High Holy Days 2021: Interfaith Connections

Heads up! The Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah starts VERY early this year, this Monday (Labor Day) evening, September 6th. This year, you can zoom from anywhere into Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services created by and for interfaith families, HERE or HERE or HERE.

Over the past decade, in some of over 300 essays here, I have written about many different aspects of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the context of an interfaith family. Below, I reprint one of the most popular of those essays, preserving some of the wisdom of Rabbi Harold White (z’l) on ways for interfaith partners to connect to these Days of Awe. –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.”
  2. 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.”
  3. Asking for Forgiveness.  The liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur hinges on the idea that all of us have “missed the mark” or 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.”
  4. 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.”
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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. And some may choose to honor the Days of Awe in alternative ways. But these services can be enlightening experiential education for anyone connected to Judaism through family ties. For Jews, having the support of a partner to accompany them in these days of deep reflection and soul-searching, of repentance and renewal, provides comfort and bonding. And 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 Familyand The Interfaith Family Journal. She works as an interfaith families consultant, speaker, and coach. Follow her on twitter @SusanKatzMiller.

Pandemic Passover, Year Two

My interfaith family had a hybrid seder this year. We had screens connecting us across five states. My adult children, in masks, sat distanced from us at a long table on our front porch. My audio jack failed. Everyone was zooming in and out trying to read the text in screenshare. People kibbitzed about what I cut from the powerpoint Haggadah. It was imperfect in almost every way.

But also satisfying, and beautiful.

And I fervently hope we never have to do it this way again.

A year ago, when we were all just beginning to grapple with how to live in a pandemic, I wrote an essay about Passover in the form of a song from the Haggadah, the Dayenu. In Hebrew, Dayenu means “it would have been enough.” This central reading lists many of the elements in the Exodus story–fleeing slavery, wandering the desert, receiving the Torah–for which we are thankful. After each line, we say a hearty “Dayenu!” in unison.

Dayenu cultivates gratitude, reminding us of all we have to be thankful for, even after ten plagues, or a pandemic. So here we are, a year later, after so much loss, grief, illness, isolation, depression, stress, and anxiety. And yet, we are thankful. So, to mark this second pandemic Passover, I updated my personal Dayenu, my song of gratitude in this season:

For zooming in with Jewish and Muslim women in the UK planning to make charoset online together. Dayenu!

For zooming into a DC interfaith freedom seder with a rabbi, a priest, a minister, and gospel singers. Dayenu!

For the chocolate almond that appeared when I did not have an olive for the seder plate to symbolize peace in the Middle East. Dayenu!

For the apple that appeared when I did not have an orange for the seder plate to symbolize people of all genders and orientations. Dayenu!

For my vegan daughter who inspired me to replace the shank bone with a beet. Dayenu!

For the ability to facetime with my teenage niece while she made the toffee matzoh we make every year together. Dayenu!

For my network of neighborhood friends, delivering each other dill and horseradish to make sure everyone had what they needed for the seder. Dayenu!

For my family who zoomed in to our seder from three time zones, from Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and California. Dayenu!

For the vaccination of both my adult children as essential workers. Dayenu!

For those who have worked this year to feed our community, teach our children, and keep us safe and healthy, in spite of great personal risk. Dayenu!

For Dr. Tony Fauci and all the scientists who have brought us to this season of vaccination. Dayenu!

For the election of a better President. Dayenu!

For reaching the point in history when we have a White House seder with a Vice President who has a Jewish and Christian and Hindu extended multiracial interfaith family. Dayenu!

For the giant pandemic puppy who provides great comfort in our isolation. Dayenu!

For our proximity to beaches, forests, creeks, and bays, providing a balm for our eyes and lungs and souls. Dayenu!

For our heightened awareness this year of the flowering quince, forsythia, daffodils, crocuses, and cherry blossoms in our yard. Dayenu!

For my husband, who still makes me laugh after a year of constant togetherness, and more than 40 years of partnership. Dayenu!

For reaching this season of hope, after surviving a pandemic year. Dayenu!

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 Interfaith Holidays 2021

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

This post has become an annual tradition. Over more than a decade 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 #GenInterfaith 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). 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 neighboring religions and cultures, just as we do as individual members of interfaith families.

