My (Interfaith) Decade, 2010-2019

Brittany Coast. Photo by Susan Katz Miller

This was a big decade for me. Both personally and professionally, the past ten years have featured dizzying highs and devastating lows, interwoven achievements and heartbreak. I am, frankly, exhausted just thinking back on it. And yet, it seems important to do just that–to try to gain perspective and a sure footing as I gaze out at the horizon of the next decade.

I have been laid low. I experienced more personal loss in this decade than in my whole previous half-century. The big, gorgeous, three-generation interfaith family I depicted in my first book, Being Both, changed dramatically. I lost my father, my mother, and my mother-in-law. I lost my teenage nephew. My husband and I each had to empty and sell multigenerational family homes, severing ties to two formative places in our entwined family history. And this year, we lost our 17-year-old dog.

And yet I wrote, and spoke, and advocated. Somehow, in this same decade, my experience as a journalist on three continents, and my lifetime in an interfaith family, all culminated in a new body of work. I felt called to document interfaith family life, and to speak up and speak out to defend the full diversity of our experiences. In this spirit, I published two books, including The Interfaith Family Journal this year, and ten years worth of essays (368 of them) on this blog. I published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and a dozen other media outlets. I was invited to speak in more than 30 cities in more than 15 different states and countries. And I founded the Network of Interfaith Family Groups, a national support hub for interfaith families celebrating two or more religions.

This work, making space for interfaith families, has often felt risky. I have received threats from organizations and individuals, and nasty attacks in the press. I have had people refuse to share a stage with me. At least one brave non-profit lost a funder because they invited me to speak. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that all of this tsuris (Yiddish for troubles) is over families that insist on loving across boundaries.

At the same time, this work continues to feel essential. And the work is not done. Interfaith families around the world are still in danger. Interfaith families in the US still face exclusion, misunderstanding, and intolerance. Meanwhile, many of us, interfaith and monofaith, are reevaluating traditional religious systems and institutions, seeking meaningful connections to carry forward.

I do see progress. After a decade of writing and speaking about the joys of being part of an interfaith family, about embracing each other, and about the benefits of interfaith education for all adults and children, I see these ideas catching on. Or at least they are now deemed worthy of debate. I see this progress in the Jewish institutional world, and in other religious, spiritual and humanist contexts.

And I do have hope. I see interfaith families inspiring and innovating new ways of being religious, spiritual, and humanist, going forward. In this decade, I have witnessed interfaith families coming together to create our own communities, use our own voices, and tell our own stories. As we begin to take on leadership roles in religious, spiritual, and secular arenas, it will become harder to talk about us, without us. May the skills and insights we have gained living as interfaith families benefit everyone, in all of our cultures, in all of our countries, as together we navigate 2020 and beyond.

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.

Book Review: Darius the Great is Not Okay

We need to listen to the voices of kids from all sorts of interfaith families, not just Jewish and Christian families. Darius the Great is Not Okay, by Adib Khorram, is a poignant, lyrical, hilarious novel, with an unforgettable protagonist from a complex interfaith family. This award-winning 2018 Young Adult (YA) novel stars Darius Kellner, an American teenager who happens to have a Persian-American Zoroastrian mother, and a European-American secular humanist father. The novel centers on a summer when Darius goes for an extended visit with his grandparents in Iran. While there, he meets a boy who happens to be Baha’i.

Darius may seem, on some levels, like a universal YA protagonist: awkward, insecure, and struggling with the feeling that he is disappointing his parents. He’s a nerd who loves Star Trek and Tolkien, and hates gym class. As the plot progresses, he faces some of his demons and bullies, comes to understand his flawed parents better, and grows into a more confident young man.

But this coming-of-age narrative stands out for multiple reasons. The author, who himself experienced clinical depression as a teen, creates a nuanced portrait of a teen with inherited depression who benefits from anti-depressants. His depiction of Darius as he begins to realize he is attracted to another young man is subtle and poetic. And the exploration of Iranian religions and culture is compelling, especially to those of us who are religious history nerds.

