Today, I am honored to post an essay from guest blogger Shai Wise. –SKM
I was tempted to have this be about how the month of December taught me more about love growing up than almost anything else. Not because of gifts – though they were nice to receive. It wasn’t even because of seeing family although we did that too. It was because my parents balanced December in a way that always made me wonder why people would ask how they “handled it” or what they did about the “December dilemma.”
And it is true that December taught me about love because my dad put up the Christmas tree. Each year my Jewish father would take the box up from the basement. He would lay it out and before he could get too far into his project my mother would take us out to a movie so we wouldn’t learn any “new words.” But that is not what stays in my memory – that isn’t what feels important. It isn’t even that my father refused to allow lights on the tree because he was afraid of fire – because he was convinced we would burn the house down if we put lights on our artificial tree – and as best I can tell we had the same tree my whole childhood.
And I have so many images of December – of my father putting up that tree and my mother scraping wax off the menorahs. She would melt the wax and dig it out and make sure we each had a menorah fresh and clean for lighting candles. She never claimed Judaism as her tradition, she was raised Catholic and would say that it never left her. But she also said it was our tradition and she was going to make sure each holiday was observed and held in the respect it deserved. She never claimed Chanukah as Christmas but she claimed it for what it was – a holiday of revolution, resistance and light. And in preparing the menorahs, making latkes, making sure we read part of the story each night, she claimed it for my father. She loved it because she loved him, She loved it because she loved us.
But December taught me about love because of something else. It taught me about love because the December after my mother died. The first December I was home from college. The first Christmas without my mother. The first Chanukah without my mother. I received two gifts. A reminder from my father over the phone of how to clean wax out of a menorah, directly from my mother’s notes and when I got home the menorahs in our home, the dreidels were still out because my father had done his best to be my mother (even though by the time I arrived home Chanukah was over).
But there was something else. My father got out the Christmas tree and put it up. He didn’t have to. He could have decided that because my mother was gone he no longer needed to do this for her. He could have made the choice to remove himself from the task that he had done out of love for her – he could have stepped away from this one tradition and no one would have questioned him.
But he did it.
He did it because had always done it out of love for my mother. He had carried her in his heart as he put up her tree, the family’s tree, the tree that meant so much to her.
He did it because he knew that in coming home from college, having lost my mother so recently, I would need it. I would need to know that in losing her I wasn’t losing her traditions, her story and her light as well.
My father taught me about love one December when he stepped outside of his own tradition and into my mother’s story one last time so we wouldn’t lose her and her tree all at once.
Shai Wise was raised in an interfaith family in NY and now lives in a multifaith, multiracial family in WI. He has served as congregational clergy and in chaplaincy. He is a Red Sox fan who will cheer for the Brewers in a pinch.
Today, we consider a question I often hear from religious leaders:
Will interfaith families still choose “both” if our traditional religious institutions become more welcoming and inclusive?
The unspoken corollary seems to be:
Can I ignore this “being both” mishegas? It’s not really statistically significant, is it?
This question seems particularly relevant as the 10th anniversary of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Familyapproaches. Approaching the question from a Jewish perspective (which is how many people seem to approach the question), we benefit from the fact that Jewish organizations have spent a lot of time and resources producing data on Jewish demographics. At the Berman Jewish Data Bank, you can peruse the local community studies from cities and regions across the country. Recently, I spent some time pulling out the relevant statistic from the most recent studies, to try to understand how many interfaith couples are choosing to raise children with interfaith education, or “Jewish and another religion.”
And, indeed, a significant percentage of interfaith couples are still choosing this pathway.
How Married Interfaith Couples with One Jewish Partner are Raising Children
From the Berman Jewish Data Bank community studies *when the partner of another religion claims a religion
The variation certainly relates to the different geographic settings, but also to different ways that samples were collected and questions asked. Notably, in Louisville KY, birthplace of my Jewish grandmother, more interfaith families were found to be raising children with Judaism and another religion (27%), than with Judaism alone (24%). In other recent studies, the percentage raising children with both religions was smaller, but still significant.
In LA, the researchers broke the interfaith families into two categories: Jews married to people claiming another religion, and Jews married to people of no religion. Not surprisingly, a much larger percentage of the partners of no religion were willing to raise “just Jewish” children. In LA alone, some 12,000 children are being raised Jewish and another religion.
The LA study was also notable in devoting a brief section to actually considering the question, “What does it mean when parents describe their children as being both Jewish and another religion?” But the response to the question is very brief. The researchers simply note that in this “both” group, “Few households attend any religious services regularly, whether Jewish or non-Jewish services.” The implication is that “both” is a synonym for “neither.” But as the person who has probably spent the most time observing and researching these families, that is simply false. Using service attendance as the primary indicator of religious or spiritual depth is archaic in 2022, when a profusion of online, DIY, and home-based religious and spiritual practices are flourishing, inside and outside the Jewish world.
But the bottom line here is that every recent Jewish communal study documents that the choice to give interfaith children an interfaith education cannot be ignored. And, as we will explore, there is every reason to believe that these studies undercounted the “being both” families.
