Interfaith Kids: Carrie Fisher (RIP) and Harrison Ford

princess-leia-behind-the-scenes-starwars20

I grew up in what feels now like a galaxy far, far, away. In that galaxy, interfaith kids were few and far between, and we didn’t talk about the fact that we were interfaith kids. But early on, I developed a keen sense of what I now think of as “interfaithdar,” often correctly guessing which famous people came from interfaith families. Since I did not know many interfaith families in real life, each realization of another person out there from a multi-religious background gave me a tiny thrill.

And so, like many interfaith kids, I have kept a mental list of famous people with interfaith heritage who have been important to me in one way or another, including Paul Newman, Carly Simon, Peter Sellers, Adam Yauch, Lena Dunham, Drake, Bruno Mars, Matt Stone, David Yazbek, Barack Obama, Fiorello LaGuardia, Dorothy Parker, Marcel Proust, JD Salinger, Gloria Steinem, Frida Kahlo, Adrienne Rich, Gabriela Mistral, St Teresa of Avila, and Raoul Wallenberg.

But the relationship of two interfaith kids with powerful on-screen chemistry, namely Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford in the Star Wars trilogy, represent the summit of celebrity interfaith geography. And so the death of Carrie Fisher today set me to thinking about the silent bonds many of us share as interfaith kids.

Each interfaith family is different, and interfaith children can be raised with one religion, two religions, no religion, many religions, and an almost infinite variety of combinations of culture and belief and practice. Every child with mixed heritage ultimately grows up to choose their own identity, their own label. And I am not in the business of applying labels to other people based on my own frame of reference. But however we are raised, and however we identify as adults, those of us with extended family from mixed religious backgrounds share certain hallmark experiences, and learn to code-switch in a dual-faith or interreligious or intercultural context. We see the world through more than one set of lenses, and often, we learn to spot other people wearing those interfaith bifocals and trifocals.

Carrie Fisher, the daughter of the star actress Debbie Reynolds and the star pop singer Eddie Fisher, was raised “Protestant light” by her mother, but later felt affectionate bonds to her father’s Judaism. Her own daughter, actress Billie Lourd, studied religion at New York University. (In Being Both, I describe intellectual curiosity about religion and the religions of the world as a hallmark of many interfaith children). Meanwhile, Harrison Ford, the son of a Russian Jewish mother and an Irish Catholic father, once commented: “As a man I’ve always felt Irish, as an actor I’ve always felt Jewish.” I cannot help speculating about whether their parallel experiences as interfaith kids may have played some role in the way they connected, and in the off-screen romance revealed by Fisher in her most recent autobiography.

I was sixteen when I saw Carrie Fisher star as a 19-year-old in Star Wars. And so today, with the rest of the sci-fi geek world, I mourn Fisher as an icon of my youth. Her life was not easy: the lives of children raised in Hollywood rarely are. And she struggled with bipolar disorder, and with drug addiction. But as a writer, and an actress, she charmed the world with her humility, wry humor, and strength. Whatever galaxy she finds herself in now, she is at peace. And may her memory be a blessing.

 

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.

 

 

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Interfaith Family Lens: Obama at the Mosque

Persian Carpet, photo Susan Katz Miller

 

President Obama gave a moving speech about inclusion and preventing extremism at the Islamic Society of Baltimore yesterday. I saw this event, his first visit to a US mosque, through the lens of an adult interfaith child, a lens that President Obama inevitably shares. Every interfaith child (actually, every human being) has the right to choose a religious identity, and Barack Obama made a clear choice to be a Christian. As someone born into an interfaith family, as someone who has had to defend my own religious identity, I empathize with the constant battle President Obama must fight against those who try to mislabel him. My hope is that after he steps down, he will be able to speak more freely about the ways in which his interfaith family background has inspired him as a bridge-builder and peacemaker in the world.

Back in 2009, I wrote the following on this blog:

While he did not know his Muslim biological father, growing up with knowledge of this family connection can have a strong effect on an interfaith child’s identity. Even more important was his experience as a boy in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world, with a Muslim stepfather. Obama is both a practicing Christian and someone raised with an intimate knowledge of Islam. I celebrate his interfaithness, and see that the world has already benefited from it.

