Jews of Color. A New Study.

Depiction of complex identities, created for the new Jews of Color Initiative study

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.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families consultant and the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2013), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019).

We Count. We Just Weren’t Counted.

More on Pew’s Jewish Americans in 2020

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 written about interfaith 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.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families consultant and the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2013), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019).

On the Retirement of My Minister, Reverend Julia Jarvis

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.

Dynamic Media Duo
A chaplain and a protestor, on the Mall
All Creatures Great and Small
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Her participation in the frontlines of DC protest, from the Sanctuary movement to the Reverend William Barber’s Poor People’s Campaign, inspired us to take up Civil Rights icon Abraham Joshua Heschel’s practice of praying with our feet.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.”


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 (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

A Historic Moment for Interfaith Families

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).

I first met Samantha when Religions for Peace asked her to be part of a video interview with me on interfaith families, seven years ago. I discovered that not only was Samantha a fellow interfaith kid, but that as a student at UTS she had taught in the groundbreaking Interfaith Family Community (IFC) program in New York City.

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.

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 (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Happy 2nd Bday, Interfaith Family Journal

The Interfaith Family Journal  turns two today!

And I have to admit, this little interactive book has brought me nothing but joy. It brings me joy to help interfaith couples find their best pathways. But also, with this second book, I feel lighter. I do not stress as much as I did about the people, and institutions, opposing interfaith marriage. My focus is entirely on the people I am supporting and inspiring, helping them to see how you can claim joy in your interfaith family.

So, I was determined to have fun with this book. And that started with making my own book trailer, with a rock and roll soundtrack from my kid’s band:

And then when the pandemic hit, I decided to make a video featuring the coloring pages I commissioned for my website, in conjunction with the release of the book. (Again, I was lucky to have a musician kid to create an original soundtrack for me).

Just in the last few months, I’ve had joyous new experiences, including giving a keynote at an academic conference on multiple religious belonging in England (on zoom), sharing a keynote slot with an expert on multiracial families (on zoom), and giving a dvar (a reflection on a Torah reading) at a zoom Shabbat with the Wandering Jews of Astoria. And tomorrow, I will speak on a panel at an event in England with Jewish and Muslim women telling their interfaith family stories.

This has been a terrible year for humanity.

But the very idea of interfaith families continues to bring me joy.

And it brings me joy that this little book continues to bring joy to more of those families.

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 (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Interfaith Zoom Life in Pandemic Times

I have always loved February. My parents had their interfaith wedding in a blizzard on February 13th. So I love the deep February snow when it comes. And I love the chocolate hearts, since the first day for my parents as a married interfaith couple was Valentine’s Day, a day devoted to love. During the six years of my life when I lived on the equator in Senegal and Brazil, I missed the snow (and Valentine’s Day). But in the Brazil years, the joy of Carnaval in February was the highlight of the cultural calendar, and a peak life experience for me, creating a new layer of love for February.

This year, February feels grey and icy cold indeed, as our isolation from each other goes on, and on. We are marking our first pandemic February, closing in on a full year living with masks, and distancing, and the loss of almost 2.5 million lives to COVID-19 worldwide (and almost half a million lives in the US). All of us are mourning. All of us are traumatized. And I wonder at times whether it is relevant, or appropriate, to carry on with my work making space for interfaith families and interfaith identities, or any other kind of “non-essential” work.

But the light is returning, more people are getting vaccinated, and we have hope that we will emerge eventually into a new normal. The story of my parents teaches me that love, combined with persistence and empathy, is essential. And so, I still get joy from supporting interfaith couples and families. So here is an update on what I’ve been up to during these pandemic times.

My work with interfaith families now takes place entirely on zoom, podcasts, telephone, and the internet, which has created the ability to support people anywhere, in any time zone. I have acted as a resource this year for undergraduate students, graduate students, and divinity students, all studying interfaith families, on several countries. This gives me great hope that there will be more academic literature soon, telling the diverse stories of interfaith families, across the globe.

I can zoom into religious studies classrooms anywhere now, without the travel expense. I am honored to be the guest this week, talking about interfaith families and interfaith identities, on Array of Faith. I am interviewed on this podcast by J. Dana Trent, who wrote The Saffron Cross, a book describing her own Christian and Hindu interfaith marriage. Now she has taken pandemic classroom guests to the next level. For the students in her Introduction to World Religions course, she and her husband created the Array of Faith podcast to host speakers with various religious identities.

And in honor of Valentine’s Day this week, I was invited back to State of Belief, the long-running radio show hosted by Rev. Welton Gaddy and the Interfaith Alliance. You can hear me there this week, chatting about interfaith love, interfaith families, and what has changed since I last appeared on the show eight years ago. Welton hosts the show from Monroe, Louisiana, which is one of the towns my rabbi great-grandfather served as he made his way up and down the Mississippi in the 19th century.