Why Jewish Communal Studies Yield Skewed Data on Interfaith Families
The main issue with relying on these studies to document interfaith family life is that all of them were funded by Jewish foundations or organizations, ensuring a Jewish lens. For the most part, only the Jewish partners were interviewed. The religious identities of their partners are not even categorized (Catholic? Protestant? Hindu? Unitarian Universalist?).
A primary goal of most of these funders is to figure out how to increase the number of families “doing Jewish.” There is a reluctance to come to terms with what draws family to doing both. And thus there is no insight into what multiple religious practice looks like in these families–what it means, why it is valuable. Ironically, asking these questions could only help those who seek to increase Jewish engagement.
The most limiting factor in using these studies to think about “doing both, being both” families is the sampling. In order to make sure to reach as many Jews as possible, these studies used methods including identifying “Jewish” surnames, and outreach through Jewish organizations such as synagogues and Jewish schools. Obviously, these methods are less likely to reach interfaith families with Irish or South Asian surnames. And they are less likely to reach “doing both” families that have given up on Jewish institutions that keep excluding them, or who are just more interested in online and home-based practices, or who thrive on forming their own interfaith communities. None of these families are going to pop up on Jewish organizational lists.
Furthermore, these studies do not ask, “Why are you doing both?” So they provide no insight into whether or not these couples wanted to engage more deeply, and could not find welcoming communities. There is no consideration of the idea that these families may not feel a need to affiliate with traditional religious institutions for spiritual fulfillment, or even for community support.
It is clear that interfaith families doing both or being both have been, and are going to be, undercounted and misunderstood in these Jewish communal studies.
Nevertheless, even these Jewish communal studies show that we’re here, we’re demographically significant, and we’re not going anywhere.
Children born into interfaith families have an intuitive understanding of the benefits and challenges of interfaith family life. But what happens when a child suddenly finds themselves at the center of a new interfaith family, when a parent remarries or chooses a new partner? The new blended family can be both enriched and complicated by cultural and religious differences.
Brand New Bubbe by Sarah Aronson is the first picture book to address the sudden formation of an interfaith family through remarriage, from a child’s perspective. The story, by an experienced children’s author, is told with great charm and gentle humor, and accompanied by engaging illustrations. The book is highly recommended for children struggling to adjust to a new interfaith family, or any blended family. Brand New Bubbe is a unique and important addition to the small but growing list of books written for and about children in interfaith families.
Jillian, who has grown up in a family that is not Jewish, finds her new Jewish stepdad “really nice.” But she’s not sure at first about her new grandmother: “Jillian already had a Noni and a Gram. Bubbe didn’t get the hint.” Psychologically, Jillian’s discomfort in adjusting to the new family is displaced onto Bubbe as a safe target.
Jillian, a spirited only child vaguely reminiscent of the iconic Eloise, goes on a protest strike, refusing to give in to Bubbe’s lavish affections. She worries that her beloved Noni and Gram will feel left out, or replaced. The detailed illustrations amplify the subtle humor, with a parallel plot involving the tension between Jillian’s cat and Bubbe’s small dog. When Jillian stages her protest, the cat joins in, carrying a sign protesting Bubbe’s dog.
Jillian’s mother finally intervenes to point out that Jillian is being too tough on Bubbe. Jillian ultimately works through her dilemma of how to integrate Bubbe into the family by inviting all three grandmothers to come to a soup celebration. They cook together, share the meal together, and love ultimately abounds and prevails. The moral of the story, once again, is that the more supportive people we have in our lives (and the more soup), the better. And by association, for me, the implication is that our lives can be enriched by multiple religions in one extended family.
Brand New Bubbe is enhanced by excellent recipes for Bubbe’s matzoh ball soup, Noni’s Italian wedding soup, and Gram’s gazpacho. (I judge they are excellent by the inclusion of parsnips in the matzoh ball soup). The book also includes a brief resource section, including a shout-out to The Interfaith Family Journal.
Brand New Bubbe is not didactic on the subject of Judaism (or anything else). Beyond matzoh balls, there is only brief reference to the unfamiliar new holidays Jillian is experiencing, and to her exposure to new Yiddish words like kvelling and kvetching. Instead, Brand New Bubbe focuses on the child’s emotional journey–her resistance and evolution as part of a new interfaith family. Jillian expresses a kaleidoscope of feelings as she goes through this evolution–at first worried, petulant, and disruptive, but ultimately resourceful, creative, and affectionate.
By the end of the book, Jillian has assumed the role of an interfaith ambassador, working to build bridges, in order to play her part in creating a new and successful interfaith family. This feisty protagonist is a great addition to the interfaith family canon, and I hope there will be sequels. In the final pages of Brand New Bubbe, the observant reader will note the arrival of a baby, raising the possibility of a sequel on siblings in a blended interfaith family. I look forward to reading what happens next for Jillian, and Bubbe.
We have to call it big news when a generally conservative Jewish media outlet summons 10 “non-Jewish spouses” of Jews and asks them about anything. So the publication of the piece in The Tablet last week, entitled “The Minyan: Non-Jewish Spouses,” represents progress. And that’s because most of the Jewish press coverage and academic work on interfaith families has been based on interviews and surveys with the Jewish partners, and only the Jewish partners. My book Being Both, almost a decade after publication, is still a rare source on what both partners in interfaith relationships think, and feel.
