#GenInterfaith: Parliament of the World’s Religions

Quilt of Belonging, Parliament of the World’s Religions, 2018.   Photo, Susan Katz Miller

I love seeing people from #GenInterfaith, those from interfaith families, or with complex religious affinities, taking their places as leaders in both interfaith activism and interfaith scholarship. It’s happening in organizations devoted to interfaith understanding, and in academia. So this year, I decided to create a space to celebrate our coming of age, at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Toronto.

The Parliament is, very simply, the biggest and liveliest interfaith tent of all. And I love that guarding of the tent flaps by dominant religious institutions is minimal. This was my second Parliament experience, and of all the interfaith events I have attended through the years, the Parliament is the best at decentering white Christian norms, and including a huge indigenous presence from the Americas and around the world. Where else would I get to hear a Yanomami elder from Roraima, Brazil, take white people to task for global warming, in his own language, before an audience of thousands?

In the Red Tent, at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, 2018.  Photo, Susan Katz Miller

I also love the Parliament because outside of the formal presentations, there are so many spaces to interact and get to know each other, from the daily langar meal provided by Sikhs, to the Red Tent space for women of all religions or none to recline on pillows together, to the stages filled with music and dance throughout the day.  To my academic friends who skip the Parliament because it is not serious enough–you are missing the point! Especially for those who are struggling to elevate voices of women, indigenous people, and people of the African diaspora in academia, I highly recommend the Parliament.

So, in my second experience speaking at a Parliament, I knew what to do: hand over the mic, and listen. I used my speaking slot titled #GenInterfaith to encourage a roomful of people with complex religious bonds to talk about their own experiences and declare their own multiple religious affiliations or influences or ties. Having created a safe space for these stories, we heard from people with connections to African diaspora religions, atheism, Buddhism, traditional Chinese religions, Christianity, Hinduism, humanism, Islam, Judaism, Native American religions, Paganism, and Unitarianism. Many were speaking up about their complex religious lives for the first time in public. This hour together was incandescent, empowering, and deeply moving.

While my first book, very frankly, drew primarily from on the Jewish and Christian worlds, my forthcoming book is designed to work for people from any and all religions (or none). The timing feels right. After five years of speaking to and about Jewish and Christian interfaith families, from coast to coast, I am ready to dwell in a larger tent. I will continue to commit my life to making space for interfaith families and people with complex religious practices. But whenever I can, wherever I can, I am determined to share my platform, and hand over the mic. So if you are inspired to tell your interfaith family story, or your story of complex religious practice, I invite you to write for this blog. Or better yet, let’s plan an event, and tell our stories together, in conversation.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (forthcoming in 2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Advertisements

When One Religion Isn’t Enough

fullsizeoutput_6375

It brings me great joy to celebrate the recent publication of When One Religion Isn’t Enough: The Lives of Spiritually Fluid People, by Duane Bidwell, who is a Buddhist, a Christian minister, and a scholar at the Claremont School of Theology. If you follow this blog, you will want to read this book.

Note: I am not the least bit objective about Bidwell’s work. I count the author as a friend, discussed the ideas with him over many years, and encouraged Beacon Press to publish this book. I knew it would help create an academic foundation for our nascent field, and greater acceptance for all of us with complex religious lives. Bidwell cites my work, including reprinting the Bill of Rights for Interfaith People I adapted from Maria Root’s work. And it is an honor to be quoted on the back of the book, alongside academic luminaries Paul Knitter, John Thatamanil and Peniel Jesadason Rufus Rajkumar.

Here’s what I wrote:

“This groundbreaking book is essential for anyone who wants to understand the contemporary religious landscape. Bidwell offers up richly detailed personal stories told with great sensitivity. In telling these stories, this book documents spiritual fluidity as transgressive yet also life-giving, and as important and surprisingly common rather than marginal and exceptional.”

