My daughter is a 90s kid. She grew up listening to Avril Lavigne on a CD boombox, and playing Zoo Tycoon on a family desktop with dial-up. And, she grew up with the original American Girl dolls–dolls set in different historical periods and cultures, with novels telling their stories. When we visited Colonial Williamsburg, she wore her official Felicity dress, to match the doll with a story set there. (They both have long red hair, and love animals). So when she told me this week that American Girl had just released new dolls representing the historical period of the 1990s, we both found this poignant and hilarious. And we bonded over the passage of time, and feeling old.
Alerted to this news, I read the People Magazine piece emphasizing that Nicki and Isabel Hoffman are the first twins represented in the American Girl (AG) historical doll line, and highlighting all their cool 90s accessories and outfits. There is no mention of religion in that article. And there is no mention of religion on the AG website’s rollout for the twins, or in the youtube announcing their upcoming animated series.
But then, I saw yesterday’s piece from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) with big news. And I learned that part of the backstory for Nicki and Isabel is that they are growing up in an interfaith family, with a Jewish father and a Christian mother, and celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas
The twins are modeled on real-life twins Julia DeVillers and Jennifer Roy, who are both successful authors. They are now co-writing the story of Nicki and Isabel for AG, drawing on their own experiences. Their first American Girl novel about Nicki and Isabel is due out in August, and will take place during a month when the twins celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas.
DeVillers and Roy grew up Jewish, with a father who escaped the Holocaust as a child. But they also celebrated Christmas with their mother’s family. Frequently, Jewish media outlets seek to highlight the interfaith families who make Jewish choices. But Roy also tells the JTA, “People are not necessarily one thing or another these days. And while we are Jewish, we did grow up with both holidays and both cultures in our family. And that’s how we wanted our characters to be and to feel.”
I am now wondering about why the American Girl rollout online, and the People Magazine piece, don’t mention religion. One could speculate that we have reached a point where it is okay to produce dolls with fictional interfaith families, but we are still, also, at a point where it is not necessarily a good marketing choice to emphasize that fact.
Like DeVillers and Roy, I grew up Jewish, while also celebrating Christmas with my mother’s family. But as someone who has spent decades working to make space for people to claim the complexity of their identities, to claim their bothness, I cannot help but celebrate the arrival of Nicki and Isabel. There have been plenty of interfaith families in popular media in my lifetime, from plays to movies to television. But this may be a landmark in interfaith material culture. This physical embodiment of interfaith kids, in doll form, feels like an acknowledgement of my lived experience. It makes me feel hopeful that my efforts to encourage interfaith kids to raise their voices are having an effect. And the statement that “people are not necessarily one thing or another,” by a storyteller for this iconic brand, feels like progress.
Families celebrating more than one religion can, and do, design interfaith coming of age celebrations for their children. These ceremonies sometimes start with, draw on, or incorporate the B-Mitzvah traditions in our heritage. Our Jewish and Christian interfaith family, along with beloved clergy, created ceremonies for each of our children (who are now 28 and 25). Over the years, I have often been asked for a coming of age ceremony template. And a reader asked again just this week. And so, I am finally posting a template!
The template below “leans Jewish” in that it includes the essence of a Shabbat Torah service, which is what many consider the essence of a B-Mitzvah. And, the whole idea of an individual coming of age, as opposed to a group confirmation, is a more Jewish than Christian tradition. Whether or not you want to include all these elements is up to your family. You can find a deeper discussion of the different choices my family made, and the choices available to you, in the Coming of Age chapter in my book Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family. There is also more of the backstory on our particular experience with our younger child, on my blog here, here, here, here and here.
For the sake of brevity, I did not include the actual prayers here, but they are widely available. I recommend including Hebrew, transliteration, AND gender-neutral English translation for every Hebrew prayer, as an educational tool, and to be most inclusive. The explanations of each prayer, important for a mixed multitude, can either be read by the reader, or simply included in the program for people to read on their own.
Interfaith Coming of Age and B-Mitzvah
Intro. Our programs started with a letter (which people can read to themselves while they wait for the ceremony to start) as an introduction from the parents. It explains the religious education and training that the young person has undergone, and thanks the various religious communities supporting them. It goes on to thank important mentors, clergy, and godparents.
Opening Song. Throughout the program, there are traditional Jewish songs for peace and Shabbat (Bim Bom, Lo Yisa Goy, Hine Mahtov, It is a Tree of Life). And, there are songs drawn from other sources (Morning Has Broken, All Things Bright and Beautiful, Let the Life I Lead, Peace Salaam Shalom).