I also appreciated that two of the twelve “non-Jewish” partners in this group conversation are raising children with both family religions, and that they were allowed to explain what they see as the benefits of this choice. Andrea, who was raised Presbyterian, married a Jew, and now sees herself as interfaith, explains to the group, “I think that kind of bi-literacy, bilingualism, can increase our understanding in the world. Everything is so fractional right now, so divisive. I just have hope that people who are in interreligious marriages are maybe a microcosm for how the world can bridge difference.” And Kavya, a Hindu married to a Jew, adds “it’s not that novel, the idea that our children can celebrate two deep lineages and backgrounds.”
This published conversation also adds to the growing body of literature describing the tremendous damage done by exclusion of interfaith couples, including refusal to officiate at marriages, family members who refuse to visit, and family members who refuse to attend weddings. And it adds to the literature describing the tremendous damage done by gender-based religious gatekeeping in the form of excluding children of Jewish patrilineal descent. These parents describe a refusal to perform a bris, an interfaith child raised Jewish who studied and jumped through every Jewish hoop but was still called a non-Jew, and a rabbi who ripped tefillin off a boy’s body.
All of this is important for a Jewish audience to hear. And yet, this piece is also an example of a very focused Jewish lens, a lens that distorts the experience of people married to Jews through selection bias, and the choice of questions. To start with, not one of these 12 partners-of-Jews actually currently identifies as Christian, according to the bios. So the Jewish bias is already inherent in the selection of a sample of partners who have mostly left Christianity behind. The editors also “deliberately narrowed the field to those married to Jews who care about being Jewish.” What does that even mean? In this case, it means this is a conversation primarily among people who married “practicing” Jews and agreed to put aside their own religion, or who had left their own religion, and are raising “Jewish only” children. Eight out of ten couples with children in this sample are raising children “Jewish only,” which is a huge oversampling of that subgroup.
And, note that all of the questions, with the exception of a nod to the (arguably secular) Christmas tree and Easter eggs, are about Judaism. And even the tree and eggs are discussed in terms of their effects on the Jewish partners. The discussion topics include Passover, the High Holidays, Torah study, Israel, Jewish persecution, and conversion to Judaism. These partners are asked how their Jewish in-laws felt about the marriage, but not how their own (mostly Christian) parents felt. There are zero questions about how they feel about leaving their religions behind, whether there are traditions that they miss, what their children might gain from Christian (or Hindu) extended family. In the end, it’s an interesting discussion, but it’s not really about these partners of Jews at all. It’s about (once again) what it all means for Judaism.
All of my life, even before writing two books on the topic, I have worked to explain that interfaith families have expertise in interfaith peacemaking.
If you want to learn how to have interfaith work relationships, school relationships, community relationships, then look to interfaith families for clues. Talk to the people who embody interfaith relationships full-time.
Over a decade ago now, I wrote on this topic for Huffington Post, and and on my blog. And still, I see national “interfaith” organizations launch without any reference to the growing demographic importance of interfaith families. And still, international “World’s Religions” conferences do not keynote interfaith families as a driving force in interfaith understanding, despite our growing numbers.
I do see real progress in the evolution beyond the traditional top-down “three old white clergymen with beards” model of interfaith Abrahamic conversation (one rabbi, one priest, and one imam). I see real progress in the more contemporary and inclusive panels representing diverse races and genders and many religions, and even a secular humanist or two. And yet, too often, there is still no space at this table for people who openly represent interfaith families. In fact, often there remains a tacit understanding that some clergy come to the interfaith conversation only with the agreement that the whole topic of interfaith families is off the table, or a bridge too far. And yet, more and more of us embody those bridges.
And so, it is tremendously affirming to welcome to the world a Belgian documentary film, “Nous Tous,” (or, “All of Us” in English), that acknowledges interfaith families as an important example of interfaith peacemaking. And this week, until May 22nd, you can stream it for free on youtube HERE in conjunction with tomorrow’s UN International Day of Living Together in Peace. The film documents the inspiring stories of people creating community across religious difference in five countries: Bosnia, Indonesia, Lebanon, Senegal, and the US. Director Pierre Pirard first contacted me three years ago, while planning to visit the United States to film US footage for the documentary. I met the crew in New York, and was honored to be filmed as an expert on interfaith families.
The portions of the film in the US and Senegal directly address interfaith families as peacemakers. Pirard and his crew went to Florida to film Rorri Geller-Mohamed (Jewish), her husband Arif (Muslim), and their extended Jewish and Muslim families, celebrating their two religions together. Then they traveled to Long Island to film the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities on the Brookville Multifaith Campus, a community I described for The Washington Post in 2016. At the heart of that campus, an Interfaith Community created by and for interfaith families provides Jewish and Christian interfaith education, though their central role is not described in the film. (For more on the roots of the Multifaith Campus, read Being Both, or my 2016 Q&A with Reverend Vicky Eastland).
Will “All of US” help more people to understand that interfaith families can be joyous, can be inspirational, can be role models–rather than a problem to be solved, or a threat? I think it will. The power of film–the images, the sound, the intimacy–is undeniable. I first noticed this when I appeared in the documentary Leaps of Faiths, which chronicles interfaith families in Chicago. I had written about these Chicago families in Being Both, on my blog, and in the press. But even for interfaith family members who had read all of my descriptions of Chicago interfaith family communities, seeing them on film, seeing the embodied love in families that mirrored their own, was profoundly moving.
