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).

Year of the Beet: A New (Vegan) Passover Chapter

This week is all about making plans to honor the Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, Buddhist, and atheist connections in my extended three-generation interfaith family, during Passover and Easter week.

For me, that’s nothing new. What’s new this year is making sure there are vegan options for the Passover seder and Easter dinner, for my daughter and her boyfriend. She converted him (to veganism) during Veganuary this year. (And I learned the hard way to say Veganuary with a hard “g”). The vegan shift this year is a reminder that families are complex, identities and practices change over time, and love continues to leap across boundaries.

First, the good news. Charoset is vegan! Horseradish is vegan! Parsley is vegan! Matzah is vegan! And there are multiple recipes out there for vegan versions of the other dishes that feel most important to our family at the seder: matzah ball soup, and chocolate toffee matzah for dessert. Also, shifting in this direction aligns with something I have felt for years, which is that serving meat and potatoes after all the traditional appetizers is, well, just too much food. I’d rather feast on the foods unique to Passover—as much charoset as I want, as many matzah balls as I want–and then skip straight to the chocolate toffee matzoh. So that’s what we’re doing, people.

Because in this, the first year without my father, our Jewish patriarch, I am leading a seder in my own home. I would rather travel hundreds of miles to have my father at the head of the table, as he was last year when he was 93. But instead, here I am, bereft, an orphan. Now I am the oldest sibling in the oldest generation of our family.

It’s not my first seder as a leader. My husband and I spent six years in Senegal and Brazil, far from family, and had to lead our own seders–except for one delightful year when the U.S. Ambassador to Senegal and his Jewish wife hosted, and we got invited to an embassy seder of Jews and Christians celebrating in a predominantly Muslim country. I am grateful for the richness and complexity of our lives so far, and for the long generations in my family, and for all of the traditions we are passing down to our young adult children, and for all the new ideas they are passing back up to us.

And so we will celebrate this week, with nostalgia and con brio, with poetry and social justice, with family and friends, with old rituals and new. This year, I feel emboldened to create and innovate and expand the welcome, by honoring the vegans, and using a roasted beet instead of a shank bone on the seder plate, even though my father (who was resistant to change) would not have approved. Because religious practice is inherently metaphorical, and those metaphors shift over time in response to the community context and deeper understanding of all the beings who share our globe. And because, after a lifetime as a daughter, I am now the senior Jewish person in charge. And so, for Passover 2019, we embrace the beet.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of The Interfaith Family Journal (2019), and Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2013). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Passover and Good Friday, 2019

Spring purple crocus
Photo, Susan Katz Miller

In both Christianity and Judaism, the dates for the major spring holidays are guided by an intricate dance of the moon and the sun–the lunisolar calendar. This means Passover and Holy Week (from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday) often overlap. And this year, Good Friday and the first Passover Seder fall on the same night, maximizing the logistical and emotional challenges for interfaith families who celebrate both religions. (I first wrote about this convergence in 2012, and again in 2015 and 2018).

Theologically, many interfaith families experience more cognitive dissonance in the spring, when Passover and Holy Week overlap, than they do in December, with Hanukkah and Christmas. The idea that the Last Supper was a Passover Seder is tantalizing, though historically debatable. But for Jews, this idea may also raise the red flag of supersessionism—the problematic idea that Judaism was simply a starter religion in the evolution of Christianity.

The contrasting moods of Passover and Good Friday may also contribute to the dissonance. Good Friday is a solemn commemoration of the crucifixion and death of Jesus. A Passover Seder is a joyous celebration of the exodus from slavery in Egypt, involving feasting and drinking. (Though this joy may be tempered by acknowledging the violence of the plagues, frustration over the long history of Middle Eastern conflict, and the ongoing effects of slavery and colonial oppression worldwide).

Meanwhile, in the realm of the practical, both Passover and Good Friday involve culinary restrictions. And they are both traditionally marked in the evening. So the overlap this year may pose a greater logistical challenge than the overlap of Passover and Easter (since Easter is celebrated mainly in the morning and afternoon).

