About That Interfaith Tree-Topper

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Peace card by emma’s revolution

We put a tin Mexican star with eight colorful points on the top of our Christmas tree. This star refers to the star that led the Magi to find the baby Jesus, as the story is told in the gospel of Matthew. And from a Pagan perspective (on a tree with Pagan origins), the star as a winter Solstice theme makes sense to me because we are more aware of the brilliance of the stars on the longest of all nights.

But this year, the number of interfaith families putting a six-pointed star, the traditionally Jewish symbol known as the Star of David, on top of Christmas trees seems to have reached some kind of critical mass. Reporters have been calling me to ask about this kind of holiday mash-up, or “Chrismukkah” celebration. And lovely interfaith couples have been tweeting and emailing me to market their mixed-faith holiday greeting cards and ornaments.

My family does not celebrate Chrismukkah, but we are beginning to feel outnumbered. One year, I had a very public and feisty back-and-forth with a blogger who both misunderstood and objected to my family’s approach to the holidays. Our family doesn’t hang dreidels or top the tree with a Star of David. Our approach to being an interfaith family has been to seek to provide our children with literacy in both family religions, and respect for the integrity of each. That has meant teaching and celebrating the two religions separately, giving them each space, in order to honor their specific historical and cultural and theological meanings.

Every interfaith family has to find the pathway that works best for them. For some, that will mean choosing one religion and celebrating the “other” holidays only with grandparents. For our family, it means celebrating both, but in separate, traditional ways. But for what seems to be an increasing number of more-or-less purely secular interfaith families, it has come to mean the freedom to create mash-up celebrations.

As Samira Mehta, an academic with a forthcoming book on interfaith families recently explained to her local newspaper, “In the past 20 years, Chrismukkah has become increasingly public. First, it has grown because of the increasing secularization of society and the growing number of ‘nones’ (those not affiliated with any institutional church or synagogue), and secondly the growing acceptance of multiculturalism in our society.”

I am all for accepting multiculturalism, for seeing what is shared and universal in our families and our cultures, and for celebrating together the theme of hope for peaceful pluralism in a world troubled by intolerance and violence. That is why the first ornament I placed on our tree this year was a card from our friends Pat and Sandy (emma’s revolution) who wrote the moving Peace Salaam Shalom song after 9/11, and created a graphic representation of these three words. While my family does not celebrate a mash-up of religions, we do acknowledge that there are historical ties between the three sibling religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And now, with Islamophobic politicians spreading fear, is a good time to remember these ties.

After hanging the Peace card on our tree, I wanted to stop there–to have this be the only ornament this year, to lift up this crucial message. But then our kids arrived home from college on the Wrong Coast, and we wanted to trim the tree together as a family, and put up all the beloved ornaments. And so we did that. They understand that the desire for peace must be universal, but on our tree we hang Christmas ornaments. Because even though my family has been an interfaith family for two generations now, we want our children to understand the distinct religious cultures, and the specificity of a history that continues to both unite and divide us.

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 (forthcoming in 2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Hanukkah AND Christmas: 7 Books For Interfaith Children

 

 

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, and The Trees of the Dancing Goats). A book about an interfaith family from Patricia Polacco is at the top of my holiday fantasy wish list.

 

 

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 (forthcoming in 2019).

 

Seeking Interfaith Families…at the Parliament of the World’s Religions

99 Names Project
99 Names Project. Artist, Andrew Kosorok. Parliament art exhibit.

What if I told you that almost 10,000 people converged on Salt Lake City for the Parliament of the World’s Religions, to engage in interfaith activism, interfaith education and interfaith bridge-building? And what if I reminded you that more than a third of all Americans who are married or living with a partner are in interfaith or mixed-denomination relationships according to Pew Research? Given these two pieces of information, you might expect robust discussion at this Parliament on the role of interfaith families as interfaith educators and peacemakers. Am I right?

Registration Hall, Salt Palace Convention Center, Parliament of the World's Religions
Registration Hall, Salt Palace Convention Center, Parliament of the World’s Religions

The Parliament can be overwhelming: it helps to have a thread, a focus, to organize your days. I approached the Parliament through my own lens, that of an adult interfaith child who claims a complex religious identity. So on my first day in the Salt Palace Convention Center, I went looking for the stories of people from interfaith families inspired to become interfaith peacemakers. And of course, I found them, everywhere.

But not in the official program. The official program included some 1800 presenters, and there was exactly one presenter on interfaith families. That would be me. Why only one? Like so many other old-school interfaith organizations, the Parliament has traditionally been dominated by older men–I witnessed a panel composed entirely of men in dark suits at the opening plenary–and by religious institutions interested in keeping everyone in a “Box A or Box B or Box C” model of religious affiliation.

Those of us who blur boundaries, who claim Buddhism and Christianity, or Judaism and Paganism, or create families that transgress the invisible religious borders–we make religious leaders nervous. We are disruptors, even at a conference as radically inclusive as the Parliament. We are seen as marginal, even while we are now the majority in some religious communities, even while millennials are fleeing from “either/or” identities, and from religious litmus tests, and dogma, and membership criteria.