The last two pandemic years have been difficult for all of us. But they have also created more awareness of our global interconnections. Give yourself the gift of spending 90 minutes with “All of Us”: stop in on four continents, and breathe in some hope, some inspiration, some optimism.
The crescent moon will appear this Saturday night, marking the start of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting and reflection. I am a Jewish and Christian interfaith kid who spent three years in Senegal, a predominantly Muslim country, so I pay attention to our intersecting religious calendars. And this year, we will have a great convergence, as all three Abrahamic religions mark important religious holidays on the night of April 15th. Good Friday falls not only on the night of the first Passover seder, but in the middle of Ramadan. So interfaith families, whether Jewish and Christian, Christian and Muslim, Jewish and Muslim, or encompassing all three religions, will need to do some extra planning this year.
It is not uncommon for Good Friday to fall during Holy Week (from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday). This is because both Christianity and Judaism are guided by an intricate dance of the moon and the sun–the lunisolar calendar–for these spring holidays . When Good Friday and the first Passover Seder fall on the same night, it can maximize the logistical and emotional challenges for interfaith families who celebrate both religions. (I first wrote about this convergence in 2012, and again in 2015, 2018 and 2019). Meanwhile, Ramadan is on a fully lunar calendar, so the month shifts through the seasons of our Gregorian solar calendar year.
Theologically, many interfaith families experience more cognitive dissonance in the spring holidays, than they do in December. Some Jewish and Muslim family members find it easier to celebrate the birth of Jesus with Christian family members, than they do to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus as the only son of God and the central event that led to the creation of Christianity. And for Jews, historically Holy Week was a time of pogroms and increased antisemitism in Europe, and that generational trauma can persist.
The idea that the Last Supper was a Passover Seder is a tantalizing point of connection, 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 recent enthusiasm among evangelical Christian communities for holding “Christian seders” without Jews there to guide them has also created friction. Although to be clear, inviting Christians–whether family or friends–to a seder led by Jews does not pose the same problems.
The contrasting moods of Passover and Good Friday may also create a challenge. Good Friday is a solemn commemoration of the crucifixion. A Passover Seder is a joyous celebration of the exodus from slavery in Egypt, involving feasting and drinking. This joy is tempered by acknowledging the violence of the plagues, and the ongoing effects of slavery and colonial oppression worldwide. And the Exodus story, which turns on conflict between Jews and Egyptians, can trigger discomfort in interfaith families given ongoing conflict in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, in the realm of the practical, both Passover (no leaven) and Good Friday (no meat) involve culinary restrictions. And the emphasis on wine as a key ritual component of the seder can pose a problem for Muslim family members.
Nevertheless, despite the challenges and inspired by our differences, we create families across religious boundaries, and insist on marking holidays together, in all our complexity and diversity. So, in a year like this one, how to honor two or three religions, with grace under pressure? Keep in mind that every family celebration, especially when there are small children involved, is going to be imperfect. As multifaith bard Leonard Cohen reminds us, “Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
Here, I suggest some practical strategies for the spring holiday convergence this year:
Flexible Scheduling. 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 a night later in the week, when the mood could be more festive for both Jewish and Christian family members.
Adapt the Seder Menu. 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? This would also please pescatarians and those who don’t eat red meat. Or, explain to extended family ahead of time that your Christian family members may skip the brisket, and fill up on matzoh ball soup.
Honor the Sunset. When holding a Passover seder during Ramadan in a Jewish and Muslim interfaith family, be sure to time the first seder foods for after sundown, which will not be until 7:45pm on April 15th this year on the East Coast of the US. This way, Muslim family members will be able to break their fast by sharing in the Passover meal. As early as 1806, Thomas Jefferson moved the time for an official White House dinner to sunset, in order to accommodate a Muslim envoy from Tunisia. Muslim and Christian families might also consider holding the Easter meal after dark this year, during Ramadan.
Consider the Fruit of the Vine. Fancy sparkling non-alcoholic grape juice for children has always been a part of most seders. In our family, over the years, numerous family members have stopped drinking alcohol because they live with addiction, because they are elderly, or for other health reasons. With Muslim guests and family members in attendance, consider shifting to sparkling grape juice for all. Your relatives in recovery will appreciate it. And the blessing over the fruit of the vine works just as well!
Honor the Iftar. The foods included in an Iftar meal to break the Ramadan fast vary with different cultures. Of course providing water is important, and many break the fast with dates. Why not include plates of dates on the seder table? And in the spirit of Passover as a celebration of social justice and liberation, some people include an olive on the seder plate for Palestinians and all oppressed peoples. Olives are typically included in an Iftar feast, and plates of olives to pass around the seder table feels like a welcoming gesture.
Consider the Passover Liturgy. The haggadah, the booklet of prayers and songs and reflections to guide the seder service and meal, has myriad versions, including placing the Exodus story in conversation with civil rights, the plight of refugees, or LGBTQ+ experiences. Many families create their own haggadot, drawing on multiple sources. For a Jewish and Muslim interfaith family seder, you might want to take a look at this 2019 haggadah including Muslim prayers and readings from the Qur’an, created by and for Jewish and Muslim women holding a seder together with the Sisterhood of Salaam-Shalom.
