It has been a freezing winter, with everything cased in ice, still waiting for a thaw. Meanwhile, my longtime followers may have noticed that my blog has been in hibernation. After almost a decade of posting, and more than 300 essays on the topic of interfaith families, I have been sluggish in writing new material here. Instead, I curled up in my den, trying to keep warm through seasons of family grief, and dark times for the country, and the planet.
But now spring is on the way. And, while hibernating, I have been gestating a new book for interfaith families. Now that I have submitted the manuscript, and the sun is returning, and grief is receding, I will return to posting more often here. In the meantime, you can always find my curated links for interfaith families on my facebook author page, and on twitter.
The percentage of interfaith families continues to grow, and there is still a serious lack of informed and impartial books and resources by, for, and about us. Before 2018 ends, if all goes according to plan, my new book will reach you, providing support and inspiration for all interfaith families, whether Protestant and atheist, Muslim and Jewish, Hindu and Unitarian-Universalist, Pagan and Catholic. And I am already booking a new round of speaking engagements and workshops for next fall and winter, so that we can continue these conversations in person. So, stay in touch here for more details, as we awake, stretch, and stumble out into the spring light together.
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.
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.
How do we educate interfaith children about the various religions in the family tree? These days, a child may have a Jewish father, Hindu mother, Buddhist uncle, and Christian step-grandparent. Such children benefit deeply from understanding the religions they encounter at home and at family gatherings. And many interfaith parents are on the lookout for supportive tools for interfaith education.
PJ Library, a program providing free Jewish children’s books, turns out to be a great educational resource for any family with Jewish heritage. Created by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation in 2005, PJ Library has now delivered more than 10 million free Jewish children’s books to homes in the US and Canada, with 88 new book titles each year. And a survey of PJ Library subscribers, released in May of this year, found that 42% of the families in the program had a family member who did not grow up Jewish. “I think it’s a very welcoming program,” explains Foundation president Winnie Sandler Grinspoon. “The books we select and the reading guides that are part of the book flap are accessible to any family.”
The PJ Library survey sought to measure, among other things, the Jewish engagement of subscribers. The first marker of engagement was whether a family is raising children as either “Jewish or Jewish and something else.” The second marker was whether parents “believe it is very important that their children identify as all or partially Jewish.”
It is encouraging that a major Jewish funder such as PJ Library understands that families providing interfaith education to interfaith children are engaged with Judaism. The program does not screen out families based on how they should engage with Judaism, or whether or not they are exclusively or “authentically” Jewish. PJ Library’s approach is inclusive, and I hope that other Jewish funders and institutions will begin to appreciate that many of the families providing interfaith education to interfaith children are serious about engaging with Judaism, even if this engagement is not exclusive.
But I was also curious about how many interfaith family subscribers identify as Jewish only, and how many identify as “Jewish and…” So I asked, and PJ Library went back to their survey data and provided me with this rather stunning breakdown: 50 percent of interfaith families in the survey were raising children “Jewish and something else,” while 45 percent were raising children Jewish only.
So, fully half of the interfaith families surveyed were raising kids “doing both.” This is important for a number of reasons. For one, Pew Research in 2013 found 25% raising kids “Jewish and…” So the question is why, just four years later, PJ Library found double that percentage. One reason could be a large increase in interfaith families choosing interfaith education. Another reason could be that families choosing interfaith education are finding their way in large numbers to the very welcoming PJ Library program in order to access Jewish content for their children. And this, in turn, may be related to the fact that some other Jewish institutions (notably, many synagogues) exclude children who are “doing both.” I suspect all of these factors may be contributing to the large number of “Jewish and” families subscribing to PJ Library.
In order to better understanding how and why the program works for families raising kids “Jewish and something else,” I spoke to two locals mothers who subscribe to PJ Library. Lis Maring is Jewish, and her husband was raised Lutheran. They are educating their boys, ages 8 and 13, in both religions as members of the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington DC. The Maring family has spent time in India, and their shelves include books on Christmas and Easter, but also on Hindu deities.
