Kol Nidre… at Old St. Patrick’s Church

Every November, I find myself thinking about how to sustain the inspiration many of us find at annual interfaith Thanksgiving services. Right now, more than ever, we must look for ways to support and connect with each other across religious divides. So today, I am delighted to bring you this essay from guest bloggers David Kovacs and Steve Ordower. –SKM

It was a Sunday Mass at Old St. Pat’s. The city’s oldest public building (it survived the Chicago Fire), this downtown Chicago Roman Catholic Church has a 160-year history of hospitality, welcoming generations of immigrants from Ireland and elsewhere. Today its diverse parishioners come from over 200 zip codes. And for almost 30 years, Old St. Pat’s has welcomed interfaith families.

As always, worship began with the penitential rite, a shared meditative moment of confession. But this time, the music heard was Kol Nidre.

In two days, it would be the eve of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when this haunting melody would touch Jews around the world. Rabbi Ari Moffic joined Father Pat McGrath to offer a blessing. She introduced the meaning of Kol Nidre as she invited 800 people to share the moment together. “It was profoundly spiritual,” she reflected. “For Catholics, it was a deeply meaningful way to experience that penitential part of the Mass. And for interfaith families, they could interweave these parts of their lives and their heritages through this music that’s part of their hearts and souls.”

We captured this remarkable event in a new Leaps of Faiths video. This project is a true “Leap” for us – we’re creating a documentary about interfaith families, the choices they make, and their hopes for their kids and their spiritual lives together. Our film will respect any choice a family makes regarding their home and religious life, while taking a closer look at what happens for those who decide to “do both.” Over a generation, we’ve seen they can raise children who grow up far from confused; indeed many often develop deep connections to one or both faith traditions. St. Pat’s has become a spiritual home to many of them: a Catholic community where Judaism is valued and honored, liturgically and educationally. Much of our footage is from the Chicago Interfaith Family School, hosted by St. Pat’s and run by interfaith families whose children grow though grades K-8 learning both faiths, taught by their parents.

Another arc of our story is what happens when clergy regularly co-officiate. Father John Cusick and Rabbi Chava Bahle led the first Kol Nidre experience at Old St. Pat’s a few years ago. For many years at St. Pat’s, under the leadership of Pastors Jack Wall and Tom Hurley, and at some Chicago area synagogues, rabbis and priests have often stood side-by-side. They have led worship experiences and celebrated sacraments and rites of passage. As they make interfaith families feel welcome, they also enhance these experiences for Jews and Christians together, breaking down divisions in polarized times. As one parishioner said after praying to the melody of Kol Nidre, “The way the world is going, this is what we need. Seeing this it gives me a little bit more hope.”

We hear her voice in the video, along with clergy, interfaith parents, and kids, reflecting about the experience. “There is a fear that if a family wants to raise children with a dual faith identity that their children will be confused about an authentic Jewish expression,” says Rabbi Moffic. “Interfaith education programs like the Family School and worship experiences like this show that these families want Judaism in their lives in real ways and seek it out. It’s incumbent upon Jewish leaders to support and foster that.”

Susan Katz Miller has been our friend for many years and will be another voice in our film. The Family School, the Interfaith Families Project in Washington D.C., and the Interfaith Community in the New York Metro area all started more than 20 years ago, and all are dedicated to the idea of interfaith education for interfaith children. More recently, the Interfaith Union School was established in suburban Chicago. We’ve learned from each other, cheering each other on as we’ve all grown.

We share the concerns Susan describes in her recent post about “Under the Chuppah: Rabbinic Officiation and Intermarriage” – a study by researchers at Brandeis University.  Like Rabbis Moffic and Bahle, we were puzzled by its conclusion providing “unequivocal” evidence that “intermarried couples whose weddings were officiated by Jewish clergy as the only officiant are more highly engaged in Jewish life than other intermarried couples.”

