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.
For generations, interfaith families who felt excluded, misunderstood, or disrespected by Jewish clergy or institutions, have found other homes. Some gravitated to Unitarian-Universalism, which draws on many religions. Some added Buddhism, or Sufism, or Paganism, to their spiritual practice. And for more than a quarter of a century now, interfaith families have been building their own dual-practice communities in which to honor both Judaism and Christianity.
But very few of these people with complex religious practices (and I have studied hundreds of them) stopped practicing Judaism altogether, or stopped calling themselves Jews.
The irony is that Jews who did stop practicing Judaism altogether are considered Jewish in the new Pew study of Jewish Americans in 2020, as long as they don’t claim a second religion. But if you claim two religions, you forfeit your right to have Pew consider you part of the Jewish community. They excluded 200,000 adults who filled out the survey but claim Judaism and another religion.
This approach is not going to help draw interfaith families closer to Jewish institutions or communities. The Pew study betrays a failure to understand the fluid and non-binary religious complexity of Jews today—of our families, our practices, our identities, our affiliations. And that failure contributes to a misunderstanding of the overall size and diversity of the Jewish community.
A lot has been writtenaboutinterfaith families in this Pew study already, including by me. But in the weeks since the study was released, I have continued mulling it over, or stewing really, trying to figure out why I feel the study does not capture the American Judaism I know and love. And I have come to the realization that those 200,000 Jews who were actually tallied and then excluded by Pew are only a small fraction of those who were excluded. And that is because many of us never would have finished the survey.
Let me explain.
Imagine you are Jewish and Buddhist, or Jewish and Wiccan, or Jewish and married to a Quaker and giving your children an interfaith education. In short, imagine you are a Jew who is a multiple religious practitioner, or raising multiple religious practitioners. (There is an entire academic literature on multiple religious belonging. I have been the keynote speaker at an international conference on the topic).
Now, imagine sitting down to fill out the Pew survey online, and being faced by a barrage of questions about how you feel about Israel, a country that does not allow interfaith marriage, or allow interfaith couples to be buried together, or accept patrinileal Jews as Jews, or accept Reform conversions. Or, imagine your answer to the religious identity question is, “It’s complicated,” for any number of reasons. In section A on the survey, one third of the questions are about Israel. In section B, half of the questions (or eight questions) mention Israel. Oh, and then in section G, there are “a few questions” on Israel.
Personally, I would have clicked away long before section G. I would not have completed the survey. And neither would a lot of the Jews I know who are raising interfaith kids. And neither would many of the young Jewish activists for Palestinian rights. (Of the people who did complete the Pew survey and qualified to count as Jews, less than half said they feel attached to Israel). The Jewishness we are creating together does not depend on Israel as an identity marker.
Any institution that is trying to understand my Jewishness, while putting that amount of emphasis on a country that doesn’t accept me as a Jew, and while excluding Jews who practice Buddhism or Wicca, is not ready to understand my Jewishness. And, any such institution is not ready to understand the Jewishness of a significant percentage of young progressive Jews in America. They are not ready to understand that virtually all of us in the non-Orthodox Jewish world in America now have extended interfaith families, filled with a kaleidoscope of Jewish practices, identities, and affiliations. And whether or not you choose to count us, we are taking the demographic lead.
How can we fix this?
Honestly, to get better data, data that describes the realities of young progressive Jews in America, and their almost universally interfaith families, we have to wait for new funders to fund new studies. We need studies without the patriarchal “continuity” narrative, and without loyalty to Israel dominating the questions. To fund these new studies, we have to wait for generational or self-made wealth from progressive adult interfaith kids, and from those who are themselves Jewish and Buddhist, or Jewish and Unitarian, or Jewish and Quaker. Or just Jewish, and just insistent on human rights for Palestinians. We are waiting for investment in this inspirational future–a future with all of us who claim Judaism, together creating a path forward for our complex selves, and for our complex families, and for this beautiful and ancient religion.
Growing up Jewish, I never imagined I would be nourished by the care and deep friendship of a minister.
And I know hundreds of other Jews who can make that same statement, because Reverend Julia Jarvis has been, in partnership with our rabbis, the Spiritual Leader of the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington . We are a bunch of very lucky Jews, married to a bunch of very lucky Christians, because we have had more than two decades of support from Julia.
How do we love her? Let me count the ways.
Her childhood as a Southern Baptist in the south, though she left the evangelical world behind, brought us someone with southern warmth and with unabashed passion for seeking the divine everywhere, and in everyone.
Her adult formation in the most progressive streams of mainline Protestantism brought us the ability to see a Christianity forged in and entirely devoted to social justice.