Welcome from the clergy (in our case, both a rabbi and a minister spoke)
Opening Responsive Prayer (Led by the minister. Adapted by Susan Katz Miller from the Palo Alto interfaith families community)
Reader: We gather here as an interfaith community to celebrate the Coming of Age of (Name).
All: Some of us gather as the Children of Israel, some of us gather in the name of Jesus of Nazareth. Our influences are many.
Reader: May (Name), and all of our children, be nourished by strong family roots, and may all the branches of our family trees thrive.
All: May they grow in compassion for all peoples and cultures, seek to heal the earth, and strive for justice around the globe.
Reader: May they use their understanding of the many different pathways to become bridge-builders and peacemakers.
All: And may we all go forward into the world, knowing in our hearts that deeper unity in which all are one.
The rabbi explains that this is a Jewish prayer giving thanks for reaching any new or important moment.
Introduce the Torah. The Torah is a continuous scroll consisting of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Each Torah is handwritten by a trained scribe, using a quill and vegetable ink on parchment. The Hebrew calligraphy used to write these scrolls has been the same for more than 2,000 years. The Torah we are using today belongs to Georgetown University, where Rabbi White is a chaplain and professor.
Barchu and Shema (led by the person coming of age)
The Shema is the central prayer of the Jewish faith. In it, Jews declare their belief in one God, who is the God of all people.
Please be seated.
V’Ahavta (led by the person coming of age)
In this central prayer, each generation passes knowledge of the law and of Jewish ritual to the next.This prayer is included on the parchment scroll inside a mezuzah, posted on the doorframe of many Jewish homes.
Aliyot. The rabbi explains that an Aliya (plural is Aliyot) is the honor of saying the blessing before and after part of the Torah reading. Leading this blessing is often considered the central act of becoming a Bar or Bat Mitzvah.
Aliyot by parents, grandparents, any older siblings, and finally, the person coming of age.
Blessing before the Torah
Torah Reading. (In English or Hebrew. If it’s only in Hebrew, print the English in the program).
Blessing after the Torah
Reflection on the Torah portion (D’var Torah by the person coming of age)
Reading from the New Testament (read by a Christian grandparent or mentor). It was our beloved rabbi who insisted we do a New Testament reading. (Read all about this twist in Being Both).
We Remember Them (Minister. Written by Sylvan Kamens and Rabbi Jack Riemer)
At this time we remember those who are gone but are here with us today in spirit, especially (name any grandparents or immediate family members or close mentors who have died).
Reader: At the rising of the sun and at its going down, we remember them.
All: At the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter,we remember them.
Reader: At the opening of the buds and in the rebirth of spring, we remember them.
All: At the blueness of the skies and in the warmth of the summer,we remember them.
Reader: At the rustling of the leaves and in the beauty of autumn, we remember them.
All: At the beginning of the year and when it ends,we remember them.
Reader: As long as we live, they too will live; for they are now a part of us, as we remember them.
All: When we are lost and sick at heart, we remember them.
Reader: When we have joys we crave to share, we remember them.
All: When we have decisions that are difficult to make,we remember them.
Reader: When we have achievements that are based on theirs, we remember them.
All: As long as we live, they too will live; for they are now a part of us, as we remember them.
Mourner’s Kaddish (Rabbi)
The Kaddish (“Sanctification”) is written primarily in Aramaic, the language spoken by the Jews living in Babylonia and Palestine in the sixth century BCE, and the language later spoken by Jesus. The Kaddish is traditionally recited for those who have died, yet there is no mention of death. Instead, the prayer praises God and promises peace. For many, the rhythmic repetition of syllables serves as a chanting meditation.
“Universal Prayer,” an interpretation of The Lord’s Prayer, by Rev. Cora Partridge.
Please read together:
Great Spirit of goodness and justice, our friend. We know you by many names, and in many languages, and by the manifestations of your great works in the universe. We want your influence of goodness to develop on this earth. Please provide all of us with what we need each day. Forgive our sins to the extent that we forgive others. Give us strength to resist temptations and willful wrongdoing, and protect us from evil thoughts, opportunities, and misfortunes that beset humankind. You are the everlasting good. We thank you. Amen.
Remarks by Parents
Remarks by Godparent/Mentor
Laying on of Hands. Clergy put their hands on the head of the person coming of age to bless them, and the whole community then connects to each other in a supportive physical web. For further explanation, see Being Both.
Parting Words (Responsive reading led by minister)
Will you be there for (Name) when they need you to listen? All: We will.
Will you model love for one another and for all peoples? All: We will.
