Purim: Celebrating Interfaith Marriage?

Apricot Hamentasch, photo Susan Katz Miller

Every year, I don some festive garb, and head to our interfaith community‘s Purim celebration. It has been said that most Jewish holidays fit one recurring theme: “They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.” Purim certainly fits that template (along with Passover and Hanukkah). Growing up in a Reform temple, the notion that Purim also celebrates an interfaith marriage somehow never came up. Now, celebrating the holiday with my interfaith community seems particularly appropriate.

In the Purim story, Persian King Ahasuerus (apparently a Zoroastrian) chooses Esther in a beauty contest, not realizing that she is Jewish. When the Jews of the land are threatened with genocide, Esther outs herself to the King as Jewish, and convinces him to save her people.

The Purim story intrigues for many reasons. The Book of Esther, while part of the Jewish Bible, is not in the Torah, (the most holy Jewish text comprising the first five books of the Bible), but is thought to date from a much later period, with the story taking place somewhere between 600 and 400 BCE. In fact, oddly enough, the Book of Esther does not mention God. Esther, the heroine, with the help of her Uncle Mordecai, uses politics, diplomacy, and and her access to the king, to save her people. God gets no credit whatsoever. This, along with the fact that the celebration includes drinking, dressing in costumes, loud noise, and games, makes it a popular holiday with the growing secular, atheist and agnostic Jewish demographic, as well as with children. Purim shares a sense of rowdy release from social norms with Christian pre-Lenten Carnival festivities, and both holidays seem to trace their origins to “pagan”  spring fertility rites.

But peering through an interfaith lens, the most radical and transgressive aspect of Purim is the fact that the Jewish community in Persia would have been doomed if Esther had not intermarried. It was only because of her marriage to the Persian king that she was in a place to step up and save her people. What would have happened if she had refused to marry him because he wasn’t Jewish?

Many have tried to explain away the fact of Esther’s interfaith marriage. Some speculate that she intermarried only because it enabled her to save her people:  exceptional circumstances. Others argue that her interfaith marriage was acceptable because she was a woman, and Jewish law respects matrilinial descent. Another argument is that she had no choice in the matter (refusing the King could have meant death). More recently, the Purim story has been used as a cautionary tale–the problem is not the interfaith marriage, per se, but the secular lifestyle and “disengagement” that led to the interfaith marriage. One group of academics acknowledged that Esther’s marriage saved her people but was somehow able to conclude:  “But the lesson is not that intermarriage is good.”

Interfaith marriage occurs throughout the Bible: it drives the plot line in many a Biblical story, and not all those who intermarry are women. As a “patrilinial Jew” and an interfaith person, I take issue with the idea that Esther’s interfaith marriage was acceptable only because she was a woman, or because of extenuating political circumstances. Or that she is somehow a heroine in spite of, and not because of, her immersion in Persian culture. It was, precisely, Esther’s cultural fluidity and willingness to intermarry that saved the Jews.

I cannot help hoping that when Jews across the world celebrate Purim, they may, perhaps in a moment of tipsy revelry, open their minds just a little bit more to all that is positive about interfaith marriages: not just ancient, allegorical interfaith marriages taking place in exotic far-off lands, but real, contemporary interfaith marriages.

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 Family Shabbat: Essential Warmth

Recently, I hosted a potluck Shabbat, inviting three other interfaith families from our community. Gathered around the glow of the candles, I discovered once again the essential energy, warmth, illumination I gain from being with “my people”–the interfaith tribe. Collectively, that night, our ancestors included a rabbi from New Orleans, an Episcopal bishop, an Irish Jewish violinist from Dublin, Italian New York Catholics, and a Cuban Santeria priestess.

For our children, it was a chance to experience together the blessings over the wine, the challah and the candles without fear of looking foolish if they got something “wrong.” Our interfaith Sunday School teaches Hebrew literacy and essential Jewish prayers. But I also believe the intent of the Sabbath–the desire to break from the everyday and create a contemplative moment and sense of community–has much greater importance than the ritual details.

