A Death in My Interfaith Family

martha-legg-katz-1961
Mom, Me, 1961

My mother, Martha Legg Katz, died last month. I have been uncharacteristically quiet here, in public, since she fell ill in the heat of August. When she died in September at home–my childhood home–I stood in the driveway watching the full moon rise behind a scrim of tall New England pines. Now it is October and the full moon has come and gone again. And so it feels like it is time to return to all of you.

In Judaism, there are special rules for shiva, the first seven days after the burial, and for  shloshim, the first thirty days. These rules help to insulate the mourner from the banality and hectic nature of the casual world, and help us figure out how to eventually emerge from the fog of grief and go on with life. Some of these rules–let your hair grow wild, wear old clothes–make sense to me in a primal way, and seem comforting. Others–no music, no luxurious baths–seem harsh and frankly counter-intuitive.

I do not feel bound by any of these rules, although I find them fascinating and in some cases helpful. Of course, my mother was not Jewish. She married a Jewish man, stopped going to church, raised Jewish children. Often alone on this journey in the 1960s and 70s, inventing as she went along, she created a role for herself as a pioneering interfaith spouse and parent.

My book, Being Both, opens with my mother baptizing me in the kitchen sink. The story of her successful interfaith marriage inspired my work, threads through my book, and comes up in every talk or workshop I give on interfaith families. The epic love between my parents has resonated with people around the country and the world who never met my mother in person. And so, although I have no great desire to mourn in public, I feel I have to acknowledge this immense transition in my life with public words, before I can really go on with writing about anything else.

Medieval scholar Maimonides traces shloshim, the first thirty days of mourning, to Deuteronomy 21:13. In this passage, soldiers are commanded to allow a captive woman to “bewail her father and her mother a full month” before taking her as a wife. Here, the pain of mourning is compounded by the context of war—a context found in many ancient religious texts, all written by men. As a bereaved daughter, I do find poignant the brief pause in mayhem to acknowledge the depth of grief a daughter would have for lost parents. It is also interesting to note that this passage points to the ongoing intimate relations–in war and peace–between the tribes of Israel and neighboring tribes.

But, returning to 21st century America, I have been figuring out how to bewail the loss of my mother in the context of a contemporary interfaith family. As with any life cycle event in our family, that means thinking deeply about which Jewish practices and which Christian practices hold meaning for us. We get to decide how to intertwine them, while respecting the history of each, and also celebrating the reality of our successful interfaith family.

For us, this has meant balancing a desire to meet the needs of my Jewish father, the principal mourner, with the desire to honor my Protestant mother. As always with interfaith families, the way we layer or weave together two sets of rituals will look different for each family. For my father, burying my mother in his family’s Jewish cemetery was essential, so that is what we did. We embraced the Jewish idea of a closed wooden casket without metal fittings as resonant with environmental principles important to me and to my siblings. And we chose the Jewish ritual of watching the casket lowered into the grave, in order to experience the reality of burial, rather than leaving the cemetery while the casket is still above ground, as is common at Christian burials. Our brief graveside service culminated with saying Kaddish, because most of the graveside mourners were from my large and very close Jewish family–the family that embraced my mother 56 years ago when she married my father.

At the same time, it would have been clear to any observer that day that we are an interfaith family, not simply a Jewish family. Although traditionally there is no music at a Jewish burial, we began our service with an a cappella Protestant hymn—albeit one that was included in Reform Judaism’s Union Prayer Book. The family members at the graveside included an Episcopal priest, and three Catholic grandchildren who are altar servers. And various in-laws arranged for Catholic masses to be said in memory of my mother, at The National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows in Illinois, and at Saint Peter’s in Rome. All this, both the Jewish and Christian ways of remembering her, would have pleased my mother greatly. A comparative religion major, she loved the ritual, and the mystery, of all our family traditions.

I find it encouraging that some interfaith family funerals now include Jewish and Christian clergy co-officiating. But we chose to have neither a rabbi nor a minister. Jewish tradition does not require clergy for a burial (or for a wedding, or a bar mitzvah, for that matter). Having a rabbi preside when my mother was not Jewish did not seem right. On the other hand, having a minister preside in a Jewish cemetery when my Jewish father was the principal mourner did not seem right either. And having both, and negotiating their roles, seemed like too much for our brief graveside ritual. So I led the service myself. I think this, too, would have pleased my mother. As an interfaith family, I believe we are called on to build bridges of peace in life, and even in death.

Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, from Beacon Press. She works as an interfaith families consultant, speaker, and coach. Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Advertisements

Young Interfaith Adults, In Real Life

IFFP Silkscreen Logo, Jose Dominguez, Pyramid Atlantic

What happens when you grow up with interfaith education in an interfaith families community, and then go out into the real world? Recently, a panel of young adults who grew up celebrating both family religions returned to the Interfaith Families Project of Washington DC (IFFP), to speak about their experiences.  I served as the facilitator, and below, I bring you some of the highlights of our conversation. –Susan Katz Miller

 

SKM: What was it like leaving the bubble of an interfaith families community, and going off to college?

Jonah Gold (age 28): I remember very early on going to Hillel (at a private college in the northeast) and meeting the rabbi there. At the time, I thought Hillel was a little more conservative than I wanted to be, in terms of their political beliefs and affiliations. So I guess I wasn’t fully comfortable joining the on-campus Jewish community. I didn’t want to define myself as only Jewish because at the time I didn’t feel that accurately reflected myself, and at the time Hillel wasn’t trying to bring in or talk about other faiths at all. So going to college, I felt like I had to push back to continue to define myself as interfaith. But also, over time, I felt pressure to start identifying myself as Jewish. It made it easier to put myself in a box, to say “oh yeah I’m Jewish,” and go through college that way, especially going to a school that had a lot of Jewish kids.

Grace Lerner (age 26): I went to a public school in the Midwest–it felt much more conservative than my upbringing. So I felt like there was this label of otherness. When I tried to explain the interfaith aspects it was a concept that went completely over people’s heads. People on campus were pretty critical of the interfaith idea. I really struggled with that, freshman and sophomore years. So I sort of gave up. I ended up actually going to Hillel my junior year and finding a community there because the rabbi was so great. She led the best services, and they were in the chapel, so it still felt interfaith to me on some level. She talked about her own growth into Judaism, and that was something I identified with. It’s probably a lot easier in the adult world to present yourself as interfaith, which is something I have always kind of more identified with. But in terms of the ease of explaining it to other young people, it was just a lot easier to say “I’m Jewish.” And also, with my last name, my Jewish friends immediately said, “Oh you’re Jewish.”

Katie Colarulli (age 20): I’ve been coming to IFFP since I was three, so I can’t really remember a time without IFFP. Every time I come back from college, I feel like it’s my home. I still identify as interfaith, I haven’t really picked one or the other. The first time I had trouble explaining interfaith was in seventh grade. I went to an Episcopal high school. I had my interfaith Coming of Age ceremony and all my friends just rolled with it. But my English teacher was like “You can’t be both.” So I tried to explain to her that I learned both traditions, I’m comfortable in a church and a synagogue. She just couldn’t understand it. It’s something I’m so used to: for my entire life I’ve been interfaith. I’ve been raised as both. But I guess to other people it’s a concept they just can’t wrap their mind around. I feel really blessed that I’ve had this opportunity, and I’ve learned both, and I feel comfortable in both religions. And I don’t feel pressure at all to choose.

 

SKM: How has learning two religions influenced your outlook on the world in general?

JG: The biggest way that IFFP influenced me was making me more open to other faiths but also open to thinking about religion critically, but with an open heart. I got interested in studying the Middle East and learning Arabic in college, and studied abroad in Egypt. Then the first thing I did after college was go to work for a place called Search for Common Ground, and they did interfaith journalism, trying to promote intercultural and interreligious understanding in the Middle East. Then I went to live and work in Morocco for a few years.

All of that came out of wanting to explore my faith, being open to otherness, and knowing that by understanding somebody else and where someone else is coming from, you can’t go to war with them. That’s how we’re going to build a better world is by building connections between people. And I think being interfaith was the beginning of that belief.

GL: In terms of what IFFP has given me, and my outlook on the world, it’s certainly been a much more open-minded view on things. Because I grew up interfaith, and having both these lenses and perspectives, and feeling labeled “other” by both Christian and Jewish communities–by the Jewish community especially because my mom’s not Jewish, I’m “not a real Jew” according to a lot of Jewish communities–so there’s a rejection from both of these formal systems. And so I feel like my perspective on things is, however you want to practice your religion is your prerogative. The one challenge I had is that because my mom’s Protestant, I wasn’t exposed to formal Catholicism. My husband grew up very Catholic. To me it was a big shock, but because I had the interfaith background it was much easier for me to understand where they were coming from, and even see the similarities between Catholicism and Judaism in terms of ritual. So having an interfaith education has been very helpful in terms of my own interfaith relationship, moving forward as an adult.

 

SKM: What would you say to clergy who still resist the idea of interfaith education for interfaith children?