Feb 16, Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras). For Roman Catholics and some Protestants, this day marks the end of feasting before the beginning of fasting for Lent. Shrove Tuesday is the finale of Carnival (Shrovetide), with notable multi-day celebrations in Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago, New Orleans, Venice, and some Protestant regions. Carnival may have many historical ties to the pre-Christian celebrations of the return of the sun.

Feb 17, Ash Wednesday, for Roman Catholics and some Protestants, marking the start of Lent. Lent is a period of prayer and penance in commemoration of Jesus’s 40 days in the desert, and in preparation for Easter. Many practitioners make a Lenten sacrifice, giving up a specific luxury food (chocolate, all sweets, alcohol) during Lent.

Feb 26, Purim. Jewish commemoration of the Biblical story of Esther in ancient Persia, celebrated with costumed reenactments (Purim spiels), three-cornered pastry (hamantaschen), carnival games, drinking, and charity. Some believe Esther is connected to the ancient fertility goddess Ishtar, and there may be a historical connection between Norooz and Purim.

March 11, Maha shiveratri, the Hindu festival honoring the night Lord Shiva created the world. The celebration includes staying up all night to meditate, chant, and dance, in the darkest season. Check out the twitter hashtag #DontYawnTillDawn.

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 heritage. Now celebrated in America by people of many religions. Possible historical connection to Ostara.

March 21, 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/Esther/Ishtar, and between Easter, Passover, and Norooz.

March 21, Norooz (Nowruz, Naw-Ruz). Zoroastrian/Bahai/Persian celebration of the New Year on the spring equinox. With roots in ancient Iran, people of many religions may celebrate Norooz together in 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 25, Mahavir Jayanti, the Jain holiday celebrating the birth of Mahavir with temple visits, charity, and in recent times, rallies promoting non-violence and veganism, and running events.

March 28, 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.

Sundown on March 28 to April 8, 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).

March 28-29, 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 (and not without controversy over appropriation) throughout the world.

March 29, Hola Mohalla. Sikh celebration including processions, mock battles, poetry reading, music. There is a historical connection between Hinduism’s Holi and Hola Mohalla.

April 1, Maundy Thursday. Protestant and Roman Catholic commemoration of The Last Supper. There may (or may not) be a historical connection between The Last Supper and the Passover seder.

April 2, Good Friday. Protestant and Roman Catholic commemoration of the Crucifixion of Jesus, with church services and fasting.

April 4, Easter. Protestant and Roman Catholic 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, or may not, have a historical connection to pre-Christian rituals and the spring equinox.

April 13, start of the month-long daytime fast for Ramadan in Islam, commemorating the revelation of the Qu’ran. Muslim holidays are on a lunar calendar, so move through the seasons over time.

May 2, Orthodox Easter (or Pascha) in many of the Orthodox Christian traditions using the Julian rather than Gregorian calendar, including Bulgaria, Cyprus, Ethiopia, Greece, Lebanon, Macedonia, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine, as well as millions of people in North America. Many of these cultures include a feast of lamb (connected historically to Passover) and hard-boiled eggs (connected to more ancient fertility traditions).

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 (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Interfaith Families in the Pandemic, at Christmas

No one was dreaming of this Christmas.

A Christmas without family, friends, or going to church. A Christmas without choirs, or caroling. Even in that fictional scenario without packages, boxes, and bags, when the Grinch tried to stop Christmas, people imagined they would always be able to stand in a circle and clasp hands. But not this year.

Early in the pandemic, I wrote about a silver lining, of being able to gather on zoom with people from across the country and the globe. I wrote of being able to zoom into accessible services anywhere, of trying out different religious communities through the miracle of technology. If you are looking for a Christmas Eve service designed by and for interfaith families, you are welcome to zoom in to the Interfaith Families Project in DC this year.

But, here we are, ten months in, and the silver linings are all wearing thin. We try to appreciate the calm, the stillness, the intimacy, perhaps the shift away from commercialism, of holidays this year. Or perhaps we appreciate the ability to more easily control holiday menus (in our house, this means more vegan options!).

