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.
For Being Both, I interviewed Ivan Kruh about his Jewish and Christian and Buddhist family. Today, more than five years later, Ivan updates us on how his family goes beyond both, to being all, in the context of interspirituality. Not all interfaith families become interspiritual families, and not all interspiritual people come from interfaith families. But, there is an overlap. Ivan sees his family as part of a larger circle encompassing all three of the family religions represented in the Venn Diagram above. Here’s his guest post:
It is funny how some things that feel so organic to one family can be so radical within the larger society. My wife and I found that people thought we were nuts when we both went half-time at work after our son was born. And they thought we were even crazier when we told them we planned to raise him as a Jewish-Buddhist-Christian. But my family has three traditions – I am Jewish and also a Buddhist (what some people call a “Jew-Bu”), and my wife is a Christian. The decision to raise him “all” – connected to all three of these traditions – feels so natural to us. As Susan’s book and blog attest, the number of interfaith families choosing to raise their child with connections to more than one religion is growing. But we are also raising him “all” in a deeper way. Because beyond being an interfaith family, we consider ourselves an interspiritual family.
The term “interspirituality” was coined by the Catholic monk Brother Wayne Teasdale to reflect our human potential to see and be transformed by the shared spiritual truths that form the core of all great religious traditions. For example, my wife and I believe the following truths are at the core of the practices, rituals, songs and traditions of our three religions, and that they form the heart of what we want our son to understand:
“See yourself clearly in order to forget your self;”
“Love and serve all beings and your world;”
“Live with simplicity;”
“Walk humbly with your God.”
Interspirituality does not equate all religions, but sees each as a particular way of expressing these kinds of truths in much the same way different languages could be used to explain the same experience. Clarifying that religions are each merely fingers pointing to the proverbial moon, interspirituality allows individuals to live with strong, deep connection to one or more traditions, yet open from traditional boundaries to include, hold, respect, and benefit from the full family of human spiritual traditions.
My wife and I discovered we were interspiritual early in our dating relationship, though neither of us knew there was a term to describe what was unfolding. As we talked about our religious study, spiritual practices and the insights that came out of both, we found (once we each did a whole lot of explaining of vocabulary) that we believed many of the same things and had a very similar vision about what it takes to live a good life. We began to share our spiritual practices with one another and discuss our experiences. And through these practices and conversations we each developed a true appreciation for the other’s religion while deepening our relationships with our own religions. We each experienced great spiritual nourishment in this process. It became obvious that we could each be devoted to our own different spiritual paths and simultaneously devoted to one another. We were married by a Rabbi and a Minister in a ceremony that joyfully reflected all of this.
And now we have a four-year-old son. Raising him within our interspiritual relationship means that we seek to raise him to also see the universal truths that form the core of his Jewish, Christian and Buddhist heritages. We hope to raise him like a strong tree – firmly rooted in the sacred ground of our three traditions, but with branches that open to all religious and spiritual paths so that he can find his own way toward truth and sacredness.
We know that this is not the view or intention of most interfaith parents. But it works well for us. Take, for instance, the painful conflicts some interfaith parents experience during holiday seasons, like the approaching Easter/Passover season. Some couples worry about whether to host a seder and dye easter eggs in the same home, or how to talk to their children about the Israelite Exodus at the same time they are talking about the resurrection of Jesus. The interspiritual family does not see the confluence of Easter and Passover as a dilemma at all – but a fortuitous opportunity to explore two different expressions of a universal spiritual message – that moments of all-encompassing hardship and fear can give way to unfathomable transformation when one trusts the sacredness of reality. When we approach the holidays in this way, I feel no conflict greeting my wife and her Coptic Orthodox family, ““Ekhrestos Anesti, Alisos Anesti” (Christ is risen! Truly He is risen),” and my wife feels no conflict singing “Dayenu” around my Jewish family’s seder table. And my son just absorbs the joy and the power of these rituals and songs, growing into each holiday story with no need to rigidly adhere to either as true or false.