Lis Maring signed up for PJ Library several years ago, and says she “highly recommends” the program. Both the Jewish and the Christian grandparents have enjoyed reading the books to the boys. Says Lis, “The books call attention to Jewish holidays I might not be paying attention to, and that helps me. They’re always fun and engaging stories. And they often have a social justice theme to them.”
Lindsay Bartley was raised Episcopalian, and her husband is Jewish. They have two boys, ages three and one, and are also raising them with both religions. They have been PJ Library subscribers for nine months now. “What I like is that when you go to stores, it’s easy to find Christian holiday books. It’s mainstream. But Jewish books are harder to find,” says Lindsay. “If we didn’t get the PJ Library books, we would definitely have more Christian books.”
A handful of PJ Library books have featured interfaith families. But both Lis and Lindsay note that they are seeking Jewish content from the program, not affirmation of their family choices. They are not concerned with seeing more interfaith families represented in the books, as long as the spirit of the program is inclusive. “I have generally been impressed that the books are not judging or telling you that there’s only one way,” says Lindsay.
PJ Library’s Sandler Grinspoon makes clear that they are happy to send books to “being both” families. “This entire program is for interfaith families, and non-interfaith families, whether it’s the exclusive religion in the home or not” she says. “If your family is looking for tools, and you’re going to present Judaism to your children, whether it’s the only thing you teach them or part of what you teach them, then this is a very easy tool.”
Meanwhile, interfaith parents teaching religions beyond Judaism and Christianity will need to consult librarians or booksellers, and check out #WeNeedDiverseBooks on twitter or Pinterest. Bharat Babies, a children’s book subscription service on Indian culture including both Hindu and Muslim topics, was inspired in part by PJ Library. And Noor Kids creates books on Islam for subscribers. Such programs may well thrive and proliferate as millennial parents, many of them unaffiliated with traditional religious institutions, continue to seek out tools for interfaith education.
As someone who has been labeled a “first class disrupter,” I was of course immediately attracted to the chutzpah of a book entitled, simply, Jew. Published recently as part of the Rutgers University Press series “Key Words in Jewish Studies,” this slim volume by Cynthia M. Baker, a Religious Studies professor at Bates College, is dense with insight, nuance, and helpful frameworks for thinking about the complex histories and meanings of the word Jew, and more broadly, the complex histories and meanings of religion. Jew is not an easy read for the non-academic–I was grateful for my years living with semiotics majors in college, and my acquaintance with the ideas of Foucault and Derrida. But it is an essential read for anyone wrestling with contemporary Jewish ideas about identity, and that includes all of us in interfaith families with Jewish connections.
Faced as we are with an increase in public anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and racist acts in the current political climate, Baker’s elegant analysis of the word Jew (she chooses to italicize it and I will do the same) feels especially timely. Baker traces the evolution of the word through Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Aramaic. She illuminates how the term Jew was central to the “historical creation of Christian identity and worldview.” She delineates how Jew is often synonymous with “the other,” and has only recently been reclaimed as a (“fraught”) self-referential term of pride. She deconstructs the false binary of Jewish-by-religion versus Jewish-by-ethnicity, embedded in colonial and patriarchal Christian theologies. And she tackles the subtle differentiation of Jew and Jewish.
Baker writes of how the identity of Jew inhabits a space where “belonging and alienation, longing and being hover in a delicate–and sometimes indelicate–balance.” And she writes of the “dissolution of standard dichotomies–including us/them, homeland/diaspora, religious/secular, masculine/feminine, even Jew/Gentile…” This space, this balance, this dissolution, will feel profoundly familiar to those of us in interfaith families choosing interfaith education for ourselves and our children.
In her final chapter, entitled “New Jews: A View From the New World,” Baker cites Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family. I am grateful that she acknowledged the significance of the 25% of Jewish parents in interfaith marriages raising children with both family religions. However, she goes on to offset the (mainly positive) experiences documented through surveys of hundreds of parents and children in Being Both, with a single anecdote meant to convey the “often-painful challenges” of embodying multiple identities. For this counter-example, she chooses an individual who is transgender, and whose parents became Orthodox. It hardly seems fair to critique the idea of interfaith education for interfaith children while layering on the complexities of conversion, fundamentalist religious practice, and gender identity. Nevertheless, I am glad we are included in the shade of Baker’s very big tent for this book. And I hope she will return to a deeper investigation of multiple religious practice in interfaith families–of who we are, where we are going, and what it all means.