So, how to honor both, with grace under pressure? Keep in mind that every family celebration, especially when there are small children involved, is going to be imperfect. As inspiration, I offer the words of multifaith bard Leonard Cohen: “Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

Below, I suggest some possible strategies for this year:

  1. Move the Seder. Many Jewish families celebrate multiple Seders–before, during, and even after the official eight days of Passover. If Christian family members want to fast and attend church on the night of Good Friday this year, consider shifting the first Seder to a night later in the week, when the mood could be more festive for both Jewish and Christian family members.
  2. Adapt the Seder. Some Christians may be fine with going to a noon service on Good Friday, and then a first Seder on Friday night. And some interfaith families will feel they must hold the first Seder on the traditional date. In this case, it would be thoughtful to adapt the Seder main dish, if your Christian family members are avoiding meat for the Good Friday fast. So, salmon instead of brisket? This would also please pescatarians and those who don’t eat red meat. Or, explain to extended family ahead of time that your Christian family members may skip the brisket and wine, but partake of the matzoh-charoset-horseradish sandwich and matzoh ball soup, egg and parsley.
  3. Adapt Easter. Whether you have your first Seder on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, or later, look for ways to make Easter easier for Jewish family members. For breakfast, we like to make matzoh brei (eggs scrambled with matzoh) instead of the traditional Easter pancakes—the savory protein dish offsets the sugar rush of Easter candy. And at Easter dinner, my interfaith family serves lamb, a Passover tradition in many Sephardic homes, rather than ham. (Be aware that there is a big debate about whether and what kind of lamb you can eat at Passover). Avoiding ham reduces the culinary dissonance, even in a family like mine that doesn’t keep kosher the rest of the year.
  4. Curate. Trying to reenact every single family Passover and Easter tradition in one weekend may cause parents and children to melt down like Peeps in the microwave. Every family, whether monofaith or interfaith, curates the family traditions they want to preserve, and sets aside others. So, as much as I loved the idea of the Easter cake made in the shape of a lamb, we skip this tradition. I don’t love cake made from matzoh meal, and the idea of cutting into a lamb cake always bothered my vegetarian daughter. Our preferred dessert for the weekend is matzoh toffee brittle. On the other hand, we always make space for dying eggs. We’re a family of artists, and it pleases me that the hard-boiled egg is connected to both holidays.

As always, creating successful family holidays depends on putting yourself in the shoes of others, and clear communication. If a strategy works for you, try to tune out the self-proclaimed experts telling you that you are doing it wrong. Be confident in the knowledge that the different ways to celebrate together are as numerous as the leaves of spring grass.

(This post is adapted from previous posts written for the overlap of Passover and Good Friday).

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Spring 2019 Interfaith Connections

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

This post has become an annual tradition! In ten years of writing this interfaith blog, I have posted multiple essays on many of the spring Jewish and Christian holidays: PurimSt Patrick’s DayPassoverEaster. But the complex, interlocking quilt squares of #GenerationInterfaith now go far beyond Judaism and Christianity.

My new book The Interfaith Family Journal, is designed for all interfaith families, of any or all religions, or none. And while we make many different choices about what to believe, how to practice, and where to affiliate (or not), all of us in extended interfaith families (and increasingly, that is most of us) benefit from multi-sensory interfaith experiences with extended family, neighbors, and co-workers.

Just in the coming weeks, we have a dense schedule of holidays (for a more complete list go here), providing many opportunities to deepen our interfaith education. 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.

Note the ancient connections many of these holidays have to the spring equinox, and often, to each other. Religions and cultures are not static, but change in response to each other, just as we do as individual members of interfaith families.

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. Spring Equinox. Ostara, ModernPagan/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 20-21, 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 South Asia, and increasingly throughout the world.