But the pandemic is surging. Our relationships with those we live with full-time may be fraying. And depression, major and minor, is now pandemic too. The Christmas music that feels the most on point this year may be Judy Garland singing the mournful “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” or the wistful Charlie Brown special classic “Christmastime is Here.”

In the past, I have written and spoken about the importance in interfaith families of feeling empathy for each other, of being gentle with our partners and children in this season of long nights and short, cold days. And that has never been more true than this year, on this solstice, at this pandemic apex.

I had not dreamed of some of the challenges facing interfaith families this year. Most interfaith families in the US, Canada, and Europe have one Christian partner. For many who are atheist, agnostic, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, or Pagan, having a Christian partner has meant, in the past, celebrating Christmas with our partner’s extended family. Some of these interfaith families have preferred not to have a Christmas tree, or lights on the house, or prepare a Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes, or hang stockings, but have been glad to experience these Christmas traditions every year at the homes of a partner’s parents or extended family.

This year, it is not possible, not safe, to celebrate at Grandma’s house. (And some of us have lost grandparents, and parents, in the epidemic). Instead, isolated at home, many interfaith families have had to make decisions about whether to have a first Christmas tree, a first visit from Santa, hang lights for the first time outdoors. In some families, a partner who did not grow up with these traditions may now feel new pressure to host them, adding to holiday sadness. In some families, a partner who grew up celebrating these traditions with extended family may feel the additional sadness of celebrating in isolation with a partner who did not grow up with those traditions. And, some interfaith families have already been through the parallel sadness of negotiating these same intersections of interfaithness and pandemic isolation over Diwali, or Hanukkah. For Pagans, the same may be true for the winter solstice, and Yule.

There are no right or wrong answers to the question of how to navigate this very hard season, in this very hard year. For some families, it may feel right to “haul out the holly” and “turn on the brightest string of lights.” For others, it may feel right to just try to let it go, and hibernate through the winter, until spring is here at last. As in all years, as in all families, the right way for your family to be an interfaith family can only be discerned through intimate conversations. But in every case, and especially this year, we are called on to be as empathetic as we can possibly be, and to be extra gentle with each other, as we await the return of the light, and our turn for the vaccine.

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.

Menorah Conclusion: Interfaith Family, Year 60

Photo Susan Katz Miller

My kids only had one Jewish grandparent, my father, may his memory be a blessing. When he died two years ago, I promised to chronicle what happens in an interfaith family when all the remaining generations have interfaith heritage.

So here, I’m reporting in.

According to Jewish pessimists, my children should be thoroughly assimilated into the (increasingly mythical) Christian majority by now. They are 26 and 23 years old, and just recently launched into the (perilous) world.

And in the last 24 hours, they each, independently, casually asked if I had a menorah to spare.

Oh, you know I do! I have a whole collection of them. (And yes, I call them menorahs, not chanukiahs, because that’s what my father the rabbi’s grandson called them).

So, I packed up one menorah, and it’s headed to Brooklyn in the mail. It’s the one with the star of David, and the wobble where the screw threads are worn out. Friends are incredulous. My son can’t get his own menorah, in Brooklyn of all places? He can’t just make a menorah out of ziti or something? Of course he can. But it’s Hanukkah, and what else am I gonna give this grown-ass kid? He does not crave stuff. And he asked for this…one…thing.

Then my daughter came by to peruse my small menorah collection, and picked the teeny-tiny menorah that takes birthday candles. It will serve double-purpose as an instructional artifact in the Montessori forest school where she is teaching.

Coincidentally (or not, since Hanukkah starts this Thursday night), the New York Times just published a mournful piece by a woman with a Jewish father and Christian mother, about why she is not going to celebrate Hanukkah with her toddler. On twitter, reactions are split. I see exclusivist Jewish thinking (“you’re not Jewish anyway so why would you celebrate Hanukkah”), the same thinking that has pushed so hard against the very existence of interfaith families in the name of “Jewish continuity.” And then I see those who empathize, and diagnose her alienation as a direct result of those exclusivist policies. That toddler, like my children, has one Jewish grandparent. And while every interfaith family has the right to choose how they will identify, and which rituals they will celebrate, it set me to thinking about why my children do feel connected to Judaism, in the third generation of our interfaith family.