Listening to the speech yesterday, one phrase in particular caught my attention. Here is the slightly inexact quote as tweeted by Rep. Keith Ellison, the progressive Democratic congressman from Minnesota, who was there at the mosque:

Woodlawn, MD “We are one American family and when any part of it is made to feel separate or excluded it tears at fabric of whole American family” BHO

The point the President is making here is that we must counter the recent rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric and actions. But note the metaphor: he describes America as a giant interfaith family. President Obama’s own extended interfaith family is Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, and Jewish in two different branches. And Rep. Ellison, who chose this sentence to tweet, is a Muslim-American from an extended interfaith family. He was brought up Catholic, has a brother who is a Protestant pastor, and raised his children as Muslims in the context of an interfaith marriage.

My point here is that we are all moving together into a world of greater religious complexity and interconnection. I see the formative interfaith family experiences of our elected officials inspiring more effective interfaith diplomacy, and the desire to reduce religious violence in the world. I heard this theme the very first time I heard Obama speak, in 2004 at the Democratic National Convention. I look forward to hearing him speak out even more boldly after his term is over. And now, it looks like our next Democratic presidential nominee will be either a Christian woman with a Jewish son-in-law, or a Jewish man with a Catholic wife. Either way, it seems our nominee will see the world through an interfaith family lens.

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.

Book Review: David Gregory’s How’s Your Faith?

How's Your Faith

David Gregory and I are both children of Jewish fathers and Christian mothers, both of us raised Jewish. We both married mainline Protestants. We both have children with one Jewish grandparent, yet we are both passing on Judaism to our children. And we both tell our interfaith family stories in recent books. I am grateful for each interfaith family story that gets published, and especially for each adult interfaith child who speaks up about the complexities of interfaith life.

David Gregory, of course, is the former host of NBC’s Meet the Press. The arc of his memoir How’s Your Faith: An Unlikely Spiritual Journey traces his rise to television prominence, and his humbling fall when Meet the Press ratings sink and he loses his job at NBC. To be fair, his search for greater spiritual meaning started years before his career crisis, and this book is a disarmingly frank and raw accounting of how he has wrestled–with his difficult childhood, his own anger management, his career ambitions, and with how to raise Jewish children with a wife who is a church-going Methodist.

And there we have the primary difference in our interfaith narratives. My husband and I chose to raise our interfaith children with an interfaith education, in a community of interfaith families. David Gregory’s wife Beth agreed to help raise their children with one religion, Judaism. Their choice works for many families, as evidenced by the fact that many synagogues now are made up of a majority of interfaith families. But as I write in Being Both, each choice an interfaith family makes—one religion, or the other, or both, or none, or a third pathway, or all religions—is going to have specific benefits, and specific drawbacks.

Gregory is candid about the drawbacks, in particular about the persistent emotional pain his wife has experienced as a result of her agreement to raise the children without any exposure to her church. She tells him, “I think I was naïve about this decision…over time, I think I’ve come to feel it more, not sharing my religion with our kids.” Gregory writes that he feels “burdened by the weight of what she has sacrificed.” And by the end of the book, when their children are tweens, husband and wife have agreed that she can begin to occasionally start taking the kids to church, in order to support their mother.

How’s Your Faith left me with two burning questions. The first is about Gregory’s own strong claim to a Jewish identity. I feel the same way. At the same time, Gregory writes of feeling “…more Jewish than Christian, even though I feel more Christian than most Jews…”, an apt description of what I describe as the interfaith component of my own identity. But I know, from a lifetime of experience, that I have had to defend my claim to Jewish identity as a “patrilineal” child of a Jewish father, to the Conservative and Orthodox communities who believe Judaism is passed down only through the mother. I find it puzzling that Gregory does not give any weight to this struggle, nor explore how the institutional conflict over “Who is a Jew?” impacts interfaith children.

