I am thrilled to announce that my next book, The Interfaith Family Journal, will be published by Skinner House on March 15th, 2019. In the Journal, thoughtful questions, interactive exercises, and creative activities will take you through a five-week process to untangle misunderstandings and enhance the joy of being an interfaith family. With the help of the Journal, you can find your own best pathway as an interfaith couple or family.
I really love the bright colors and crafty style of this book cover! The cover of my first book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, featured a Venn diagram with two overlapping circles. This book extends the metaphor, with circles of many colors, overlapping in a multitude of different ways, as our families do!
Whether your family is Muslim and Christian, Jewish and Buddhist, Hindu and atheist, or any other set of religions, this Journal will support you. Whether you are dating, engaged, married, a single parent, a guardian, a family with younger or older children, or empty nesters, this Journal will support you. Even if your family is made up of two or more people from the same religion, the Journal can help you in figuring out the best way to do religion together.
The Interfaith Family Journal does not promote one single way of being an interfaith family. Instead, the Journal process will inspire deep conversation, and create better understanding of how one religion, or two religions, or more, or none, would work for your family.
Creating this book, I worked closely with our global interfaith family village. So I am sending out huge thanks to all of the families who test drove the Journal, and to my colleagues with interfaith expertise from multiple religions who gave feedback on the manuscript.
I hope all of you, blog readers, are as excited as I am to be part of bringing this Journal to the widest possible audience next spring, to provide support to interfaith families across the country and the globe. Make sure you are subscribed to this blog, and follow my facebook page and twitter feed, for all the news leading up to the book launch. And stay tuned for more #InterfaithJournal news soon, as we put the finishing touches on the book and plan launch events across the country.
Heads up! Rosh Hashanah starts early this year, on the evening of September 9th. Over the past decade, in some of my over 300 essays here, I have written about many different aspects of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, from the context of an interfaith family. Here is one of the most popular essays from that collection. –SKM
When we experience the religious rituals of the “other,” we usually cannot help but respond with an internal running commentary, seeking connections to our own past. I know that whenever I heard the blast of a conch shell at an Afro-Brazilian rite during my years in Brazil, my mind would skip back to the sound of the shofar in my childhood temple.
On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, many Christians (and Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists) find themselves attending services with Jewish partners, or parents, or other family members. These services, while tremendously important to Jews, can be difficult for those without Jewish education to access, due to length, solemnity, and the density of Hebrew. Nevertheless, I always strongly recommend that those of other religions accompany their Jewish partners or parents to synagogue services, both to keep them from feeling lonely, and to learn and reflect.
In our Interfaith Families Project, a community of interfaith families raising children with both Judaism and Christianity in Washington DC, for a decade we had the great fortune to have annual High Holy Day services led by Rabbi Harold White (may his memory be a blessing), a rabbi who spent 40 years working with Jesuits at Georgetown University. Years ago now, he shared with our community these interfaith interconnections to look for on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur:
Awe. Since the highest of holy days in Judaism is actually the weekly Shabbat, many rabbis prefer the term “The Days of Awe” to describe Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Think of awe not as fear, but as a mystic trembling meant to “stir up divine sparks.” Rabbi White compared the swaying of Jews at prayer (known in Yiddish as shuckling) to the quaking of Quakers and the shaking of Shakers. Rhythmic body movement during prayer, whether it’s dancing or repeated bowing, occurs in virtually every religion, from Africa to Asia to American Indian traditions: the mind and body come together, self-consciousness falls away. Says Rabbi White, “Evangelicals have the right idea on this, with hands thrown up in the air.”
Mystical numbers. Yom Kippur marks the end of an annual 40-day spiritual quest in Judaism. All three Abrahamic religions share an obsession with the number 40, which Rabbi White describes as “a magical number in the Middle East. Moses was on Sinai for 40 days, Jesus was in the desert for 40 days, even Ali Baba and the 40 thieves. You think it’s a coincidence. It’s not.”