How do I explain why both my children now feel called to be interfaith ambassadors and bridge-builders? Why do they intend this year to share ancient Jewish ritual with their households of friends, with young pupils, with their communities? Here I want to name just two of what I see as the many interconnected reasons for the persistence of Jewish ritual in the third generation of my interfaith family.

One reason was the charisma and determination of my beloved Jewish father, who was the last living grandparent for my children. At Hanukkah, we would gather around his piano to sing “Rock of Ages” each night while he played for us by the light of the menorah, with my Episcopalian mother and husband harmonizing. He gave us affection for these rituals, and he gave us a model of a harmonious interfaith family that persisted in celebrating both heritages despite all manner of official resistance from religious institutions.

The second reason is the work that my husband and I, and our interfaith families community, and our rabbis and ministers, put into raising our children to feel they have a right to claim both family religions. We made sure they had basic Jewish literacy, we made sure they felt connected to Judaism, we made sure they felt called to stand up against anti-semitism.

In light of the menorah requests this week, I now feel moved to declare that this is the moment, sixty years into our three-generation experience with interfaith family living, that I am ready to draw a definitive conclusion. Interfaith kids in the third generation, including those raised with both family religions, can feel deeply connected to Judaism (or any other religion in which they are educated). So, to all those who predicted our inevitable assimilation into the Christian majority, I conclude based on personal experience that you were wrong.

But if Jewish institutions want to ensure that menorahs do not all end up sitting unused in boxes in closets, they must ensure that we do not continue to alienate interfaith families who want to engage in Judaism. Here are the five urgent (overdue) strategies for doing that:

And if you need further advice on the hows or whys of all this, I am available to consult.

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.

A Steep Mountain: Interfaith Life in a Pandemic

In my Easter bonnet. On mute.

We made it through Holy Week and Passover. Dayenu.

Dayenu is everyone’s favorite song at the Seder. It means, “it would have been enough.” We use it to express gratitude. Even in this harrowing time, we need gratitude. (We also need big helpings of courage, and righteous anger, and passion for social justice, all themes of the seder).

Since I last posted here, the pandemic has gotten very close and real. I know people who have died, are sick, were separated from dying loved ones, have not been able to mourn these losses with traditional ritual.

We are locked down. We are masked. We are anxious, depressed, at times terrified.

Pot by Martha Legg Katz. Photo by Aimee Miller

Still, I have the privilege of being able to feel gratitude:

For the cherry blossoms and daffodils. Dayenu.

For the mourning doves nesting on our front porch in a ceramic pot my mother made. Dayenu.

For the sweet antics of the rescue puppy we adopted just before the pandemic hit DC. Dayenu.

For my years spent in Brazil cultivating a love for rice and beans, which help me live from my pantry now. Dayenu.

For my sister who runs a homeless healthcare clinic in New York City, and all the other workers risking themselves to try to save others. Dayenu.

And for Tony Fauci, that brilliant mensch, whom I interviewed many times while covering the HIV/AIDS epidemic during my years as a science reporter. Dayenu.

And, now more than ever, I feel deep gratitude for my interfaith families community. Just as Holy Week and Passover and the Sikh holiday of Vaisakhi and Ramadan were approaching, we were forced to scramble to make the transition to online religious and spiritual gatherings. Clergy now have to be tech wizards, innovating to conjure up the sounds and smells and tastes of these holidays, while attempting to maintain a sense of community for people in tiny pixellated squares. (Teachers, including my daughter, are faced with the same awesome task and steep learning curve right now).

2020 seder plate with some pandemic substitutions

One silver lining of our abrupt and forced transition to online religious and spiritual community, is that anyone with a computer or smartphone and the link can join in. As someone who loves ritual, I was able to zoom into many different communities in the past week, experiencing different seders, and different Holy Week services. At each of those celebrations, we were joined by people from across the country and the globe for the first time. Dayenu. And I had these diverse Jewish and Christian experiences, without having to drive to the homes of relatives in multiple states (as much as I fervently wish I could do that right now).

