A Death in My Interfaith Family

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Mom, Me, 1961

My mother, Martha Legg Katz, died last month. I have been uncharacteristically quiet here, in public, since she fell ill in the heat of August. When she died in September at home–my childhood home–I stood in the driveway watching the full moon rise behind a scrim of tall New England pines. Now it is October and the full moon has come and gone again. And so it feels like it is time to return to all of you.

In Judaism, there are special rules for shiva, the first seven days after the burial, and for  shloshim, the first thirty days. These rules help to insulate the mourner from the banality and hectic nature of the casual world, and help us figure out how to eventually emerge from the fog of grief and go on with life. Some of these rules–let your hair grow wild, wear old clothes–make sense to me in a primal way, and seem comforting. Others–no music, no luxurious baths–seem harsh and frankly counter-intuitive.

I do not feel bound by any of these rules, although I find them fascinating and in some cases helpful. Of course, my mother was not Jewish. She married a Jewish man, stopped going to church, raised Jewish children. Often alone on this journey in the 1960s and 70s, inventing as she went along, she created a role for herself as a pioneering interfaith spouse and parent.

My book, Being Both, opens with my mother baptizing me in the kitchen sink. The story of her successful interfaith marriage inspired my work, threads through my book, and comes up in every talk or workshop I give on interfaith families. The epic love between my parents has resonated with people around the country and the world who never met my mother in person. And so, although I have no great desire to mourn in public, I feel I have to acknowledge this immense transition in my life with public words, before I can really go on with writing about anything else.

Medieval scholar Maimonides traces shloshim, the first thirty days of mourning, to Deuteronomy 21:13. In this passage, soldiers are commanded to allow a captive woman to “bewail her father and her mother a full month” before taking her as a wife. Here, the pain of mourning is compounded by the context of war—a context found in many ancient religious texts, all written by men. As a bereaved daughter, I do find poignant the brief pause in mayhem to acknowledge the depth of grief a daughter would have for lost parents. It is also interesting to note that this passage points to the ongoing intimate relations–in war and peace–between the tribes of Israel and neighboring tribes.

But, returning to 21st century America, I have been figuring out how to bewail the loss of my mother in the context of a contemporary interfaith family. As with any life cycle event in our family, that means thinking deeply about which Jewish practices and which Christian practices hold meaning for us. We get to decide how to intertwine them, while respecting the history of each, and also celebrating the reality of our successful interfaith family.

For us, this has meant balancing a desire to meet the needs of my Jewish father, the principal mourner, with the desire to honor my Protestant mother. As always with interfaith families, the way we layer or weave together two sets of rituals will look different for each family. For my father, burying my mother in his family’s Jewish cemetery was essential, so that is what we did. We embraced the Jewish idea of a closed wooden casket without metal fittings as resonant with environmental principles important to me and to my siblings. And we chose the Jewish ritual of watching the casket lowered into the grave, in order to experience the reality of burial, rather than leaving the cemetery while the casket is still above ground, as is common at Christian burials. Our brief graveside service culminated with saying Kaddish, because most of the graveside mourners were from my large and very close Jewish family–the family that embraced my mother 56 years ago when she married my father.

At the same time, it would have been clear to any observer that day that we are an interfaith family, not simply a Jewish family. Although traditionally there is no music at a Jewish burial, we began our service with an a cappella Protestant hymn—albeit one that was included in Reform Judaism’s Union Prayer Book. The family members at the graveside included an Episcopal priest, and three Catholic grandchildren who are altar servers. And various in-laws arranged for Catholic masses to be said in memory of my mother, at The National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows in Illinois, and at Saint Peter’s in Rome. All this, both the Jewish and Christian ways of remembering her, would have pleased my mother greatly. A comparative religion major, she loved the ritual, and the mystery, of all our family traditions.

I find it encouraging that some interfaith family funerals now include Jewish and Christian clergy co-officiating. But we chose to have neither a rabbi nor a minister. Jewish tradition does not require clergy for a burial (or for a wedding, or a bar mitzvah, for that matter). Having a rabbi preside when my mother was not Jewish did not seem right. On the other hand, having a minister preside in a Jewish cemetery when my Jewish father was the principal mourner did not seem right either. And having both, and negotiating their roles, seemed like too much for our brief graveside ritual. So I led the service myself. I think this, too, would have pleased my mother. As an interfaith family, I believe we are called on to build bridges of peace in life, and even in death.

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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Musings of an Interfaith Mama

I am honored to have a post today on Beacon Broadside, the excellent blog put out by Beacon Press, my publisher. Take a look…

 

The author and her mother in 1961.

The author and her mother in 1961.

After touring colleges with my second and final child this spring break, I am suddenly aware that I am approaching the end of an era. Parenting has felt like an endless and all-consuming way of being for me, a role I took on with great joy in my thirties, after years as a journalist. In motherhood, I became a PTA President, a leader in our interfaith families community, the schools columnist for the town paper, and ultimately the author of a book on religion and parenting. I was the mom that other parents called for tips on negotiating the school system, or organizing an interfaith bar mitzvah, or finding the best music teachers.