Adapt the Easter Menu. When Easter falls during Passover, look for ways to make Easter easier for Jewish family members avoiding leavened bread. 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 for both Jews and Muslims in interfaith families.
Try Not to Stress. Attempting to reenact every single family Passover and Easter and Ramadan tradition in one night may cause parents and children to melt down like Peeps in the microwave. Every family, whether monofaith or interfaith, instinctively curates the family traditions they want to preserve, and sets aside others. So, for instance, as much as I loved the idea of my mother’s traditional Easter cake made in the shape of a lamb, my family now skips this tradition. I don’t love cake made from matzoh meal, and the idea of cutting into a lamb cake would not amuse my vegan daughter now. Our preferred dessert for the weekend is matzoh toffee brittle.
As always, creating successful interfaith family holidays depends on putting yourself in the shoes of others, clear communication, and flexibility. If a strategy works for you, try to tune out the self-proclaimed experts telling you that you are doing it wrong, that your innovations are inauthentic, or that you have to do it all. Remember that all religious traditions change over time: they cannot be pinned down like desiccated butterfly specimens in a museum case. Be confident in the knowledge that the different ways to celebrate together are as numerous as the leaves of spring grass.
This was another long, hard winter, with the pandemic continuing, and too much isolation for all of us. Today, on Valentine’s Day, we had flurries of snow here in DC, but the delicate snowdrops are already blooming with the promise of spring.
Valentine’s Day, for me, always means remembering the epic interfaith marriage of my parents. They got married on February 13th, 1960, in a snowstorm in upstate New York. When they woke up the next morning, they ate a one-pound chocolate heart for breakfast on Valentine’s Day together in bed. And every year, for Valentine’s Day, my father drew awkward and hilarious valentines for my mother, and for each of his four children, on the cardboard that came from the dry cleaners with his folded business shirts.
So Valentine’s Day has always been a family tradition for us. Every day for over 50 years of marriage, until death parted them, my parents demonstrated for me the idea that you can have a successful interfaith marriage. All of my work is a tribute to their joy, their creativity, their way of accentuating the positive.
And as a result, I look forward to the fact that I get to retell a bit of their story every year, when I get calls from media wanting to talk about interfaith love stories as Valentine’s Day approaches. This year, I was honored to be part of an hour-long show this weekend about interfaith families, on Interfaith Voices, the radio show broadcast on 90 radio stations across the country. And I have more podcast appearances coming up, so stay tuned.
I am also appearing at more than one interfaith couples workshop this season. My parents taught me that being in an interfaith relationship depends on deep communication skills. So I am always eager to talk to couples just starting out on their journeys together, and to provide them with the tools and advice built into The Interfaith Family Journal.
Even after more than a decade of talking about interfaith families professionally, I am finding new ways to see the world through the lens that is my legacy. Right now, I am putting together a new talk for college students on Complex Identities and Interfaith Relationships, after an invitation to return to Lafayette College this spring. I look forward to bringing that talk to more colleges, universities, and seminaries, so contact me now for 2022 bookings.
And coming up soon, on Sunday February 27th, I have the honor of co-facilitating a completely new interactive workshop with Rabbi Mark Sameth, entitled “Non-Binary God, Non-Binary Spirituality.” Watch this video, in which we get excited about the workshop. And register now to join us. I know my father, the grandson and nephew of rabbis, would have been proud of this new work. He wanted me to be an engineer, like him, but I know he also understood why making space for interfaith families became my calling.
In the most well-known dharma talk by beloved Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, he contemplates drinking a cloud in a cup of tea. The cloud never dies–it transitions to a raindrop, to a river, to the tea in his cup. Yesterday, we learned of the peaceful transition at age 95 of Thich Nhat Hanh, or Thay (“teacher”), as he was known to those who followed his mindfulness practice. We must now look for him in the clouds, in the rain, in the steam rising from our tea.
Thich Nhat Hanh was an author of many influential books, and a peace activist nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967 by Martin Luther King Jr. His teachings were the primary inspiration for Engaged Buddhism. And his practice had particular significance for many interfaith families, and multiple religious practitioners including Buddhist Jews, and Buddhist Christians.
My interfaith children have been known to describe their identities as Jewish and Christian swirl with a ribbon of Buddhism. Their formative introduction to the teachings of Thay came through three family friends and teachers: Paul Wapner, Sharron Mendel Swain, and Reverend Julia Jarvis. Julia was our longtime Spiritual Leader at the Interfaith Families Project. She came to us as a Christian minister, but she also infused our gatherings with Buddhist meditation and teachings, and brought us Buddhist teachers including Mitchell Ratner, and Kaira Jewel Lingo. So my interfaith children grew up listening to the ringing of bowls, and the silence that follows.
In 2011, I was lucky when Julia invited me to the Warner Theater in Washington DC to see and hear Thay. Arriving, I was slightly skeptical about spending an entire evening listening to a diminutive elderly monk seated on a stage. But then, I was riveted by Thay’s quiet presence, the depth of his words, his compassion, and his humor as he described that cloud in his cup of tea. May his memory be for a blessing!