I think of Bidwell’s book as a necessary complement to Being Both. While Being Both describes people from interfaith families celebrating more than one religion, Bidwell puts these families into a more global context in which whole cultures celebrate more than one religion, and also explains why more adults in the U.S. are intentionally taking on a second religion.

A word on terminology: part of the difficulty with establishing this field of study, and bringing together people from different worlds to discuss it, is that there is no consensus on how we describe ourselves. Some religious institutions still use self-referential language, such as “intermarriage” and “partial” identities. Catholic theologians created the term multiple religious belonging, but many have now shifted to multiple religious practice or multiple religious bonds, since the individual does not fully control where they can belong. Multifaith,  interreligious, interbelief, and interworldview have all been suggested as alternatives to interfaith. Anthropologists and sociologists may use the terms syncretism, hybridity, or bricolage. And in what I call #GenInterfaith, young people are more apt to use terms like mixed, religiously non-binary or intersectional, or religiously queer.

I have stood by the use of the term “interfaith,” in part because I want people to be able to find these writings, and “interfaith family” is a succinct term and still the one they are most likely to search. And while some find the many different uses of “interfaith” confusing, I am intentional in linking interfaith families and interfaith identities with interfaith peace-making and interfaith activism. And I am intentional in pushing back against those who still believe any form of “interfaith” is dangerous.

Into this complex and frankly confusing semantic landscape, Duane Bidwell makes a bold case for using the terms religious multiplicity, and spiritual fluidity.  I worry that anything with“fluidity” makes us sound mercurial, when some of us feel very grounded and stable in our complexity. But I appreciate Bidwell’s thoughtful parsing of the options and implications, and if we converge on these new terms, I’m certainly going along!  

When One Religion is Not Enough describes how individuals come to be religiously multiple, how they navigate the world with these identities or practices, and also, how they contribute to the world. This last point will strike many who harbor lingering doubts as the most novel, and most challenging. And yet, Bidwell wisely insists, “monoreligious and multiple religious people can learn from each other.”

One key contribution of this book is setting these ideas in historical and geographical context. The author refers to how spiritual fluidity arises through colonialism, conquest, appropriation, and the overlay in time and space of religious traditions. And the interviews and anecdotes draw on the rich diversity of the United States, bringing us a host of marginalized voices.

Informants include a Catholic Tibetan Buddhist, a Canadian raised with Christianity and Hinduism, a Christian theologian who grew up practicing Santeria, and a Christian pastor who is also an Ifa priest. Each of us inevitably peers through our own lenses, and Bidwell’s lenses are clearly Christian and Buddhist. But one of the many strengths of this book is the acknowledgement of the importance of immigrant, indigenous, and African diaspora religious identities in this country.

Another key contribution is the way that Bidwell organizes people with complex religious bonds: those who choose complexity, those who feel called to it, and those who inherit multiplicity either from interfaith parents or multi-religious cultures. But then he gracefully concedes that disentangling such categories is not always easy or possible: “…the categories of religious choice, heritage, and invitation are not pure or exclusive.”

I look forward to a lifetime of wrestling with this material, in conversation with this author. Bidwell writes, “In the end, people choose complex religious bonds because multiplicity offers them more benefits than drawbacks.” This certainly affirms my conclusion in studying, and living in, interfaith families. And I am thrilled that this book places people from interfaith families in conversation with other people living religiously complex lives.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (forthcoming in 2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Hanukkah, in Interfaith Families Celebrating Two (or More) Religions

First Night of Hanukkah, photo by Susan Katz Miller

This time of year, interfaith families scour the internet for advice on celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas. For those who celebrate both December holidays, I post this roundup of just some of the many pieces I have written over nine Hanukkahs now in the blogosphere.

My interfaith kids have always loved Hanukkah, even though we also celebrate Christmas. One of my most popular Hanukkah posts, from my very first year as a blogger, was the five reasons you do not have to fear that Hanukkah will be overshadowed by Christmas. And my mother and husband, both Christian, both loved harmonizing as we sang around the candles.