Asking for Forgiveness. The liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur hinges on the idea that all of us have sinned. “I know that sounds very Christian, but it’s very Jewish at the same time,” says Rabbi White. “There is no one on the face of the earth who hasn’t sinned.”
Praying for Material Well-Being. For most of the year, Jewish prayer focuses on praise and adoration, rather than petition. Asking for direct intervention tends to be more closely associated with Christian prayer. But Rosh Hashanah is the exception, when Jews pray for health and life. “We don’t ask for anything the rest of the year,” says Rabbi White. “But on the Days of Awe, we ask.”
Birth of Three Faiths. On Rosh Hashanah, the Torah reading describes the arrival of Abraham’s two sons: Sarah gives birth to Isaac, Hagar gives birth to Ishmael. Sarah becomes the matriarch of Judaism (and thus Christianity), Abraham sends Hagar into exile. But in Muslim writings, the heroic Hagar (Hajir) becomes the mother of Islam. Charlotte Gordon (an adult interfaith child) has written a sensitive analysis of the story of Hagar in her book The Woman Who Named God: Abraham’s Dilemma and the Birth of Three Faiths.
Miracles. Sometimes Jewish students approach Rabbi White and assert, with a certain smugness, that Christianity requires belief in miracles and Judaism does not. The Rabbi points to the miracle of the birth of Isaac, when Abraham and Sarah are in deep old-age (Abraham is 100). Genesis specifies that Sarah not only has suffered from lifelong infertility, but is post-menopausal. Virgin birth, post-menopausal birth, both miracles.
Songs and Canticles. The Biblical passage known as the Song of Hannah, a reading from the prophet Samuel, is the haftara reading chosen to complement the Torah reading on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. The infertile Hannah has prayed for and been given a son, and her song of Thanksgiving is thought to have inspired the most famous of all canticles in the Christian liturgy, the Song of Mary, known as the Magnificat.
Finding a welcoming service, getting off work, arranging childcare, sitting through services, fasting, gleaning meaning from ancient prayers in an unfamiliar language: none of this is easy. But it is excellent experiential education for anyone connected to Judaism through family ties. For Jews, having the support of a partner in these days of deep reflection and soul-searching, of repentance and renewal, provides comfort and bonding. For interfaith children, having both parents sitting with them at services provides a clear message of respect and appreciation and love, by the parents for each other, and for the children, and for ancient ritual.
Tahil Sharma and I have been engaged in an ongoing conversation for years now, both on social media and in person, on navigating the world as interfaith activists from interfaith families. Tahil is currently an Interfaith Minister in Residence with the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, and a Board Member of the Southern California Committee for the Parliament of the World’s Religions. The two of us will appear together this summer at the Reimagining Interfaith conference, July 29th to August 1st in Washington DC. Come on out and join us! Below, I provide a sneak peek in the form of a Q&A. –Susan Katz Miller
SKM: I was born into a Jewish and Christian interfaith family, and that fact, and those life experiences, have inspired and informed my work as as an author. speaker, and interfaith activist. One of my goals is to create space for people from interfaith families to be interfaith leaders and peacemakers. And at the same time, I am working for recognition that those of us from interfaith families are already serving as interfaith leaders and innovators, but do not necessarily feel we can be open about claiming our interfaith family stories in the context of interfaith “dialogue” or activism. As part of this work, I’ve been keeping a mental list of other “interfaith kids” working as interfaith peacemakers, and you’re at the top of that list. Tahil, why don’t you start by telling us a bit about your background, and your experiences as part of an interfaith family.
TS: I was born in Los Angeles to a Hindu father from a business family and a Sikh mother from an Army background. Both of them immigrated from India in the 1980s and settled in Southern California, trying to figure out how to make their American dream a reality. I started learning about Hinduism and Sikhism from my family, then really began to explore these traditions for myself. This was just the beginning of a weird childhood as I got exposed to friends who were Muslim, Jewish, atheist, all sorts of Christian, and diverse in every other sense of the word. My parents encouraged me to love others as myself, and to learn about what makes other people thrive and understand the world around them. I’ve attended so many different kinds of religious services and events and they all contributed to my understanding of finding bliss and sanity in a consistently chaotic world. I looked back to my own traditions, even learning the languages of the sacred texts (Sanskrit and Gurmukhi) to enunciate and understand what my faith was all about. It made me curious about why we’re all so different yet so able to share a world with one another.
