On This Pandemic Solstice (and Yalda Night)

Author Susan Katz Miller, circa 1969.

And so we reach the darkest and shortest day of the year, at the close of a very long, dark year.

In this moment, how do we carry on? As winter descends, our traditions point us to flames, lanterns, sparkles, candles, moonlight, stars. We crave light; we create light. We gather like the first wolves that dared to approach the edge of a prehistoric campfire. Did those wolves stop to ponder why humans build fires? Did they struggle over whether or not to approve our campfire liturgies–the stories or songs we sing? Of course not. Just so, we humans can share wonder and a sense of peace when transfixed by the light of a menorah, of flames reflecting off tinsel, of an electric star perched on a cliff over a little town, of a blazing Yule log in a hearth–whether or not we claim these rituals as our own. Allowing ourselves to feel calm or delight or awe does not require a common language or theology.

The winter solstice is a moment we experience together as denizens of the northern hemisphere. You may see the solstice as a simple scientific fact–without need for supernatural belief of any kind. Or you may embrace the solstice as the inspiration for rituals that date back to the earliest gatherings of humankind. Whether our celebrations are indigenous, Pagan, Abrahamic, Dharmic, or purely astronomical, we gather in the darkness to reassure ourselves that we have each other, and that the light will return.

When my children were in preschool, the very wise teachers left religious celebrations to the families to explain or celebrate at home. They understood that school or government-sponsored Santas would exclude some children. Instead, they created gorgeous paper lanterns with the children in December, and then led a solemn winter solstice parade through town, culminating in hot cocoa. The celebration was secular, and yet profoundly moving. The children learned something of the science of the earth and sun, rotation and axis, but also, the universal human impulse to create warmth and light (and taste sweetness) in darkness.

Just days ago, on Hanukkah, I found myself wrapped in a blanket, gathered around a firepit, in the backyard of a friend who recently welcomed two Afghan refugees into her home. Our guests had never experienced Hanukkah before. We lit the candles, said a blessing, and sang the song about “kindling new the holy lamps,” culminating in these lyrics:

Yours the message cheering, that the time is nearing, which will see, all set free, tyrants disappearing.

For people who had just fled the Taliban, the theme of freedom clearly resonated. But Hanukkah has several intertwined themes, and so I mentioned how the timing of this holiday reenforced the theme of light in the darkness for those in the northern hemisphere, connecting Hanukkah with Diwali, Christmas, Yule.

Hanukkah 2021, photo Susan Katz Miller

One of our new Afghan friends immediately saw and explained the connection to the solstice celebration of Yalda Night (also known as Chelle Night) in Persian communities–including in Iran, Afghanistan, the Iranian diaspora in southern California, and now, of course, Afghan refugee communities in a new diaspora. Yalda Night predates Islam, and is tied to the birth of the Zoroastrian sun god, Mithra.

In Persian cultures today, people of all religions celebrate Yalda Night with traditions including staying up all night, reading the Persian poetry of Hafez, and eating pomegranates, watermelon, and charming cakes shaped like watermelon. The red color is thought to represent life blood and the red of dawn. Tonight, our new friends will celebrate their first American Yalda Night around a firepit in Maryland, in a household of Muslims, Jews, Christians, and atheists.

I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness the astonishing light of your own being. –14th-century Persian poet Hafez

We wait for the light, for spring, for relief from this tenacious virus, for the ability to travel and gather without fear, for tyrants to disappear. As we wait, we reach for poetry, song, sweets, and fire, to sustain us. And we reach for each other, even if it must be in masks, even if it must be at a safe distance, like wolves wary and skittish at the outer edge of the campfire.

Tonight is the solstice. Feel the warmth of the fire. The sun will return.

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.

Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and the Flood of 1942

Vintage postcard depicting our temple

On the first night of Hanukkah, I returned from my ancestral homeland, Honesdale, PA. This town, where my great-great grandparents are buried, lies in a deep valley in the foothills of the Poconos, at the confluence of the Lackawaxen River and Dyberry Creek. In Honesdale, we gather together from across the country every Thanksgiving. And on the night after Thanksgiving this year, we arrived at our teeny tiny ancestral temple for Shabbat prayers with my extended family, a mixed multitude of Jews and Christians and blood relatives and relatives-by-choice. This year, my young cousin Elizabeth led the prayers in the sanctuary where my father became a Bar Mitzvah.