But yes, there are drawbacks. Celebrating both of these December holidays can lead to an overabundance of gifts. Some families have a tradition of giving small presents for Hanukkah instead of toys, such as socks, or lifesavers, or children’s books. (You can find my round-up of interfaith holiday children’s books here, and a new addition for South Asian and Jewish families here).

By the time our kids were teens, we put most of the Hanukkah gift emphasis on the importance of giving to others. Although one year we tried to be cool by also treating them to a Matisyahu concert. I later admitted that going to a rock club on a weeknight did contribute to interfaith holiday burnout that year.

Another year, I wrote a series of snapshots of Hanukkah, Advent, Christmas and Yule in our family, along with my photo of a Hanukkah cookie. It may have been the enticing cookie that lured WordPress into selecting the post to be featured on Freshly Pressed. (I am proud to use my own photos on most of my posts).

That year, I also wrote a piece for Huffington Post on celebrating both holidays in our family. In response, a blogger for the Forward wrote an outraged post in the form of a letter excoriating me. While her post was filled with misunderstandings (we absolutely do not celebrate Chrismukkah), I hope that our exchange helped to explain to a wider audience why many interfaith families are teaching their children both religions.

This year, I feel lucky because Hanukkah comes in that sweet spot on the calendar between Thanksgiving and Christmas: December 2nd to 9th. So we avoid that Thanksgivukkah nonsense. And we minimize any awkwardness in the overlap of Hanukkah and Christmas, for those of us who like to keep the December holidays separate.

And I do like to keep them separate. For our family, part of the point of celebrating both is giving each religion (and each holiday) proper space and respect and meaning. So, no Hanukkah bush or star-of-David treetoppers for us. A Christmas tree is a Christmas tree. And a menorah is a menorah (or a chanukiah, as some folks prefer to call them these days), even when it is made of plexiglass and holds glow sticks instead of candles, like the menorah I sent to our kids when they were in college (thanks to dormitory fire laws!).

Which reminds me, whichever holidays you celebrate in your family, treasure each Hanukkah, each Christmas, each Eid, each Diwali, each Solstice with your children. Too soon, they will be out and about in the great world, and you can only hope that they will be warmed by the nostalgic glow of holiday memories. At our house, we tried to take every opportunity, from both of our religions, to create those memories.

 

 

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (forthcoming in 2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Losing My Father, Not My Religion

 

Bill Katz at the piano, Ben's Bar Mitzvah
Bill Katz at the piano. Copyright, StephanieWilliamsImages

What does it look like to be part of a lineage in which all the living descendants are interfaith, multifaith, of mixed heritage, religiously complex, or hybrids? The easy answer is that now, we look like the future. But in truth, I am only just beginning to contemplate this question. I suspect I will be thinking and writing about it for the rest of my days.

My father, William Emanuel Katz–the Jewish patriarch of our three-generation interfaith family–died at age 94 on November 10th. He was the last remaining grandparent for my children, and their only Jewish grandparent. My father was a strong leader, an alpha, a first-born, with outsized influence on our family structure. He raised his four children with Jewish educations and affiliation. His grandchildren are a mixed multitude: some Jewish, some Catholic, some claiming complex interfaith identities.

My father lived a long and very full life, centered on an extraordinary work ethic, and devotion to family, music, and my mother. He wanted a second line New Orleans jazz band to enter his funeral with a dirge, and exit playing “When the Saints Go Marching In.” And that’s exactly what we gave him. As I danced behind the soprano sax and trombone and snare drum, leading the congregation out of the warmth of our tiny family synagogue and onto a freezing slate sidewalk in northeastern Pennsylvania, some of my cousins looked mildly perplexed. But this musical send-off and homecoming was something my father had always said he wanted, in keeping with his lifelong avocation as a jazz pianist, and also as an homage to his New Orleans grandparents–a rabbi and a Jewish orphan.