March 20-21, 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 21, Norooz (Naw-Ruz). 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 21, 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 21, Hola Mohalla. Sikh celebration including processions, mock battles, poetry reading, music. There is a historical connection between Hinduism’s Holi and Hola Mohalla.

April 18, Maundy Thursday. Christian commemoration of The Last Supper. There may (or may not) be a historical connection between The Last Supper and the Passover seder.

April 19, Good Friday. Christian commemoration of the Crucifixion of Jesus, with church services and fasting. The convergence of Good Friday and the first Passover seder may pose logistical challenges for many interfaith families this year, as it did last year.

Sundown on April 19 to April 27, Passover (Pesach), Jewish commemoration of the flight from Egypt described in the book of Exodus. Primarily a home-based celebration with one or more festive Seder meals of ritual foods, songs, and prayer. As with Easter, Passover incorporates (presumably pre-Judaic pagan) spring equinox fertility symbolism (eggs, spring greens).

April 21, Easter.Christian commemoration of the Resurrection of Jesus, celebrated with church services, family dinners, and baskets of candy for children. Fertility imagery including bunnies and eggs may have a historical connection to Eostre, and the spring equinox.

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

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (forthcoming in 2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Five Reasons for Interfaith Empathy at Christmas

Gingerbread Village. Photo, Susan Katz Miller

From the archives. I wrote this essay back in 2010. It feels all the more relevant today! 

In my doctor’s office I heard Christmas music-–three full days before Thanksgiving. The ever-expanding Christmas season is upon us. Why do I call it the Christmas season, not the holiday season? I love Hanukkah, my kids love Hanukkah. But honestly, no one calls it the “Hanukkah season.” Hanukkah is just not that big a deal.

Christmas is a big deal. Every year, our interfaith families groupdiscusses how to integrate two sets of “seasonal” expectations, and how to empathize with each other as we do this. The Jewish partners work on understanding which Christmas rituals feed the souls of their Christian partners. The Christian partners work on understanding the Jewish mix of underdog pride and alienation. Each interfaith couple must come up with their own balance of accommodations, but also, their own ways of pouring new life and creativity into old forms.

This year, I distilled the elements of this perennial interfaith Christmas discussion into five topics:

1. The Music. For many Christians, the music that permeates malls and airwaves starting this week provides essential nostalgia and anticipation. One woman raised Catholic spoke of tracking down the Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley holiday songs that her father brought home from Viet Nam on a reel-to-reel tape. What could be more heart-warming? But then, a man raised Jewish spoke up about experiencing his Jewish home as a refuge from the onslaught of “Christmas bling” and holiday music in malls, radio, school concerts. While some Jews enjoy the Christmas spirit, others hear carols and feel wistful and excluded.

So, some Jewish partners develop a taste for instrumental Christmas jazz but continue to reject the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Other interfaith families, despairing of lame traditional Hanukkah songs, are exploring the hipster Klezmer revival. Still other families negotiate a deal where traditional Christmas music is reserved for Christmas day.

2. The Lights. What could be bad about a “secular” display of sparkling cheer to dispel the darkest nights? But for many interfaith families, the line gets drawn here. My parents have been intermarried more than fifty years, and have a gargantuan tree and oyster stew and roast goose, but never lights outside. For some Jews, blinking lights signal “this house is Christian” to the neighbors. As one intermarried Jewish woman declared, “If we’re celebrating both, I’m okay with announcing that to the world with lights.”

3. The Creche. The nativity scene is, understandably, completely beyond the pale for interfaith families raising Jewish children. Some intermarried Jews never become terribly comfortable talking about Jesus, let alone seeing him in a Playmobil manger. Others see the celebration of the birth of an important Jew as less problematic than the celebration of his resurrection at Easter. For those raising children with both religions, a creche brings the actual story of the birth of Jesus into what could otherwise be a secular or only vaguely religious holiday.

