Mama’s Box Latkes: An Interfaith Elegy

Latke Mix
Photo, Susan Katz Miller

 

I have come to realize that one of the most important Hanukkah traditions in my multi-generational interfaith family is, box latkes. Yes, the latkes made from the mix in the little box from Manischewitz. For me, checking the date on a box lost in the back of the cupboard, tearing open the packets, breathing in the cloud of onion powder that rises up when you dump the packets in the bowl, feeling the little potato starch granules thicken as you stir, these are all Proustian moments.

How did this come to be our way? Here we must pause to imagine my Episcopalian mother, raising four Jewish kids in the 1960s. This was before food processors. Her Jewish mother-in-law lived many states away. So there was really no one around to insist that my mother do things the hard way, with grated knuckles bleeding into the potatoes.

My mother was a great cook. But, often left on her own with four kids and a dog while my father traveled the world on business, she was eager to try the highly-processed products of that era. We ate Manwich Sloppy Joes, and Hamburger Helper, and utterly egregious Libbyland TV dinners with purple “pirate powder” to stir into your milk.

And then, there’s the matter of the matzoh ball analogy. I imagine my mother thinking, “Everyone makes matzoh balls from those little boxes, and that’s considered kosher, so why can’t I make latkes that way too?” A novice mistake, but she stuck with it, even when Cuisinart came on the scene. Because, to be honest, my brothers and sister and I clamored for those box latkes!

My mother died last year. Now, thinking about the love that inspired her to even attempt to make latkes for a family of six makes me ache for her. Who would begrudge my mother this shortcut, when she was putting her own religion aside and devoting herself to raising four, count them four, Jewish children. I give her credit for making latkes at all, because the truth is, even when you use the mix, the endless frying in small batches is a pain in the tuchus. A single hungry child can eat every single latke you make as soon as they come out of the pan, until the batter is gone.

The first time I attempted to wean myself off making box latkes, the heap of grated potatoes turned alarming colors, because it took me so long to grate them that they oxidized. Those rainbow latkes were exceedingly ugly–my family was afraid to eat them. I also discovered that making sure the potato strings are no longer raw, without burning the latke to a crisp, is an art that takes practice.

I think a few years went by before I dared to get back on the grater to try again. But eventually, I got the hang of it. These days, I usually grate potatoes for latkes at least once during Hanukkah. I have even mastered hip contemporary variations, such as Sweet Potato Ginger Latkes. Everyone in my family–Jews and Christians and Buddhists and those who claim both religions or none–loves a latke made from scratch with the lacy golden brown edges.

But the truth is, in my family, we also stand by those fluffy box latkes, and crave this taste of home. Last year at Hanukkah, just after my mother died, with winter closing in around my raw grief and the brightness of the holidays refracted through the pain of loss, I’m not sure I made latkes at all. But this year, I stocked up on those little boxes. I will tear the packets, stir the mix, and eat the latkes, in her memory.

 

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is a speaker and consultant on interfaith families, interfaith education, and interfaith peacemaking. Her book Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available from Beacon Press.

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Queen of the Hanukkah Dosas: Book Review

Queen of the Hanukkah Dosas
Photo by Susan Katz Miller

 

The world of interfaith families in America is filled now with a kaleidoscope of beliefs, practices, and identities unimaginable to our grandparents. We are not just Jewish/Christian families. We are Buddhist/Pagan/atheist families. We are Muslim/Catholic families. And we are Hindu/Jewish families (sometimes called HinJews). I call this #GenerationInterfaith.

For children, seeing themselves, and families that look like theirs, in literature and in the media, can be reassuring, affirming, empowering, and also entertaining. So I am always glad to recognize and review new children’s books that depict the increasing complexity and diversity of interfaith families.

So far, most of those books have been about families celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas. (I have reviewed many of those in the past). But this year, #GenerationInterfaith expands with Queen of the Hanukkah Dosas, a picture book by Pamela Ehrenberg, with illustrations by Anjan Sarkar. This book recognizes, I believe for the first time in a picture book, that Jews and South Asians are marrying each other in the US today. (At least a couple of earlier Young Adult books feature Jewish/Indian protagonists, including My Basmati Bat Mitzvah, and The Whole Story of Half a Girl).

