailand. In short, wherever there are families, there are interfaith families.

In ten years, what has changed? In my own work, I published two books on interfaith families. I spoke about how we can be interfaith educators, ambassadors, bridge-builders and peacemakers, at seminaries, conferences, festivals, universities, churches, and synagogues, around the country. I created the Network of Interfaith Family Groups to connect families of any or all religions “doing both” wherever they live. I helped inspire a lively Muslim/Christian interfaith families group (and welcomed the creation of a Muslim/Jewish group as well). And I began coaching interfaith couples online, as well as leading workshops for interfaith families, clergy, and religious educators.

This decade saw the publication of many other important new books in our nascent field, including those on the history of interfaith marriage in the US, on global multiple religious practice, on the different ways people come to be multiple religious practitioners, on how Jewish and Christian interfaith families choose to practice in the US, on what it is like being a rabbi married to a Catholic, on what it is like being a minister married to a Hindu, and on the inclusion of interfaith families in the American Jewish community.

In the Jewish world, one of the most significant changes for interfaith families was the decision of the fourth-largest movement, Reconstructing Judaism, to decide to accept, and ordain, rabbinical students in interfaith relationships. And in the Conservative movement, we are beginning to see a strong challenge from within, led by rabbis and congregants, to the policy forbidding Conservative rabbis from officiating at interfaith marriages.

Meanwhile, in this decade, a dramatic decline in American (and European) religious affiliation (and increase in “religious nones”) has encouraged many Christian denominations and other religious leaders to finally engage with the reality of interfaith families and the growth of multiple religious practice. These demographics also mean more of my work has been with families spanning religious and humanist/agnostic/atheist identities. And we have moved in this decade beyond the dominant Christian/Jewish interfaith family discourse, to engage with interfaith families with Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Pagan, African diasporic, and indigenous religious affiliations, among others. That’s why my new book, The Interfaith Family Journal , was designed to support people of any religion, all religions, or no religions.

Around the world, we still see, far too often, religious intolerance and misunderstanding leading to violence, including violent attacks on interfaith couples and families. And there are still far too many countries where religious authorities control the right to marriage (and burial), marginalizing or effectively prohibiting interfaith families (and LGBTQ+ relationships). We still have work to do to raise awareness, protect each other, and to see that love prevails over hate.

Sometimes in our cosmopolitan American and European cities, it feels like traditional religious identities are fading away, and perhaps interfaith families no longer need support, or my calls for new research and activism. But then, I get an email from a young couple—for instance, a Hindu dating a Catholic. They are seeking out a more neutral advisor, or a more positive outlook, as they struggle with society and extended family. And I realize, once again, how much I am learning from this couple–about their hopes and dreams–while simultaneously helping them. I realize, once again, that they have the potential to go beyond being okay. Through their relationship they can bring inspiration and interfaith education to their extended families and their communities, and to the world.

And then I think, maybe I will go ahead and keep blogging for one more decade?

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).