For me, inviting in “The Saints” also served as a hat tip to my Episcopalian mother as a coda to an otherwise traditional Reform Jewish memorial service, since the song is based on a gospel hymn. The lyrics draw from the Book of Revelation, recalling for me how my mother both wrote and illustrated a thesis for her comparative religion major, based on the imagery of William Blake. But it also reminds me of my father’s passion for the many great musical genres inspired by Christian themes, from the gospel roots of the blues, to the traditional Christmas carols he played at our annual parties, to American songbook standards written by nice Jewish boys including Mel Torme’s The Christmas Song and Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, to the works of Bach (a devout Lutheran) my father worked on almost daily throughout his life, to the grand masses of Beethoven and Bernstein.

Because interfaith families still face so much resistance from religious institutions, I feel forced to forever justify my celebration of interfaith family life, however joyous and enriching and spiritually satisfying this life is for me. And so, I would note that we have lost my father, but we have not lost Judaism. I remain a member of our tiny temple, founded by my forebears in 1849. Five days after his burial, I returned to my father’s grave with a large and motley crew of cousins, to say the Kaddish for six generations of family in our cemetery.

I am the family scribe. I process by writing. And yet, it is not easy to share the sacred and liminal moments surrounding a death in the family. But because the epic interfaith love story of my parents is foundational in my work–in my first book, in the years of essays on this blog, and in every talk I give–I feel a duty to publicly mark this huge transition in my life, as I did two years ago for my mother.

My mother used to tease me, “For Pete’s sake, are you going to spend your entire career telling and retelling the story of your parents?” And more than ever now, my answer is, “Yes, Mom, I am going to do just that.” Because not only were they my parents, but their place in history as a wildly successful interfaith couple at the leading edge of a huge demographic shift made them worthy of lifelong study. And because I hope that these memories, and the inspiration of their love story, can forever be a blessing for us all.

 

Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (forthcoming in 2019).

Interfaith Kids in Conversation: Q&A with Tahil Sharma

Tahil Sharma and Susan Katz Miller
Tahil and Susan at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Salt Lake City

Tahil Sharma and I have been engaged in an ongoing conversation for years now, both on social media and in person, on navigating the world as interfaith activists from interfaith families. Tahil is currently an Interfaith Minister in Residence with the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, and a Board Member of the Southern California Committee for the Parliament of the World’s Religions. The two of us will appear together this summer at the Reimagining Interfaith conference, July 29th to August 1st in Washington DC. Come on out and join us! Below, I provide a sneak peek in the form of a Q&A.  –Susan Katz Miller

SKM: I was born into a Jewish and Christian interfaith family, and that fact, and those life experiences, have inspired and informed my work as as an author. speaker, and interfaith activist. One of my goals is to create space for people from interfaith families to be interfaith leaders and peacemakers. And at the same time, I am working for recognition that those of us from interfaith families are already serving as interfaith leaders and innovators, but do not necessarily feel we can be open about claiming our interfaith family stories in the context of interfaith “dialogue” or activism. As part of this work, I’ve been keeping a mental list of other “interfaith kids” working as interfaith peacemakers, and you’re at the top of that list. Tahil, why don’t you start by telling us a bit about your background, and your experiences as part of an interfaith family.

TS: I was born in Los Angeles to a Hindu father from a business family and a Sikh mother from an Army background. Both of them immigrated from India in the 1980s and settled in Southern California, trying to figure out how to make their American dream a reality. I started learning about Hinduism and Sikhism from my family, then really began to explore these traditions for myself. This was just the beginning of a weird childhood as I got exposed to friends who were Muslim, Jewish, atheist, all sorts of Christian, and diverse in every other sense of the word. My parents encouraged me to love others as myself, and to learn about what makes other people thrive and understand the world around them. I’ve attended so many different kinds of religious services and events and they all contributed to my understanding of finding bliss and sanity in a consistently chaotic world. I looked back to my own traditions, even learning the languages of the sacred texts (Sanskrit and Gurmukhi) to enunciate and understand what my faith was all about. It made me curious about why we’re all so different yet so able to share a world with one another.