Labyrinth, Parliament of the World's Religions
Labyrinth, Salt Palace Convention Center, at the Parliament

So, I woke up early on my first full day at the Parliament (thanks to East Coast jet lag) and set out to find my interfaith family people. And in the very first session into which I wandered, Buyondo Micheal was explaining The Peace Drum Initiative, a project in which he teaches Muslim, Christian, and Hindu schoolchildren in Uganda to drum together, under the auspices of his Faiths Together Uganda program. As he began explaining how he ended up creating this program, he described his own interfaith education as part of an interfaith family, in which he shifted back and forth from Christian to Muslim schools throughout his childhood. Lo and behold, the very first presenter I heard at the Parliament turned out to be someone from an interfaith family, inspired by this background to do interfaith peacemaking.

Tibetan Buddhist sand mandala, Registration Hall, Salt Palace Convention Center
Tibetan Buddhist sand mandala, Registration Hall, Salt Palace Convention Center

Next, I lined up for langar, the lunch served by the Sikh community each day, and ended up sitting on the floor eating with a local woman who was volunteering at the Parliament, from a Mormon and Catholic interfaith family. (In the langar line on another day, I ran into a friend from my online interfaith activism world, from a Hindu and Sikh interfaith family). Each day while waiting in the langar line, I watched the sand mandala made by the Tibetan Buddhist monks slowly taking shape. The intricate patterns seemed to reflect the complexity of the interfaith world, and my own interfaith identity.

After curried potatoes, spicy cauliflower and chai tea at langar, I went to give my talk on interfaith families as interfaith peacemakers. During the discussion, the young woman who was randomly assigned as a volunteer to our session, who was there to make sure the projector worked, raised her hand tentatively. She said, “I didn’t even know what this session was going to be about. But I’m an interfaith child. My parents are Mormon and Baha’i. And I’ve never heard anyone talk about it in this way before. I thought I was the only one. So I just wanted to thank you.” That moment, right there, made the trip to Salt Lake City worthwhile.

Each of these Parliament participants born into an interfaith family was motivated to walk through the doors of the Salt Palace because of, not in spite of, their experiences as interfaith bridge-builders in their own families. But I only got a glimpse of these inspiring stories in the liminal spaces—in the lunch line conversations, and as tangents. At the next Parliament, we need to hear about the rich complexity of interfaith family life in multiple panels, and in the plenary sessions.

Assembly Hall, Temple Square, Salt Lake City
Assembly Hall, Temple Square, Salt Lake City

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 Education For Every Child

Faith Ed

 

In Being Both, I document the idea that interfaith children benefit from interfaith education. Learning about more than one religion from a young age yields specific benefits for children who have more than one religion in the extended family. But I also write about the idea that every child, in this era of global interconnection, would benefit from learning about the religions in the neighborhood, and the religions of the world.

In an important new book from Beacon Press (disclosure–Beacon is my publisher) entitled Faith Ed: Teaching About Religion in an Age of Intolerance, journalist Linda K. Wertheimer reports on efforts around the country to teach (not preach) more than one religion in public school classrooms. The book essentially starts from the premise that teaching religions in public schools is a key to combating religious ignorance.  But how best to accomplish the task?

Wertheimer is a thorough reporter, interviewing students, parents, teachers, administrators, and education experts about experiences with interfaith education in the schools. In describing the successes and failures encountered in these pioneering classrooms, she addresses a number of important questions including the following:

  • How do schools negotiate the tension between separation of church and state, and the desire to teach interactive and multi-sensory interfaith education?
  • Are field trips to mosques and temples necessary, or somehow risky?
  • What age is the right age to teach about religions in the public schools?
  • What effect does interfaith education have on children from minority religions?
  • And for those in the religious majority (usually Christians), can these programs reduce religious ignorance and intolerance?

The book is a lively read: a travelogue of Wertheimer’s encounters as she crisscrosses the country to report on both the model classrooms and the controversies. She takes us to Texas, where a high school teacher gets into hot water for letting her students try on a burka while studying Islam. Then we travel to suburban Boston, where a middle school comes under scrutiny after a field trip to a mosque. In Florida, we learn about how a particular guest speaker in the world religions program attracted unwanted national attention for a high school in Tampa. In Kansas, Wertheimer reports on the pressures encountered by an elementary school teaching about Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And in Modesto, in the “California Bible Belt,” she describes how high school teachers manage to teach world religions in a context of megachurches and a growing Sikh minority.

In a memoir thread running through the book, Wertheimer returns to her childhood home in rural Ohio to confront the “Church Lady” who taught Bible stories in her elementary school classroom in the 1970s. Her poignant description of feeling very uncomfortable as the only Jewish girl in the class still has great relevance today. Wertheimer finds Christian education (preaching, not just teaching) still going on during the school day in some schools, though students leave to attend this religious school just off campus.

Throughout the book, Wertheimer skillfully weaves a brief history of religion in the schools, key legal cases, and some theory, into her reporting. I wish Faith Ed included a closer look at some of the interfaith education models developed around the world, including in the UK (which requires interfaith education in government-funded schools), in Unitarian-Universalist communities (which have long taught world religions in a context of teaching and not preaching) and in interfaith families communities (which also teach more than one religion without imposing a specific creed). American educators developing multi-religious education for secular schools would benefit from exchanging resources, curricula, and strategies with those in other countries, and those in the inclusivist religious world with expertise in teaching more than one religion.

But this slim book is sure to spark necessary conversations on the importance of interfaith education in the schools. Students, parents and teachers in the book testify to the idea that education about religions is a key strategy to prevent bullying, fear, and alienation, among children from religious minorities. Faith Ed is timely, provocative, and essential reading for all of us in religiously plural settings in America, which is to say, for all of us.

 

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.

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