Yes, we have found that when a family begins to creatively explore the underlying teachings of multiple traditions, beauty emerges. One of the weekly rituals in our home, for example, is to re-enact the Maundy washing of the feet and then offer tzedakah (charity). When we wash one another’s feet, we talk about how Jesus taught the importance of caring for one another – and when we deposit quarters in the family tzedakah box which will later be used to buy food bank donations we extend that same care. In this way, when our son gets older and I teach him about the Buddhist bodhisattva vows or he discovers the Hindu seva (service) tradition or Islam’s pillar of zakat (charity), I trust that he will see these, too, as unique expressions of the universal truth of compassion. I trust that he won’t worry so much about which ways of understanding or practicing compassion are “right” or “best,” but rather he will be curious about the songs, stories, rituals and practices each religion uses to support awareness of the truths. My hope is that no matter what paths he chooses for his own spiritual journey, the universal teachings will rest in his bones and rush through his blood from his Jewish-Christian-Buddhist interspiritual childhood.
I want my son to be gifted an interspiritual lens because I believe it is a true lens. But I also hope he will cultivate this lens because it is what the world needs. These are challenging times. Distrust between people of different religions is running very high. I firmly believe that children who have grown up in a situation that supports them seeing how religious differences point to spiritual commonalities will be in a unique position to help our world toward healing. One foot-washing and tzedakah ritual at a time, one Easter/Passover season at a time, one child at a time, this world can be healed.
Ivan Kruh is a juvenile forensic psychologist in the Berkshires of Massachusetts.
I have been following the powerful photography of Colin Boyd Shafer for years now. In the Interlove Project (2014-2016), Shafer created 50 black and white portraits of interfaith couples and families from throughout Canada. You could describe these families as Protestant and Jewish, or Catholic and Muslim, or atheist and Hindu. But instead, Shafer lets his subjects describe the nuances of their religious journeys and identities. And so, we meet a Catholic who became a Wiccan, a Hindu who became an atheist, a Muslim born to an intermarried Shia and Sunni couple who identifies with both. These Canadians, as individuals and as couples, illustrate the complexity and fluidity of the religious landscape.
Now, I am thrilled that Shafer plans to extend the Interlove Project to 50 interfaith couples in the US, starting this fall. If you are interested in being included, fill out the application now. The project is open to people who are in interfaith relationships, those from different sects or denominations of the same religion, those who may identify as having no faith, those who are spiritual but not religious, those in same-sex relationships, and those who identify as polyamorous.
Recently, I had a chance to ask Colin Boyd Shafer a few questions about the Interlove Project. Here’s our Q & A:
Miller: What first inspired you to chronicle interfaith couples?
Shafer: My previous project Cosmopolis Toronto focused on the diversity that exists in one city. I photographed one person from every country of the world who has migrated to Toronto. Doing this project made me think about other aspects of diversity, and one of those was diversity of relationships. I have lived in countries (like Malaysia) where interfaith relationships are highly discouraged, but in Canada I felt as though people would be willing and safe to open up about the experience. When we look at the news and see so much hate, I think its important to tell stories of love – especially when that love is between people of different beliefs. I agree with the headline in the Toronto Star’s piece on my project: “World Leaders could learn from these couples”.
Miller: What has been the reaction to the Interlove Project in Canada?
Shafer: I would say the project has been received very well. I know for the couples involved it has created a community, and for other interfaith couples who have seen the project it has given them a sense of belonging. I hope for some viewers who may have been doubtful as to the possibility of such relationships working, it may change their mind. Maybe INTERLOVE hasn’t been overly controversial because it isn’t trying to promote interfaith relationships and is instead trying to show that they do exist and they can work.
Miller: You’re embarking on the US version of this project at a time when many religious minorities are feeling threatened in the US. What effect might this have on the willingness of couples to tell their stories?
Shafer: That is an interesting question. I know even in Canada, for every 10 interfaith couples that saw the project, probably only one applied to participate. It is a big step coming out and telling your story in public. Unlike interracial relationships, interfaith couples are often hidden. Doing this project in the United States is especially important because I imagine such relationships have faced more opposition. I am definitely open to concealing identities of the participants because I believe that these stories need to be told regardless.
Miller: What are your goals in terms of what you want this project to convey?