GL: It makes me a little bit angry, to be honest. It feels pretty close-minded, and it feels like they’re rejecting a lot of potential people who are seeking out community, and seeking out their communities in particular, who want to be practicing these elements of their faith. It’s a large contributor as to why young people or millennials are rejecting formal institutions of religion, because it feels so institutionalized and so rigid. You don’t have the freedom to develop the curriculum that you want, or is best for your family. It’s something that I’m so eternally grateful for IFFP for. My family helped shape the curriculum for my religious education. And for myself as a teenager, I was able to help lead the High Holy Day services and create that service with the teen group and help dictate what my religious expression would look like. Having a community that supported that, having the support of a minister and a rabbi fostering that kind of environment, was something you don’t find other places.

JG: At this wedding I was just at, I went up to talk to the rabbi, who was my college Hillel rabbi. And he was talking about the need for programming for students from interfaith families. And then he said he still doesn’t do interfaith marriages. I was offended. It’s like you’re extending one hand, but saying I don’t really want to be your friend. When you look at someone like him–he’s in his late 60s–how do you get someone who’s entrenched in something their whole lives to say they’re going to change now, when they’ve been doing something one way. I think it will be up to the next generation of clergy now to be the ones that will help lead any movement for inclusivity, in churches or synagogues.

 

SKM: How do you imagine raising your own kids someday, in terms of religion?

GL: I would seek out a community like IFFP, or one where people feel like they have the liberty to create the curriculum. The most important thing to me is having a community that is not rejecting my children for having this interfaith background. I want them to be able to learn both sides. It gets even trickier: my religious upbringing is Protestant and Jewish, but my husband was raised Catholic. So it adds a tri-level to it, almost like three different things. It’s something that I’m certainly going to be very intentional about, and I want to make sure they understand where all of these traditions come from, whether it’s mom’s family, dad’s family, grandma’s family. I think a lot of that revolves around community and how you choose to celebrate and who you choose to celebrate with. And that all family members are included in understanding how we’re going to do this. I feel confident enough in my understanding of my own religious background and identity, because of IFFP, to understand that I want to expose them to everything, but also to understand that my future children’s religious identity is theirs. It belongs to them, and it does not belong to me. So I can teach them what I want, my husband can teach them what he wants, but ultimately it’s in their hands to choose, if they want to choose, that’s fine, if they don’t, that’s also great. It’s a personal choice. All I can really do is equip them with the tools to feel like they’re empowered in their own decision-making.

JG: I think it will really depend on who the partner is and what their family’s like. If I were to marry another Jewish person, I could totally see raising my kids Jewish. If I were to marry a Christian, I would then certainly promote something that was interfaith, and then would have to try to not just be the Jewish person in the family, but also be someone who is interfaith.

KC: The most important part of IFFP beyond learning both religions, is having a community. That’s something I want my children to have. It’s a community that I feel super comfortable in, that supports me. I feel like that’s something that every child needs–religious leaders to look up to and a community backing them. So whomever I marry and whatever happens, I definitely think they need a very accepting community.

JG: But that’s what’s so hard, is that you have to find that community. When you’re just a family wandering in the world, let’s say you’re not in DC and you have to strike out on your own and figure out how you’re going to do this. I think it would be really hard to be interfaith by yourself, if there wasn’t a community. So those families either try something in their own home, and they still just go to synagogue and they go to church. I think it would be hard to build a new community. I think we got really lucky that we had the six moms (founders of IFFP).

 

Question from the audience: Why do you think it is so common for interfaith kids to seek out Hillel, but not necessarily Christian community, at college?

GL: A lot of it was being identified as a Jew by other non-Jews and Jews, and also because it felt like a minority group on campus. So the Christian part of my upbringing was just there, everyone was bringing little Christmas trees into their dorm rooms. Also, in terms of the Christian groups on campus, it was like Campus Crusade for Christ, which was not something I was down with politically, and they weren’t the most welcoming people.

Eventually I went to Hillel because I missed the family traditions—matzoh ball soup on Passover, or apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah, whereas I didn’t feel like the Christian traditions were being neglected. I went to Hillel for High Holy Days and Passover, but I didn’t go every week, even though they had free food. It wasn’t my scene: they were a lot more Jewish than I felt like I was, and I wanted to celebrate other things. But one of my best friends in college was Jewish, and we made a point of having a Passover seder at my house, and a Hanukkah party, and inviting all of our friends, not just Jewish people. We explained how it works, we lit the menorah, we read limited sections of the Haggadah. It was something I felt equipped to create on my own. When you’re comfortable with your friends and your community, then you’re going to be comfortable sharing these experiences. Who doesn’t want to eat latkes?