Buddhism has long had a following among adult interfaith children and interfaith families. Our friend Sharron was raised by one Jewish and one Christian parent. She found a spiritual home in Buddhism in her 20s, and spent time in Plum Village, the Buddhist community created by Thay in France. She went on to teach in our interfaith families community, worked in UU religious education, and eventually converted to Judaism.
Years ago, I asked Sharron about the appeal of Buddhism for her, as someone born into an interfaith family. Today, I reprint our Q&A here, in memory of Thay.
Susan: Why does Buddhism seem to have particular appeal for some interfaith families and interfaith people?
Sharron: The beautiful thing about Buddhism is that it never, in my experience, asks someone to choose. For example, in the Plum Village tradition in which I practice, it would be unthinkable to ask someone of mixed race parentage, “are you Black or are you White”? Same with asking someone with Vietnamese parents who was raised in the US: “are you Vietnamese or are you American?” Anyone who’s been around for any time would get it that you’re both! It would be like asking a child “are you your father’s child or your mother’s child”? Of course you are the child of both. . .
One of the central tenets, if you can call it that, of this practice is the notion of “interbeing.” Interbeing is a deep recognition of how intricately interconnected our world is, from the subatomic level to the level of the cosmos. Looking deeply, it is possible to see that Christianity cannot exist without Judaism, and Judaism as it is today cannot exist independently of Christianity.
For me, it is as if Christianity and Judaism are two rivers of my family’s experience flowing into the ocean of my life and experience. Buddhism is the one place I have found that is big enough to embrace the whole ocean, never asking me to choose.
Susan: Do you see Buddhism as having particular benefits for interfaith people/families?
Sharron: Buddhism doesn’t concern itself with the same questions, and is therefore focused on something other than the arguments that have been plaguing Christians and Jews for centuries, if not millennia. The Buddha himself said he was not interested in the question of whether or not there was a God, and therefore focused his efforts and attention in a whole different direction. Buddhism (when not practiced in a rote or devotional way, like anything else) is deeply experiential by nature. It has a built-in “out” in that the Buddha basically said “look, try this, and decide based on your experience, not what I say.” This is extraordinarily appealing to folks who have probably already broken a number of rules by venturing far enough outside their birth faith to marry someone raised in another faith. Buddhism has countless practices that, if applied skillfully, can significantly assist in the process of transforming suffering, no matter what someone’s “religious” orientation may be.
And, an ironic thing about Buddhist practice is that it almost invariably leads the practitioner into a much closer examination of, and often deeper appreciation of, the religion (family, etc.) with which they were raised. This often helps people arrive at a much more mature appreciation of the treasures buried in their birth traditions, and an ability to see the “garbage” for what it is.
Sharron: The Buddha is completely innocent when it comes to the question of Christ’s death. Jews have been burdened for centuries with false allegations around this event, and all manner of prejudice and discrimination that flows from that. Neither the Buddha, nor Buddhists, to my knowledge, participated in Crusades, or Inquisitions, or other bloody ways of spreading their faith. Jews also, in many cases, have developed a strong (and justified) “fortress mentality” in the face of centuries of persecution. The fact that the Holocaust was the experience of the older generation of Jews that is still living has undoubtedly created cultural and generational wounds that may take centuries to heal.
Nonviolence and nonharm are central to Buddhism. People come into Buddhism with all kinds of wounds and baggage, but if they stick with it long enough, it helps transform all that. There’s a recognition, perhaps like the Christian acknowledgement of sin, that we all suffer, but there’s no judgement with that. It’s more like “we are alive, and so we suffer, we feel rage, we discriminate, etc. And we have the power to transform that suffering. We’ve got all the ‘wholesome seeds’ within us, too. This means that no matter how much anger or hatred is in us, we can shift the focus and nurture the altruism, the forgiveness, the kindness, and so on.”
This is a profoundly healing perspective, and when it is combined with skillful teachers and real practice, it changes lives.
1. The First Mindfulness Training: Openness
Why: Could you expand on the idea of Interbeing, a concept that sounds very relevant to interfaith families?
The first three mindfulness trainings of the Order of Interbeing (at least in Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition) may give some insight into what Buddhism offers:
Aware of the suffering created by fanaticism and intolerance, we are determined not to be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist teachings are guiding means to help us learn to look deeply and to develop our understanding and compassion. They are not doctrines to fight, kill, or die for.
2. The Second Mindfulness Training: Nonattachment from Views
Aware of the suffering created by attachment to views and wrong perceptions, we are determined to avoid being narrow-minded and bound to present views. We shall learn and practice nonattachment from views in order to be open to others’ insights and experiences. We are aware that the knowledge we presently possess is not changeless, absolute truth. Truth is found in life, and we will observe life within and around us in every moment, ready to learn throughout our lives.
3. The Third Mindfulness Training: Freedom of Thought
Aware of the suffering brought about when we impose our views on others, we are committed not to force others, even our children, by any means whatsoever – such as authority, threat, money, propaganda, or indoctrination – to adopt our views. We will respect the right of others to be different and to choose what to believe and how to decide. We will, however, help others renounce fanaticism and narrowness through practicing deeply and engaging in compassionate dialogue.