SKM: Your story sounds familiar to me as a fellow interfaith kid, even though we come from different religious and cultural backgrounds. You know, preachers’ kids refer to themselves as PKs. The idea behind that identity is that they share certain formative experiences, whether their parents are ministers or rabbis or imams. And people who grow up in one country but are citizens of another country call themselves TCKs, or Third Culture Kids, and they share certain formative experiences, whether they are military kids or diplomatic corps kids or displaced people or immigrants. So I’m going to refer to us as IKs (that’s “eye kays” not “icks”) for Interfaith Kids. I claim this as part of my identity because I feel we share certain formative experiences of religious complexity. Does that idea resonate for you?
TS: I am totally an IK. We’re a growing demographic around the world thanks to diverse parents creating unions that are unconditional and inclusive. If you had asked me about this 10 years ago, I’d probably have a different understanding of how my interfaith upbringing had an impact on my life. As someone who was always driven by service, I wanted to become a doctor for as long as I could remember. Then I considered being a lawyer for a little while, then a translator. But then came August 5th, 2012. I was in India visiting family when my cousin had told me that a shooting had taken place at a gurdwara (Sikh temple) in Oak Creek, WI. A white supremacist walked into the temple during services and began to shoot blindly, killing 6 people and wounding others, including a police officer who was shot 15 times and survived. This sent my world into a spiral of chaos and confusion, trying to make sense of an injustice towards a coexisting and loving community. Then I reflected on history and the travesties it had produced; injustice was not normal to me, but it was frequent enough to be normal for others. My anger and disappointment instilled a lot of fear until I remembered a word from the Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh scriptures) that referred to the Divine asThe One who is Without Fear and Hatred Towards Creation.
I had an epiphany. I could not let this happen to my community ever again. But, in that selfish righteousness, I also remembered that the responsibility falls on the laps of all able individuals to bend the arc of the world towards justice and equity. If I would fight for the rights of anyone, it would be for the right of everyone. That decision led to 5 years of introspection and service that set a precedent in my life to strive for the well-being (sarbat da bhalla) of others because everyone was a part of my universal family (vasudhaiva kutumbakam).
The complexity of my religious identity is not just about ownership and understanding; my faith traditions were the sails on my lifeboat. The journey is tumultuous. but filled with the lessons and beauty reminding me of the splendor and majesty of the Divine. If I can help others do the same, then I know I will have left this world in better shape than when I was born into it.
SKM: Those of us raised in interfaith households, even though we are a growing demographic, are not well understood. In part this is because we haven’t had many opportunities to speak out and shape our own narratives. So, how do you respond to people who challenge the idea that you can claim or benefit from more than one religious heritage?
TS: That’s simple. I challenge them to recognize themselves by a single identity. The human experience cannot be simplified to represent itself in a monolithic way. The plethora of belief systems around the world have experienced changes and mixtures that have withstood the test of time. Culturally, Hinduism and Sikhism do share some roots coming from South Asia even though they differ from one another. I don’t blink just one eye, I blink both at the same time. I don’t just love my mother or my father, I love them both equally. As such, I have been given the privilege of two blessed visions of the Divine that integrate with every part of my life.
SKM: So, we know that, throughout history and in particular as a result of colonization, entire communities, regions, and countries have practiced more than one religion simultaneously. And anywhere you have two religions sharing geographic space, you are going to have some form of mutual interaction, and some interfaith families. And yet, the topic of multiple religious practice, and of interfaith families, has often been excluded from traditional “interfaith dialogue” programming. Often, each participant has been asked to represent a single religious practice, so as not to “muddy the waters.” How do we work to convince those who are organizing and funding interfaith programming to include those with complex religious identities?