From our experience, first impressions mean a lot. What are Christian partners to think of the religion they are marrying into if it will not allow their own faith tradition to be represented at their wedding? And indeed, if a wedding is a day but a marriage is a lifetime, should the question of co-officiating be limited to a single moment? What can a more open-minded approach do for these couples as their families grow?

These are the kinds of questions we’ll raise in the film. We hope you’ll enjoy this video and the others on our website – please share them with friends. If you like our facebook page, or subscribe to our youtube channel, you’ll get word of new videos as we release them. And if you would consider donating to help make the dream of this project a reality, we would love to add your name to our growing list of supporters. In this season of Thanksgiving, we are profoundly grateful for all the support we have received, and look forward to telling the kinds of stories so many of us share.

David Kovacs and Steve Ordower are the co-producers of Leaps of Faiths, and also interfaith parents from the Family School. David and his wife Patty are one of the school’s founding families.

Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, from Beacon Press. She works as an interfaith families consultant, speaker, and coach. Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

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Video: An Interfaith Boy, an Interfaith Community

 

When my mother, an interfaith families pioneer, watched this video, she said, “Well Sue, you don’t need to go out on speaking tours anymore–just have everyone watch this video instead.” I think she was kidding. I mean I hope so. But she has a point, because this charming and thoughtful credo, in the voice and words of a 13-year-old, makes the case for interfaith education, in under five minutes. So please do watch “The Interfaith Musings of Raphael B.”

I have known Raphael since he was a small boy with deep questions: questions that drove his parents to seek out an interfaith community. This spring, Raphael completed eighth grade, and the Coming of Age curriculum at the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington (IFFP). As part of that program, he spent a year reflecting on his interfaith education with psychologist Dan Griffin, his official mentor from the IFFP community. One result was this thought-provoking video, first screened at our group Coming of Age ceremony earlier this month. (And Rapha, thanks for the shout-out to my book, Being Both!).

So if you are worried that interfaith children raised with both religions will end up confused or disengaged, you could read my book for reassurance. Or, you could spend five minutes listening to Raphael as he describes how he feels, right now, about being an interfaith kid in an interfaith community.

 

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

 

Being Both: The Interfaith Book Trailer

Over winter break, I returned to my childhood home outside Boston, surrounded this time of year by deep snow and deer and wild turkeys. I love to go through the old photos stored in a window seat there, and ask my parents to tell and retell our family stories. This year, I took some of those photos and made them into a book trailer (a short video), in order to illustrate the memoir chapter of Being Both. If you watch closely, you will notice that I wore my mother’s wedding dress. And if you listen closely, you will hear my father at the piano. I hope you enjoy these minutes (less than two actually) of interfaith family history, and will pass it on to friends.

Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller, available now in hardcover and eBook from Beacon Press.

Life of Pi: Hindu, Christian and Muslim

At a recent preview screening of the new film Life of Pi by director Ang Lee, based on the novel by Yann Martel, I was relieved to discover that the film preserves  a key theme of the book: multiple religious belonging. The filmmakers have transformed a rather dense and philosophical read into a rollicking 3D adventure tale, focused on the survival of a young man and a tiger in a lifeboat on the high seas. But the film very clearly depicts the protagonist Piscine (“Pi”) Patel as claiming not one, not two, but three religions: Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam.

The venerable Interfaith Alliance sponsored the screening, which gives me hope that advocates for interfaith dialogue are beginning to feel more comfortable engaging with the idea that people can and do claim more than one religion. Some of us who who feel connected to more than one faith come from interfaith families. I envision a day when interfaith activists will actively include the perspectives of interfaith families in the interfaith conversation. And with Life of Pi in theaters, I look forward to a lively conversation about how claiming more than one religion fits into the push for respectful religious pluralism.

In the book, the clergy of all three religions challenge Pi’s right to multiple religious belonging:

The pandit spoke first. “Mr. Patel, Piscine’s piety is admirable. In these troubled times it’s good to see a boy so keen on God. We all agree on that.” The imam and the priest nodded. “But he can’t be a Hindu, a Christian and a Muslim. It’s impossible. He must choose.”