For me, the other mystery is why Gregory and his wife apparently discounted, at least until very recently, the idea of allowing their children to learn about and participate in both religions. As it happens, they settled in the Washington DC metro area, where my community, the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington, led by a minister and a rabbi, offers interfaith education for interfaith children and adults in a setting that allows both parents to be equal participants, without ritual restrictions or separate blessings. While this pathway, like all pathways, has drawbacks, it has allowed my family to avoid many of the most poignant and tearful scenes described in Gregory’s book.

After speaking to a few clergy members, Gregory dismisses the idea of choosing both religions without much explanation. And while he quotes a couple of books on interfaith families published in the last millennium, he seems unaware of the New York Times Op-Ed and book filled with data and interviews on this subject, both published as he was working on his manuscript. It is interesting to note that Gregory’s Orthodox teacher is on record as both citing the importance of, and simultaneously objecting to, this work on interfaith family communities. But as Gregory tours the country with his book, I know he is encountering the 25% of interfaith Jewish families Pew Research found raising children with both religions.

I was moved by the honesty and depth of Gregory’s depiction of his interfaith family life. By the end of the book, it sounds like he has a sense of some of the many ways that being part of an interfaith family can be a wellspring of spirituality, rather than a constant trial. I would invite him to dare to visit an interfaith family community—in DC, New York, Chicago or Philadelphia—and explore the joy we experience as interfaith bridge-builders.

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.

Inauguration: Celebrating President Barack Obama and Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

Inauguration 2009, copyright Susan Katz Miller
Inauguration 2009, copyright Susan Katz Miller

Four years ago this week, we awoke before dawn, bundled our children into layers of clothing, and walked from our house to the Metro station. We wedged our family onto a subway car with throngs of neighbors and tourists, and emerged in downtown Washington DC, just as the sky began to turn pink. As we sleep-walked past the grand Constitution Hall heading towards the Washington Monument, I told my children how the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) prevented opera singer Marian Anderson from performing in that Hall in 1939. They were amazed that their own grandparents had lived through such times.

At the base of the Monument, we found a place to wait, and wait, and wait, for hours in the freezing cold, far from the Inaugural stage, facing a huge video screen. We found ourselves part of a vast, diverse crowd, our collective spirits so high that we were able to endure the long hours standing on the frosted grass, packed in side by side. The point was not to try to glimpse the tiny figure of the distant President, so much as it was to be a part of this sea of humanity–to find ourselves part of the America we had voted for when we elected President Barack Obama.

Four years later, I could complain about whether President Obama has been progressive enough. But it remains true that our image of ourselves as a country changed forever, and for the better, with his election. And his re-election proves that we meant what we said the first time. We want to try to live up to the dream Obama represents, the dream of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

The convergence of this year’s Presidential Inauguration and the remembrance of Dr. King’s birthday heightens the significance of both events. For those of us in interfaith families, some of whom are also in mixed-race families, Dr. King’s dream has special resonance. The vision that “all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands” inspires us as we hold hands every day with our partners, spouses, children.

President Obama chose Christianity, and he chose to identify as an African-American. As Americans, we are lucky to live in a country that does not issue ID cards stamped with race or religion: we have the right to choose our own labels. At the same time, I recognize in Barack Obama the child of a global village. I know the stories of his white grandparents, his extended African family, his years in Indonesia, his Catholic school, his love for the diversity of Hawaii. As an interfaith child and an interfaith parent, this week I celebrate Dr. King’s dream, and President Obama’s re-election. Now, we have four more years to come a little bit closer to making that dream a reality.

Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes: What Exactly is the Interfaith Lesson Here?

In recent days, I have been frustrated by bloggers who cite the breakup of celebrity couple Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes as a cautionary tale about interfaith marriage.

Interfaith marriage does not have to be difficult. My parents have been happily intermarried for over 50 years. In my community of interfaith families, out of hundreds of couples, my minister and rabbi can only think of a handful who have gotten divorced. Over 25 years of marriage, my husband and I have often argued. We have never had an argument about our religious differences.