The story in this new picture book is simple and sweet, as are the illustrations. The family consists of a big brother and toddler sister, with a Jewish father and an Indian mother (more on her religion later), and an Indian grandmother, Amma-Amma, who lives with them. The family prepares a Hanukkah feast of dosas, a savory South Indian pancake made of dal (lentils) and fried in oil. The little sister creates havoc, but the big brother is able to save the day by singing to his sister a mash-up song he invents: “I have a little dosa, I made it out of dal.”

This slim book packs in a lot of cultural information. The family visits the Little India Market to shop for ingredients, all of which are depicted in a charming two-page spread. And in the back, we get recipes for dosas and sambar (a dip for the dosas). In the PJ Library edition, a subscription program that sends out free Jewish children’s books, the book also has a full page for adults on the story of Hanukkah, and book flaps explaining both traditional Hanukkah customs, and multicultural suggestions for foods to fry during Hanukkah (including Italian arancini and Puerto Rican sorullitos).

To be clear, this is not a “Hanukkah and Diwali” book, parallel to the “Hanukkah and Christmas” books. The family depicted is clearly raising kids with a formal Jewish affiliation of some sort: mom picks up the kids from Hebrew School. Meanwhile, there is no mention of any Hindu traditions or beliefs. So, possibly the mom has converted to Judaism. Or, she has not converted but is raising Jewish kids (who have either been converted themselves, or they belong to a movement that accepts patrilineal Jews). It is also possible to imagine that this family is giving their children interfaith education in addition to formal Jewish education, and that they do in fact celebrate Diwali.

So, does this book depict an interfaith family? Jews are multicultural. There are Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews, black Jews, Chinese Jews, Arab Jews, and, in fact, Indian Jews going back for generations. To me, the most important character in this book is actually the grandma, Amma-Amma, who wears a sari and bindi, who directs the making of the food, and who then retires for a nap. Amma-Amma represents the South Indian cultural mentor here, and she is presumably a Hindu, or perhaps a Jain. (Some Indian Jews do wear bindis today, but it is statistically improbable that she would be from one of the small Indian Jewish communities). And while it is fairly common for a spouse to convert before or after marriage, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a mother-in-law converting.

So, for me Amma-Amma represents the idea that every family formed by people from two religious backgrounds is an extended interfaith family, even if the nuclear family becomes single-faith after a conversion. Extended family is formative and influential in the lives of children. Because Amma-Amma lives with the family, her role in passing down family traditions, and the importance of the bonds of affection across generations and religious boundaries, are clear in this book.

So, yes, I do like to imagine this family celebrating Diwali with Amma-Amma, if only to help her celebrate “her” holiday. Such a celebration would be formative for any children, no matter what religious label or formal religious education the parents choose for them. And I remain convinced that the religious literacy any such children would gain from this experience, and the familiarity and affection they would develop for another tradition, would be good for them, and good for the world.

 

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is a speaker and consultant on interfaith families, interfaith education, and interfaith peacemaking. Her book Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available from Beacon Press.

High Holy Days 2017: Finding Interfaith Community

Rosh Hashanah Apples, photo Susan Katz Miller

September means back to school. The last of the tomatoes, and the first pumpkins. Cooler nights. The angle of the autumn light. And for many families celebrating Judaism, a scramble to figure out how to celebrate the High Holy Days.

The New Year of 5778 in the Hebrew calendar starts at sundown on September 20th this year. That means that the High Holy Days start with Rosh Hashanah on the evening of September 20th. And the Days of Awe always conclude ten days later with Yom Kippur, which starts this year with the Kol Nidre service on the evening of September 29th.

Fall sends many interfaith families in search of a spiritual home. For those who want to give children a (not necessarily exclusive) Jewish education and identity, at least two different options now exist in many places. Jewish communities have become more inclusive and welcoming to interfaith families. And at the same time, a growing proportion of interfaith families are seeking out communities to support them in celebrating both family religions.

Jewish religious educators and clergy have created programs to serve interfaith families, and have become more skilled in creating warm and appreciative pathways for interfaith families choosing membership in Jewish communities, whether or not the Christian (or Muslim, or Hindu, or Buddhist) spouse converts to Judaism.

What you will not find in these Jewish interfaith family programs is the support and advice of Christian clergy (with one notable exception, that I’m aware of, in NYC), or education for children about Christianity. And partly in response to these limitations, intentional, independent interfaith communities began to grow in many cities across the country in the 1980s, built by families with a desire to provide literacy in both religions for children, and spiritual support for both spouses.