Most relevant here, Darius will fascinate anyone who is an interfaith kid. The novel, while absolutely unique, echoes some of the themes of previous YA books with protagonists from interfaith families, going all the way back to Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret (1970), up through the more recent books My Basmati Bar Mitzvah, and Mira in the Present Tense and including the brand new All American Muslim Girl. But the closest parallel may be found in prize-winning poet Naomi Shihab Nye’s Habibi. As in Darius, the protagonist of Habibi is a US-born teen with one European-American parent and one immigrant parent, who goes abroad to stay with grandparents, explores cultural and religious heritage, and makes a close friend of another religion. (In the case of Habibi, a teenage girl goes to stay with her Palestinian Muslim grandmother, and meets a nice Jewish boy).

Whether we grow up in Jewish/Christian, Muslim/Christian, or Zoroastrian/atheist families, interfaith kids share some common experiences. Darius describes himself as a “Fractional Persian.” He worries about whether he is Persian enough. He wonders whether he has the right to claim a Persian identity in Iran while feeling marked by his Persian identity back in the U.S. And he feels cut off from claiming Zoroastrianism because it is patrilinial (a barrier familiar to interfaith kids from other religions with gender-based inheritance traditions, including Judaism and Islam).

Darius also expresses a longing for unity across religious boundaries, and an attraction to learning about religious history, qualities many interfaith kids in my research share. He fondly notes the social solidarity of Persians in exile, who “celebrated Nowruz and Chaharshanbeh Suri together in big parties, Baha’is and Muslims and Jews and Christians and Zoroastrians…” And while in Iran, he speaks to the beauty of the muezzin’s call to prayer, the wonder of the Assyrian statues in Persepolis, and the power of the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence. Darius may identify with his father’s secular humanism, but he is also deeply engaged with his own complex religious heritage, and the religious landscape around him.

Last month, news broke that Darius the Great is Not Okay will become a film. And fans are eagerly awaiting a sequel novel due out in the fall: Darius the Great Deserves Better. A lot of the excitement around the sequel has focused on Darius’s coming out journey (Korram tweeted that one of the titles they considered for the sequel was Darius the Great is Not Straight). But I hope the film, and the sequel, also make space for Darius to contemplate his complex spiritual and cultural identity, as part of an extended interfaith family.

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.

The Interfaith Family Journal. Wait, What Is It Again?

So I recently ran into a friend at a party who asked me, “Didn’t you publish a calendar or something this year? Based on your first book?”

I tried to be very calm in replying. Note: words in parentheses are words I was thinking but did not say.

“(Dude!!!!) it’s not a (flipping) calendar, it’s a (completely awesome) interactive journal, or workbook. (And by the way, I put my heart and soul into creating it).. And it’s not based on my first book, (which is a chronicle of interfaith families doing both). The Interfaith Family Journal  is a resource (filled with entirely new content) for anyone and everyone, whether or not they practice any religion, and no matter which religions or how many religions they practice.”

In this awkward social moment, I realized, once again, that it is not immediately obvious what the Journal is, who it is for, or what it can do for you. So I thought I’d write down some thoughts on how individuals, couples, and communities can use the Journal.

ON YOUR OWN

Any individual person, married or partnered or single, LGBTQ+ or straight, of any culture or religion, whether or not they are a parent, whether or not they grew up in an interfaith family, can use the Journal on their own. It is designed to deepen your understanding of your relationship with your formative religious or spiritual or secular experiences as a child and adult, and your dreams for the future. So indulge your-journaling-self and buy a copy!

For therapists, clergy, and religious leaders, and those considering religious leadership, working through the Journal supports the process of self-discovery and discernment. And the Journal is an essential tool for therapists and religious leaders as they counsel interfaith couples and their extended family members, including jittery parents of brides and grooms. So give a gift copy to the therapists or religious leaders in your life.