4. The Tree. Much has been written about the tree. It’s Pagan, It’s an embarrassing reminder of assimilationist Hanukkah bushes. More than one interfaith couple tiptoes into the tradition with a tiny live rosemary tree in a pot from Whole Foods. Another Jewish spouse admits he’s been enjoying a Christmas tree for decades, but has never told his parents about it. Others manage to mix the Christian and Jewish in-laws together at tree-trimming parties.

5. The Food. Our rabbi calls Christmas “the most Jewish of the Christian holidays” because it centers on an elaborate home-cooked meal. For this reason, he compares Christmas not to Hanukkah, but to Passover. So eating and talking with the family, what’s not to like? But one Jewish partner bashfully admits, “Now that I’m in an interfaith family and we celebrate Christmas, I kind of miss the Jewish tradition of going to the movies and then going out for Chinese, bonding with other Jews doing that.” A Christian partner from another couple adapted this tradition to her own purposes: “I really wasn’t interested in spending all of Christmas day cooking, like my mother always did. So in our house, we open the stockings and presents, then go out for Chinese with all the Jewish families.” For this interfaith family, it’s the best of both worlds.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (forthcoming in 2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.Advertisements

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4 Replies to “Five Reasons for Interfaith Empathy at Christmas”

  1. Thelma ZirkelbachNOVEMBER 23, 2010 AT 1:32 PM EDITOh, this is delightful. Negotiating same-time-of-year rituals is always interesting. I could never handle a Christmas tree, although we hung stockings on Christmas Eve. And yes, the movie and Chinese are an absolute must Christmas Day tradition for my family, one that my kids have continued since my husband’s death.Reply
  2. Mandy KatzNOVEMBER 23, 2010 AT 4:04 PM EDITSue, what a fun post! And refreshingly un-prescriptive. I doubt there’s a Jewish-Christian couple in the world that wouldn’t find something to identify with here. For me, it’s sharing your parents indoor-outdoor schizophrenia on Christmas traditions. I, too, notwithstanding the gaudy, ceiling-scratching tree inside, say, “No way, Moishe,” to lights in the windows and on the shrubs. Thanks!Reply
    1. Christine IntagliataNOVEMBER 24, 2010 AT 1:40 PM EDITAnd in our Jewish/Jew-by-choice household, there’s never a tree, but I lovingly hang blue “Chanukah lights” every year . . . inside, but where you can see them through the windows. I love to turn off the regular lights and sit in the blue glow. And I know that’s Christmas nostalgia!Reply
  3. ipondereugeniaDECEMBER 2, 2010 AT 8:43 PM EDITA very well written and detailed article and interface holidays. thank you – I will forward it to my friends living in such families.
    Warm regards
    Eugenia Budman
    shewrites.Reply

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September: Interfaith Renewal

Pomegranate torah cover

“Do you remember, never a cloudy day…”

Earth, Wind & Fire is the soundtrack to my formative years, and the song “September” always gets me out on the dance floor. I was lucky to experience both the joy of nostalgia and the joy of celebrating love while dancing at two interfaith weddings in recent weeks: one Jewish and Christian, and the other Hindu and Unitarian.

This year, those recent moments of pleasure are helping to carry me through an unsettling first week of September. Yesterday was 9/11. Those of us in New York and Washington, in particular, think of the eeriness of the blue sky, the panic, the unfolding horror. And then we think of how many people in the U.S. from the Middle East, from South Asia, from Latin America–anyone with brown skin or a “different” name–have been harassed, targeted, and in some cases killed, in the years since then. And we think of how our government leadership has too often fueled that misunderstanding and hatred.

At the same time, on a very personal level, this week is both the anniversary of my mother’s death, and of her birth. September was always Mom’s month. I always associate the excitement of back-to-school with her excellence as a mother: the new school supplies, the thoughtfully packed lunch, the deep engagement with our lives. But now, the sudden coolness, the drop in humidity, the angle of light, the smell of September trees and plants, all of it signals my entire body to remember 9/11, and the morning that I was with my mother when she died two years ago on September 14th.