SKM: Your story sounds familiar to me as a fellow interfaith kid, even though we come from different religious and cultural backgrounds. You know, preachers’ kids refer to themselves as PKs. The idea behind that identity is that they share certain formative experiences, whether their parents are ministers or rabbis or imams. And people who grow up in one country but are citizens of another country call themselves TCKs, or Third Culture Kids, and they share certain formative experiences, whether they are military kids or diplomatic corps kids or displaced people or immigrants. So I’m going to refer to us as IKs (that’s “eye kays” not “icks”) for Interfaith Kids. I claim this as part of my identity because I feel we share certain formative experiences of religious complexity. Does that idea resonate for you?

TS: I am totally an IK. We’re a growing demographic around the world thanks to diverse parents creating unions that are unconditional and inclusive. If you had asked me about this 10 years ago, I’d probably have a different understanding of how my interfaith upbringing had an impact on my life. As someone who was always driven by service, I wanted to become a doctor for as long as I could remember. Then I considered being a lawyer for a little while, then a translator. But then came August 5th, 2012. I was in India visiting family when my cousin had told me that a shooting had taken place at a gurdwara (Sikh temple) in Oak Creek, WI. A white supremacist walked into the temple during services and began to shoot blindly, killing 6 people and wounding others, including a police officer who was shot 15 times and survived. This sent my world into a spiral of chaos and confusion, trying to make sense of an injustice towards a coexisting and loving community. Then I reflected on history and the travesties it had produced; injustice was not normal to me, but it was frequent enough to be normal for others. My anger and disappointment instilled a lot of fear until I remembered a word from the Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh scriptures) that referred to the Divine as The One who is Without Fear and Hatred Towards Creation.

I had an epiphany. I could not let this happen to my community ever again. But, in that selfish righteousness, I also remembered that the responsibility falls on the laps of all able individuals to bend the arc of the world towards justice and equity. If I would fight for the rights of anyone, it would be for the right of everyone. That decision led to 5 years of introspection and service that set a precedent in my life to strive for the well-being (sarbat da bhalla) of others because everyone was a part of my universal family (vasudhaiva kutumbakam).

The complexity of my religious identity is not just about ownership and understanding; my faith traditions were the sails on my lifeboat. The journey is tumultuous. but filled with the lessons and beauty reminding me of the splendor and majesty of the Divine. If I can help others do the same, then I know I will have left this world in better shape than when I was born into it.

SKM: Those of us raised in interfaith households, even though we are a growing demographic, are not well understood. In part this is because we haven’t had many opportunities to speak out and shape our own narratives. So, how do you respond to people who challenge the idea that you can claim or benefit from more than one religious heritage? 

TS: That’s simple. I challenge them to recognize themselves by a single identity. The human experience cannot be simplified to represent itself in a monolithic way. The plethora of belief systems around the world have experienced changes and mixtures that have withstood the test of time. Culturally, Hinduism and Sikhism do share some roots coming from South Asia even though they differ from one another. I don’t blink just one eye, I blink both at the same time. I don’t just love my mother or my father, I love them both equally. As such, I have been given the privilege of two blessed visions of the Divine that integrate with every part of my life.

SKM: So, we know that, throughout history and in particular as a result of colonization, entire communities, regions, and countries have practiced more than one religion simultaneously. And anywhere you have two religions sharing geographic space, you are going to have some form of mutual interaction, and some interfaith families. And yet, the topic of multiple religious practice, and of interfaith families, has often been excluded from traditional “interfaith dialogue” programming. Often, each participant has been asked to represent a single religious practice, so as not to “muddy the waters.” How do we work to convince those who are organizing and funding interfaith programming to include those with complex religious identities?

TS: It hasn’t been easy. I didn’t have a crisis of identity so much as I had a crisis of validity. Going around to different people and having to explain that my identity can exist, let alone trying to normalize it in multi-religious settings, is so challenging. There’s a lesser-known quote from Dr. King that speaks about the validity of identity that continues to resonate with me and the struggle for equity and justice: “I’m tired of marching…Tired of marching for something that should’ve been mine at birth.” For the growing number of people who identify with intersectional and multiple identities who march, the struggle continues.