TS: It hasn’t been easy. I didn’t have a crisis of identity so much as I had a crisis of validity. Going around to different people and having to explain that my identity can exist, let alone trying to normalize it in multi-religious settings, is so challenging. There’s a lesser-known quote from Dr. King that speaks about the validity of identity that continues to resonate with me and the struggle for equity and justice: “I’m tired of marching…Tired of marching for something that should’ve been mine at birth.” For the growing number of people who identify with intersectional and multiple identities who march, the struggle continues.
I’ve had people tell me that I’m confused and misled for not choosing a path, or that I’m cherry picking from the religion buffet to suit my needs. But the fact of the matter is, I have adapted my life to grow and transform myself within two traditions that have given me solace and inner peace. So I don’t ask for validity anymore: I make an equal spot for myself at the table.
It is satisfying to feel seen and heard, as academics begin to acknowledge the rich complexity of interfaith families inside and outside of traditional religious communities. Mehta, now an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Albright College, provides an important historical framework for analyzing the choices made by interfaith families, from the 1960s to the present. (It’s a great complement to Erika Seamon’s Interfaith Marriage in America: The Transformation of Religion and Christianity). And she creates the most thorough and insightful academic analysis, so far, of those of us choosing to celebrate more than one family religion and culture. This is a book that all interfaith families, and those who love us, and those who study us, will need to read.
Samira Mehta and I have been in an extended professional conversation on these topics ever since that Bar Mitzvah, eight years ago. So this is not a standard book review, but rather an essay in response to Beyond Chrismukkah. Perhaps more objectively, Publishers Weekly called Mehta’s analysis “thorough and impressive.” They did quibble about a dearth of stories from actual interfaith couples. But here, I want to quibble with that quibble. Plenty of books (including my own) have told stories of interfaith couples. This book is valuable primarily for providing historical context and academic analysis, shedding new light on the family stories told in previous books.
The opening chapter of the book traces Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic institutional responses to interfaith marriage from the 1960s through the 1980s, decades when those institutions often worked to try to prevent interfaith marriage. (Both the rabbi who refused to marry my parents, and the rabbi who did marry them, are mentioned as playing key roles in this history). Also, Mehta’s close analysis of interfaith families in popular culture through the 20th century—in television, theater, films and children’s literature—illuminates when and why and how these families struggled for acceptance in our culture.
Beyond Chrismukkah does include several detailed stories of individual interfaith families. So, in a chapter on how race and ethnicity intersect with religion in interfaith families raising Jewish children, Mehta portrays two interfaith families—one with a black parent, one with a Latino parent. And then she makes the keen observation that the Jewish community more readily accepts incorporation of Christian elements in interfaith family practice when the Christian partner is a person of color (and thus seen as having an important minority culture of their own), as opposed to a Christian partner seen as a member of the dominant white culture.
Four additional detailed family stories illustrate four different ways that interfaith families are resisting the expectation to choose one religious affiliation, and raising children “partially Jewish,” (this is the Jewish survey terminology, not mine or Mehta’s). Mehta did extensive interviews with a family that is unaffiliated but incorporates home-based Jewish and Christian traditions, a family affiliated as Unitarian-Universalist but incorporates Judaism in that practice, a family that has separate dual affiliations in both a Jewish and in a Mormon community, and a family (my family!) that affiliates with an intentional interfaith community providing Jewish and Christian education to interfaith children. “Rather than finding such families unmoored from religious practice and moral formation,” writes Mehta, she found they “often developed a cohesive family narrative or sense of why they were together as a family beyond denominational constraints.”
As Mehta points out, (and as I have pointed out), much of the research on interfaith families has been funded by Jewish institutions, and thus has not been objective. In contrast, Mehta, as a scholar, “starts from an assumption that the religious lives and realities of the interfaith families themselves are as important as the official policies of their religious organizations toward such families.” This is indeed refreshing. And yet, this book still skews Jewish. Mehta includes two full chapters devoted to interfaith families raising children “only” Jewish, and hardly mentions interfaith families raising children Christian. At least in North America, Jewish institutional fears have largely driven the interfaith families narrative, and Mehta’s work still reflects that reality.