This year, these public and private sources of pain are bookmarked by the two Jewish high holy days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (always ten days apart). I grew up marking those days faithfully in my Reform Jewish family (with the support of my Episcopalian mother), attending hours of synagogue services at Temple Beth Elohim (“TBE”) in Wellesley, Massachusetts. And I still find the liturgy of reflection and renewal inspiring and restorative.

Here in the Washington DC area, we are lucky to have the Interfaith Families Project (IFFP), with high holy day services designed to be radically inclusive for anyone connected to Judaism in any way, and to acknowledge all that is good in our partnerships with Christians and people of other (or no) religions. Because it turns out that a service that does this is also an accessible and inspiring service for a whole range of people, including Jewish people.

What does a service designed by and for an interfaith families community look like? Each year is different, since there is a huge body of music and poetry and theology to draw on: traditional and contemporary Jewish liturgies, and sources from religions and cultures of the world. This year, we sang “Morning Has Broken” (a Christian hymn made popular by a man who later converted to Islam), and “If We Only Have Love” (a Jacques Brel chanson), alongside the traditional tunes for Avinu Malkeinu and many other parts of the service.

And we sang contemporary composer Noah Aronson’s lovely Bar’chu (call to prayer), “Am I Awake,” led by our own Rich Shegogue (who was raised Catholic). This provided a deep connection for me, since for many years, I have spent one of the high holy days with my parents at TBE, my childhood synagogue, where it just so happens that Noah Aronson was the longtime composer-in-residence. This is the temple where I became a Bat Mitzvah. (And also, the temple where the rabbi refused to officiate at my marriage). Since my family joined over 50 years ago, the synagogue has grown from 50 families to over 1000 families.

Sitting with my parents in the vast and glorious modern worship space at TBE, I have been lucky to learn many of his new tunes from Aronson himself, strumming his guitar as he leads thousands of voices. So, hearing “Am I Awake” this year in our more informal and intimate service at IFFP, served as an unexpected thread of connection between my experiences.

At IFFP, we remain a DIY (do-it-yourself) community–even the special high holy day cover for our torah was made by a community member, appliqued with a pomegranate to symbolize the sweetness of the new year (photo above). What makes our services feel especially inclusive? Maybe it’s the moment when a couple gets up and talks about Rosh Hashanah from their perspectives as partners–one Jewish, one Mexican Catholic–and what this community means to them. Or maybe it’s the fact that our rabbi, Rain Zohav, feels free to draw on Christian mystics (including Julian of Norwich and Meister Eckhart) for her Rosh Hashanah talk on protecting the earth.

The high holy day opportunity to meditate, reflect, ask forgiveness, and renew vows to make the world a better place–all of this will help to get me through my mother’s yahrtzeit (the anniversary of her death), and her birthday, and another year of living in Washington DC. And tonight, midway between the two high holy days, I will be writing postcards to get out the vote in a neighboring state for the midterm elections. Because the high holy days inspire me to work for justice. And because, in September, all of us have the opportunity to begin again.

 

Susan Katz Miller is a speaker and consultant on interfaith families and interfaith bridge-building, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family.

High Holy Days: Interfaith Connections

Heads up! Rosh Hashanah starts early this year, on the evening of September 9th. Over the past decade, in some of my over 300 essays here, I have written about many different aspects of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, from the context of an interfaith family. Here is one of the most popular essays from that collection. –SKM

 

When we experience the religious rituals of the “other,” we usually cannot help but respond with an internal running commentary, seeking connections to our own past. I know that whenever I heard the blast of a conch shell at an Afro-Brazilian rite during my years in Brazil, my mind would skip back to the sound of the shofar in my childhood temple.

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, many Christians (and Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists) find themselves attending services with Jewish partners, or parents, or other family members. These services, while tremendously important to Jews, can be difficult for those without Jewish education to access, due to length, solemnity, and the density of Hebrew.  Nevertheless, I always strongly recommend that those of other religions accompany their Jewish partners or parents to synagogue services, both to keep them from feeling lonely, and to learn and reflect.