Somehow, I am only just now realizing that this excellent 20-year adventure in mothering may turn out to be, if I am lucky, only a small fraction of a long life. My grandmother lived until 98, my father is working on Bach’s Goldberg Variations at 90, my mother plays the ukulele at 83. So my own period of day-to-day mothering may only fill a quarter, or a fifth, of my lifetime.     (Click here to read the rest…)

 

Holidays in Honesdale: Jewish Continuity and Interfaith Inclusivity

Photo credit Elizabeth Lucy
Photo credit Elizabeth Lucy

On Saturday, I attended Shabbat services in Honesdale PA, in the foothills of the Pocono mountains, in the same temple where my father became a Bar Mitzvah in 1937. The Delaware and Hudson Canal Company built this white clapboard synagogue with a steeple on the banks of the Lackawaxen River in 1856, in order to serve local Jewish merchants. Each year, more than 50 family members and friends return from across the country for a massive Thanksgiving meal, and to celebrate important rites of passage together at Congregation Beth Israel.

And so this year, as the convergence of Hanukkah and Thankgiving approached, we traveled from at least six different states, through snowy mountain passes, to witness my cousin Nora become a Bat Mitzvah. Nora lives outside Boston, but she is part of the sixth generation of our family to worship in what was once the tiniest temple in America. Throughout Shabbat, throughout a long weekend together that included celebrations of Hanukkah, Thanksgiving, the Bat Mitzvah, and my sister’s wedding, two themes recurred: Jewish continuity, and the inclusion in our family and our Jewish practice of people from across the world, and from across the spectrum of religions.

As always, as we entered the sanctuary, I searched the memorial yahrzeit plaques on the back wall, to find the names of my grandparents. In earlier generations, my family tree included cousins who married each other for lack of Jewish partners, as well as great-aunts and great-uncles who never married, never had children, for the same reason. Going through a box of photos from the last century in my grandmother’s house this week, I came across a photo with this scrawled on the back: “Leon’s Catholic girlfriend”. I adored my great-uncle Leon. He played fiddle, and worked in the family department store in Honesdale, and drew pictures of cats for us when we visited him at Katz Bros. The fact that he remained a bachelor uncle because he could not marry his Catholic sweetheart is poignant.

In the next two generations of my family, there have been a dozen happy interfaith marriages, starting with the wedding of my parents in 1960. Nora’s parents, my cousins Sig and Ruthie, are, like my own parents, Jewish and Episcopalian. I sat with my father and mother, now 89 and 82 and well past their 50th year of marriage, in the temple on Saturday morning. My teenage children sat up in the choir loft, singing with their first and second and third cousins.

Before Nora read from the Torah, we unrolled the scroll and wrapped it around the tiny sanctuary, circumscribing our radically inclusive community. My mother, who shepherded four Jewish children through the Bar and Bat Mitzvah process in the 1970s and 80s, was thrilled to be allowed to touch the parchment for the first time. Then Nora’s 91-year-old grandfather, my very erudite cousin Bill, who has spent most of his lifetime in this little town, devoting himself to Beth Israel, said the priestly blessing over the Bat Mitzvah girl from his wheelchair. There may have been one or two dry eyes in the house, but I couldn’t see them through the mist of my own tears.

In his words to Nora after her Torah reading, my cousin Sig referred to our synagogue as tiny but “huge if judged by the size of its metaphorical tent.” As a family now encompassing Jews and Catholics and Quakers and Episcopalians and Buddhists and humanists, those related by blood and those related by choice, we crammed into the familiar pews. We represent roots reaching from China to Italy, from Japan to Ireland, from Armenia to Colombia. And on Saturday, people with African, Russian, Danish, Polish and Dutch ancestors recited blessings over the Torah.

As a family, we cling to our quirky Classical Reform ways, eschewing yarmulkes and persisting in our love for familiar German tunes played on the organ, as well as incorporating Bach and Paul Simon and anyone else we please into our services. And yet somehow, we have not assimilated out of Jewish existence, through six generations at Beth Israel, and through three generations of being an interfaith family. My siblings and I have each made different decisions about the religious labels of our children, but all of us return to Honesdale, all of us return to Beth Israel, all of us are passing on love for Judaism.

On the night before Nora’s Bat Mitzvah, on the only night of the year that is Hanukkah Shabbat, my parents watched their seven grandchildren (some Jewish, some Catholic, some interfaith) light candles, say blessings, and sing Rock of Ages together. Recently, my Catholic nephew has been asking to learn Hebrew. So my daughter Aimee, who was raised in an interfaith community, with education in both Judaism and Christianity, taught her youngest Jewish and Catholic cousins to play dreidel. And thus she taught my nephew his first four Hebrew letters: nun, gimmel, hay, shin.