Throughout our history, since my great-grandfather helped found Beth Israel congregation in 1849, we have often led services ourselves. Some weeks, in some years, rabbis drive over from New York City to lead Shabbat for us, but my family has been leading prayers on Fridays at our temple through four generations now. This week my cousin Liza, the current president of the congregation, arrived early and lit the electric yahrzeit (memorial) lights next to the names of all our family members–including my father and my (Episcopalian) mother–lighting up half the yarhrzeit plaques in the room. Once, this temple was thought to be the smallest in the world. We are small but historic, proud and persistent–the second-oldest synagogue in the country still occupied by the original congregation.

Earlier that day, I sat in the living room of the house my grandfather built for my grandmother in 1922, and listened as my son recorded his grandfather’s sister–still sharp and witty at 94–on his iPhone. Aunt Corinne told the story of the flood of 1942, when she was 14. It was a Friday night, and she went to temple with my grandparents and her little sister for the informal lay-led Shabbat prayers. Keep in mind that the temple is perched directly on the riverbank, just blocks downstream from the point where the Dyberry flows into the Lackawaxen.

No photo description available.
1941, The Swing Seven, Bill Katz (age 16) at the piano

Typically, in the 1930s and 40s, in winter, after 20 minutes of Shabbat prayers the whole congregation would go over to Honesdale High School for the weekly basketball game. My father’s band, The Swing Seven, would play for the dance after the game. But by 1942, my father had graduated and gone off to MIT. And it was May, not basketball season, and the waters were rising, so they all hurried home after the prayers, to the house ten blocks upstream, on Dyberry Creek.

At that point my grandfather, as he had before in past floods, somehow hoisted the Steinway grand piano up onto stacks of books, hoping to keep it above the water rising from the floorboards. My grandmother and aunts retreated to the second floor. But then, my grandmother realized her children might get hungry, and went back down to the kitchen to get them some bread from the pantry. As she entered the pantry, the waters whooshed the door closed behind her, and almost trapped her. But she was a very small person (we are a family of small people) and she was able to squeeze out and slosh her way back upstairs. Late that night, the floodwaters on the Lackawaxen peaked at 50,000 cubic feet per second, killing 26 people and destroying 75 homes in Honesdale. The flood washed out every bridge in town, as well as the prized 1933 stained glass windows in the temple.

At the house of my grandparents, my aunt watched from the landing of the stairs as the grand piano rose up and turtled, floating upside down in six feet of water in the living room. The next day, from the safety of the roof, she saw a rowboat glide down her street, with a neighbor distributing bread to those trapped on rooftops. And she saw planes buzzing overhead, photographing the flood from the air.

The phone lines were out, and no one could reach my father with news they were safe. Several states away, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, an MIT classmate asked him, “Hey Katz! What’s the name again of your little town in Pennsylvania again?” My father replied, “Honesdale!” And his classmate said, “Well it’s flooded and it’s on the front page of the paper. Look at this photo!”

When the waters subsided, and the phones finally got reconnected, my grandfather called Steinway to report four grand pianos owned by different family members in town, all submerged in the Honesdale flood. Steinway declared them beyond repair, and my grandparents began a search for a new piano. As my aunt recounted this story, sitting in the living room of her childhood home, we all looked over at the replacement Steinway. The temple made the practical decision to replace the destroyed stained glass windows with plain glass. My aunts got sent away to a relative in the countryside for weeks while my grandparents cleaned and repaired the house. And eventually two dams were built–on the Lackawaxen and the Dyberry–to prevent another deadly flood.

I realized this week, in that temple sanctuary, and in the living room of the house of my grandparents, and at the Thanksgiving meal where we entertained ourselves with a fashion parade of Katz pajamas, that we were taking risks this year. Last year, we did not gather at all. This year, we made a fraught decision to gather in spite of the pandemic, fully vaccinated and with testing and masks, because one can only go so long without family. Each year is precious, because each year we remember together the new marriages and deaths, and listen to stories from our elders, stories that may be lost.

This year, because of the alignment of the sun and moon and the secular calendar, we just missed celebrating Hanukkah together. By the time Hanukkah arrived on Sunday night, we had all gone home–to San Francisco, New York, Boston, and Washington DC. As I lit the first candle in our window, alone with my husband and our pandemic puppy, I thought about miracles.

I thought about the connections between the Hanukkah miracle of light in the darkness, of the miracle of tenacity in hostile environments, of escape from narrow places, of self-sufficiency, of adversity as the mother of innovation, of physical and emotional repair. I thought about the miracle of diversity that enriches our given and chosen interfaith families. And I thought about how objects become imbued with history, with spiritual resonance. Sometimes a Steinway is lost, and we feel desperate to replace it. Sometimes stained glass windows are lost, and plain glass just makes more sense. Sometimes a temple is ransacked, and all it takes is a little oil to persist with rituals that heal and bind.