It is particularly frustrating to see writers citing the outdated statistic that interfaith divorce is “three times more prevalent.” I recently spoke to one of the authors of the study that was the source of that statistic, the American Religious Identification Survey of 2001. Barry Kosmin confirmed to me that there is no valid measurement reflecting the current divorce rate or prevalence among interfaith couples. A survey from 2001 reflects divorce in the previous century, in the decades prior to that study, when interfaith couples were often excluded and shunned, and still had little support from extended family or clergy or houses of worship. Times have changed, and no one has produced the updated statistics.

I am not questioning the idea that religious difference, and pressure Holmes felt to raise her daughter as a Scientologist, may have been a factor in the Cruise and Holmes breakup. Press reports speculate that Holmes, who was raised Catholic, will return to Catholicism. What lesson do I take from this? The same lesson I take from the spectacular Reyes interfaith divorce case, in which a Catholic father who felt forced into converting to Judaism took his daughter to church for a stealth Baptism.

Bullying or sweet-talking a spouse into giving up his or her religion “for the sake of the child,” does not contribute to the stability of the marriage or benefit the children. The belief, often promoted by well-meaning clergy, that choosing one religion for the family will “solve” the challenges of being an interfaith family, can backfire if both parents actually have deep roots in and strong connections to their own religions.

Do I conclude that interfaith couples should not get married? No. Do I conclude that they should only get married if they don’t care deeply about religion? No. Do I conclude that they should only get married if they are willing to capitulate and subsume their own religious beliefs and desires for the good of the child? No.

I conclude that parents have the right to freely share their beliefs and family history and beloved rituals with their children. Both parents. And that the children will benefit from this rich religious and spiritual education.

The Five Year Engagement: Jason Segel’s Interfaith Worldview

Plenty of movies depict interfaith couples: Exodus, Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally. The new romantic comedy The Five Year Engagement chronicles the courtship of chef Tom (Jewish), and graduate student Violet (Christian). Actor Jason Segel, the leading man and script co-writer, happens to hail from an interfaith family himself. So I went to see the movie, searching for traces of Segel’s view on interfaith life.

Last year, Segel co-wrote and starred in The Muppets. The first time I heard “Man or Muppet,” the Grammy-nominated song from that movie, the song immediately struck me as a metaphor for the choices the world forces on interfaith children. I would love to find out whether Segel ever thought of the song in those terms.

Generally, I have to say I am not a fan of  the work of Judd Apatow, producer of The Five Year Engagement. Though I appreciate the sharp and witty dialogue, I prefer my romance without Apatow’s signature drunken vomiting, potty humor and crude guy talk, all of which appear in this film. The Five Year Engagement also runs too long, with a rambling chronology. On the other hand, the film centers on a real and bittersweet exploration of the dilemma for both partners over work, geography, and marriage.

Religious difference plays very little role in this film’s plot. Segel has said that some of the religion material ended up on the cutting-room floor. I like to imagine that by minimizing religion as a source of conflict, Segel, as an adult interfaith child, is making a positive statement about the possibilities of interfaith love.

We do get a glimpse of religious difference in each of the successive wedding plans, as the couple repeatedly approach and then back off from tying the knot. In the first wedding planning session with all four parents and a clergy member representing each side, the Jews announce that the men will wear yarmulkes, and the Christians counter with a plan to have communion at the wedding. Interfaith lesson #1: passive-aggression, willful religious ignorance and hardline negotiation are not effective interfaith communication skills. The wedding plan falls through.

In their next attempt, the couple approach a Chabad rabbi at the last minute, who asks if the bride is Jewish. The couple dissembles and the rabbi dances at the engagement party (in a barbecue joint specializing in pork!). But the wedding again falls through. Interfaith lesson #2: dishonesty about who we are and last-minute random religious choices are not helpful. The wedding plan falls through.

In the end (spoiler alert, though you will see it coming from a mile away), the couple succeed in getting married. Choosing between a Christian, an “extreme Christian” (who appears to be Eastern Orthodox), a Buddhist, a Rabbi, and a justice of the peace, Tom chooses the lay officiant. Cue the happily-ever-after credits. Interfaith lesson #3: the desire for a sense of balance often leads interfaith couples to choose a secular officiant. If both members of the couple are secular people, this works fine.