Shafer: I hope it continues to provide a sense of belonging to the couples involved or to other interfaith couples who see this. I also hope it challenges some people’s preconceived notions about what relationships can work. It would be great if this project turns into a book that can reach people in countries outside of North America – in places where people may not even imagine ever being with someone of a different faith. With so many unhealthy relationships out there, it would be such a shame for a couple that are such a great match to not be able to be together just because of differences of faith. Ultimately, everyone wants to hear a beautiful love story, and Interlove delivers.
On Saturday, my daughter and I joined in the fierce and ecstatic experience of the Women’s March on Washington. Although my mother died four months ago, I felt we carried her with us–that we were marching for all three generations of women from our interfaith family.
I have always been an activist. I testify at city and county council meetings, I call elected officials, I support progressive non-profits, I march. For me, this work is spiritual work. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, after marching in Selma with Martin Luther King Jr., wrote that while he marched, “my feet were praying.”
But what does all this have to do with being from an interfaith family? Growing up in an interfaith family is a constant reminder that love wins. I’m talking here not about love in the abstract, but radical love between two individuals who are face to face and committed to engaging with each other for the long term. In an interfaith family–or an interracial or intercultural or LGBTQ family–we live with the idea that love vaults over boundaries, love challenges prejudice, love wins over hate.
Part of my work now involves amplifying the voices of people from interfaith families who are speaking out for love: interfaith leaders, interfaith peacemakers, interfaith activists. Our commitment to love comes from the gut, fueled by our most intimate full-time reality, informed by our family experiences.
Perhaps the idea of interfaith family members inspired to be interfaith activists sounds like a tiny niche platform to you. But this is #GenerationInterfaith. Pew Research recently found that one in five Americans grew up in an interfaith family, but that is just the start. If you live in a metropolitan area, and your family has been in the US for at least a generation, you probably have a partner, parent, child, sibling, aunt, uncle, grandparent, step-grandparent, half-sibling, or beloved-neighbor-you-consider family, with a different set of religious beliefs or practices from your own. Not to mention the idea that every family is an interfaith family, in the sense that no two people have identical religious beliefs, practices, traditions, histories, or experiences. Even a partnership between two atheists is going to be informed by the plural religious histories of parents and grandparents, and by cultural traits derived from those various religious traditions.
In this sense, we are all from extended interfaith families. And we can all draw inspiration and motivation from those family ties. Those ties impel me to stand up against anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, to stand up for refugees and immigrants, and to advocate for interfaith literacy. And by extension, because love wins, and because my interfaith lens helps me to become more aware of the complex intersectionality of identity, I stand up for other marginalized communities including LGBTQ people, people of all abilities, and #BlackLivesMatter.
I grew up in what feels now like a galaxy far, far, away. In that galaxy, interfaith kids were few and far between, and we didn’t talk about the fact that we were interfaith kids. But early on, I developed a keen sense of what I now think of as “interfaithdar,” often correctly guessing which famous people came from interfaith families. Since I did not know many interfaith families in real life, each realization of another person out there from a multi-religious background gave me a tiny thrill.
And so, like many interfaith kids, I have kept a mental list of famous people with interfaith heritage who have been important to me in one way or another, including Paul Newman, Carly Simon, Peter Sellers, Adam Yauch, Lena Dunham, Drake, Bruno Mars, Matt Stone, David Yazbek, Barack Obama, Fiorello LaGuardia, Dorothy Parker, Marcel Proust, JD Salinger, Gloria Steinem, Frida Kahlo, Adrienne Rich, Gabriela Mistral, St Teresa of Avila, and Raoul Wallenberg.
But the relationship of two interfaith kids with powerful on-screen chemistry, namely Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford in the Star Wars trilogy, represent the summit of celebrity interfaith geography. And so the death of Carrie Fisher today set me to thinking about the silent bonds many of us share as interfaith kids.
Each interfaith family is different, and interfaith children can be raised with one religion, two religions, no religion, many religions, and an almost infinite variety of combinations of culture and belief and practice. Every child with mixed heritage ultimately grows up to choose their own identity, their own label. And I am not in the business of applying labels to other people based on my own frame of reference. But however we are raised, and however we identify as adults, those of us with extended family from mixed religious backgrounds share certain hallmark experiences, and learn to code-switch in a dual-faith or interreligious or intercultural context. We see the world through more than one set of lenses, and often, we learn to spot other people wearing those interfaith bifocals and trifocals.