In the film version, it is Pi’s father who insists that his son must choose one religion, while his mother points out that he is still young, and has time to choose a path. And yet, at the end of his adventures, despite wisdom and experience, a middle-aged Pi still defines himself as Hindu, Catholic and Muslim.

The example of Pi challenges the assertion that dual-faith or multiple-faith adherence is simply immature, or a temporary state. For those of us in interfaith families celebrating both family religions, this debate is all too familiar. Often, we are told that interfaith children “must” choose one religion eventually. And yet, some interfaith children insist in adulthood on maintaining connections to both religions, having grown accustomed to the benefits of claiming both.

While many religious institutions find the blurring of boundaries threatening, academic theologians have been discussing both the challenges and opportunities of multiple religious belonging for some time. They acknowledge that religious double-belonging has been the norm through much of history in many parts of the world, whether in Asia, Africa or Latin America. In Europe and America–areas dominated by the more exclusivist Abrahamic religions–claiming more than one religion has been less common. But as religious flux and fluidity (and intermarriage) rise with globalization, dual-faith adherence inevitably rises as well.

In the introduction to the book Many Mansions?: Multiple Religious Belonging and Christian Identity theologian Catherine Cornille writes, “…widespread consciousness of religious pluralism has presently left the religious person with the choice not only of which religion, but of how many religions she or he might belong to.”

But interfaith families claiming two religions are not simply inspired by a consciousness of religious pluralism: they are living this pluralism on an intimate daily basis. Rather than choosing religions as in a cafeteria, interfaith children raised with both religions are are growing up celebrating the dual faiths already present around the family dinner table.

Some interfaith children raised with two religions choose a single faith identity in adulthood. And some, like Pi Patel, will insist on claiming dual or multiple religions, even in maturity. I am glad that the movie version of Life of Pi is bringing this theological discussion to the big screen. I hope that it will bring together interfaith activists doing the important work of trying to calm the seas of religious misunderstanding, with those of us who insist on riding the waves of more than one religion.

 

Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller, available now in hardcover and eBook from Beacon Press.

The Five Year Engagement: Jason Segel’s Interfaith Worldview

Plenty of movies depict interfaith couples: Exodus, Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally. The new romantic comedy The Five Year Engagement chronicles the courtship of chef Tom (Jewish), and graduate student Violet (Christian). Actor Jason Segel, the leading man and script co-writer, happens to hail from an interfaith family himself. So I went to see the movie, searching for traces of Segel’s view on interfaith life.

Last year, Segel co-wrote and starred in The Muppets. The first time I heard “Man or Muppet,” the Grammy-nominated song from that movie, the song immediately struck me as a metaphor for the choices the world forces on interfaith children. I would love to find out whether Segel ever thought of the song in those terms.

Generally, I have to say I am not a fan of  the work of Judd Apatow, producer of The Five Year Engagement. Though I appreciate the sharp and witty dialogue, I prefer my romance without Apatow’s signature drunken vomiting, potty humor and crude guy talk, all of which appear in this film. The Five Year Engagement also runs too long, with a rambling chronology. On the other hand, the film centers on a real and bittersweet exploration of the dilemma for both partners over work, geography, and marriage.

Religious difference plays very little role in this film’s plot. Segel has said that some of the religion material ended up on the cutting-room floor. I like to imagine that by minimizing religion as a source of conflict, Segel, as an adult interfaith child, is making a positive statement about the possibilities of interfaith love.

We do get a glimpse of religious difference in each of the successive wedding plans, as the couple repeatedly approach and then back off from tying the knot. In the first wedding planning session with all four parents and a clergy member representing each side, the Jews announce that the men will wear yarmulkes, and the Christians counter with a plan to have communion at the wedding. Interfaith lesson #1: passive-aggression, willful religious ignorance and hardline negotiation are not effective interfaith communication skills. The wedding plan falls through.

