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.

Hamentaschen, Fertility, and Syncretism

Photo, Susan Katz Miller

Why is this hamentaschen 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 hamentasch (grammatically this is the singular) looks like a vulva, or a vagina, 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 hamentaschen 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 posted 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).

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.