Will you surround (Name) with joy, music, poetry and art? All: We will.
Will you help them work for peace, justice and a sustainable world? All: We will.
Then go now, remembering always the community that we have become today, a community that envelopes and surrounds and supports (Name) with our love.
Once upon a time, December holiday books for children focused on either Christmas, or Hanukkah. Now, many children grow up in Jewish families celebrating Christmas with Christian grandparents. Or, they grow up in Christian families celebrating Hanukkah with Jewish grandparents. Or, they grow up in interfaith families celebrating both. Here, I update my growing list of Hanukkah and Christmas books, in chronological order of publication. No two interfaith families have the same way of celebrating in December. So, rather than simply listing the books, I review how each book might or might not work for your family, in order to help you find the right book for your young interfaith children or grandchildren.
1. The first popular book on this topic was probably Light the Lights! A Story About Celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas (ages 3-5), from 1999. This sweet and simple story focuses on a girl participating in both holidays at home, but does not go into the underlying religious meaning of either one. This may be frustrating for parents who want to teach religious literacy, but for young children celebrating one or both of the holidays in a secular fashion, or as a starting point for deeper discussion, this book will work.
2. In contrast, I do not recommend My Two Holidays: A Hanukkah and Christmas Story (ages 3-5) from 2010. The boy in this book feels “ashamed and embarrassed” in school to admit that he celebrates both holidays. While emotionally dramatic, this plot twist does not ring true in my experience with contemporary interfaith children, and reading it could make children who feel just fine about celebrating both, feel a sense of shame. The author seems to have bought into the (increasingly mythical) “December Dilemma” conflict. Avoid this book.
3. Daddy Christmas and Hanukkah Mama (2012, ages 5-8) features jazzy modernist collage illustrations, and a recipe for Cranberry Kugel. The mixed media style echoes the hipster parents in this book, who mix the holidays together in a sort of Chrismukkah mash-up. They hook candy canes on their menorah, and leave latkes out for Santa. If your family does this kind of blending, this is your book. But for families trying to help kids to understand and respect the differences between the two religions, well, this is definitely not your book.
4. Eight Candles and a Tree(2014, ages 3-5), follows Sophie as she explains to friend and playmate Tommy that she celebrates Hanukkah and Christmas. Tommy only celebrates Christmas. I appreciated the very gentle tension as Sophie diplomatically answers questions about how and why she celebrates “both.” Sophie explains the miracle of the oil lasting eight nights in the Temple, but both children mention only the more secular aspects of Christmas (the tree, the feast), so this book works for interfaith Jewish families celebrating a secular Christmas at home, as well as families celebrating both religions. This would also be a good pick for young Christian kids curious about a cousin or friend who celebrates both, as they can identify with Tommy.
5. Nonna’s Hanukkah Surprise (2015, ages 3-8) features the most dramatic and emotionally satisfying plot of any book for interfaith children I have yet seen. Rachel is flying with her family to spend Hanukkah and Christmas with her father’s Christian family. Rachel is upset when she leaves her menorah behind on the airplane, but her kind Nonna (Italian for grandmother) saves the day by creating a lovely new menorah for her, out of recycled perfume bottles. The Christian cousins gather affectionately around the menorah with Rachel to help her celebrate, modeling bridge-building across the religious divide. The author weaves in some of the meanings of Hanukkah, but the references to Christmas are oblique. This book (from a publisher of books on Judaism) was clearly written for interfaith children being raised Jewish, who celebrate Christmas only with extended family. In fact, it was a recent selection for PJ Library, the free Jewish book program for children. But I recommend it for any interfaith family.
6. December’s Gift(2015, ages 3-8) is perfect for those who celebrate both holidays, and want to begin to teach their children the underlying meaning of both Hanukkah and Christmas. Clara helps her Bubbe make latkes, and then helps her Grammy to make Christmas cookies. (The book includes recipes for both, and charming illustrations). Bubbe tells Clara the story of the destruction of the temple and the miracle of the Hanukkah oil. And Grammy teaches Clara how the star-shaped cookies and the star on the tree represent the star that led wise men to the birth of a king. There is no mention of Jesus by name. But for interfaith parents who want to give their interfaith children an interfaith education, this book is an excellent start.