SKM: In my book I point out a logistical reason for interfaith kids seeking out Jewish community on campus, which is that you arrive on campus your first year, and right away, it’s the High Holidays. So you’re without your family, and you have to find Jewish community if you want to mark those days. Whereas Christmas happens during school vacation.

JG: And that’s exactly what happened with me. I was at Hillel within weeks of going to school.

 

Question from the audience: We’ve been talking about holidays, education, identity. Does spirituality, or God, play a role in all this?

GL: I feel the spiritual aspect of religion is something I’m much more in tune with than the formal part of it, the dogma. I don’t know if God exists. Everything is God’s creation, so I don’t want to label what is God. I get upset when people try to put me in a box or put other people in a box about religion. It’s incredibly personal, and I think it will continue to evolve throughout my life. That’s why having an incredibly inclusive and warm and open-hearted community that allows that kind of growth over time, for an individual or between a couple or within a family, is what is the most important part to me.

 

Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, from Beacon Press. She works as an interfaith families consultant, speaker, and coach. Follow her on twitter @beingboth.

 

Interfaith Families in the Pews: Q & A with Reverend Vicky Eastland

 

IMG_1973
Photo: Susan Katz Miller

 

 

While reporting my recent article in The Washington Post on Brookville’s Multifaith Campus on Long Island, I ended up with a lot of material that did not make it into the story. As an unofficial historian of the interfaith family communities movement, one of my goals is to record and preserve as much of our ongoing story as possible. Below, I share an extended interview with the minister at Brookville Church, Reverend Vicky Eastland. Here, she discusses her role as a Reformed Church in America minister, in the context of Brookville’s Multifaith Campus—a joint project of the Brookville Church, The New Synagogue of Long Island, the Muslim Reformed Movement Organization, and the Interfaith Family Community of Long Island.

 

Susan Katz Miller (SKM): When the search committee first contacted you about coming to Brookville as the new pastor, the Interfaith Community already had a close relationship with the church there. What was your first impression of this relationship?

Rev. Vicky Eastland (VE): Initially, one of the reasons Brookville was interested in me was because I was one of the founding members of an interfaith council in upstate New York where I was pastoring a church at the time: we met to do community service and events together. When I heard the word interfaith, that’s what I thought of. It wasn’t until I received a series of questions the church wanted me to answer on paper that I realized it was about interfaith families. I still had no idea what this interfaith families community was, that was connected to the church.

SKM: I know Pam Gawley (co-founder with Sarah Cirker of the Interfaith Community of Long Island) has said she may be the only Jewish woman to serve on a church search committee for a new pastor.

VE: When I showed up for my second interview, I was really quite surprised because the search team of the church stepped aside and let Pam and Sarah lead the interview. It ended up being a great experience for all of us. I remember one of the search team members saying something that has stayed with me: “We’re not just looking for the next pastor, we’re looking for someone to take us further in our relationship with the Interfaith Community.” This was an integral part of helping them decide who the next pastor would be.

SKM: The Interfaith Community of Long Island, which was founded to support Jewish and Christian interfaith families, now holds their interfaith Sunday School at Brookville, and these interfaith families attend the church service at Brookville on a specific Sunday each month, as part of their interfaith education program. Do the theological differences between Judaism and Christianity pose a challenge for you in those services?

VE: The most challenging aspect for me since I’ve been at Brookville is surrounding the Sacrament of Communion. Personally, I don’t think we should turn anyone away from an experience with God, so I understand opening the communion table to non-Christians. But the wording in the Reformed Church in  America (RCA) liturgy is very Christocentric. I was using that liturgy, and I had a Catholic woman ask me, “Can you please not use those words? My husband who is Jewish feels like all Christians are blaming him for the crucifixion of Christ.” There were Sundays when I left the service, and I started crying because I felt like something I said was offensive to someone from IFC. But then there was pushback from other Christians who were saying, “We don’t want you to take those words out.” But for a while I did, because I don’t think anything should be excluding people who want to be there.

In my second year, we moved IFC Sunday to a non-communion Sunday, and I’ve gone back to the RCA language for communion. Pam Gawley, who is Jewish, told me, “We want this to be authentically Christian.” We’re all on this journey together. And the Catholic woman who was worried about how her Jewish husband feels? That husband actually participates now in communion.

Last Sunday was Easter Sunday. I was very Christocentric in my sermon–but its hard not to be on Resurrection Sunday. That cognitive dissonance that I had in the first year, I don’t  have so much anymore. In the service I said, “I know there are people who are with us today that aren’t Christian, and don’t believe what we’re saying here, and that’s okay.” A Jewish mom came up to me afterwards in tears, and said she was so moved to be acknowledged. It was not planned: it just came out of me.