Another highlight of my professional year in the pandemic was a zoom keynote at The Guibord Center in LA, in conjunction with an expert on mixed race families, in which we addressed the intersection of these two rich and complex worlds. There is a significant overlap of interfaith families, interracial families, and LGBTQ+ families, and I hope to engage more with these synergies, going forward.

Meanwhile, the support networks I created online have become a refuge, where we can engage with each other without masks or fear of contagion. For interfaith families practicing two religions (any two or more religions or secular identities), join the private Network of Interfaith Family Groups (NIFG) on facebook. And for adult interfaith kids, I recently started up the People of Interfaith Family Heritage private group on facebook. More on that project soon!

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 (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Top Posts in 2020

My current jigsaw puzzle, also a mandala, also reminiscent of a covid sphere.

Does anyone else feel like these final days of 2020 are moving in slow motion?

We’re “on vacation” with nowhere to go, no one to see. The psychopathic demagogue in the White House is using every final moment of 2020 to wreak more havoc. The pandemic continues to roar through like a tidal wave, and lifeboat vaccines seem to sweep out of reach. Honestly, it is hard to focus on interfaith families (or anything). Though of course family, any family, every family, remains crucial in this time of unbearable stress and trauma.

So this was not a year for big accomplishments, unless you work in medicine or public health, or you are a teacher who managed to transition successfully to working online, or entirely outdoors. Myself, well, I sure did a lot of jigsaw puzzles–a “mindless pleasure” my family likes to indulge on vacation together, but something I had never let myself do alone at home before. Finding a missing piece, fitting the pieces together, is a balm now, and a meditative practice, and I see no reason to deny myself the hours of “unproductive” puzzling.

But I also feel I owe it to my readers to look back on this year as it ends, and think about how interfaith families are weathering this moment in history, a topic I wrote about here, and then here and here and here. What else? I gave some keynotes and talks that were supposed to be in person, on zoom instead–others got postponed.

Back in the spring, the facebook group I founded, the Network of Interfaith Family Groups (NIFG), got excited about meeting up on zoom, for awhile, until we all got zoomed out. And I helped some of those families connect to online worship and interfaith religious education for kids, through IFFP in DC, the Brookville Multifaith Campus, and the Family School in Chicago. So all of that was satisfying.

Especially, to be perfectly honest, the jigsaw puzzles!

After blogging for more than a decade, I took some months off, but then found a lot of energy for writing short reports and essays in the final weeks of the year. Since it launched in 2009, this blog has been visited by over 195,000 people, with over 366,000 views, and 382 essays on interfaith families.

My top posts in 2020 had nothing to do with the pandemic, and may surprise you:

  1. The Interfaith Family of Kamala Harris. This was the feel-good story we all needed in 2020. An interfaith kid raised with both Christian and Hindu traditions grows up and marries a Jewish man, and goes to the White House! Surely this example of what I call an interfaith trifecta family will help to normalize the beauty of our complex, rich, multireligious heritages and extended families, going forward. While many in the Jewish (and South Asian) press wrote about Harris’s interfaith family from monofaith perspectives, this post got a lot of hits because I pointed out that we–those of us who grew up in interfaith families–are a demographic force to be reckoned with, and we are showing up in leadership positions, even at the very top now.
  2. Ten Reasons to Teach Interfaith Children Both Religions. This is exactly what Kamala Harris’s mother did! I love that this little essay, written ten years ago now in 2010, continued to hold down the #2 spot for popularity on my blog ten years later in 2020. It lays out the argument in my first book for giving interfaith kids an interfaith education, in a condensed list of ten points. As a growing segment of the population is celebrating more than one religion, this post is only becoming more relevant.
  3. Interfaith Marriage and the Rise of the Religious “Nones.” This is another older post (from 2012) that is only becoming more and more relevant with time. The religious “nones” (atheists, agnostics, the spiritual but not religious or SBNRs, anyone who doesn’t affiliate with a single religious identity anymore) continue to grow. Families spanning Christians and “nones” are the largest segment of interfaith families in the US, and the fastest-growing. Recently, I reviewed a new memoir, Blessed Are the Nones, that is a dispatch from this world. This is a topic I will return to in 2021, and beyond. So, onward through the unknown.

As pandemic fatigue sets in, keep your interfaith family safe–and that means keep everyone safe, because as I like to point out, we’re all interfaith families now. Keep your mask on outside your house. Stay inside, or outside in the wild, if you have that privilege. Me, I am trying to get beyond jigsaw puzzles, to some creative new endeavors. And that may or may not happen in 2021. And that’s okay.

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 (2019). Follow her on Twitter @susankatzmiller.

Menorah Conclusion: Interfaith Family, Year 60

Photo Susan Katz Miller

My kids only had one Jewish grandparent, my father, may his memory be a blessing. When he died two years ago, I promised to chronicle what happens in an interfaith family when all the remaining generations have interfaith heritage.

So here, I’m reporting in.

According to Jewish pessimists, my children should be thoroughly assimilated into the (increasingly mythical) Christian majority by now. They are 26 and 23 years old, and just recently launched into the (perilous) world.