WITH A PARTNER OR PARTNERS

For those in relationships, the Journal provides a safe and supportive, intimate and private way to work through ways to engage with each other’s religious heritages and experiences (good and bad) and families, to figure out what to celebrate and when and where and how, and to explore different religious, spiritual, or secular pathways together. The Journal does not promote a particular pathway, but instead inspires deep conversation on how to be your own happiest and strongest interfaith family.

An engaged or married or partnered couple or group can best benefit by each having their own copy of the Journal, and meeting weekly (or on your own schedule) to swap Journals and read and reflect on your responses together. Your Journal partner could also be a child old enough to want to engage in questions of religion and spirituality, or a beloved friend or mentor, especially one who is helping you to raise a child.

IN COMMUNITY

A group of people and families may want to meet together, book-club style, on a weekly basis over a period of five weeks to engage together with the questions raised in the Journal, share experiences and resources, and support each other. How did you mark life cycle transitions in your family? Do you want to invite family elders to be religious or spiritual or cultural teachers for your children? Which family traditions do you want to pass down, and which ones do you want to leave behind?

If you are a religious leader or religious educator, organize a course or workshop for your community around using the Journal. Or, anyone can invite a few other interfaith couples or families to join in a five-week meet-up to go through the chapters together. You can even include children—there are downloadable coloring pages at interfaithfamilyjournal.com, and the Journal describes other creative activities for children to help with, such as drawing illustrations for your own Interfaith Family Cookbook. (You could share those family recipes at the meet-ups).

It could also be inspiring to use the Journal for community-building, with a group of neighbors who may span cultural, racial, and/or socioeconomic barriers. Imagine creating an Interfaith Neighborhood Cookbook! You don’t have to think of yourself as an interfaith family in order to benefit from the prompts and exercises in the Journal.

NEXT UP: Join me this Sunday at the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington DC as we welcome Chicago filmmaker David Kovacs, a founder of the Chicago Interfaith Family School, and see excerpts from his interfaith families film Leaps of Faiths.

On November 3rd, I’ll be facilitating the first of a two-part Interfaith Couples Workshop at the Interfaith Families Project in DC. A rare opportunity to get support from a minister, a Catholic priest, a rabbi, and me, live and in-person. Sign up now!

And, join me in Chicago for a book talk and signing on November 10th. Free and open to all.

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).

Book Review: Dessert First

We need people from interfaith families to write a whole list of books–on love, birth, coming of age, aging together–written from diverse religious, spiritual and secular perspectives. So I am thrilled that J. Dana Trent is on her way to producing an entire canon from her perspective as a Baptist minister married to a Hindu. Her first book, Saffron Cross: The Unlikely Story of How a Christian Minister Married a Hindu Monk, described her interfaith courtship and marriage with humor and humility. Her latest book, Dessert First: Preparing for Death While Savoring Life, brings those same attractive qualities to writing about the idea that we are “all terminal.”

Trent has abundant experience with death. She spent a formative year as a hospital “death chaplain,” sitting with dying patients, and with grieving families. She has been, at a relatively early age, through the deaths of her father, her mother, and her father-in-law. And she has experienced both the death of a parent with whom she had a distant and troubled relationship, and the death of a parent with whom she had an extraordinarily close relationship.

There are many self-help books out there about grief. Trent’s book stands out, not only because of the interfaith family angle, but because her irrepressible wit leavens the inevitable pain and turmoil surrounding death. For instance, she describes trying to fill out the necessary paperwork and plan a funeral in the first days after a death as ” like assembling IKEA furniture in a wind tunnel.” Having recently been through the death of both my parents, I found this to be a very apt, and funny, metaphor.