The High Holy Day services these interfaith communities provide, or the Jewish services they attend as a group, are not a mixture of the two religions. They are traditional services, chosen or designed to be as welcoming and inclusive as possible, and celebrated by interfaith families together as a group sharing profound respect for both religions.

In New York, intermarried couples first designed their own High Holy Day services led by interfaith families in Manhattan in the 1980s. Today, families from the Interfaith Community chapters throughout the New York metropolitan area, including New Jersey and Long Island, gather to celebrate together, both at their own events, and with local Jewish communities.

In Chicago, Jewish and Catholic families have been teaching children both religions since 1993. Chicagoland families from the Interfaith Family School downtown, and the suburban interfaith families from the Interfaith Union, attend services together at local synagogues for the High Holy Days.

And in Washington DC, my own community, the Interfaith Families Project (IFFP), provides a full set of four traditional (yet progressive) High Holy Day services specifically designed by and for interfaith families, now led by Rabbi Rain Zohav. IFFP also provides specific children’s services on both holidays.

Meanwhile, families from IFFP in DC who moved to Philadelphia started their own interfaith families community,  to teach both religions, years ago now. You can join them for their 9th annual Rosh Hashanah apple-picking event this year. Growing up, my Reform Jewish family always went apple-picking around Rosh Hashanah: it’s a lovely tradition!

But what if you live in Seattle, or Nashville, or anyplace that does not yet have an intentional interfaith families community? Start by reading my  tips on how to get started with Rosh Hashanah at home, and with finding and creating a community of your own. Then, join the Network of Interfaith Family Groups, designed to support families celebrating any two (or more) family religions, and to help you to find other such families in your area. Already, we have a group that is coalescing in Atlanta

Each fall provides a new chance to connect with other interfaith families, to begin religious education for your children, to discover or rediscover the beauty of the Jewish holidays. As the days grow shorter, return, renew, rejoice in the many options for interfaith families.

 

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is a speaker and consultant on interfaith families, interfaith education, and interfaith peacemaking. Her book Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available from Beacon Press.

Passover and Easter 2017 in Interfaith Family Communities

 

Egg.
Egg.       Photo, Susan Katz Miller

 

Spring is here, and many interfaith families will be celebrating Passover and Easter at events  with other interfaith families. Below, I share with you a round-up of spring celebrations hosted by interfaith family communities devoted to interfaith education for interfaith families. All are welcome at all of these events, just RSVP to the various organizers and see what you can bring. Some of these events are held before the actual holidays, such as a model teaching Seder, or a discussion of the various interfaith perspectives on Easter. Other events are held on the actual dates and are identical to more traditional holidays, except that they are designed by and for interfaith families who celebrate both Judaism and Christianity. And some interfaith family communities have partnered with churches and synagogues, and join those congregations for the holidays.

For all who are lucky enough to live near an interfaith family community, here are some upcoming Passover and Easter events:

WASHINGTON DC

This Sunday morning, April 2nd, the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington DC (IFFP) will host their annual potluck community Seder, designed by and for families celebrating both Judaism and Christianity. It will be led by the IFFP’s Rabbi Rain Zohav.  And on Easter Sunday, April 16th, IFFP hosts an Easter-themed Gathering with reflections from a minister and a rabbi. After the Gathering, join the community for a Pancake and Matzo Brei breakfast.

PHILADELPHIA

On Saturday April 8th, the Interfaith Families of Greater Philadelphia (IFFGP) will be hosting their 9th Annual Interfaith Passover Seder for interfaith families that celebrate both family religions. The event will be held in Lansdale, PA. For more info check out the facebook event page.

NY/NJ/CT

In New York City, the original Interfaith Family Community (IFC), which helped pioneer the idea of interfaith education for interfaith families, now has both a Jewish and a Christian  “home” to extend holiday observances. As a group, they will be joining St. Michael’s Episcopal Church for their Easter Sunday service and egg hunt on April 16th. And they are also allied with the innovative Romemu Jewish community, the only Jewish community I know of with a minister on staff to meet the needs of multi-faith families. You can join Romemu for an adult discussion of Passover and Easter this Wednesday, March 29th.

The Interfaith Family Community chapter in Westchester will hold their annual Easter-Passover celebration on April 2nd in White Plains. For more information and/or to RSVP, email IFC.wes@gmail.com

The IFC Orange/Rockland/Bergen chapter had their Passover event last weekend. They will hold a family Easter celebration followed by an egg hunt and bunny hop race this Sunday, April 2 in Rivervale, NJ.