I’ve had people tell me that I’m confused and misled for not choosing a path, or that I’m cherry picking from the religion buffet to suit my needs. But the fact of the matter is, I have adapted my life to grow and transform myself within two traditions that have given me solace and inner peace. So I don’t ask for validity anymore: I make an equal spot for myself at the table.

Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family. She and Tahil Sharma are both interfaith activists, speakers, and consultants. You can find them on twitter at @susankatzmiller and @InterfaithMan.

 

Interfaith Families, Beyond Chrismukkah

IMG_6548

Just before my son’s interfaith Coming of Age and Bar Mitzvah, I got a request from a graduate student who wanted to attend the ceremony as part of her ethnographic field work. My first reaction was, “no way.” As a journalist and a control freak, I am wary of being the subject. And I wanted to stay focused on this intimate family celebration, and not have to worry about being misunderstood. But in the end, I relented. The desire to educate won out over the desire to control my family’s narrative. And so, eight years later, Samira Mehta describes that ceremony in her new book, Beyond Chrismukkah: The Christian-Jewish Interfaith Family in the United States.

It is satisfying to feel seen and heard, as academics begin to acknowledge the rich complexity of interfaith families inside and outside of traditional religious communities. Mehta, now an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Albright College, provides an important historical framework for analyzing the choices made by interfaith families, from the 1960s to the present. (It’s a great complement to Erika Seamon’s Interfaith Marriage in America: The Transformation of Religion and Christianity). And she creates the most thorough and insightful academic analysis, so far, of those of us choosing to celebrate more than one family religion and culture. This is a book that all interfaith families, and those who love us, and those who study us, will need to read.

Samira Mehta and I have been in an extended professional conversation on these topics ever since that Bar Mitzvah, eight years ago. So this is not a standard book review, but rather an essay in response to Beyond Chrismukkah. Perhaps more objectively, Publishers Weekly called Mehta’s analysis “thorough and impressive.” They did quibble about a dearth of stories from actual interfaith couples. But here, I want to quibble with that quibble. Plenty of books (including my own) have told stories of interfaith couples. This book is valuable primarily for providing historical context and academic analysis, shedding new light on the family stories told in previous books.

The opening chapter of the book traces Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic institutional responses to interfaith marriage from the 1960s through the 1980s, decades when those institutions often worked to try to prevent interfaith marriage. (Both the rabbi who refused to marry my parents, and the rabbi who did marry them, are mentioned as playing key roles in this history). Also, Mehta’s close analysis of interfaith families in popular culture through the 20th century—in television, theater, films and children’s literature—illuminates when and why and how these families struggled for acceptance in our culture.

Beyond Chrismukkah does include several detailed stories of individual interfaith families. So, in a chapter on how race and ethnicity intersect with religion in interfaith families raising Jewish children, Mehta portrays two interfaith families—one with a black parent, one with a Latino parent. And then she makes the keen observation that the Jewish community more readily accepts incorporation of Christian elements in interfaith family practice when the Christian partner is a person of color (and thus seen as having an important minority culture of their own), as opposed to a Christian partner seen as a member of the dominant white culture.

Four additional detailed family stories illustrate four different ways that interfaith families are resisting the expectation to choose one religious affiliation, and raising children “partially Jewish,” (this is the Jewish survey terminology, not mine or Mehta’s). Mehta did extensive interviews with a family that is unaffiliated but incorporates home-based Jewish and Christian traditions, a family affiliated as Unitarian-Universalist but incorporates Judaism in that practice, a family that has separate dual affiliations in both a Jewish and in a Mormon community, and a family (my family!) that affiliates with an intentional interfaith community providing Jewish and Christian education to interfaith children. “Rather than finding such families unmoored from religious practice and moral formation,” writes Mehta, she found they “often developed a cohesive family narrative or sense of why they were together as a family beyond denominational constraints.”