Historically, I have not always found Easter and Holy Week comfortable, as a Jew. More like, complicated. But once again this year, celebrating with the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington DC, in a service created by and for interfaith families, felt glorious. I could relax the part of my brain on alert for supersessionist ideas or language. Instead, the beauty of Easter’s metaphor, of renewal, of resurrection, shone through in the time of the pandemic, with over 100 families zooming in. In our community, Easter traditions include singing Morning Has Broken (with music by a Christian who became a Muslim), and Lord of the Dance (a Christian song inspired in part by a Hindu deity), as well as more traditional Easter hymns.

Among academics of religion today, the trend has been to repudiate the idea–the metaphor–that all religions are different paths up the same mountain. Instead, the dominant paradigm now is that each religion is a separate mountain, with different goals. I am glad I am not trying to earn tenure right now, because every time I experience interfaith community, I disagree with my heart and soul. I feel we share the mountain, just as we share the globe.

The mountain is the human condition. And on this shared mountain, the slope feels particularly steep right now. How do we persevere through pandemics and plagues? How do we cultivate community and compassion? Each religion and culture develops different strategies, different rituals, different liturgies. (For those in academia, yes, I am forever #TeamHustonSmith, #TeamKarenArmstrong. Apologies to friends on #TeamStephenProthero). No one said all religions are the same–or anyways not Huston Smith, not Karen Armstrong, and not me. If they were all the same, why would I need a life enriched by both religions in my heritage, the sibling religions of Judaism and Christianity?

Both Passover and Easter include the egg as a symbol. The mourning dove lays exactly two eggs. On my front porch, which represents the edge of the permissible world for us right now in lockdown, those eggs are due to hatch any day. Mourning seems appropriate in a pandemic. And doves feel like a hopeful sign, as they were for Noah. The doves (the male and female take turns on the nest) are hunkered down. They have adapted to us walking inches from their home, and even to the bark of our untamed puppy. When they hatch, I will feel another small moment of Dayenu.

It will have to be enough.

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.

Hamantaschen, Fertility, and Syncretism

Photo, Susan Katz Miller

Why is this hamantasch upside-down? Is it a distress signal?

No! Just Purim fun, and feminist chutzpah. I simply rotated one of my old photos 180 degrees, to give you a new perspective.

I took this photo ten years ago, intending to visually signal the fact that a hamantasch (grammatically this is the singular) looks like a vulva, or a fruitful uterus, or some combination thereof. As someone who wrote my undergraduate thesis in the history of science on anatomical depictions of women in the Renaissance, drawing on semiotics and feminism, the symbolism of hamantaschen had always been obvious to me. I posted the photo “right side up” with an essay celebrating the interfaith marriage at the heart of the Purim story, and linking Purim to spring fertility rites predating Judaism.

Then five years ago, I wrote a review of Strange Wives, a book about interfaith marriage in the Torah. I described how this book (by a rabbi and a Jewish scholar) documents how “women who married into the tribes of Israel continued to worship their own fertility gods even after marriage, and early Israelite farmers continued to appeal to fertility gods to bless their crops.” Their argument (and mine) is that Judaism has always been syncretic, picking up practices and ideas from the religions predating and surrounding it. For me, this is one example of how all religions are interfaith religions.

Purim is technically next week, but many communities hold their Purim carnivals this weekend. Yesterday, Arielle Kaplan posted “Yes, There’s a Reason Hamantaschen Look Like Vaginas” over at HeyAlma.com, a website founded by Jewish women. She has written a hilarious and definitive essay on the hamantasch as a fertility symbol, with nods to current politics, Broad City, and Polly Pocket. I highly recommend reading it.

Then, shake off your primary blues, pack up your Purell, and go make noise and celebrate Purim!

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 Interfaith Holidays 2020

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 #GenInterfaith 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). 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 neighboring religions and cultures, just as we do as individual members of interfaith families.

Feb 21, Mahashivaratri, the Hindu festival honoring Lord Shiva, includes staying up all night to meditate, chant, and dance, in the darkest season. Check out the twitter hashtag #DontYawnTillDawn.