As someone born into an interfaith family, I am attracted to synergy, hybridity, complexity, and convergence. Lately, I see a moment of convergence approaching, when my progressive Jewish communities and my progressive Christian communities might begin to engage with each other on the topic of interfaith families, multiple religious practice, and complex religious identities. This moment cannot come too soon.
In the Jewish world, conversations about interfaith families have historically taken place as part of a fraught discourse on the threat of “intermarriage” to Jewish continuity and worries about confused children. Meanwhile, a separate but parallel conversation has been occurring, first among Catholic theologians and academics, and more recently in the progressive Protestant world, under the labels of “hybridity” and “multiple religious belonging” (sometimes shortened to MRB). In this literature, there has been a growing realization that multiple religious practice is actually the norm, rather than the exception, in much of Asia, and among many American Indian and other indigenous peoples as a result of colonization, cultural disruption, and diaspora.
Now, a new book of essays published by the World Council of Churches, Many Yet One? Multiple Religious Belonging (edited by Peniel Jesudason Rufus Rajkumar and Joseph Prabhakar Dayam), brings together more than a dozen of these theologians, academics, and clergy, many of them Asian or Asian-American. The academic and theological language here can be dense and at times exhausting for even the most interested general reader (that would be me). For example, I am glad I happened to go to a university that offered a semiotics major, and so had some acquaintance with the work of French postmodern philosopher Jacques Derrida.
And yet, this slim volume is essential reading to those of us from interfaith families and other multiple religious practitioners engaged in defining ourselves, and in creating new spaces in which to do that. These essays describe, explain, and restore the religious plurality and complexity found in whole cultures, and in individuals. In so doing, this book has become my new bible, if you will, because it probes, affirms and illuminates much that is positive about my experience as someone with a complex religious identity.
Some of the essays focus primarily on Christians who become dual-faith practitioners after taking on Buddhist or Hindu practices. Others focus on the dual-faith practice in areas of Asia where this has long been the norm. At least some of the essays mention interfaith families as a source of multiple religious practice. Of course, all the writers here are looking at this topic through a Christian lens (or a “Christian and” hyphenated perspective). But after spending so much time defending interfaith families in the Jewish world, it was intellectually refreshing to be immersed in the world of Christianities.
In reading this book, I penciled in a hail of asterisks and exclamation points on almost every page. I could, should, and still may write a whole post in response to each essay in this volume. For now, I am going to simply cite a list of just some of the phrases that made me so excited about this book:
“Must claims of double-belonging receive communal authorization before they can be recognized as valid?” Rajkumar (World Council of Churches) and Dayam (Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church)
“From my location in a seminary, I encounter increasing numbers of religious leaders and leaders-in-training who embody forms of multiple religious identity or practice.” John Thatamanil, Union Theological Seminary.
“Regardless of the resistance of religious institutions in accepting multiple religious belonging, individuals are finding their way to multiple paths without help or assistance.” Karen Georgia Thompson
“East Asian ‘both-and’ mode of relational thinking such as yin-yang has no problem in logically including dual identities.” Heup Young Kim, Hanshin University.
“…hybridity often functions as a space that allows two or more seemingly contradictory ideas or identities to co-exist without eliminating the distinction between them.” Raj Nadella, Columbia Theological Seminary.
“…hybridity is inherent even in what we may be tempted to categorize as ‘monolithic’ or ‘orthodox’ religious faiths.” Sunder John Boopalan, Princeton Theological Seminary.
“…hybrid entities cannot be understood adequately when viewed through the lens of monoculturality.” Julius-Kei Kato, University of Western Ontario.