On the first night of Hanukkah, I returned from my ancestral homeland, Honesdale, PA. This town, where my great-great grandparents are buried, lies in a deep valley in the foothills of the Poconos, at the confluence of the Lackawaxen River and Dyberry Creek. In Honesdale, we gather together from across the country every Thanksgiving. And on the night after Thanksgiving this year, we arrived at our teeny tiny ancestral temple for Shabbat prayers with my extended family, a mixed multitude of Jews and Christians and blood relatives and relatives-by-choice. This year, my young cousin Elizabeth led the prayers in the sanctuary where my father became a Bar Mitzvah.
Throughout our history, since my great-grandfather helped found Beth Israel congregation in 1849, we have often led services ourselves. Some weeks, in some years, rabbis drive over from New York City to lead Shabbat for us, but my family has been leading prayers on Fridays at our temple through four generations now. This week my cousin Liza, the current president of the congregation, arrived early and lit the electric yahrzeit (memorial) lights next to the names of all our family members–including my father and my (Episcopalian) mother–lighting up half the yarhrzeit plaques in the room. Once, this temple was thought to be the smallest in the world. We are small but historic, proud and persistent–the second-oldest synagogue in the country still occupied by the original congregation.
Earlier that day, I sat in the living room of the house my grandfather built for my grandmother in 1922, and listened as my son recorded his grandfather’s sister–still sharp and witty at 94–on his iPhone. Aunt Corinne told the story of the flood of 1942, when she was 14. It was a Friday night, and she went to temple with my grandparents and her little sister for the informal lay-led Shabbat prayers. Keep in mind that the temple is perched directly on the riverbank, just blocks downstream from the point where the Dyberry flows into the Lackawaxen.
Typically, in the 1930s and 40s, in winter, after 20 minutes of Shabbat prayers the whole congregation would go over to Honesdale High School for the weekly basketball game. My father’s band, The Swing Seven, would play for the dance after the game. But by 1942, my father had graduated and gone off to MIT. And it was May, not basketball season, and the waters were rising, so they all hurried home after the prayers, to the house ten blocks upstream, on Dyberry Creek.
At that point my grandfather, as he had before in past floods, somehow hoisted the Steinway grand piano up onto stacks of books, hoping to keep it above the water rising from the floorboards. My grandmother and aunts retreated to the second floor. But then, my grandmother realized her children might get hungry, and went back down to the kitchen to get them some bread from the pantry. As she entered the pantry, the waters whooshed the door closed behind her, and almost trapped her. But she was a very small person (we are a family of small people) and she was able to squeeze out and slosh her way back upstairs. Late that night, the floodwaters on the Lackawaxen peaked at 50,000 cubic feet per second, killing 26 people and destroying 75 homes in Honesdale. The flood washed out every bridge in town, as well as the prized 1933 stained glass windows in the temple.
At the house of my grandparents, my aunt watched from the landing of the stairs as the grand piano rose up and turtled, floating upside down in six feet of water in the living room. The next day, from the safety of the roof, she saw a rowboat glide down her street, with a neighbor distributing bread to those trapped on rooftops. And she saw planes buzzing overhead, photographing the flood from the air.
The phone lines were out, and no one could reach my father with news they were safe. Several states away, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, an MIT classmate asked him, “Hey Katz! What’s the name again of your little town in Pennsylvania again?” My father replied, “Honesdale!” And his classmate said, “Well it’s flooded and it’s on the front page of the paper. Look at this photo!”
When the waters subsided, and the phones finally got reconnected, my grandfather called Steinway to report four grand pianos owned by different family members in town, all submerged in the Honesdale flood. Steinway declared them beyond repair, and my grandparents began a search for a new piano. As my aunt recounted this story, sitting in the living room of her childhood home, we all looked over at the replacement Steinway. The temple made the practical decision to replace the destroyed stained glass windows with plain glass. My aunts got sent away to a relative in the countryside for weeks while my grandparents cleaned and repaired the house. And eventually two dams were built–on the Lackawaxen and the Dyberry–to prevent another deadly flood.
I realized this week, in that temple sanctuary, and in the living room of the house of my grandparents, and at the Thanksgiving meal where we entertained ourselves with a fashion parade of Katz pajamas, that we were taking risks this year. Last year, we did not gather at all. This year, we made a fraught decision to gather in spite of the pandemic, fully vaccinated and with testing and masks, because one can only go so long without family. Each year is precious, because each year we remember together the new marriages and deaths, and listen to stories from our elders, stories that may be lost.
This year, because of the alignment of the sun and moon and the secular calendar, we just missed celebrating Hanukkah together. By the time Hanukkah arrived on Sunday night, we had all gone home–to San Francisco, New York, Boston, and Washington DC. As I lit the first candle in our window, alone with my husband and our pandemic puppy, I thought about miracles.
I thought about the connections between the Hanukkah miracle of light in the darkness, of the miracle of tenacity in hostile environments, of escape from narrow places, of self-sufficiency, of adversity as the mother of innovation, of physical and emotional repair. I thought about the miracle of diversity that enriches our given and chosen interfaith families. And I thought about how objects become imbued with history, with spiritual resonance. Sometimes a Steinway is lost, and we feel desperate to replace it. Sometimes stained glass windows are lost, and plain glass just makes more sense. Sometimes a temple is ransacked, and all it takes is a little oil to persist with rituals that heal and bind.