The Interfaith Community of Long Island, at the Brookville Church and Multifaith Campus, will host a discussion on Passover led by Rabbi Paris and Cantor Irene during Shabbat on April 7th. And their “Have a Seder/Need a Seder” program matches up families who offer to host or attend a Passover Seder. A Palm Sunday Service led by interfaith youth is on April 9th, and a Family Easter Service is on Sunday April 16th followed by an egg hunt.

And in central New Jersey, Faithful Families, a joint project of Congregation Beth Mordecai and St. Peter’s Episcopal Church of Perth Amboy, is hosting an Interfaith Jewish-Christian Agape Meal Seder, exploring the Jewish and Christian traditions steeped in the language of the exodus from Egypt. The event is on Thursday April 13th, which is the fourth night of Passover, and Maundy Thursday in the Christian calendar. A new interfaith families community for central New Jersey is also in formation, and will be meeting up at the Perth Amboy event.  If you are a local family raising kids with Judaism and Christianity, join their facebook group.

CHICAGO

The Union School for Interfaith Families (http://www.interfaithunionschool.org/) in the Chicago suburbs will be hosting a Passover Seder for families in their interfaith education program on April 9 from 9:30-11am at St. Raymonds in Mt. Prospect. Sign up here (http://www.signupgenius.com/go/10c0e44aea72babfc1-union1). Email questions to leslimarasco@gmail.com.

Catholic and Jewish families from downtown Chicago‘s interfaith Family School, an interfaith education program for interfaith children, often celebrate Easter together at Old St. Pat‘s.

ELSEWHERE

Not in one of the areas listed above? Your interfaith family has at least two options for finding community. One is to seek out progressive religious institutions in your area that will welcome interfaith families. Most progressive churches welcome interfaith families, though very few provide specific programming for them. Many Jewish communities now also welcome interfaith families (though they may not  approve of educating children in both religions), and many are holding community Seders. Check out Jewish Community Centers (JCCs) as well as synagogues.

The second option is to build a new interfaith families community to organize interfaith education and interfaith celebrations in your area. Inviting a few families for a Seder, or an Easter celebration, could be a great way to start. To find other families raising children with interfaith education in your area (whether your family is Jewish and Christian, or atheist and Hindu, or Pagan and Buddhist), join the Network of Interfaith Family Groups. New communities are forming all the time!

 

Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in paperback, hardcover and eBook from Beacon Press.

 

Spring Quilt of Interfaith Connections (2017)

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

 

 

(Last year, many people found this guide to spring celebrations helpful. So, I have updated the post with dates for 2017).

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

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

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

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

Feb 28, Shrove Tuesday/Mardi Gras. In many cultures, including in Europe, the Caribbean, Brazil, and New Orleans, this Christian celebration incorporates the masquerades and role reversals of Carnival, drawing on various historical pagan roots.

Feb 29, Ash Wednesday/Start of Lent. Christian observance of fasting and prayer, marking the start of the period leading up to Easter.

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 12, 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 12, 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 13, Holi. Hindu commemoration of the arrival of spring and love, celebrated with bonfires, throwing powdered color pigments and water on each other, music, feasting, forgiving debts, repairing relationships, and visiting. Popular even with non-Hindus in Asia, and increasingly throughout the world.

March 13, Hola Mohalla. Sikh celebration including processions, mock battles, poetry reading, music. There is a historical connection between Holi and Hola Mohalla.

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

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

April 9, Palm Sunday. Christian commemoration of the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem, celebrated with church services and processions with palm fronds. Among Indian Christians, the Hindu practice of strewing flowers such as marigolds has been adapted for Palm Sunday.

April 10, Mahavir Jayanti. Jain commemoration of the birth of Mahavira, celebrated with temple visits for meditation and prayer, decoration with flags and flowers, and charitable acts.

April 10, Passover (first evening). Jewish commemoration of the flight from Egypt described in the book of Exodus. Primarily a home-based celebration with a festive Seder meal of ritual foods, songs, and prayer. Incorporates (presumably pagan) spring equinox (fertility) symbolism (eggs, spring greens).

April 13, Maundy Thursday – Christian commemoration of The Last Supper. There may be a historical connection between The Last Supper and Passover.

April 14, Good Friday. Christian commemoration of the Crucifixion of Jesus, with church services and fasting.

April 16, 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

 

 

Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.