Dessert First was clearly written by a Christian living in the Bible belt. So, Trent spends significant time thinking about–and writing about–the afterlife, heaven, and the way that Christians do, or do not, navigate these ideas as death approaches. More interesting, for me, were the brief moments describing the interfaithness of her family, and the way this interfaithness has expanded to include the parental generation. So, for instance, we see her Hindu husband chanting into his father’s ear as he lies dying. And we see her mother’s body, after death, with glass Protestant prayer beads in one hand, and wooden Hindu beads wrapped in the other hand. Trent shows, in these glimpses, how her interfaith family is starting to figure out their own way to honor the religion of the deceased, while also honoring the religious rituals of those left behind.

The interfaithness of the book is also reflected in the inspirational quotes at the head of each chapter, including not only Christian texts and theologians but Rabbi Harold Kushner and the Bhagavad Gita. And Trent, who is a professor of world religions, provides a brief synopsis of ideas about the afterlife in Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism. Dessert First also includes guidance on leaving instructions for your own death and funeral or memorial, in a section that complements the material on these topics in The Interfaith Family Journal.

My only significant qualm about this book is that the author expresses a strong preference for hospital deaths, versus home deaths. Trent is from a family of health practitioners (her brother is a doctor, her mother was a nurse) and her own experiences, both as a chaplain, and with her mother, were of hospital deaths. I’m not sure what informed her idea of “the trauma of dying at home.” Both my parents died in home hospice. I found these experiences peaceful and profound, and my only regret is that we did not bring my mother home from the hospital sooner. But inevitably, we each write from our own experiences.

Whether or not you are from an interfaith family, Dessert First makes a cogent case for discussing death early and often, for leaving explicit instructions, and for approaching this essential topic with curiosity and compassion, rather than fear and trembling. This is a slim and attractive book (with sprinkles on the cover!), filled with Trent’s stories and with her bravery in writing about this topic. Dessert First should provide succor, metaphorical balm, and even laughter, to all who read it.

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).

Where Do We Go? Interfaith Families, Fall Decisions

The Interfaith Family Journal

The kids are back in school. The Jewish High Holidays are fast approaching. Are you joining a synagogue? A church? A Unitarian-Universalist congregation? A Buddhist sangha? A Hindu temple? A secular humanist community? All of the above? None of the above?

Are you interested in finding or creating an interfaith families community in your geographic area? Or, are you confident that you can teach your children what you want them to know about their religious heritages, and the religions of the world, at home? Do the schools your children attend teach one religion, or teach about many world religions, or avoid religion entirely? Do you and your partner agree on where you want your children to develop religious literacy and interfaith self-esteem?

Have you visited the communities available in your geographic area that might be a good fit for your family? Are they welcoming to interfaith families? Do the clergy officiate at interfaith life cycle ceremonies? Would they fully accept your children as belonging? Or, are their restrictions on participation?

So many questions! Interfaith families can feel overwhelmed this time of year, or even paralyzed, and may end up putting off decisions for another year.

But this fall, for the first time, help is here. I wrote The Interfaith Family Journal  in part to help you through this process of figuring out which community or communities will be right for your family, at this moment. Whether you want to join one community, ,or two, or several, or none, the Journal will help. Whether you want to raise your children with one of your religions, or both of your religions, or a new religion, or many religions, or with purely secular and cultural education, the Journal will help.

The Interfaith Family Journal  takes you through an interactive process of figuring out what you want, what your partner wants, and what communities are available to you. It gives you a checklist of questions to ask any community you are considering joining, to make sure your interfaith family will be fully included. This is the moment to buy a copy for yourself, and one for your partner (or for your adult children, or grandchildren, or for your favorite therapist or clergy member).

In recent weeks, I have had deeply fulfilling experiences presenting my work on interfaith families in Spokane and Asheville, with groups of young interfaith couples and groups of rabbis, and to an international documentary film crew. Next up, I’m heading to Chicago to speak and to sign books. Let your Chicago friends know!

My intention for this fall is to support as many interfaith families as I possibly can, in every geographic region, whether or not I am able to personally coach them. The Interfaith Family Journal distills my decades of research, personal history, and coaching experience into a slim format to help you through these moments of transition. If it is helpful to you, please let me know, and post a review. Thank you!