In their next attempt, the couple approach a Chabad rabbi at the last minute, who asks if the bride is Jewish. The couple dissembles and the rabbi dances at the engagement party (in a barbecue joint specializing in pork!). But the wedding again falls through. Interfaith lesson #2: dishonesty about who we are and last-minute random religious choices are not helpful. The wedding plan falls through.

In the end (spoiler alert, though you will see it coming from a mile away), the couple succeed in getting married. Choosing between a Christian, an “extreme Christian” (who appears to be Eastern Orthodox), a Buddhist, a Rabbi, and a justice of the peace, Tom chooses the lay officiant. Cue the happily-ever-after credits. Interfaith lesson #3: the desire for a sense of balance often leads interfaith couples to choose a secular officiant. If both members of the couple are secular people, this works fine.

For those of us who want balance, but also care deeply about religion, finding clergy to co-officiate is the alternative to a justice of the peace. But this solution would have been too complex for the rushed wedding in this movie, and perhaps too much religion for the fictional couple in question.

In a recent interview with the Jewish Journal, Segel described his upbringing this way: “My dad’s Jewish, and my mom’s Christian, so I was raised with a little bit of everything.” Note that he introduces his own religious background with a description of balance, rather than choice. His lament is familiar to all of us who felt excluded growing up as patrilinial Jews: “I wasn’t considered Jewish at Hebrew school because my mother isn’t Jewish, and I wasn’t considered Christian at Christian school. What occurred to me is, ‘This is not God’.”

Segel had a Bar Mitzvah. But when asked if he considers himself a “cultural Jew” he replies: “Yes. But in terms of organized religion, again, I think the notion of ‘I know better than someone else’ is wildly arrogant.” Here, Segel sounds to me like a classic adult interfaith child. Having lived the experience of growing up in interfaith families, we tend to see the world from more than one viewpoint, and we tend to question the idea that only one religious tradition could be the true path. We are also likely to feel alienated from religious institutions that have rejected us.

Rather than bitterness, Segel’s fairytale ending expresses optimism that interfaith couples can achieve happiness. For those of us who grew up in functional interfaith families, interfaith love is not just a romantic fiction. We need to stand up and be counted, to let the world know that in spite of the obstacles our parents still love each other, that we are not confused, and that we draw creative power from our double-belonging.

Being a Quarter-Jew: One Interfaith Family, One Quirky Film

I went to see the charming independent film “Beginners” this week with my teenage daughter (three-quarters Episcopalian, one-quarter Jewish). We usually identify ourselves as members of an interfaith family, rather than by religious fractions. But I was interested to discover that half-Jewish and quarter-Jewish identity play a role in this film. Director Mike Mills is an interfaith child, and this unabashedly autobiographical story struck me at times as funny, at times as moving, at times as oppressive in its sadness. While being half-Jewish has become common in film and fiction, I think this was the first time I have noticed a character portrayed specifically as one-quarter Jewish.

The film’s protagonist, Oliver (played by Ewan McGregor), discovers after the death of his mother that his father (the marvelous Christopher Plummer) is gay. In flashbacks, the mother (who identifies herself as half-Jewish) informs her only child (the narrator and stand-in for the filmmaker) that he is a quarter-Jew, and that their superior ability to emote comes from their Jewish blood. And yet, the mother is cold and emotionally abusive to her son, presumably because she is twisted by decades of living in a sort of closet with a gay husband. She is also clearly ambivalent about her Jewish background. In the film, the narrator mentions that she was kicked off a swim-team in 1938 for being half-Jewish, and that she abandoned Judaism when she married her WASP husband. Mills has said that this happened to his mother in real life.