SKM: I know the Muslim study group had been meeting at Brookville Church on Sunday afternoons for many years, but how did it become integrated into the Multifaith Campus?

VE: When I got there in the fall of 2013, I realized the rabbi, Rabbi Stuart Paris, had never met the Muslim leader, Dr. Sultan Abdulhameed. I started doing introductions, friendships formed, and we realized our individual missions were so similar–we all wanted to bring reform to our specific faiths. None of our groups is exclusive, anyone is welcome at any of the groups. Then we said let’s do something together, around a holiday not based on any of our faiths.

That first Thanksgiving together was the highlight of my entire ministry career. We started out with our new Brookville Multifaith Campus sign dedication, on the lawn of the church. One of the members from the Muslim community did the call to prayer in Arabic  outside on the PA system. We had about 200 people, the maximum we can fit into the chapel, and there wasn’t a dry eye. Dr. Sultan said he’d been to a lot of these interfaith Thanksgiving services where the representatives each preach from their own holy scripture, and it feels almost like a competitive situation. So he suggested that instead we preach from each other’s holy scriptures. I ended up preaching from the Quran, Dr Sultan from the Torah, and Rabbi Stuart from the New Testament. That’s what we’ve done ever  since—this year was our third Thanksgiving together.

Since that first Thanksgiving, I have traveled to the Sultanate of  Oman, a Muslim majority nation in the Middle East , and I have  had a lot more exposure to the Muslim faith. The Quran has come alive to me in ways I never would have imagined. We’ve been talking with the IFC about how to add an Islamic unit to the interfaith Sunday School curriculum. For now, we’ve decided to wait until there are more young Muslim interfaith families in the IFC community.

SKM: As the Brookville Multifaith Campus becomes established, do you see this as a template for other communities?

VE: We’re now at the point where I’m starting to form a team with people from members of all four communities, to work on becoming a 501c3 (non-profit institution). The long-range hope is that that this will turn into a model that will change the makeup of our church. I believe that’s the direction all houses of faith should move in. I think it’s a model that everyone should look at.

Many churches, here and across the country, have been shrinking, even closing. Recently, I met with a group of clergy from Long Island. They came to learn about what we’re doing–how it’s working, why it’s working, and what we’re doing that’s making it so successful. We all need to wake up and realize that we’re becoming a more integrated society. How is that going to play out in our houses of  faith? Clergy can no longer bury their heads in the sand and pretend that the needs of interfaith families are not important. We have to find ways to meet their spiritual needs. Ours is a model that others can follow.

 

Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, from Beacon Press. She works as an interfaith families consultant, speaker, and coach. Follow her on twitter @beingboth.

 

Interfaith Sunday School, on NPR

npr-home

I was glad to add my voice to an important piece this week on NPR’s All Things Considered, entitled “With Interfaith Sunday Schools, Parents Don’t Have To Choose One Religion.” Introduced by my favorite host, Michel Martin, the story was reported by Rami Ayyub, who visited the Sunday School at the Interfaith Families Project (IFFP) in order to talk to staff, parents, and students. He also stopped by my house to record an interview.

Rami comes from a background that includes Muslim and Christian family members, and he wanted to explore whether the model for educating Jewish and Christian interfaith children could be extended to other religions. For this story, he also interviewed Imam Yahya Hendi, the Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University (and a friend and colleague of IFFP’s late beloved rabbi, Harold White, who was the Jewish chaplain at Georgetown). Imam Hendi said that as often as once a month, an interfaith couple asks him if there is some kind of Muslim and Christian, or Muslim and Jewish, interfaith education program for interfaith children.

The answer is, not yet. But as I told Rami, if you build it, they will come. Traditional religious institutions are not going to create dual-faith religious education programs for children. They are still urging parents to restrict religious education and identity labels for children to a single faith. And yet, as Being Both documents, parents are voting with their feet, creating ways to give interfaith children broader interfaith education, even if it means moving away from traditional religious institutions that disapprove of this pathway.

As for Muslim and Christian interfaith families, I know that there are already communities for these families in England, Scotland and France , and a couples group in Chicago. But as of yet, I don’t know of any interfaith education program devoted to children from Muslim and Christian interfaith families. In my book, the Muslim and Christian interfaith couples I interviewed were either planning to essentially home-school for interfaith education, and/or alternating or combining single-faith Muslim and Christian education programs. It is interesting to note that in England, all students are required to get some interfaith religious education in government-funded schools. As a result, interfaith family community leaders there have told me they feel less pressure to provide interfaith education for interfaith children.

The NPR piece considers whether the existing dual-faith programs in the US, such as IFFP, could or should become tri-faith programs. In his piece, Rami quotes IFFP’s Spiritual Director Julia Jarvis (our minister) as saying that she hopes that in 20 years, groups like IFFP will have opened the door to the third Abrahamic religion (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all share the story of Abraham as patriarch).