Her years in the practice and study of the Buddhism of Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama brought us gatherings that went beyond the Jewish/Christian binary, marked by contemplative silence and ringing bowls.
Her love of music (and the celestial harmonies of her twin daughters Jeanne and Lauren) inspired a high standard of musicianship from our talented membership.
Her enthusiasm in the years that she and I traveled together to early Dovetail interfaith family conferences meant she helped weave relationships with interfaith family community leaders across the country. Nationally, she represented what being clergy to a vital and thriving interfaith families community could look like.
Her exquisite empathy for all beings, human and animal, inspired all of us to be there for each other–to check in with those who were grieving or struggling, to bring the casseroles, to give the hugs.
Her willingness to dance in gatherings, to sing along with eyes closed, to laugh her full-throated laugh, to be in the moment, inspired our unselfconscious joy in community.
Her co-officiation at hundreds of interfaith weddings, baby namings, coming of age ceremonies, and funerals, created a template and liturgies for honoring all of our religious ancestries in these liminal moments.
Her legendary personal and professional partnership with IFFP’s longtime rabbi, the beloved Harold White, and her care for him in his final years, modeled the highest form of platonic love between a religious Christian and a religious Jew.
This year, IFFP celebrates our 25th anniversary. This community, my community, is still thriving thanks in large part to Julia–still unique, still evolving as a project, still very much needed in the world. At Julia’s last gathering with IFFP yesterday, there were over 125 squares in the zoom gallery. They represented hundreds of interfaith families from across the country paying tribute to her, and to all that she has done to help make this a vital and innovative community, a beacon of light to the world. They included Jews who feel they can still claim Judaism because of Julia, Christians who feel they can still claim Christianity because of Julia, and interfaith kids who love their identities as interfaith kids because of Julia.
We go on, always now in the footsteps of our first minister, my first minister, with her favorite refrain from the book of Micah singing in our ears:
“To do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.”
Today, we arrive at a historic moment in the interfaith families movement.
The announcement went out that a minister who grew up in an interfaith family will become the first adult interfaith kid to become a clergy co-leader of a community celebrating Judaism and Christianity.
Reverend Samantha Gonzalez-Block grew up in a multicultural, interfaith family. She comes to the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington DC (IFFP) as the Interim Christian Minister, on the retirement of our beloved longtime minister, Reverend Julia Jarvis. “As someone who grew up in a Jewish-Christian home, I longed for a place like IFFP,” Samantha says in today’s announcement. She has a divinity degree from the progressive Union Theological Seminary (UTS) in New York City, and was ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA).
IFC was the first program created by and for interfaith families to give interfaith children interfaith education. In their unique teaching system, IFC has often paired co-teaching Christian and Jewish seminarians, from UTS and the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), two seminaries across the street from each other in Morningside Heights in New York City. One of the great beauties of this system is that for over 30 years now, clergy in training have had first-hand experience with the benefits of co-teaching the two religions to interfaith kids. And then they go out into the world as clergy, carrying this experience with them.
So, there is a powerful symmetry and sense of fulfillment in the idea that one of these seminarians, one who grew up in an interfaith family and experienced the beauty of teaching interfaith kids both religions, is now returning to lead another of the “big three” (NYC, DC, Chicago) communities created by and for interfaith families celebrating both religions. “Samantha brought her special life experience to our programs,” said Sheila Gordon, IFC’s Founder President, on hearing the news today. “Having her in a leadership position at IFFP could be a real game-changer for the future of dual faith families everywhere.”
The truth is that the moment I met Samantha, I dreamed that someday she would lead a community of interfaith families. And as soon as she met me, she wanted to know more about IFFP in DC. In 2014, I invited her to DC to give a guest reflection at an IFFP gathering. And the next year, she invited me to UTS, to speak on a panel alongside Sheila Gordon, as part of Samantha’s thesis project on interfaith families. On that visit I also spoke in the gorgeous chapel service she created and led, entitled “Out of the Box: Our Sacred Complex Identities.” In that service, Samantha reflected on her identities in poetic rap form, and inspired me to try to do the same. It felt like a grace-filled dance.
With the appointment of Reverend Samantha Gonzalez-Block to work in partnership with our IFFP rabbi, Debbie Reichmann, and lead our community, we have reached what, for me at least, is a sacred moment. This is the moment when an interfaith kid grows up and dares to become an ordained religious leader. When they dare to say they can lead a spiritual community created by and for interfaith families. When they dare to affirm that clergy, too, can claim more than one religious heritage. This is a moment I have been waiting for, well, all of my life.