In our Interfaith Families Project, a community of interfaith families raising children with both Judaism and Christianity in Washington DC, for a decade we had the great fortune to have annual High Holy Day services led by Rabbi Harold White (may his memory be a blessing), a rabbi who spent 40 years working with Jesuits at Georgetown University. Years ago now, he shared with our community these interfaith interconnections to look for on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur:

  1. Awe. Since the highest of holy days in Judaism is actually the weekly Shabbat, many rabbis prefer the term “The Days of Awe” to describe Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Think of awe not as fear, but as a mystic trembling meant to “stir up divine sparks.” Rabbi White compared the swaying of Jews at prayer (known in Yiddish as shuckling) to the quaking of Quakers and the shaking of Shakers.  Rhythmic body movement during prayer, whether it’s dancing or repeated bowing, occurs in virtually every religion, from Africa to Asia to American Indian traditions: the mind and body come together, self-consciousness falls away. Says Rabbi White, “Evangelicals have the right idea on this, with hands thrown up in the air.”
  1. Mystical numbers.  Yom Kippur marks the end of an annual 40-day spiritual quest in Judaism. All three Abrahamic religions share an obsession with the number 40, which Rabbi White describes as “a magical number in the Middle East. Moses was on Sinai for 40 days, Jesus was in the desert for 40 days, even Ali Baba and the 40 thieves. You think it’s a coincidence. It’s not.”
  1. Asking for Forgiveness.  The liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur hinges on the idea that all of us have sinned. “I know that sounds very Christian, but it’s very Jewish at the same time,” says Rabbi White. “There is no one on the face of the earth who hasn’t sinned.”
  1. Praying for Material Well-Being. For most of the year, Jewish prayer focuses on praise and adoration, rather than petition. Asking for direct intervention tends to be more closely associated with Christian prayer. But Rosh Hashanah is the exception, when Jews pray for health and life. “We don’t ask for anything the rest of the year,” says Rabbi White. “But on the Days of Awe, we ask.”
  1. Birth of Three Faiths. On Rosh Hashanah, the Torah reading describes the arrival of Abraham’s two sons: Sarah gives birth to Isaac, Hagar gives birth to Ishmael. Sarah becomes the matriarch of Judaism (and thus Christianity), Abraham sends Hagar into exile. But in Muslim writings, the heroic Hagar (Hajir) becomes the mother of Islam. Charlotte Gordon (an adult interfaith child) has written a sensitive analysis of the story of Hagar in her book The Woman Who Named God: Abraham’s Dilemma and the Birth of Three Faiths.
  1. Miracles. Sometimes Jewish students approach Rabbi White and assert, with a certain smugness, that Christianity requires belief in miracles and Judaism does not. The Rabbi points to the miracle of the birth of Isaac, when Abraham and Sarah are in deep old-age (Abraham is 100). Genesis specifies that Sarah not only has suffered from lifelong infertility, but is post-menopausal.  Virgin birth, post-menopausal birth, both miracles.
  1. Songs and Canticles. The Biblical passage known as the Song of Hannah, a reading from the prophet Samuel, is the haftara reading chosen to complement the Torah reading on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. The infertile Hannah has prayed for and been given a son, and her song of Thanksgiving is thought to have inspired the most famous of all canticles in the Christian liturgy, the Song of Mary, known as the Magnificat.

Finding a welcoming service, getting off work, arranging childcare, sitting through services, fasting, gleaning meaning from ancient prayers in an unfamiliar language: none of this is easy. But it is excellent experiential education for anyone connected to Judaism through family ties. For Jews, having the support of a partner in these days of deep reflection and soul-searching, of repentance and renewal, provides comfort and bonding. For interfaith children, having both parents sitting with them at services provides a clear message of respect and appreciation and love, by the parents for each other, and for the children, and for ancient ritual.

 

 

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.