But I want to suggest another way of looking at this. It is true that many of us have been pushing the existing Jewish and Christian interfaith education programs to work on ways to incorporate more education about Islam, because all Americans need more education about Islam in order to combat Islamobophia. But I do not foresee all of these dual-faith programs becoming tri-faith programs. To be frank, interfaith family communities have their hands full trying to teach children about two religions, and disproving the idea that what they teach is “a mile wide and an inch deep.” They work hard to explain the great depth created when teaching the historical, theological and cultural points of connection between these two religions.

The way I see it, interfaith family programs teaching Judaism and Christianity have created a template that is available, to everyone, of any religion (or none), not in 20 years, but right now. As early as tomorrow, five Muslim and Christian families could come together and decide to build a dual-faith education program for their children. The experts in Jewish and Christian interfaith education for interfaith children stand ready to share experiences and resources on how to do this with interfaith families from Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or any other worldview.

All of us have agency–have the power to create community. Each of us can envision new ways to help our children to integrate their complex identities. Anyone has the freedom to create interfaith education programs in order to help our children to see themselves as interfaith peacemakers. We do not have to wait for permission. We do not have to wait for any door to open. The door is already open.

 

Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, from Beacon Press. She works as an interfaith families consultant, speaker, and coach. Follow her on twitter @beingboth.

 

Raising Interfaith Children, and Letting Them Go

Being Both M&Ms
I want to give a thorough response to a recent Washington Post blog post (printed in today’s edition of the paper) entitled, “Not what I expected from my interfaith marriage.” The piece re-enforces some misconceptions about why parents choose to raise children with both religious traditions. In short, raising kids with both religions does not mean they will always claim “both” as a lifelong identity. Nor should it.

The author, Susan Sommercamp, states that she and her (former) husband wanted to share both traditions and “thought” their children could be “both,” but that “unfortunately things don’t always go as planned.” The big reveal in the piece is that one daughter chose to practice Christianity, while the other daughter chose to practice Judaism. From my perspective, having children choose two different religions is not an unfortunate or surprising result. It’s a typical result. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it.

First of all, we don’t control the ultimate beliefs, practices or affiliations of our children. This is true in mono-faith families, as well as in interfaith families. How many of us have siblings with identical religious practices to our own? As parents, we can choose an initial religious label for our children, and a form of religious education for them. But ultimately they grow up and make their own decisions. This is not “unfortunate,” it is just life. This would be a good moment to put on Sweet Honey in the Rock’s gorgeous rendition of Kahlil Gibran’s poem “On Children,” which states, “They come through you but not from you, And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.”

Second, as a corollary, raising children with both traditions cannot have the goal for children to become, and stay, religiously both. Some will, and some won’t. As documented in Being Both, some will choose one religion, or the other, or both, or none, or a new religion. And the choice may not be permanent. Pew Research has found that some half of all Americans change their religious affiliation at least once. The benefits of educating children in both family religions include allowing them to make more informed religious decisions, and allowing them to feel a connection and support from both sides of the extended family, and giving them bi-religious literacy. Not fixing them permanently in a “both” identity.

There were unfortunate aspects of this family story, but they do not stem, in my estimation, from the initial decision to raise the children with both religions. Of course it was unfortunate that the couple divorced, and that the children may have felt a competition between the parents (and parental religions) as a result. It was unfortunate that (partly as a result of the divorce) the two religions were each celebrated with only one parent, and without the support of an interfaith families community, so that the parents and children did not have a way to discuss and integrate their identities in a neutral and supportive space.

And while the author claims in the first paragraph that the couple had agreed to share both “faiths and heritages,” she admits that she took them to synagogue and Jewish religious education, and felt “surprise and some disappointment” when her husband begins taking them to church. In reality, she was attempting to raise them solely with Judaism, plus some holiday celebrations, not with full exposure to both. It is only after the divorce that she tersely accepts a sort of “separate but equal” exposure to both religions. So this family’s experience in no way reflects “doing both” in the context of good communication between the parents and full dual-faith religious education.

Ultimately, despite the divorce and initial tension as the two daughters claimed their religious identities, the author concludes that “we are all more tolerant and understanding because of our messy interfaith family.” It is interesting to note that Sommercamp saw the benefit of being an interfaith family, even after the difficulty of divorce. But those of us who raise our children with both religions with the intention of letting them go, of letting them claim the practices and identities and affiliations most meaningful to them, would never use the word “tolerant” in this context. The goal is not to tolerate each other, but to embrace each other, and embrace the religious choices of everyone in the family.