Nevertheless, the arrival of Beyond Chrismukkah signals that more objective academic exploration of interfaith families and complex religious identities has finally begun. Alongside a handful of new books studying “multiple religious practice,” (including Duane Bidwell’s upcoming book), Mehta’s work marks a new willingness to listen to the voices of those with complex religious lives. For, as she concludes, without grappling with “the many ways that those families live out their lives and with the hybrid identities that they create, it is no longer possible to understand religion in American.”
This year was the first time we held a Passover seder in my childhood home, since my Episcopalian mother died. My father still lives in the house, and my siblings and I gathered this year to create a seder with, and for, him. At 93, Dad still sits at the head of the table and leads us through the prayers and songs in the haggadah (the booklet that sets out the service before and after the Passover meal).
To lead, he uses a sheet of yellowed paper with an outline of pages to include and pages to skip, tucked into our stack of haggadot. In my father’s penciled block lettering, the sheet is marked “First Parish, 1977.” That was the year he first edited a one-hour model seder for the Sunday School at the Unitarian church overlooking our town green. As one of the only Jewish people in our New England village in that era, he felt both honored and obligated to take on this annual educational duty. Dad’s distillation of the seder turned out to be the perfect length for our extended family of all ages and all religions. And so the “First Parish, 1977” seder became a part of our own tradition.
If my father was in charge of the service, my mother was always in charge of the kitchen. And we struggled this year with trying to replicate her seder. Her matzoh balls were always perfect. Mine fell victim to multi-tasking: they fell apart and floated out into the soup, more like stratus clouds than cumulus. My sister and I chopped the charoset, but then I kibbitzed as she sauteed the nuts in butter, just like Mom used to. Mom swore it made the charoset taste better, but this step seems “de trop,” and somehow not in the proper kosher spirit to me now.
Every moment of seder preparation this year felt like a meditation on time and tradition, with a hundred small decisions about whether to stick to the ways of our past or move on. So this became the year that I finally poured the last dregs of Manischewitz from a bottle we had used for decades down the sink. This is cheap wine, but the $2.59 price sticker (and the font of that sticker) spoke to the ancient origins of this particular bottle. No one in our family drinks the stuff: we only use a glug or two for the charoset each year. So the bottle had lasted almost forever, like a Passover miracle. The remaining wine was brown and cloudy with sediment, but I had a hard time letting go of the lovely old bottle, imagining how my mother’s hand had lifted it each year and poured the sacred libation into the charoset.
I thought about tucking the empty Manischewitz bottle into my carry-on bag and sneaking it home, but I am a notorious pack rat and decided to do the brave thing instead. Before I consigned it to recycling, I set up the old and new bottles side by side, and studied the changes over time. The wine has gone from 12 percent alcohol to 11 percent: my brother who lives in Napa Valley tells me this is presumably a cost-cutting measure. The lovely images of grape leaves are now smaller and less distinct and the dusty blue Concord grapes have become more standard purple grapes on the new bottle. There is less Hebrew, and the looping Hebrew cursive script is gone. The gold Star of David has become smaller. And most notably, the Old World rabbi with the long white beard on the original bottle has disappeared completely on the new bottle.
I don’t know what year Manischewitz edited out that rabbi. I tried to google for a date, but found only a piece from NPR describing how the wine was once popular with African-American men in particular, with a link to a marvelous television ad featuring Sammy Davis Jr. One can imagine that the company made most of the label changes in order to attract a consumer base beyond the Jewish community. As for the rabbi on the bottle, a Manischewitz brand manager was not sure what year the label changed. But she told NPR, “you’re not going to find it on the shelf—and if you do, goodness, don’t drink it, I don’t know how old it is.”
Oops. We did find it on a shelf, in the bottom of the wet bar, in the suburb of my youth. And we did use it in our charoset last year, with no ill effects. But this year, it was time to let go.