For those of us who want balance, but also care deeply about religion, finding clergy to co-officiate is the alternative to a justice of the peace. But this solution would have been too complex for the rushed wedding in this movie, and perhaps too much religion for the fictional couple in question.

In a recent interview with the Jewish Journal, Segel described his upbringing this way: “My dad’s Jewish, and my mom’s Christian, so I was raised with a little bit of everything.” Note that he introduces his own religious background with a description of balance, rather than choice. His lament is familiar to all of us who felt excluded growing up as patrilinial Jews: “I wasn’t considered Jewish at Hebrew school because my mother isn’t Jewish, and I wasn’t considered Christian at Christian school. What occurred to me is, ‘This is not God’.”

Segel had a Bar Mitzvah. But when asked if he considers himself a “cultural Jew” he replies: “Yes. But in terms of organized religion, again, I think the notion of ‘I know better than someone else’ is wildly arrogant.” Here, Segel sounds to me like a classic adult interfaith child. Having lived the experience of growing up in interfaith families, we tend to see the world from more than one viewpoint, and we tend to question the idea that only one religious tradition could be the true path. We are also likely to feel alienated from religious institutions that have rejected us.

Rather than bitterness, Segel’s fairytale ending expresses optimism that interfaith couples can achieve happiness. For those of us who grew up in functional interfaith families, interfaith love is not just a romantic fiction. We need to stand up and be counted, to let the world know that in spite of the obstacles our parents still love each other, that we are not confused, and that we draw creative power from our double-belonging.

Successful Interfaith Marriage: Cokie and Steve Roberts

Those of us living over here in the parallel universe of happy interfaith families continue to sigh and shake our heads at the persistence of the myth that interfaith marriage is, by definition, fraught with peril. In fact, there are no robust statistics on the current rate or incidence of success or divorce in interfaith marriages.

At the moment, we have only anecdotes. And so, I plan to continue to profile the many interfaith couples happily balancing two religions. For intermarried Jews and Catholics raising children with both religions, Cokie and Steve Roberts have served as inspiration ever since at least 2000, when they published From This Day Forward, a memoir of their own intermarriage. Last year, they followed up with Our Haggadah: Uniting Traditions for Interfaith Families. Together, these books build a portrait of a marriage marked by deep love and mutual respect, even as it approaches the 50-year mark.

Yesterday, our interfaith families community welcomed Steve and Cokie to a regular Sunday morning at the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington (IFFP). Our rabbi and our minister reflected on the theme of compassion on the first Sunday of Lent, Steve led us in our interfaith responsive reading, we all shared bagels and coffee, and then Cokie and Steve spoke during our adult group about their interfaith journey.

Cokie described her love of Catholic liturgy and ritual, her faithful attendance at mass. Steve described his secular Jewish family roots, and his own shift towards deeper Jewish practice, prompted by his Catholic wife. For many of us, this story is more familiar than exceptional: in choosing partners of another religion, we are forced to contemplate our own religion, and to be very purposeful about our own religious intentions. Could this lead to tension? Or course. Could it be creative tension? For some of us, yes. Could another result of religious difference in marriage be improved communication and mutual appreciation, as well as more profound connection to our own religion? Many of us think so.

I had heard Steve and Cokie speak several times before about their marriage, and I even appeared last spring on a public radio show on intermarriage, following an interview with Cokie. But somehow, welcoming this couple into the midst of our community of interfaith families, hearing them speak to an audience of hundreds of people who share their delight in partnering across religious boundaries, gave their stories new resonance.

While acknowledging that choosing both religions is not the right path for every family, Steve and Cokie explained why they chose to celebrate both religions with their children. Each partner had a strong identity, and neither partner ever considered conversion. “I must say it would have helped to have had a community like this when we were raising them,” Steve told us, yesterday. “Because there was an absence of encouragement and support for families like us, and like you, at that time.” Today, interfaith families are encouraging and supporting each other, as we educate our children in both religions, in DC, New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and beyond. And our families, and marriages, are strengthened by these grassroots communities.

 

Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller, available now in hardcover and eBook from Beacon Press.