The editors, Rajkumar and Dayam, conclude by urging churches to “move beyond tacit obliviousness and engage robustly with the phenomenon of multiple religious belonging.” This book will help Christian communities to do that. But as a bridge-builder, a synthesizer, a complex, hybrid person, I am waiting for the creation of a shared language to communicate with each other across religious boundaries. Specifically, I still wait for the time when my Jewish and my Christian communities figure out how to work together to welcome, engage, and learn from those of us who rejoice in our interfaith identities. I wait for a book like this one, written not with a Jewish lens, or a Christian lens, but by, for, and about those of us with multireligious “both-and” perspectives.
Once upon a time, December holiday books for children focused on either Christmas, or Hanukkah. Now, many children grow up in Jewish families celebrating Christmas with Christian grandparents. Or, they grow up in Christian families celebrating Hanukkah with Jewish grandparents. Or, they grow up in interfaith families celebrating both. Here, I review seven Hanukkah and Christmas books, in order to help you find the right book for your young interfaith children or grandchildren.
1. The first popular book on this topic was probably Light the Lights! A Story About Celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas(ages 3-5), from 1999. This sweet and simple story focuses on a girl participating in both holidays at home, but does not go into the underlying religious meaning of either one. This may be frustrating for parents who want to teach religious literacy, but for young children celebrating one or both of the holidays in a secular fashion, this book is a safe choice.
2. In contrast, I do not recommend My Two Holidays: A Hanukkah and Christmas Story (ages 3-5) from 2010. The boy in this book feels embarrassed in school to admit that he celebrates both holidays. While emotionally dramatic, this plot twist does not ring true in my experience with contemporary interfaith children, and reading it could make children who feel just fine about celebrating both, feel a sense of shame. The author seems to have bought into the (increasingly mythical) “December Dilemma” conflict. Avoid this book.
3. Daddy Christmas and Hanukkah Mama (ages 5-8) from 2012, features jazzy modernist collage illustrations, and a recipe for Cranberry Kugel. The mixed media style echoes the hipster parents in this book, who mix the holidays together in a sort of Chrismukkah mash-up. They hook candy canes on their menorah, and leave latkes out for Santa. If your family does this kind of blending, this is your book. But for families trying to help kids to understand and respect the differences between the two religions, well, this is definitely not your book.
4. Published last year, Eight Candles and a Tree(ages 3-5), follows Sophie as she explains to friend and playmate Tommy that she celebrates Hanukkah and Christmas. Tommy only celebrates Christmas. I appreciated the very gentle tension as Sophie diplomatically answers questions about how and why she celebrates “both.” Sophie explains the miracle of the oil lasting eight nights in the Temple, but both children mention only the more secular aspects of Christmas (the tree, the feast), so this book works for interfaith Jewish families celebrating a secular Christmas at home, as well as families celebrating both religions. This would also be a good pick for young Christian kids curious about a cousin or friend who celebrates both, as they can identify with Tommy.
5. New this season, Nonna’s Hanukkah Surprise (ages 3-8) features the most dramatic and emotionally satisfying plot of any book for interfaith children I have seen. Rachel is flying with her family to spend Hanukkah and Christmas with her father’s Christian family. Rachel is upset when she leaves behind her menorah on the airplane, but her kind Nonna (Italian for grandmother) saves the day by creating a lovely new menorah for her, out of recycled perfume bottles. The Christian cousins gather affectionately around the menorah with Rachel to help her celebrate, modeling bridge-building across the religious divide. The author weaves in some of the meanings of Hanukkah, but the references to Christmas are oblique. This book (from a publisher of books on Judaism) was clearly written for interfaith children being raised Jewish, who celebrate Christmas only with extended family. In fact, it was a recent selection for PJ Library, the free Jewish book program for children. But I recommend it for any interfaith family.
6. The other new book this season is perfect for those who celebrate both holidays, and want to begin to teach their children the underlying meaning of both Hanukkah and Christmas. December’s Gift(ages 3-8) follows Clara as she helps her Bubbe to make latkes, and then helps her Grammy to make Christmas cookies. (The book includes recipes for both, and charming illustrations). Bubbe tells Clara the story of the destruction of the temple and the miracle of the Hanukkah oil. And Grammy teaches Clara how the star-shaped cookies and the star on the tree represent the star that led wise men to the birth of a king. There is no mention of Jesus by name. But for interfaith parents who want to give their interfaith children an interfaith education, this book is an excellent start.