The Dance of Hanukkah and Christmas: 8 Tips for Interfaith Families

Christmas and Hanukkah cookies, photo Susan Katz Miller
Photo, Susan Katz Miller

The Woolf Institute in Cambridge, England, works on Jewish, Muslim, and Christian relations. They asked me to write on how interfaith families will choreograph Hanukkah and Christmas celebrations this year. In general, organizations in the UK are more open to discussing interfaith families as a part of interfaith relations than their US counterparts are. I am grateful whenever anyone acknowledges the role that interfaith families can play in interfaith peacemaking. Visit the Woolf Institute blog to see my new post there, or read it below…SKM

The solar Gregorian calendar determines the timing of Christian holidays, while both the sun and moon guide the Jewish calendar. As a result, each year interfaith families must choreograph the dance of Hanukkah and Christmas in a new way. In 2016, this dance will require some expert steps, since the first night of Hanukkah falls on Christmas Eve.

This convergence increases the complexity of preparation, and coordination, in order to give each holiday its own time and space and integrity. But after more than 50 years of celebrating both holidays, I know that it can be done, without actually mixing or blending or fusing the two together. Here are my eight strategies for mastering the Hanukkah and Christmas dance this year:

  1. Don’t forget Hanukkah on Christmas Eve. If you are traveling, remember to pack the Hanukkah menorah. In the excitement of Christmas Eve, don’t forget to set aside a few minutes to gather everyone and actually light the first candle. Enjoy the synergy of a glowing Hanukkah menorah and a sparkling tree, and talk about the common theme of light at the darkest time of year. Safety tip: If you are going off to a mass or church service, be sure to light candles when they will have time to safely burn down.
  1. Postpone Hanukkah gifts. On Christmas day, lean into Christmas. After a full day of Christmas and stacks of presents, do remember to light candles for the second night. But consider putting off Hanukkah gifts until later in the week. In fact, resist the false competition between the holidays that has given rise to the whole idea of Hanukkah gifts.
  1. Tell the Hanukkah story. Emphasizing the religious freedom angle in the Hanukkah story is a perfect activity this year. We are lucky to live in a time and place with the freedom to celebrate either, or both, or any religion. Singing the Hanukkah song Rock of Ages (different from the Christian hymn of the same name) in English rather than Hebrew on the nights you celebrate with extended Christian family members will make the story more accessible.
  1. Give to others. Once Christmas has ended, lean into Hanukkah. The middle nights of Hanukkah would be perfect for giving back, in lieu of more family gifts. Stress that both holidays encourage us to care for those in need. Engage children in deciding what causes they want to support with charitable donations this year.
  1. Organise acts of service. Christmas encourages empathy for those who, like Mary and Joseph, must travel and seek shelter. Hanukkah provides an opportunity to talk about how Jewish history compels us to work to promote social justice. Celebrating these intertwined themes by engaging in acts of service together to support refugees and religious minorities.
  1. Give Hanukkah gifts at the end. If your family does give Hanukkah gifts, wait until the end of the week when the novelty of Christmas gifts has worn off. Some families like to emphasize books and clothes as Hanukkah gifts for children, rather than toys, to further differentiate the two holidays.
  1. Time the parties. Hanukkah spans two weekends this year, and Christmas sits squarely on the first weekend. So the second weekend could be a good time for a Hanukkah party. Try a party on Friday night with the festive lighting of both Shabbat and Hanukkah candles. Or, plan a family New Year’s Eve party with the lighting of havdalah candles for the close of Shabbat, followed by Hanukkah candles. Or, arrange an elegant adult New Year’s Eve party with caviar on latkes, champagne, and gambling with dreidels.
  1. Try not to stress. As you move through the dance of Hanukkah and Christmas this year, don’t fret over a misstep or two. Everyone forgets to light candles on occasion. Everyone has a relative who makes some awkward comment about interfaith families. Everyone has a different comfort level with where to place the Hanukkah menorah in relation to the tree. Through it all, do your best to stay in touch with a sense of holiday joy.

 

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.

High Holy Days: Interfaith Connections

Over the past seven years, in some of my over 300 posts, 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, we have the great fortune to have annual High Holy Day services led by Rabbi Harold White, a rabbi who spent 40 years in a Jesuit environment at Georgetown University. Recently, he shared some 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 still essential experiential education for any family connected to Judaism. For Jews, having the support of a partner in these days of deep reflection and soul-searching, of repentance and renewal, provides deep 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 @beingboth.