I have trouble letting go of the stories from each generation, the objects left behind. And that is how I found myself yesterday driving away from Honesdale, over the mountains, in a car filled with a rotary telephone, a hatbox, vintage Pyrex, embroidered linens, and photographs, desperate to preserve family history from the floodwaters of time. Inevitably I know that some precious objects, and some stories, will be lost, and some will be passed down. And I feel a sense of gratitude that my son wanted both my aunt’s words recorded on his iPhone, and that rusted enamel colander with the missing handle.

This year’s first night of Hanukkah, photo Susan Katz Miller

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.

Yes, We Celebrate Both (Hanukkah and Christmas)

Photo by Susan Katz Miller

And so we reach that most reductive time of the year, when the choices of Jewish and Christian interfaith families are judged by whether they celebrate Hanukkah, or Christmas, or both, or neither.

In my opinion, this is a poor method for understanding the textured and nuanced lives of interfaith families. To take just one example of our complexity, many “we are Jewish, period” families celebrate Christmas as a sort of cultural exception (in a secular way, or, say, with Christian grandparents). So, the choices an interfaith family makes around “winter holidays” provide only very limited insight into the spirituality, beliefs, practices, and identities of the various family members.

This year (as in every year), a number of families with one Jewish parent and one parent raised Christian are making emphatic statements about why they do not celebrate Christmas. What troubles me about these statements is not the choice these interfaith families made–it’s a choice that works for some families. What troubles me is the erasure of the spouse who is not Jewish, whose journey and feelings are rarely acknowledged by Jewish writers in the Jewish press.

One such essay this season is entitled “No, We Don’t Celebrate Both.” I take this headline as a sort of tribute, in that “doing both” is becoming a more familiar concept in our culture. In this essay, a Jewish mother rejects the label “interfaith family” (and also the label “interracial family”), detailing why she and her husband (who is Black) consider themselves only a Jewish family, and do not celebrate Christmas. She uses the familiar “we are celebrating someone else’s birthday” metaphor to explain to her children why, in spite of this decision, they bring Christmas presents to her husband’s Christian family. But she does not mention how or why she and her husband negotiated this choice, or the current religious or secular identity of her husband, who grew up Christian, and who seems to have no presence or voice in the essay.

And in the new animated short film “Blewish,” the protagonist is a boy with a Jewish mother and a Black father (a father who presumably was not raised Jewish, although we have no idea how he was raised, and of course multigenerational Black Jewish families exist). The boy faces a teacher and classmates who assume he celebrates Christmas, and white Jewish children who do not accept him as Jewish because he is Black, initiating a brief identity crisis. The six-minute film’s creator is himself the child of a Jewish mother and a Black father, and grew up in Conservative Judaism.

I love that adult interfaith children are using their voices and creating art and commentary. “Blewish” begins to fill a significant gap, in depicting the experiences of Black and Jewish children from their own perspective rather than from the parents’ perspective. But once again, the Black father’s religious identity (or even cultural identity) is not represented in the film. Is he an atheist? A convert to Judaism? A practicing Protestant? In Jewish media, and art, the parent of another religious heritage too often remains silent. (Ironically, this is a silent animated film, so everyone remains silent). But my point is that the perspective in this film, like so much written for interfaith kids, is very firmly that of a Jewish family member, minimizing the input or representation of any immediate or extended family members who practice another religion.

One must note how often these stories come to us from families with a Jewish mother–families who feel secure claiming Judaism for children who are “matrilineal” in their Jewishness. The authors of these stories may not be able to fully empathize with the more complex issues facing “patrilineal” Jewish families. All of us with interfaith heritage face the exhausting push and pull of two kinds of statements from society: “You’re Not Jewish Enough,” and “You’re Not Really Jewish.” But the calculus of what to do with this unsolicited advice, with these aggressions from inside and outside the Jewish world, plays out differently for matrilineal and patrilineal interfaith Jewish children.

For two decades now, I have been working to increase awareness of the diversity of interfaith families, and of the right for families to choose the practices and identities that work best for them. My second book, The Interfaith Families Journal, is devoted to helping families through this process, whether that means no Christmas, a secular Christmas, or heralding the Christmas angels.