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.

A Spring Quilt of Interfaith Connections

Lizas HexTop
Glorious Color quilts by my cousin, Liza Prior Lucy

In seven years of writing this interfaith blog, I have posted many essays on a number of spring Jewish and Christian holidays: Purim, St Patrick’s Day, Passover, Easter. But the complex, interlocking quilt squares of Generation Interfaith now go far beyond Judaism and Christianity. Speaking in Chicago this week, I met a woman from a Jewish and Christian interfaith family with a Hindu partner, and a man from a Jewish and Christian interfaith family with a Muslim partner. Increasingly, I see the world of interfaith families, not as a Jewish/Christian binary, but as vibrant pieces bound together into a greater design, and traced with embroidery that winds across the pieces.

My book Being Both is devoted to the idea that interfaith children, in particular, benefit from exploring that whole quilt through interfaith education. But actually, all of us in extended interfaith families (and increasingly, that is most of us) benefit from interfaith education. Meanwhile, with political demagogues busy stirring up ugly religious intolerance in this election season, now is the time for every American (and every world citizen), whether or not we have extended interfaith families, to do a better job of educating ourselves about the religions around us.

Just in the next two weeks, we have a dense schedule of religious holidays, providing many opportunities to celebrate with interfaith family, and interfaith friends. If you don’t have family and friends who will invite you over, check out my Beacon Press colleague Linda K. Wertheimer‘s suggestions on how to get out and visit local houses of worship. And if you don’t live near any temples or mosques, there is always the free online courses from Harvard’s Religious Literacy Project.

Below, I have written up a quick list of just some of the religious holidays in the remainder of March. Note the ancient connections many of them have to the spring equinox, and possibly, to each other. And notice how many of these spring festivals are now celebrated by people of multiple religions. My belief is that we are all religious syncretists, tied to the religions that came before us, and the religions that surround us. And so as part of Generation Interfaith, I celebrate these connections:

March 17, St Patrick’s Day. Catholic commemoration of the Feast Day of St Patrick, primarily celebrated by Irish-Americans with parades, drinking, and the wearing of the green, as a way to connect with Irish culture. Now celebrated in America by people of many religions. Possible historical connection to Ostara.

March 20, Ostara. Modern Pagan and Wiccan commemoration of the spring equinox and Eostre, the Saxon lunar goddess of fertility. Celebrated with planting of seeds and nature walks. Possible historical connections between Eostre, Easter, Passover, and Norooz.

March 20, Palm Sunday. Christian commemoration of the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem, celebrated with church services and processions with palm fronds. Among Indian Christians, the Hindu practice of strewing flowers such as marigolds has been adapted for Palm Sunday.

March 21, Norooz. Zoroastrian/Bahai/Persian celebration of the New Year on the spring equinox. With roots in ancient Iran, it is celebrated by many people of all religions throughout the Balkans, Caucasus, Central and South Asia, and the Middle East with spring cleaning, flowers, picnics, feasting, and family visits. Possible historical connection between Norooz and Purim.

March 23, Holi. Hindu commemoration of the arrival of spring and love, celebrated with bonfires, throwing powdered color pigments and water on each other, music, feasting, forgiving debts, repairing relationships, and visiting. Popular even with non-Hindus in Asia, and increasingly throughout the world.

March 23, Magha Puja Day. Buddhist commemoration of Buddha delivering the principles of Buddhism, on the full moon. Celebrated in Southeast Asia with temple visits, processions, and good works.

March 24, Purim. Jewish commemoration of the Biblical story of Esther in ancient Persia, celebrated with costumed reenactments, three-cornered pastry (hamantaschen), drinking, and charity. There may be a historical connection between Norooz and Purim.

March 24, Maundy Thursday – Christian commemoration of The Last Supper. There may be a historical connection between The Last Supper and Passover.

March 24, Hola Mohalla. Sikh celebration including processions, mock battles, poetry reading, music. There is a historical connection between Holi and Hola Mohalla.

March 25, Good Friday. Christian commemoration of the Crucifixion of Jesus, with church services and fasting.

March 27, Easter. Christian commemoration of the Resurrection of Jesus, celebrated with church services, family dinners, baskets of candy for children. Fertility imagery including bunnies and eggs may have a historical connection to Eostre, and the spring equinox.

March 30, Mahavir Jayanti. Jain commemoration of the birth of Mahavira, celebrated with temple visits for meditation and prayer, decoration with flags and flowers, and charitable acts.

New Bordered Diamonds Cover
Glorious Color quilts by my cousin, Liza Prior Lucy

 

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.