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).

Happy 10th, Being Both Blog!

Photo Susan Katz Miller

Happy birthday dear blog!

It has now been exactly a decade since I created this virtual space for interfaith families. Over ten years, I have posted 358 essays here. In that time 184,192 people have visited, and viewed these pages 347,715 times.

I like to think that together we have brought about a virtual global village of people who form families across religious lines. Thousands of people have visited this blog from the US, Canada, UK, India, Australia, South Africa, the Philippines, and Malaysia. Over 1000 people have visited from France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Singapore, Indonesia, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates. And hundreds of visitors have found this community from Sweden, Russia, Pakistan, New Zealand, Ireland, Brazil, Hong Kong, Spain, Nigeria, Turkey, Norway, Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco, Belgium, Switzerland, Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Japan, Bangladesh, Poland, Denmark, Finland, Ghana, Trinidad & Tobago, South Korea, Qatar, Argentina, Romania, Morocco, Sri Lanka, Greece, and Thailand. In short, wherever there are families, there are interfaith families.

In ten years, what has changed? In my own work, I published two books on interfaith families. I spoke about how we can be interfaith educators, ambassadors, bridge-builders and peacemakers, at seminaries, conferences, festivals, universities, churches, and synagogues, around the country. I created the Network of Interfaith Family Groups to connect families of any or all religions “doing both” wherever they live. I helped inspire a lively Muslim/Christian interfaith families group (and welcomed the creation of a Muslim/Jewish group as well). And I began coaching interfaith couples online, as well as leading workshops for interfaith families, clergy, and religious educators.

This decade saw the publication of many other important new books in our nascent field, including those on the history of interfaith marriage in the US, on global multiple religious practice, on the different ways people come to be multiple religious practitioners, on how Jewish and Christian interfaith families choose to practice in the US, on what it is like being a rabbi married to a Catholic, on what it is like being a minister married to a Hindu, and on the inclusion of interfaith families in the American Jewish community.

In the Jewish world, one of the most significant changes for interfaith families was the decision of the fourth-largest movement, Reconstructing Judaism, to decide to accept, and ordain, rabbinical students in interfaith relationships. And in the Conservative movement, we are beginning to see a strong challenge from within, led by rabbis and congregants, to the policy forbidding Conservative rabbis from officiating at interfaith marriages.

Meanwhile, in this decade, a dramatic decline in American (and European) religious affiliation (and increase in “religious nones”) has encouraged many Christian denominations and other religious leaders to finally engage with the reality of interfaith families and the growth of multiple religious practice. These demographics also mean more of my work has been with families spanning religious and humanist/agnostic/atheist identities. And we have moved in this decade beyond the dominant Christian/Jewish interfaith family discourse, to engage with interfaith families with Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Pagan, African diasporic, and indigenous religious affiliations, among others. That’s why my new book, The Interfaith Family Journal , was designed to support people of any religion, all religions, or no religions.

Around the world, we still see, far too often, religious intolerance and misunderstanding leading to violence, including violent attacks on interfaith couples and families. And there are still far too many countries where religious authorities control the right to marriage (and burial), marginalizing or effectively prohibiting interfaith families (and LGBTQ+ relationships). We still have work to do to raise awareness, protect each other, and to see that love prevails over hate.

Sometimes in our cosmopolitan American and European cities, it feels like traditional religious identities are fading away, and perhaps interfaith families no longer need support, or my calls for new research and activism. But then, I get an email from a young couple—for instance, a Hindu dating a Catholic. They are seeking out a more neutral advisor, or a more positive outlook, as they struggle with society and extended family. And I realize, once again, how much I am learning from this couple–about their hopes and dreams–while simultaneously helping them. I realize, once again, that they have the potential to go beyond being okay. Through their relationship they can bring inspiration and interfaith education to their extended families and their communities, and to the world.

And then I think, maybe I will go ahead and keep blogging for one more decade?

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).