In the film, Oliver seeks redemption from repression through his passion for Anna, an equally sad and depressed young woman who is wholly Jewish, played by French (and Jewish) actress Melanie Laurent. While the scenes between Oliver and his father were touching and delightful, the relationship between Oliver and Anna seemed to meander at times.

Anyway, in a flashback, Oliver’s mother tries to impress on her son that being one-quarter Jewish is somehow important or defining. Her theory underscores the “red sock effect” described in the book Between Two Worlds: that like a red sock in a load of white laundry, even a single Jewish forbear seems to exert an outsize effect, coloring all the clothes pink.

The autobiographical films of Woody Allen have clearly influenced Mills, and reviewers have compared “Beginners” to a reverse “Annie Hall,” with Oliver as a WASP and Anna as a Jew (in lieu of the very Jewish Allen and the WASP Diane Keaton). But Oliver’s ruminations on the anti-Semitism faced by his mother, his mother’s declarations about the importance of her own half-Jewish identity, and her awkward attempts to communicate some sense of the importance of even the quarter-Jewish identity of her son, make the “Annie Hall” analogy imperfect. Everyone in this film shares some degree of repression, everyone shares some degree of neuroticism, and, as is common in our increasingly interfaith world, everyone crosses boundaries and confounds labels.

Movies with my Interfaith Teens: Exodus

When my family has a rare moment to watch a movie together, it can be tricky finding something to engage a 16-year-old girl (romance, history), a 13-year-old boy (action), and two boomer parents (acting and directing skills a plus). I have a list posted on our kitchen wall of films I would like my kids to see before they leave home–classics I’m afraid they may miss somehow when they go out into the brave new 21st-century world.

So with the gift of a snow day this week, I subjected my family to the three and a half hours of Exodus, the 1960 film by Otto Preminger, based on a blockbuster novel by Leon Uris depicting the birth of Israel. The script is a bit clunky, the acting a bit stiff, the production values rough, the Zionist perspective a bit naive, and the length extreme. At a Hollywood preview of the film, at the three hour mark, comedian Mort Sahl supposedly jumped up and shouted, “Otto, let my people go!”

So we spread our viewing out into two sittings. And I have to say that Exodus both entertained (romance, history, action) and educated. And who can resist the film score (the only orchestral score ever to win an Oscar), and the Technicolor panoramas (filmed on location in Cyprus and Israel)?

I admit that part of my original motivation in adding Exodus to our film queue was to convince my children that Paul Newman was more than an old guy who made salad dressing. I also felt it was time to allow them to be exposed to the allure of Zionism: the blooming desert, the utopian kibbutz, the fesity fighting Jews rising up after the horror of the Holocaust.

My own feelings about Israel are deeply ambivalent, especially as a “patrilineal half-Jew” who cannot be married or buried by rabbis there. In part because of this reality, our interfaith community does not tend to stress allegiance to Israel the way many Jewish communities do. And growing up in an ultra-progressive town, my children hear more about the plight of the Palestinians than they do about the creation of Israel. A Hollywood movie, with all of its necessary warping of events and perspectives, may seem like a dicey form of education. But at least I had the full attention of my kids. Below are some snippets of our family dialogue.

Me: “That’s Paul Newman right there. He was an interfaith child!”

Groans. “We KNOW that, Mom.”

Kids: “But this is after the war. Why are they in camps in Cyprus? Why are the British not letting the Jews into Palestine? Weren’t the British on our side during World War II?”

Me: “No one wanted the Jews, so they were still in camps. That’s why they needed a homeland. But did the British have the right to displace Arabs from their lands? They at least wanted the UN to vote on it. Shhh. Keep watching…”

Me, as Ari Ben-Canaan (Paul Newman) kisses American nurse Kitty Fremont (Eva Marie Saint): “Look! Interfaith romance!”

Kids: “Mom, why are you so obsessed?!”

Me, in the closing moments, as Ari leads his people off to fight the Arabs: “And they’ve been fighting for 60 years now, ever since.”

Kids: Quiet. Contemplating.