Earlier this year, an interfaith child I know felt humiliated when, after struggling with a book of flimsy matches, she lit one Shabbat candle with the flame from the other, and a rabbi who was present grimaced and stated that it isn’t done this way. I know, I know, a ritual isn’t a ritual unless it is performed the same way each time. But rituals evolve, and every Jew of every denomination must pick and choose the rituals to follow from the list of 613 commandments, many of which are so anachronistic as to appear surreal. In fact, lighting the Shabbat candles does not even rate a mention in the 613 commandments: it turns out to be a relatively recent ritual by Jewish standards (less than a thousand years), created by marvelous Jewish women. Furthermore,  lighting one Shabbat candle with the other is permitted according to some rabbis. We could probably stage a debate with a panel of rabbis to discuss the question.

I love the lively Talmudic tradition of questioning everything, but there is a time and place for this sort of semantic and intellectual wrestling, and a time and a place to be in the spiritual moment, focusing on the fire and not the matches. As an interfaith person who has often been excluded by Jewish clergy and institutions, I am highly attuned to the fact that such small incidents of being corrected or rebuffed can play a magnified role in the identity and affiliation choices made by interfaith people.

Some Jewish institutions have made impressive strides in welcoming and including interfaith families. Years ago, I wrote an essay explaining why I believe that, in spite of such progress, there is still a need for interfaith family communities, independent of Jewish institutions. More than ever, I stand by that position. I do not believe the complex identity of interfaith children will be “solved” when Jewish institutions evolve, or when Jewish outreach workers notice the needs of interfaith people. My own goal is to expand access to the unique benefits of celebrating Shabbat with a group composed entirely of interfaith families. In those moments, as we lift up the challah, no one is judging us. Everyone has the right to be there: no one is questioning whether our Judaism is matrilineal or patrilineal, whether our rituals adequately prove our Judaism, or whether we are sufficiently suppressing the Christianity in our families. Every interfaith family is welcome at this Shabbat table: the result feels unique, powerful, and necessary.

Deep Pause: Interfaith Sabbath

We are blanketed now in three feet of snow, the outside world has become muffled and distant, and we are forced into a pause one could describe as an extended Shabbat. On the first night of the storm, which happened to be Friday, we had a spontaneous music jam with close friends who walked and skied to our house to play saxophone, ukulele, guitar and viola. On the second night, still without power,  our family huddled by the fireplace, in a pile of pillows and blankets, with the dog, the cat and the guinea pig all snuggled with us for warmth. With no internet or television, my daughter read out loud from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, not exactly the “good book,” but indeed a very good and thought-provoking book that she happens to be reading for 10th grade English. The entire experience was restorative (until it got too darned cold, at which point we moved to a friend’s house).

I was lucky to have many moments like this one in my childhood, growing up in a happy interfaith family. But we  rarely performed the specific rituals of the formal Jewish Sabbath. We went faithfully to religious school every week at our Reform Temple, and we celebrated Passover and the High Holy Days, but Friday nights were pretty secular–devoted to school or social events. My mother, raised Episcopalian, did everything she could to raise us as Jews. But the 1960s and 70s were an assimilated period in Reform Judaism–rather dry, without the joy and juice of the Renewal or Chasidic movements. None of our Jewish friends seemed to celebrate the Sabbath very often, either. It probably didn’t help that we lived in a very Protestant little New England town, filled with white steeples and dominated by a Puritan anathema for displays of emotion or exoticism.

My children, though we are raising them in an interfaith community and not exclusively as Jews, have grown up celebrating Shabbat rituals more frequently than I did. And as often as not, it is my husband who reminds us to light the candles and say blessings on Friday. My husband, who grew up as an acolyte in the Episcopalian church. My husband, who offered to agree to raise our children as Jews.

Instead, I found and embraced the  interfaith spiritual home I had sought all of my life. And my husband followed where I went, helping to pioneer this new pathway, even stepping onto the Board of the Interfaith Families Project after I stepped down as a Board Chair. We are deeply committed, together, and our children see this and it helps to water their deep roots in this radical interfaith soil. And it also helps that our interfaith community, along with many Jewish and Christian communities these days, infuses song, spirituality and even mysticism into old rituals.

So on Friday nights, my daughter is happy to put to use the silver Kiddush cup and candlesticks that she received for her interfaith Coming of Age ceremony when she turned thirteen. My 12-year-old son shows off his mastery of the prayer over the fruit of the vine. Together, we sing the English/Hebrew “camp” version of the blessing over the challah: “Hamotzi Lechem Min Ha’aretz, We give thanks to God for bread. Our voices raise in song together, as our joyful prayer is said: Baruch atah adonai, eloheinu melech ha’olam. Hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz. Amen.”