Feb 25, Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras). For Roman Catholics and some Protestants, this day marks the end of feasting before the beginning of fasting for Lent. Shrove Tuesday is the finale of Carnival (Shrovetide), with notable multi-day celebrations in Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago, New Orleans, Venice, and some Protestant regions. Carnival may have many historical ties to the pre-Christian celebrations of the return of the sun.

Feb 26, Ash Wednesday marks the start of Lent, the period of fasting before Easter, for Roman Catholics and some Protestants.

March 9, 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 10, 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 (and not without controversy over appropriation) throughout the world.

March 10, Purim. Jewish commemoration of the Biblical story of Esther in ancient Persia, celebrated with costumed reenactments, three-cornered pastry (hamantaschen) that may reference the ancient fertility goddess Ishtar, drinking, and charity. There may be a historical connection between Norooz and Purim.

March 10, Hola Mohalla. Sikh celebration including processions, mock battles, poetry reading, music. There is a historical connection between Hinduism’s Holi and Hola Mohalla.

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 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 together, 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.

April 9, Maundy Thursday. Protestant and Roman Catholic commemoration of The Last Supper. There may (or may not) be a historical connection between The Last Supper and the Passover seder.

April 10, Good Friday. Protestant and Roman Catholic commemoration of the Crucifixion of Jesus, with church services and fasting.

April 12, Easter. Protestant and Roman Catholic 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, or may not, have a historical connection to pre-Christian rituals and the spring equinox.

Sundown on April 8 to April 15, 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 19, Orthodox Easter (or Pascha) in many of the Orthodox Christian traditions using the Julian rather than Gregorian calendar, including Bulgaria, Cyprus, Ethiopia, Greece, Lebanon, Macedonia, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine, as well as millions of people in North America. Many of these cultures include a feast of lamb (connected historically to Passover) and hard-boiled eggs (connected to more ancient fertility traditions).

April 24, start of the month-long daytime fast for Ramadan in Islam, commemorating the revelation of the Qu’ran. Muslim holidays are on a lunar calendar, so move through the seasons over time.

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 (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

In December: Children’s Books, Interfaith Literacy

Photo Susan Katz Miller

Many families that celebrate Hanukkah (including interfaith families) like to focus on Hanukkah gifts other than toys, at least on some of the eight nights. The idea is to differentiate Hanukkah from Christmas, and acknowledge that lavish gifts were not originally part of modest little Hanukkah. So, we have the traditional night-of-giving-socks. Or, games-instead-of-gifts night. Or, giving-to-others night. And, the favorite of authors and readers: the night of giving books!

Whether you celebrate Hanukkah, Christmas, both, neither, Yule, or holidays of any of the other religions of the world, wise parents are seeking out books this time of year to help children understand these December celebrations, and understand the many beliefs and practices of classmates and extended family members.

Several years ago, I wrote a round-up of books specifically for interfaith kids focused on Hanukkah and Christmas, with explanatory notes on each book. (It was widely reposted). More recently, I wrote a column on how to access a steady stream of Jewish and other children’s books to support interfaith literacy.

This year, with the publication of The Interfaith Family Journal, I am thinking about the full and glorious diversity of interfaith families, whether Catholic and Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist, Hindu and Humanist, or completely secular. In this spirit, I posted a new resource list on my author website with suggested children’s books on interfaith families, Buddhism, Christianity, God, Hinduism, Humanism, Islam, Judaism, and Paganism. Take a look!

All children, all of us, benefit from increasing our interfaith literacy, understanding, and empathy, especially this time of year when nerves may fray. I am adding to this list of children’s books all the time, and welcome your suggestions for books to help children learn about topics in any of these categories. I especially welcome suggestions for books on underrepresented religions or beliefs or practices including African diasporic and indigenous practices.

If you are stressed about making December work for your interfaith family, sitting down and reading books with kids often has a calming effect, for both kids and adults. Or, take a look at my new advice column posted over on PsychBytes: “8 Ways to a Peaceful December for Interfaith Families (And All of Us).” In this piece, I advocate for the benefits of snuggling in the cold and dark of December. It works, with or without a pile of books. Enjoy!

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). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

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).