In both Christianity and Judaism, the dates for the major spring holidays are guided by an intricate dance of the moon and the sun–the lunisolar calendar. This means Passover and Holy Week (from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday) often overlap. And this year, Good Friday and the first Passover Seder fall on the same night, maximizing the logistical challenges for interfaith families who celebrate both religions. (I first wrote about this convergence in 2012, and again in 2015).
Theologically, many interfaith families experience more cognitive dissonance in the spring, when Passover and Holy Week overlap, than they do in December, with Hanukkah and Christmas. The idea that the Last Supper was a Passover Seder is tantalizing, though historically debatable. But for Jews, this idea may also raise the red flag of supersessionism—the problematic idea that Judaism was simply a starter religion in the evolution of Christianity.
The contrasting moods of Passover and Good Friday may also contribute to the dissonance. Good Friday is a solemn commemoration of the crucifixion and death of Jesus. A Passover Seder is a joyous celebration of the exodus from slavery in Egypt, involving feasting and drinking. (Though this joy may be tempered by acknowledging the violence of the plagues, frustration over the long history of Middle Eastern conflict, and the ongoing effects of slavery and colonial oppression worldwide).
Meanwhile, in the realm of the practical, both Passover and Good Friday involve culinary restrictions. And they are both traditionally marked in the evening. So the overlap this year may pose a greater logistical challenge than the overlap of Passover and Easter (which is celebrated mainly in the morning and afternoon).
So, how to honor both, with grace under pressure? Keep in mind that every family celebration, especially when there are small children involved, is going to be imperfect. As inspiration, I offer the words of multifaith bard Leonard Cohen: “Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
Below, I suggest some possible strategies for this year:
Move the Seder. Many Jewish families celebrate multiple Seders–before, during, and even after the official eight days of Passover. If Christian family members want to fast and attend church on the night of Good Friday this year, consider shifting the first Seder to Saturday night. Some families might even wait to have a Seder on Sunday or Monday night, when the mood will be more festive for both Jewish and Christian family members.
Adapt the Seder. Some Christians may be fine with going to a noon service on Good Friday, and then a first Seder on Friday night. And some interfaith families will feel they must hold the first Seder on the traditional date. In this case, it would be thoughtful to adapt the Seder main dish, if your Christian family members are avoiding meat for the Good Friday fast. So, salmon instead of brisket? Or, explain to extended family ahead of time that your Christian family members may skip the brisket and wine, but partake of the matzoh-charoset-horseradish sandwich and matzoh ball soup, egg and parsley.
Adapt Easter. Whether you have your first Seder on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, or later, look for ways to make Easter easier for Jewish family members. For breakfast, we like to make matzoh brei (eggs scrambled with matzoh) instead of the traditional Easter pancakes—the savory protein dish offsets the sugar rush of Easter candy. And at Easter dinner, my interfaith family serves lamb, a Passover tradition in many Sephardic homes, rather than ham. (Be aware that there is a big debate about whether and what kind of lamb you can eat at Passover). Avoiding ham reduces the culinary dissonance, even in a family like mine that doesn’t keep kosher the rest of the year.
Curate. Trying to reenact every single family Passover and Easter tradition in one weekend may cause parents and children to melt down like Peeps in the microwave. Every family, whether monofaith or interfaith, curates the family traditions they want to preserve, and sets aside others. So, as much as I loved the idea of the Easter cake made in the shape of a lamb, we skip this tradition. I don’t love cake made from matzoh meal, and the idea of cutting into a lamb cake always bothered my vegetarian daughter. Our preferred dessert for the weekend is matzoh toffee brittle. On the other hand, we always make space for dying eggs. We’re a family of artists, and it pleases me that the hard-boiled egg is connected to both holidays.
As always, creating successful family holidays depends on putting yourself in the shoes of others, and clear communication. If a strategy works for you, try to tune out the self-proclaimed experts telling you that you are doing it wrong. Be confident in the knowledge that the different ways to celebrate together are as numerous as the leaves of spring grass.
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.