I have trouble letting go of the stories from each generation, the objects left behind. And that is how I found myself yesterday driving away from Honesdale, over the mountains, in a car filled with a rotary telephone, a hatbox, vintage Pyrex, embroidered linens, and photographs, desperate to preserve family history from the floodwaters of time. Inevitably I know that some precious objects, and some stories, will be lost, and some will be passed down. And I feel a sense of gratitude that my son wanted both my aunt’s words recorded on his iPhone, and that rusted enamel colander with the missing handle.
And so we reach that most reductive time of the year, when the choices of Jewish and Christian interfaith families are judged by whether they celebrate Hanukkah, or Christmas, or both, or neither.
In my opinion, this is a poor method for understanding the textured and nuanced lives of interfaith families. To take just one example of our complexity, many “we are Jewish, period” families celebrate Christmas as a sort of cultural exception (in a secular way, or, say, with Christian grandparents). So, the choices an interfaith family makes around “winter holidays” provide only very limited insight into the spirituality, beliefs, practices, and identities of the various family members.
This year (as in every year), a number of families with one Jewish parent and one parent raised Christian are making emphatic statements about why they do not celebrate Christmas. What troubles me about these statements is not the choice these interfaith families made–it’s a choice that works for some families. What troubles me is the erasure of the spouse who is not Jewish, whose journey and feelings are rarely acknowledged by Jewish writers in the Jewish press.
One such essay this season is entitled “No, We Don’t Celebrate Both.” I take this headline as a sort of tribute, in that “doing both” is becoming a more familiar concept in our culture. In this essay, a Jewish mother rejects the label “interfaith family” (and also the label “interracial family”), detailing why she and her husband (who is Black) consider themselves only a Jewish family, and do not celebrate Christmas. She uses the familiar “we are celebrating someone else’s birthday” metaphor to explain to her children why, in spite of this decision, they bring Christmas presents to her husband’s Christian family. But she does not mention how or why she and her husband negotiated this choice, or the current religious or secular identity of her husband, who grew up Christian, and who seems to have no presence or voice in the essay.
And in the new animated short film “Blewish,” the protagonist is a boy with a Jewish mother and a Black father (a father who presumably was not raised Jewish, although we have no idea how he was raised, and of course multigenerational Black Jewish families exist). The boy faces a teacher and classmates who assume he celebrates Christmas, and white Jewish children who do not accept him as Jewish because he is Black, initiating a brief identity crisis. The six-minute film’s creator is himself the child of a Jewish mother and a Black father, and grew up in Conservative Judaism.
I love that adult interfaith children are using their voices and creating art and commentary. “Blewish” begins to fill a significant gap, in depicting the experiences of Black and Jewish children from their own perspective rather than from the parents’ perspective. But once again, the Black father’s religious identity (or even cultural identity) is not represented in the film. Is he an atheist? A convert to Judaism? A practicing Protestant? In Jewish media, and art, the parent of another religious heritage too often remains silent. (Ironically, this is a silent animated film, so everyone remains silent). But my point is that the perspective in this film, like so much written for interfaith kids, is very firmly that of a Jewish family member, minimizing the input or representation of any immediate or extended family members who practice another religion.
One must note how often these stories come to us from families with a Jewish mother–families who feel secure claiming Judaism for children who are “matrilineal” in their Jewishness. The authors of these stories may not be able to fully empathize with the more complex issues facing “patrilineal” Jewish families. All of us with interfaith heritage face the exhausting push and pull of two kinds of statements from society: “You’re Not Jewish Enough,” and “You’re Not Really Jewish.” But the calculus of what to do with this unsolicited advice, with these aggressions from inside and outside the Jewish world, plays out differently for matrilineal and patrilineal interfaith Jewish children.
For two decades now, I have been working to increase awareness of the diversity of interfaith families, and of the right for families to choose the practices and identities that work best for them. My second book, The Interfaith Families Journal, is devoted to helping families through this process, whether that means no Christmas, a secular Christmas, or heralding the Christmas angels.
Of these pathways, doing bothHanukkah and Christmas, and being both Jewish and Christian, is a demographically significant choice. A recent study of Jewish Chicago found 21% of interfaith families with one Jewish parent raising children in two religions. In my opinion, this is an underestimate, given that the sampling drew heavily from mailing lists connected to Jewish institutions. (Other studies have found the percentage of interfaith families with one Jewish parent raising kids with both religions to be 44% in Toronto, 46% in western Massachusetts, and 34% in Minnesota’s Twin Cities).
Nevertheless, the annual Hanukkah/Christmas skirmish triggers a defensive backlash from people who don’t approve of interfaith marriage, or don’t approve of choosing both. The wildest year involved a Jewish writer comparing me to a Barbie doll dressed as a “fancy-hot-pants prostitute.” Go figure.
We are facing another long, dark winter of trying pandemic times. Let us all strive to be gentle with one another, and find ways to bring light, whether that is the light of Diwali, Hanukkah, Christmas, Yule, or all of them. And let us all work to channel empathy for other interfaith families, and the choices they make.