I was sixteen when I saw Carrie Fisher star as a 19-year-old in Star Wars. And so today, with the rest of the sci-fi geek world, I mourn Fisher as an icon of my youth. Her life was not easy: the lives of children raised in Hollywood rarely are. And she struggled with bipolar disorder, and with drug addiction. But as a writer, and an actress, she charmed the world with her humility, wry humor, and strength. Whatever galaxy she finds herself in now, she is at peace. And may her memory be a blessing.
This week, the (Jewish Daily) Forward published my opinion piece on why we should move away from the term “intermarried” to describe interfaith families. I have strong opinions on this topic. You can click below to read my four main arguments (plus a bunch of cranky comments of the “you’re not even Jewish” or “interschminter” variety).
The response to the essay has been interesting. Many in the Jewish community have been quick to defend the use of “intermarriage.” One of the main points they argue is that “interfaith” doesn’t seem like the right language at a time when secularism is on the rise. I understand this, and I understand why some people prefer “intercultural” to “interfaith.” Clearly, we need to keep looking for the right language to describe our families, and our identities, in the 21st century. But I stand firm in my opposition to “intermarriage” and I wish more readers would respond to my critique of the use of this term.
Meanwhile, of those who have read my essay and did not grow up Jewish, virtually none of them think of these marriages as “intermarriages”–indeed they find the term awkward and uncomfortable. I believe that’s because the term “intermarriage” is tied to a long history of worrying about, excluding, sitting shiva for, and castigating those in interfaith families for their choices. It clearly marks those who use “intermarriage” as representing one side, one culture, one religion. In contrast, 21st century interfaith (or intercultural or interreligious) families refuse to be labeled solely in reference to their relationship to Judaism. They may have relationships with both family religions. Or they may have left behind both family religions completely. In either case, they do not see themselves as one partner who married “out” and one partner who married “in,” but rather as full partners, and therefore as equals.
How are interfaith families creating a new Jewish reality in America? That was the theme at the Interfaith Opportunity Summit in Philadelphia this week, organized by InterfaithFamily. The summit was attended by some 350 Jewish leaders: rabbis, Jewish educators, leading academics who study Judaism in America, and Jewish funders. I was honored to be invited to speak there about interfaith families celebrating both family religions.
I had just five minutes, and touched on these points:
25% of Jewish parents in interfaith relationships are raising children both, or “partially Jewish.” That’s more than the 20% raising interfaith children “Jewish only” by religion (Pew 2013). So the number of Jewish parents who want interfaith education for their interfaith children is significant, and growing.
These “doing both” families want to engage with Judaism. So please engage with them, rather than excluding them from Jewish education because they also want interfaith education, or ignoring them with a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about the other religion in their lives.
Interfaith families doing both already exist in many Jewish communities. So the question is not whether you should include them, but how to acknowledge their presence, engage with them, and learn from them.
Rather than always asking about the difficulties and challenges, be open to hearing about the joys in interfaith families. Think about how your community can benefit from interfaith families as highly skilled bridge-builders and peacemakers.
Jewish leaders would benefit from working hand-in-hand with clergy from other religions to support interfaith families, rather than competing for souls.
Nothing about us without us! We need more adult interfaith children involved in organizing these conferences, speaking on the panels, telling our own stories, and shifting the frame into the reality of the present. That means listening not only to adult interfaith children who claim “just Jewish” identities, but also to those who have complex, fluid, flexible, intersectional “Jewish and” identities, including people who are multiple religious practitioners.
These messages echo my New York Times Op-Ed, published when my book Being Both, and the Pew Report on Jewish Americans, came out simultaneously in 2013. What has changed three years later is that now I am in touch with Jewish leaders from across the country who are working with “doing both” families, who feel less conflicted about the idea, and who see the logic of including rather than excluding people who want to be part of the greater Jewish community.
Going forward, it is clear that interfaith parents who want interfaith education for their interfaith children are going to play a larger role in the Jewish world. The next question is which of the Jewish funding organizations at the summit will be visionary enough to invest in helping clergy, educators, seminaries, and Jewish communities to engage with this new reality. I stand ready to help, as a guide and interpreter, and as someone who has been thinking about these issues for a lifetime now.
(For more on the summit, see my tweets from the day on Storify here)