7. Finally, I cannot resist writing about a book I have long imagined—a book that does not exist, yet. One of my very favorite authors, Patricia Polacco, is from an interfaith family, but has yet to write a book about that experience. She has written many Christmas books, and perhaps the two very best children’s books about loving friendships between Jews and Christians (Mrs. Katz and Tush, andThe Trees of the Dancing Goats). A book about an interfaith family from Patricia Polacco is at the top of my holiday fantasy wish list.
Interfaith families celebrating two or more religions are not actually “religious nones.” I sometimes describe my people as religious maximalists instead of religious minimalists. We may be atheists, or agnostics, or mystics, but we are determined to honor all of our religious heritages. Some of us spend double the time and effort on religious study and practice, rather than no time at all.
And yet, those of us with what theologian Duane Bidwell calls “multiple religious bonds” sometimes get swept into the catch-all category of “religious nones.” This happens because surveys do not let us check more than one box, and because researchers don’t really know how to deal with what they see as the theological dissonance of the way we practice and identify. So we get thrown into the “none” bin, with a tremendous variety of other fascinating, religiously complex, fluid and flexible people.
Writer Kaya Oakes paints detailed portraits of some of the people whirling about in this contemporary religious and spiritual kaleidoscope, in her slim yet revealing new book, The Nones Are Alright: A New Generation of Believers, Seekers, and Those in Between(Orbis Books, 2015). Oakes is the author of previous books including a spiritual memoir, and teaches writing at Berkeley: I have long admired her work in the literary online magazine Killing the Buddha. Rather than a dry academic study, she gives us clear and lively prose and even poetic phrases like this one: “…faith is a tidal motion, an ebb and a surge, a push and a pull.”
But the backbone of this book is journalism, which in this case means important qualitative research in an emerging field. Oakes interviews a series of (mainly) millennials who might find themselves in the “religious nones” category for a whole host of reasons. They grew up atheist, or grew disgusted with religious doctrine and became atheist. They continue to practice religion on their own terms while being agnostics, or go to divinity school while doubting the existence of God, or adopt Buddhist meditation alongside other traditions as part of “liminal” religious practice, or remain “believers” but disaffiliate from religious institutions because they cannot live under the doctrines oppressing women and queer people. Oakes describes how many of her subjects are involved in community service and social justice work despite their disaffiliations, and writes, “Lost in the hand-wringing over the rise of nonbelievers are these kind of stories.”
The book is clearly rooted in the author’s own complex, nuanced Catholic perspective–Orbis is the Maryknoll press. For those from other religions, the American Christian orientation is evident in the emphasis on “faith” or “belief.” (For Jews and Buddhists and Hindus and many indigenous peoples, practice and culture often have more weight than litmus tests of belief). And the second half of The Nones Are Alright focuses specifically on interviews with people who have left the Catholic Church, have perhaps rejoined it (“boomerangs”), and then sometimes left again.
But this is also one of the first books to emphasize the important contribution of interfaith families to the complexity of religion in America right now. Oakes cites Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, and writes that future children are “increasingly likely to grow up ‘both/and’.” For instance, her portrait of “Carolyn” reveals how the daughter of a Lutheran mother and Jewish father worked for a mainline Protestant organization, studied in Israel but was alienated by the anti-intermarriage rhetoric there, briefly considered conversion to Judaism, and continues to seek out both Christian and Jewish experiences. She tells Oakes, “This whole idea about you don’t have to fit into a box has been useful and a relief.”
In all, the author gives us a tremendously useful disambiguation of the rich diversity of people caught up in the broad sweep of the nones. Millennials and those who come up behind them are in the midst of organizing their own religious structures and spiritual lives, and designing the new academic field of interfaith studies. In this context, the depth of each new portrait in this book will help to further our understanding of who is disaffiliating from religious institutions, why they are doing so, what the role of interfaith families will be, and how many of us are finding and creating meaning, support, and community outside the boxes in the 21st century.