As Mehta points out, (and as I have pointed out), much of the research on interfaith families has been funded by Jewish institutions, and thus has not been objective. In contrast, Mehta, as a scholar, “starts from an assumption that the religious lives and realities of the interfaith families themselves are as important as the official policies of their religious organizations toward such families.” This is indeed refreshing. And yet, this book still skews Jewish. Mehta includes two full chapters devoted to interfaith families raising children “only” Jewish, and hardly mentions interfaith families raising children Christian. At least in North America, Jewish institutional fears have largely driven the interfaith families narrative, and Mehta’s work still reflects that reality.

Nevertheless, the arrival of Beyond Chrismukkah signals that more objective academic exploration of interfaith families and complex religious identities has finally begun. Alongside a handful of new books studying “multiple religious practice,” (including Duane Bidwell’s upcoming book), Mehta’s work marks a new willingness to listen to the voices of those with complex religious lives. For, as she concludes, without grappling with “the many ways that those families live out their lives and with the hybrid identities that they create, it is no longer possible to understand religion in American.”

 

Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family.

Jew by Cynthia M. Baker: Book Review

Jew by Cynthia M. Baker

As someone who has been labeled a “first class disrupter,” I was of course immediately attracted to the chutzpah of a book entitled, simply, Jew. Published recently as part of the Rutgers University Press series “Key Words in Jewish Studies,” this slim volume by Cynthia M. Baker, a Religious Studies professor at Bates College, is dense with insight, nuance, and helpful frameworks for thinking about the complex histories and meanings of the word Jew, and more broadly, the complex histories and meanings of religion. Jew is not an easy read for the non-academic–I was grateful for my years living with semiotics majors in college, and my acquaintance with the ideas of Foucault and Derrida. But it is an essential read for anyone wrestling with contemporary Jewish ideas about identity, and that includes all of us in interfaith families with Jewish connections.

Faced as we are with an increase in public anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and racist acts in the current political climate, Baker’s elegant analysis of the word Jew (she chooses to italicize it and I will do the same) feels especially timely. Baker traces the evolution of the word through Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Aramaic. She illuminates how the term Jew was central to the “historical creation of Christian identity and worldview.” She delineates how Jew is often synonymous with “the other,” and has only recently been reclaimed as a (“fraught”) self-referential term of pride. She deconstructs the false binary of Jewish-by-religion versus Jewish-by-ethnicity, embedded in colonial and patriarchal Christian theologies. And she tackles the subtle differentiation of Jew and Jewish.

Baker writes of how the identity of Jew inhabits a space where “belonging and alienation, longing and being hover in a delicate–and sometimes indelicate–balance.” And she writes of the “dissolution of standard dichotomies–including us/them, homeland/diaspora, religious/secular, masculine/feminine, even Jew/Gentile…” This space, this balance, this dissolution, will feel profoundly familiar to those of us in interfaith families choosing interfaith education for ourselves and our children. 

In her final chapter, entitled “New Jews: A View From the New World,” Baker cites Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family. I am grateful that she acknowledged the significance of the 25% of Jewish parents in interfaith marriages raising children with both family religions. However, she goes on to offset the (mainly positive) experiences documented through surveys of hundreds of parents and children in Being Both, with a single anecdote meant to convey the “often-painful challenges” of embodying multiple identities. For this counter-example, she chooses an individual who is transgender, and whose parents became Orthodox. It hardly seems fair to critique the idea of interfaith education for interfaith children while layering on the complexities of conversion, fundamentalist religious practice, and gender identity. Nevertheless, I am glad we are included in the shade of Baker’s very big tent for this book. And I hope she will return to a deeper investigation of multiple religious practice in interfaith families–of who we are, where we are going, and what it all means.

 

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is a speaker and consultant on interfaith education for interfaith families. Her book Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available from Beacon Press.