7. New this season, Happy ALL-idays (2022, ages 1-5) is a very simple board book explaining that different families celebrate different holidays in December. It features illustrations and brief rhyming descriptions of families celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and a presumably interfaith family celebrating “Chrismukkah.” The families are notably diverse (including a boy in a wheelchair, and what appear to be single parents, multigenerational families, LGBTQ parents, and interracial couples). The inclusion of an interfaith family alongside families who celebrate one December holiday is novel, and refreshing. If you like to keep Hanukkah and Christmas separate, and avoid using the term “Chrismukkah,” this, sadly, is not the right book for your family. I worry that it depicts hanging dreidels on the tree as the norm, when not all interfaith families mix the two holidays together. But if you’re Team Mashup (and many families are, when it comes to December decorations), this book could be perfect for you.
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.
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.
Yesterday, the Jews of Color Initiative released an important new study: “Beyond the Count: Perspectives and Lived Experiences of Jews of Color.” Most media coverage of the report is focusing on how the study documents the discrimination experienced by Jews of Color in Jewish settings. I fully support the recommendations made in the report, intended to galvanize American Jewish communities.
Inevitably, I read this new report from my perspective as a white person who grew up in an interfaith family, and as someone who works to make space for people who honor multiple religious heritages. For twenty years, I have been researching, writing about, and publishing the voices of people from interfaith families, many of whom are also from intercultural and interracial families. And from that perspective, I make some recommendations here for further research.
The study is based on a survey of 1,118 Jews of Color, plus 61 in-depth interviews, and is filled with important quantitative and qualitative data. The study was conducted by a notably diverse set of researchers–the labels they claim include Black, Chicano, Asian, Sephardic, neurodivergent, trans, queer, atheist, and millennial. As such, and as a study that asked Jews of Color to speak to their own experiences, this study documents with unprecedented depth and sensitivity the experiences of Jews of Color (a contested term, as described by both the researchers and respondents).
The study also documents, and yet mentions only briefly and obliquely, and even erases, the interfaithness of the experience of some Jews of Color growing up in interfaith families, and the importance of other religions and forms of spirituality in their lives. Since the study itself provides little commentary on these findings, I wanted to highlight those findings here and ask some questions important for further exploration.
42% of the respondents have only one Jewish parent. What was the religion of the other parent? What importance did that religion have to the respondent in childhood, and today?
16% of the respondents said they were raised “Jewish and something else.”What religion was the “something else”? What did this interfaith childhood look like? Did they attend church or mosque and synagogue? Attend two religious education programs? Celebrate two sets of holidays in the home?
21% said they identify as Jewish and “one or more other religions.”Which religions? How many of those people were raised with both parental religions, and still identify with both? How many began to identify with the other religion in their heritage only in adulthood, and why? How many added a new religion or religions, different from those in their ancestry, to their Judaism in adulthood?
6% of the mothers of respondents, and 7% of their fathers, were raised “Jewish and something else.”How many of these respondents with parents raised both, were raised both themselves?What does this say about the reality of multigenerational interfaith families?What does it say about the persistence of the idea of educating interfaith children about both family religions?
The report is strengthened by dozens of quotes from those who were surveyed or interviewed. The quotes mention a Bollywood-themed Shabbat, Japanese foods used in a Havdalah ritual, Senegalese-based practices, and having multiple racial and cultural identities. But nowhere do the 42% of respondents with a parent of another religion, or the 21% who identify today with more than one religion, actually name or explain the importance of those other religions (with the exception of one mention of earth-based indigenous practice). It is striking that nowhere is Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, or Islam even named.
I understand that work funded by Jewish philanthopists, and often motivated by engaging more people in Judaism, inevitably centers the Jewish perspective. This study demonstrates how important that work is to help Jewish institutions understand how to affirm and engage with the diversity of Jews today. And I do understand why Jewish networks had to be used to find the respondents and those who were interviewed, even though this means the study does not represent all people of color with Jewish heritage.
But to fully understand the intersectional experience of people with interfaith heritage (including many Jews of Color) will require going further. Researchers need to ask for and listen to the stories of how the spirituality and culture of Buddhist, Quaker, Latino Catholic, Black Protestant, Greek Orthodox, Pagan, African diasporic, Unitarian-Universalist or Native American parents and ancestors have also been formative in the lives of Jews of Color, and more generally, Jews from interfaith families. We need to make space for the stories of how these family members and ancestors of other religions may have been important, even in the lives of those who now identify “exclusively” as Jewish.
Understanding the full complexity of the religious identities of Jews of Color also requires a willingness to name the other religions practiced by those who are current multiple religious practitioners. The reluctance to mention any religion other than Judaism will not erase these religions from these families, or from intersectional identities. And finally, coming to a better understanding of people of color with Jewish heritage will require reaching those who no longer identify with Judaism and were not asked to, or would not, fill out this survey. That task may seem difficult, but neither are we are free to avoid it.