Of these pathways, doing both Hanukkah and Christmas, and being both Jewish and Christian, is a demographically significant choice. A recent study of Jewish Chicago found 21% of interfaith families with one Jewish parent raising children in two religions. In my opinion, this is an underestimate, given that the sampling drew heavily from mailing lists connected to Jewish institutions. (Other studies have found the percentage of interfaith families with one Jewish parent raising kids with both religions to be 44% in Toronto,  46% in western Massachusetts, and 34% in Minnesota’s Twin Cities).

Nevertheless, the annual Hanukkah/Christmas skirmish triggers a defensive backlash from people who don’t approve of interfaith marriage, or don’t approve of choosing both. The wildest year involved a Jewish writer comparing me to a Barbie doll dressed as a “fancy-hot-pants prostitute.” Go figure.

We are facing another long, dark winter of trying pandemic times. Let us all strive to be gentle with one another, and find ways to bring light, whether that is the light of Diwali, Hanukkah, Christmas, Yule, or all of them. And let us all work to channel empathy for other interfaith families, and the choices they make.

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.

An Interfaith Halloween, All Saints, All Souls

Fall Maple Leaves, photo by Susan Katz Miller

I am reposting this 2009 essay on how our interfaith families community celebrates this season, in dedication to Rabbi Harold White, may his memory be a blessing.

On Halloween, I was out late partying with people dressed variously as a dying newspaper, Facebook (the culprit), Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. On Sunday morning, I woke up, shook off my candy hangover, and went to celebrate All Saints and All Souls Days with our interfaith community.

Halloween is a quintessential interfaith holiday, with a tangled history of both pagan and Christian roots, and an enthusiastic following among Jews. When I was growing up, it was widely considered a secular holiday, celebrated in the public schools, and no one questioned that American Jews should celebrate Halloween. But then again, it was an era when many Jews celebrated secular Christmas.

More recently, fear of assimilation and a return to deeper Jewish practice triggered a lively debate on whether or not Jews should celebrate Halloween at all. As an interfaith family and community, our thirst for full educational disclosure drives us to explore the religious origins and meaning of the holiday, rather than staying on the secularized, commercial surface. And thinking about the history of this interfaith holiday, and even developing a specifically Jewish perspective on Halloween, enlivens and enriches the holiday, and imbues it with special resonance for interfaith families.

The Spiritual Leader of our interfaith community, Reverend Julia Jarvis, stood in front of the hundreds of members of our community on Sunday morning and explained the pagan origins of Halloween, and how a Roman Pope encouraged the incorporation of this pre-Christian festival into the Catholic calendar, and the distinctions between All Saints and All Souls Days. A Catholic member of our group, married to a Jew, recounted with wise humor how praying to Saint Gerard, patron saint of motherhood, gave her comfort and strength when she was facing infertility.

Next, our Spiritual Advisor, Rabbi Harold White, stepped up to give a Jewish perspective on All Souls and All Saints. He made the distinction between the Christian veneration of dead saints, and the mystical Jewish tradition of the 36 righteous people (Lamed Vav Tzadikim), akin to living Jewish saints, who walk the earth in each era. He also compared the restless souls of Halloween to the dybukkim of Jewish folklore: I imagine the Christian and Jewish spirits roaming together among the living, neither of them able to settle into their graves.

Then our folk band lead us in singing  Mi Sheberach, a prayer of healing, while community members placed rocks into a bowl in remembrance of their personal saints, or loved ones who struggle or are gone from us. This is a ritual our community adapted from Unitarian congregations, but by singing a traditional Hebrew prayer, we both comfort our Jewish members with a familiar song and help to create a connection in our children to Jewish practice.

So what did our interfaith community take away from our All Saints and All Souls gathering? The sizable contingent of adult atheists and secularists in our community enjoyed the cerebral and historical perspective. The practicing Catholics appreciated recognition of the spiritual side of these holidays, so often overshadowed by pumpkins and chocolate. Children heard an affectionate reflection on saints from a Catholic parent. They learned from our rabbi that this is a Christian holiday, but that Jews can have a respectful and appreciative perspective on it. And they learned about the Jewish tradition of the 36 righteous, and about dybbukim.

We mourned and provided comfort to each other as a community. And then, to emphasize the continuity of life even in the face of death, the band struck up a rowdy rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Community members leapt into the aisle and joined hands to dance in a line that wove around the room: it was a joyful interfaith hora, New Orleans style. My 12-year-old son darted from his place in the band and joined the dancers, playing a djembe strapped to his chest. I am betting that he will remember that there is more to Halloween than candy, and that he will feel in his bones that belonging to an interfaith community can be both a cerebral and ecstatic experience.

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.

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.

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