My father left Honesdale PA at age 17, but more than 70 years later, he still pays membership dues to Beth Israel. By the end of last week, my brother, the one raising three Catholic kids on the West Coast, had agreed to join the congregation as well. This is kind of crazy given the reality of geography, but also kind of gorgeous, and it makes sense within the context of our family. Our cousin Liza has agreed to be the next president of Beth Israel, and I trust that her creativity and open heart, her love of history and her embrace of all, will keep the congregation vibrant. Even if the Jewish ancestry in our family is but a single drop of holy oil, that drop will burn brightly for all to see, miraculous.

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.

Ask Interfaith Mom: How Can We Help Grandparents Feel More Comfortable?

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In a regular feature titled “Ask Interfaith Mom,” I plan to tackle your questions about raising interfaith kids. Here’s a great question from a comment on a recent post about interfaith grandparents:

Question: In raising my son both, I realize his grandparents will not always like or support how we are bringing the two traditions together and I am interested in ways to present to them that they should always feel free to opt out of saying anything or doing anything they don’t really believe. Thanks for any guidance you have!

One of the most liberating aspects of choosing both family religions is that you give yourself permission to pass on to your children that which is meaningful to you, rather than a required system of beliefs and practices. And in making your own choices, you set a precedent that your children will have the right to opt into or out of any of these beliefs or practices.

Discussing this freedom with your parents (the grandparents) will help them to feel comfortable making their own choices about whether or not to participate in any ritual or prayer they might encounter when celebrating with your interfaith family. Ideally then, the idea that they have permission to participate, or not, would be integral and natural, and would not need to be announced in a formal manner.

But of course, it may take time for extended family members to reach this state of appreciation. Grandparents who have spent a lifetime in a “monofaith” environment, and who may still feel sadness over the fact that their grandchildren will not be raised exclusively in their own religion, cannot always be expected to jump into interfaith practice with enthusiasm. What I can tell you is that many who have started out reluctant or even upset over the idea of an interfaith upbringing, over time have come to appreciate the way extended interfaith families are able to share spiritual inspiration, religious history, and cultures.

However, everyone in an interfaith family (or for that matter, living in our religiously pluralistic society) is going to have moments, often when visiting a more traditional place of worship, when they may want to opt out of participating in a prayer or ritual. Let’s get to some challenging specifics: for instance, taking communion at church. In some churches, the ritual of taking communion becomes a public declaration around who has the right to participate. In such a setting, it would be important to reassure interfaith family members in advance (whether a grandparent, spouse, or interfaith child) that it is fine to remain seated in the pew, and not go up to take communion. Explain that even some Christians abstain from communion at certain times or in certain places, for their own personal reasons, or because not every Christian denomination invites all Christians from other denominations to participate. While those who choose not to take communion may feel like they are sticking out by staying seated, in theory no one should ask them why they remained in the pew.

When you design an interfaith family celebration, this is your opportunity to make the rituals and prayers as inclusive as possible. Ideally, such a celebration would be so welcoming that no one would feel the need to abstain. Sometimes, this means recasting a prayer or ritual to be more radically inclusive, and explicitly inviting all to participate. Personally, I have seen Jewish people (and even a rabbi) take communion at a super-progressive Christian service in which the communion ritual was presented as a metaphorical table where all share food and drink together, based on the Jewish rituals of blessing over bread and wine, regardless of religious institutional membership or beliefs.

To take another example from the other side of the aisle, the bris, or Jewish ritual circumcision for baby boys, can be difficult for non-Jewish family members. Honestly, it is difficult for many Jewish people too, some of whom now oppose circumcision and have designed baby-welcoming ceremonies that do not involve cutting. It’s important to share all the different viewpoints on this ritual with non-Jewish family. I do understand why some interfaith families choose to have a bris, and the deep meaning it has for some Jewish family members. But I don’t think anyone (Jewish or otherwise) should feel required to attend the ceremony. And it would be important to communicate this permission to participate, or not, to everyone in the extended family as early as possible to avoid misunderstandings. Both the new grandparents and their intermarried children must make an extra effort to empathize with each other at this vulnerable moment around birth: the new parents must try hard to accept and not resent family members who choose not to participate, and family must try hard to accept and not resent the choice of the new parents to honor (or conversely, to move away from) such an ancient ritual.

Sometimes, grandparents may surprise you with their willingness to participate, and cross theological boundaries. For instance, I was worried about how my Jewish father would react to hearing his interfaith grandchildren say a traditional Christian prayer such as the Lord’s Prayer in our interfaith community Gathering. To my surprise, I saw my father reciting the prayer along with his grandchildren, and discovered that he said this prayer in his public school classroom everyday, growing up in the 1930s. Since the prayer does not mention Jesus, my father did not even realize until much later that this is officially a Christian prayer. As an adult interfaith child who was raised Jewish, my own appreciation of the Lord’s Prayer is heightened by the knowledge that many scholars have pointed out the parallels between the language in the Lord’s Prayer and the Kaddish and other central Jewish prayers. So a moment I had anticipated as possibly problematic became an opportunity for interesting theological discussion with my parents.

What experiences have you had in including interfaith grandparents? Or, what is your perspective as an interfaith grandparent? And what questions do you have for “Ask Interfaith Mom”?

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