While  this version of the blessing seemed hokey at first, I like the fact that it incorporates the English, so that if we have non-Jewish visitors, they understand the meaning of the prayer without having to wait for the translation. In our interfaith community, this version feels more inclusive of the Christian spouses, and of the children who are just beginning to learn Jewish rituals, because of the way it weaves in the context.

Even when it’s not Friday night, we try to pause before a meal with friends or family to acknowledge the communion of breaking bread together. Feeling thankful in this sense does not require a creed or dogma; it does not require a belief in God at all. Sometimes, a few words of thanks to our guests for being there is all that is needed. Or sometimes, we use a “grace” we learned at Appalachian folk dance camp. It sounds Buddhist to me: if anyone knows its origins, let me know. It is sung to a jaunty little tune, which can be sung in a round, and the words are: “Thank you for this food, this glorious, glorious food–and the animals, and the vegetables, and the minerals, that make it possible.”

As the snow continues to fall here, we pause to appreciate warmth, electricity, food and friends. Nature is reminding us to stop, unplug, experience the power of the blizzard, and take a deep breath of the frosted air.

Interfaith Community: Why it Matters

 

For the second week in a row, it looks like our interfaith community is going to be snowed out on Sunday. While getting up on Sunday mornings sometimes feels like a sacrifice, now I find myself pining to return, and frustrated about the cancellations. I often describe myself as an interfaith zealot. Why? I grew up on the margins of Jewish life: always a little different, a little suspect, because of my Christian mother. But in our interfaith community, all families are on equal footing, all parents have equal standing, all children are equally welcome. Everyone takes part in our rituals. This radical inclusivity is powerfully seductive for me, after a lifetime of feeling like a religious outsider.

The interfaith families in our community range across a spectrum in terms of race, ethnicity, sexual-orientation, ideology. We are atheists and God-lovers, liberals and conservatives. But our common bond–the shared condition of having created an interfaith family, the desire to build something joyous out of our differences, the determination to see dual religious heritage as something positive and enriching rather than simply as a problem–this bond thrills me.

When we do not meet, I think of all we are missing. Last week, my seventh-grader was supposed to lead our Tu Bishvat gathering with his “Coming of Age prep” class. This week, we were supposed to hear from our Rabbi and Minister about the trip they just took to Israel with their friend, Imam Yaya Hendi, and students from Georgetown. My husband, who once lived in a seminary in Haiti, was supposed to say the Lord’s Prayer in Haitian Creole for us. And the children were supposed to file up to drop smooth stones into the bowl of concerns as we think of the people of Haiti. My teenage daughter was supposed to work, as she does each week, reading stories and helping with crafts in the kindergarten classroom. And we were supposed to schmooze and eat bagels together, and sing together to our rocking house band.

So I’m hoping the deep snow melts soon, and I can return quickly to my community, to my beloved motley crew of non-joiners, reluctant religionists, visionaries, brilliantly cynical secularists, and passionate mystics. We call ourselves the Interfaith Families Project because we are building the community as we go along, never sure exactly where we are going to all end up. All I can tell you is that wherever we are going, that is where I want to go.

Celebrating Martin Luther King: Multiracial, Multifaith in the 21st Century

This week, hundreds of communities across America will celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday with interfaith services featuring pastors, rabbis, imams. But for our community of interfaith families, this national holiday has an even deeper significance. Dr. King spoke about the day when “all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands.” In our community, we go beyond joining hands, we create families together. We now have several member families composed of Christian African-Americans married to Jews. Of course, intermarriage between Jews and blacks isn’t new—the first significant wave of marriages occurred when these two groups worked side by side during the civil rights movement. But in the 21st century, the good news is that neither the Christian African-American partner, nor the Jewish partner, has to give up their religion in order to be together. They can give their children roots in both dynamic religious traditions.

On Sunday, our community had our own celebration of Dr. King, featuring Sombarkin, a powerful a cappella gospel trio (Karen Somerville, Lester Barrett Jr. and Jerome McKinney). In our discussion group afterwards, our rabbi, Rabbi Harold White, talked about meeting Dr. King in the 60s. Rabbi White was a student of Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched alongside Dr. King in Selma and had a deep relationship of mutual respect and engagement with him.