 

Many Yet One? Multiple Religious Belonging

IMG_1700 (1)

 

As someone born into an interfaith family, I am attracted to synergy, hybridity, complexity, and convergence. Lately, I see a moment of convergence approaching, when my progressive Jewish communities and my progressive Christian communities might begin to engage with each other on the topic of interfaith families, multiple religious practice, and complex religious identities. This moment cannot come too soon.

In the Jewish world, conversations about interfaith families have historically taken place as part of a fraught discourse on the threat of “intermarriage” to Jewish continuity and worries about confused children. Meanwhile, a separate but parallel conversation has been occurring, first among Catholic theologians and academics, and more recently in the progressive Protestant world, under the labels of “hybridity” and “multiple religious belonging” (sometimes shortened to MRB). In this literature, there has been a growing realization that multiple religious practice is actually the norm, rather than the exception, in much of Asia, and among many American Indian and other indigenous peoples as a result of colonization, cultural disruption, and diaspora.

And so it was that in 2014, the World Council of Churches gathered theologians and academics in Chennai, India, for a conference on multiple religious belonging. Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson of the United Church of Christ traveled to India for the conference. She then organized two consultations in the US, in order to connect clergy to theologians thinking and writing about this new reality. I was honored to present my research on interfaith families and interfaith identities at the first of these US events.

Now, a new book of essays published by the World Council of Churches, Many Yet One? Multiple Religious Belonging (edited by Peniel Jesudason Rufus Rajkumar and Joseph Prabhakar Dayam), brings together more than a dozen of these theologians, academics, and clergy, many of them Asian or Asian-American. The academic and theological language here can be dense and at times exhausting for even the most interested general reader (that would be me). For example, I am glad I happened to go to a university that offered a semiotics major, and so had some acquaintance with the work of French postmodern philosopher Jacques Derrida.

And yet, this slim volume is essential reading to those of us from interfaith families and other multiple religious practitioners engaged in defining ourselves, and in creating new spaces in which to do that. These essays describe, explain, and restore the religious plurality and complexity found in whole cultures, and in individuals. In so doing, this book has become my new bible, if you will, because it probes, affirms and illuminates much that is positive about my experience as someone with a complex religious identity.

Some of the essays focus primarily on Christians who become dual-faith practitioners after taking on Buddhist or Hindu practices. Others focus on the dual-faith practice in areas of Asia where this has long been the norm. At least some of the essays mention interfaith families as a source of multiple religious practice. Of course, all the writers here are looking at this topic through a Christian lens (or a “Christian and” hyphenated perspective). But after spending so much time defending interfaith families in the Jewish world, it was intellectually refreshing to be immersed in the world of Christianities.

In reading this book, I penciled in a hail of asterisks and exclamation points on almost every page. I could, should, and still may write a whole post in response to each essay in this volume. For now, I am going to simply cite a list of just some of the phrases that made me so excited about this book:

  • “Must claims of double-belonging receive communal authorization before they can be recognized as valid?” Rajkumar (World Council of Churches) and Dayam (Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church)
  • “From my location in a seminary, I encounter increasing numbers of religious leaders and leaders-in-training who embody forms of multiple religious identity or practice.” John Thatamanil, Union Theological Seminary.
  • “Regardless of the resistance of religious institutions in accepting multiple religious belonging, individuals are finding their way to multiple paths without help or assistance.” Karen Georgia Thompson
  • “East Asian ‘both-and’ mode of relational thinking such as yin-yang has no problem in logically including dual identities.” Heup Young Kim, Hanshin University.
  • “…hybridity often functions as a space that allows two or more seemingly contradictory ideas or identities to co-exist without eliminating the distinction between them.” Raj Nadella, Columbia Theological Seminary.
  • “…hybridity is inherent even in what we may be tempted to categorize as ‘monolithic’ or ‘orthodox’ religious faiths.” Sunder John Boopalan, Princeton Theological Seminary.
  • “…hybrid entities cannot be understood adequately when viewed through the lens of monoculturality.” Julius-Kei Kato, University of Western Ontario.

The editors, Rajkumar and Dayam, conclude by urging churches to “move beyond tacit obliviousness and engage robustly with the phenomenon of multiple religious belonging.” This book will help Christian communities to do that. But as a bridge-builder, a synthesizer, a complex, hybrid person, I am waiting for the creation of a shared language to communicate with each other across religious boundaries. Specifically, I still wait for the time when my Jewish and my Christian communities figure out how to work together to welcome, engage, and learn from those of us who rejoice in our interfaith identities. I wait for a book like this one, written not with a Jewish lens, or a Christian lens, but by, for, and about those of us with multireligious “both-and” perspectives.

 

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.