Then, Rabbi White and Karen Somerville, an African-American museum director and historian, talked about their own close friendship, and the ups and downs of the history of the relationship between Jews and African-Americans.  They pointed out that African-Americans recognized and celebrated Jesus as a Jew, long before white Protestant churches began to see Jesus in this way. And of course, there’s the solidarity that comes with the knowledge of having been slaves, however attenuated that knowledge is now for Jews. And the shared sense of survival in the wake of tragedy (American slavery, the European Holocaust). And the shared sense of being a repressed minority in America (increasingly rare for Jews).  But none of this is new.

Here’s what is new: an African-American father, married to a Jewish mother, standing up at our celebration to lead the responsive reading excerpted from the “I Have a Dream” speech. As this father read of the day when, in Dr. King’s words, “with this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together,” the interfaith and biracial children in our community have implicit permission to fully appreciate King as a minister, as a man of deep Christian faith. They could listen to those words knowing that both of their parents belong equally in our interfaith community. Neither one is a guest or visitor. Neither one must compromise their religious identity. And in our community, these children will learn the history and rituals and ideas of Christianity, as well as the history and rituals and ideas of Judaism. These children can grow up listening to gospel songs of freedom, based on the Exodus story so dear to both Judaism and African-American Christanity, and so often sung at interfaith Shabbats and Seders. But they are also free to explore the gospel songs that mention Jesus, and perhaps even to download Sombarkin’s sublime version of “I Want to Walk and Talk With Jesus” (the only Sombarkin song available as a ringtone!) — a song that probably isn’t played at any Shabbat or Seder.

Thanksgiving, Interfaith Style

The Pilgrims who celebrated the first Thanksgiving were pious Christians, giving thanks to a God they clearly thought of as a Christian God. But they were also thanking the great leader Massasoit and the Wampanoags who helped them to survive the first deadly winter in their new world. Theologians suspect the Pilgrims modeled their Thanksgiving after the harvest festival of Sukkoth in the Jewish Bible. We do know that the Pilgrims had fled Europe in order to gain religious freedom, and that they were inspired by the Jews fleeing Egypt. So while it was created by Christians, and the Wampanoags sat through church services as part of the celebration, Thanksgiving started out with pretty good interfaith credentials.

Nevertheless, many Jewish immigrants took a while to warm up to the idea that they could celebrate this American feast, and some ultra-Orthodox Jews still ignore it. My children have a picture book about a little girl in a tenement on the Lower East Side of New York in the early 20th century, who learns about Thanksgiving in her public school, and then has to use all of her Talmudic rhetorical skills to persuade a rabbinic court to let her celebrate it.

Yesterday, our community of interfaith families met to give thanks together. If you visit us on a Sunday morning, you might encounter any one of three different types of gatherings. Sometimes, we celebrate a Jewish holiday, sometimes, a Christian holiday. And some weeks, we celebrate a theme or value held in common by the two religions: social justice, service to community, joy, mystery, blessing new life, ecology, or in this case, gratitude.

Yesterday, we sang the Dutch Protestant hymn “We Gather Together” and our rabbi, Rabbi Harold White, recounted how he used to sing this hymn in public school as a boy in Connecticut. As a rabbi who has spent his long career in a Jesuit context at Georgetown, Rabbi White is ideally suited to helping the Jewish partners in our community appreciate Christian prayers and songs: this one poses no challenge to Jewish theology.

Rabbi White also gave Christian partners and Jews raised without much religious education a Jewish context for Thanksgiving, mentioning the three harvest thanksgiving holidays in the Jewish calendar: Passover, Pentecost, and Sukkoth. He also read from a list of the daily Jewish prayers for thanks—for waking up, for the functioning of our digestive systems, for washing hands, eating, drinking, travelling. Then four community members got up to express gratitude: my teenage daughter read her own quirky list, giving thanks for photographs, sofas, foliage, musicals, and inclusivity. And our Reverend Julia Jarvis’s twin teenage daughters sang a Taylor Swift song, “The Best Day,” about a girl thanking her mother for love and support. All the moms were sniffling.

At the end of this gathering, we broadened out to include the numerous atheists and agnostics in our community, some of whom arrive on purpose at the tail end of the gathering, just in time for the more cerebral adult discussion group. This week, we concluded with a secular song that inspires  appreciation for both nature and humanity, whether or not one believes in a God:

What a Wonderful World

I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world

I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world

The colours of the rainbow, so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shakin’ hands, sayin’ “How do you do?”
They’re really saying “I love you”

I hear babies cryin’, I watch them grow
They’ll learn much more than I’ll ever know
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world
Yes, I think to myself, what a wonderful world

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

I Brake for Poetry

I am wary of the schmaltzy universalism that sometimes pervades the world of multifaith encounters. In our interfaith families community, we strive to preserve and hold the funky particularities of Judaism and Christianity, even when this leads to dissonance, instead of dwelling always in the safer zone of overlapping interfaith values.

But recently, my husband came home with a poem that found its way through my defensive cynicism. Peace activist Christopher Matthias wrote the poem to read at an interfaith conference on corporate responsibility. I love that his poem contains both timeless religious imagery, and more angular modern references. Chris works for an order of Roman Catholic nuns. So I thought I better write for permission to post the poem, warning him that this blog takes the radical position of advocating raising children with two religions. He wrote back, “I would be more apprehensive to share permission if your blog were not radical.”  So here’s the poem.

THIS, HOLY THIS

Nothing.

Silence.

Like the breath held.

Pregnant.

Ready to. Ready to. Ready to flare forth!

Om………………..

The sound of creation vibrating all life from the center

Like the vibrating lips of the aborigine through the didgeridoo

Telling the story of how THIS, HOLY THIS arrived and flows in tones of hydrogen and light.

We are learning your name as it is spelled out.

Creation. Life. Our God.

We hear you underwater;

In the wind;

In the bells;

In each other.

We have known your loving kindness:

Our mothers’ affection;

Our fathers’ embrace.

We are spelling out your name life by life, life after life;

Our holy charge to play our part—to dot an “eye”

As the desert fathers and mothers searched for home.

As Buddha touched a sacred moment under the Bodhi tree;

As Ganesh first swung the trunk of his newly given pachyderm head;

As Samson pushed apart the pillars—blind—shamed—but loved by you;

As the Sufi poet spins himself to ecstasy,

As Rumi found the words:

If anyone wants to know what “spirit” is,
or what “God’s fragrance” means,
lean your head toward him or her.
Keep your face there close. Like this.

As Peter stepped out on the water;

As the medicine wheel is painted on the regalia of a dancer, dancing for his honor, for his people’s honor, for the love of you…

As the sisters took off their habits after centuries;

As they struggle to be just as much your church as their brothers;

As two pines from Lebanon were nailed together

to suspend a man from Nazareth until he exhaled no more.

As sinners and saints ate bread,

Drank malt liquor,

Told jokes bother clean and dirty.

As wars erupted,

As fish ate fish ate fish;

As Mary said her “Yes!”

As Joseph Dreamed;

As Moses held out his arms;

As Miriam played her trick;

As people threw snickers wrappers in garbage cans;

As beads crossed the devotee’s fingers;

As children were conceived;

As children were not born;

As morning came;

As icicles melted;

As peace was sought with picket signs, hunger strikes, songs and letters,

As Gandhi placed calloused feet one in front of the other;

As gossip spread;

As Shakespeare crossed out words he didn’t like;

As mountains fell;

As we have doubted our place in all of this;

As the grandparent died;

As we forgot the beauty of difference;

As the young man died;

As we found ourselves in our opponents;

As the sister from Seattle died;

As we threw our heads back and laughed at ourselves;

As memories were lost;

As a lover proposed;

As oranges were blessed;

As papers were filed;

As curses were spoken;

As those who are on the same team fought instead of yielding, forgiving, and renewing their commitments to each other.

As they passed through it—beginning again, and again, and again.

As fields were planted;

As poison filled the ocean;

As millions died in genocides;

As stories of beauty saved, changed, and vindicated lives;

As atheists made sacred the time of one life.

As miners never emerged from the belly of the earth;

As wind turned chimes—revealing the harmony of the two sides of this touching the two sides of that.

As the nautilus grows and grows, echoing the shape of the universe;

As we ask you to be with us as we speak our part of your name

Day by day

Choice by choice

Forgiveness by forgiveness

Voice by voice

Coast by coast

Bite by bite

Child by child

Love by love by love by love by love by love.

Halloween, Interfaith Style

Pumpkin Carvings, photo Susan Katz Miller

On Saturday night, 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 the quintessential interfaith holiday, with both pagan and Christian roots, and an enthusiastic following among Jews. When I was growing up, 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’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.

Interfaith Teens: Not Dazed or Confused

photo Susan Katz MillerOn Yom Kippur, I watched my 15-year-old daughter stand up before our interfaith community and lead the Jewish call to prayer: “Barchu et adonai hamvorach…”  She learned this chant for her interfaith coming of age ceremony when she was thirteen. But I wasn’t sure if she would ever have the opportunity to lead the prayer again, or whether the melody would stick in her mind. Some of us who were raised as Jews, let alone those like my daughter raised as interfaith children, rarely use our Bar or Bat Mitzvah education in the ensuing years or decades.

Seeing her stride up to the front of the sanctuary, hearing her voice ring out with such assurance surprised and thrilled me. I had not anticipated this moment, because our Yom Kippur service is designed and lead by our interfaith teen group, and being teens, they don’t necessarily keep parents in the loop. All I knew was that while I was busy in the half-hour before the service began, setting up the tables of challah and egg salad for the meal to break our fast, she was making last-minute decisions with the other teens about who would lead which part of the service.

Religious leaders have an infuriating tendency to posit, without reference to any current objective research, that interfaith children raised with dual religions will turn out lost, apathetic, ignorant, confused. In fact, there is no current objective research. All we have are anecdotes. So I offer my own. At our Yom Kippur service, I did not see confused. I saw a teenage boy confident enough to get up and talk about repentance and prayer and charity. I saw a teenage girl confident enough to get up and give a spontaneous, touching and entertaining Yom Kippur reflection. I saw my own daughter made stronger by a day of fasting:  I saw her as an adult endowed with spiritual insight and the gift of leadership.

I wish every clergy member, of every religion, could come and observe our  teens leading the Yom Kippur service each year. They are the ultimate proof that children raised with substantive education about two religions, in a caring community, with access to spiritual experience, seem to be turning out fine. Fine indeed.

A Wandering Jew on Yom Kippur

photo Susan Katz MillerI have a confession.  I am not taking my children to a High Holy Days service at a synagogue this year.  When they were small, I took them to free family services at a local synagogue where they handed out kazoos, presumably on the theory that these plastic noisemakers resemble shofars. As soon as the kids got their hands on the instruments, chaos ensued. The Rabbi spent the rest of the service trying to regain control of his mutinous miniature congregants. The atmosphere was not particularly conducive to deep contemplation.

Last year, I thought my children were old enough to go to an adult service with me, so I bought tickets. I did my research and chose a congregation known for its choir. I was hoping to replicate my positive High Holy Day experiences growing up in a Reform Synagogue. We had a gorgeous choir with a ringer Irish soprano: the music is what got me through those long and hungry hours, and even inspired glimmerings of spirituality. But the morning I took my kids happened to be one that did not feature the choir after all. And it went on, and on, and on, with heavy Hebrew and unfamiliar new tunes. In terms of helping my children feel positive about going to synagogues, it was what they would term an “epic fail.”

When I can, I try to fly home to my parents for these holidays, to the synagogue of my childhood. But the congregation has tripled in size–I don’t know anyone anymore. The rabbi who refused to officiate at my interfaith marriage has retired. Realistically, I cannot fly my children to Boston for both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur while school is in session. And I also know that this congregation, as with most congregations, would be challenged by the idea of how to truly welcome children with only one Jewish grandparent–and a Jewish grandfather at that.

So on Yom Kippur, we will be where we feel most at home, with our interfaith community. Our service is only an hour long, at the close of the day, to accommodate those who go to work, and those who go to temple services. But honestly, it is just the right amount of time for kids and Christian spouses. And we know for darn sure that the sermon will not be about the “dilemma” of interfaith marriage, or who should get to be a Jew, or whether we are passing all the litmus tests for raising our children correctly. And we will know just about everyone in the room. These are my people now.

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