And in the last 24 hours, they each, independently, casually asked if I had a menorah to spare.

Oh, you know I do! I have a whole collection of them. (And yes, I call them menorahs, not chanukiahs, because that’s what my father the rabbi’s grandson called them).

So, I packed up one menorah, and it’s headed to Brooklyn in the mail. It’s the one with the star of David, and the wobble where the screw threads are worn out. Friends are incredulous. My son can’t get his own menorah, in Brooklyn of all places? He can’t just make a menorah out of ziti or something? Of course he can. But it’s Hanukkah, and what else am I gonna give this grown-ass kid? He does not crave stuff. And he asked for this…one…thing.

Then my daughter came by to peruse my small menorah collection, and picked the teeny-tiny menorah that takes birthday candles. It will serve double-purpose as an instructional artifact in the Montessori forest school where she is teaching.

Coincidentally (or not, since Hanukkah starts this Thursday night), the New York Times just published a mournful piece by a woman with a Jewish father and Christian mother, about why she is not going to celebrate Hanukkah with her toddler. On twitter, reactions are split. I see exclusivist Jewish thinking (“you’re not Jewish anyway so why would you celebrate Hanukkah”), the same thinking that has pushed so hard against the very existence of interfaith families in the name of “Jewish continuity.” And then I see those who empathize, and diagnose her alienation as a direct result of those exclusivist policies. That toddler, like my children, has one Jewish grandparent. And while every interfaith family has the right to choose how they will identify, and which rituals they will celebrate, it set me to thinking about why my children do feel connected to Judaism, in the third generation of our interfaith family.

How do I explain why both my children now feel called to be interfaith ambassadors and bridge-builders? Why do they intend this year to share ancient Jewish ritual with their households of friends, with young pupils, with their communities? Here I want to name just two of what I see as the many interconnected reasons for the persistence of Jewish ritual in the third generation of my interfaith family.

One reason was the charisma and determination of my beloved Jewish father, who was the last living grandparent for my children. At Hanukkah, we would gather around his piano to sing “Rock of Ages” each night while he played for us by the light of the menorah, with my Episcopalian mother and husband harmonizing. He gave us affection for these rituals, and he gave us a model of a harmonious interfaith family that persisted in celebrating both heritages despite all manner of official resistance from religious institutions.

The second reason is the work that my husband and I, and our interfaith families community, and our rabbis and ministers, put into raising our children to feel they have a right to claim both family religions. We made sure they had basic Jewish literacy, we made sure they felt connected to Judaism, we made sure they felt called to stand up against anti-semitism.

In light of the menorah requests this week, I now feel moved to declare that this is the moment, sixty years into our three-generation experience with interfaith family living, that I am ready to draw a definitive conclusion. Interfaith kids in the third generation, including those raised with both family religions, can feel deeply connected to Judaism (or any other religion in which they are educated). So, to all those who predicted our inevitable assimilation into the Christian majority, I conclude based on personal experience that you were wrong.

But if Jewish institutions want to ensure that menorahs do not all end up sitting unused in boxes in closets, they must ensure that we do not continue to alienate interfaith families who want to engage in Judaism. Here are the five urgent (overdue) strategies for doing that:

And if you need further advice on the hows or whys of all this, I am available to consult.

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 (2019). Follow her on Twitter @susankatzmiller.

Being Both…a Male and Female God: Q & A with Rabbi Mark Sameth

Rabbi Mark Sameth’s new book, The Name: A History of the Dual-Gendered Hebrew Name for God, chronicles how the God of ancient Israel was understood by its earliest worshipers to be a non-binary, male-female deity. Recently, I had a chance to ask the Rabbi about his new book, and how it might be particularly relevant to interfaith families.

Q: Your book chronicles the idea that the secret, unpronounceable name for God in ancient Israel is Hu-Hi, or “He-She,” an entity equally male and female. Tell us a bit about the influences of other religions and cultures on this idea of a dual-gendered God in the ancient world.

A: Dual-gendered gods were utterly normative in the ancient world. The Mesopotamians had them, the Egyptians had them. No one questions this. Israel sat between these two ancient regional superpowers. It’s hard to imagine how Israel could not have been influenced by them.

Q: And briefly, how is this idea of a dual-gendered God manifested in the Torah.

A: Well, for instance, in the Book of Deuteronomy it says that God “your Father” (32:6) “convulsed in labor for you,” (32:18) “gave birth to you,” (32:18) and “suckled you” (32:13). And there’s a lot more where that came from, if you can read the Hebrew. Moses addresses God in the second person masculine singular (attah) and the second person feminine singular (at). The adam, the human being — pointedly said to have been created in God’s own image — is referred to as “them” (otam). Indeed, the rabbis took this to mean that the original earth creature had been created as an androgynous being, which was later separated by God into the male and female characters Adam and Eve. 

Q: So then, how and why did that male-female aspect of God become suppressed and subsumed? Do you see that suppression as related to power and patriarchy? After all, there are no women commenting on the Torah in texts, until the 20th century.

A: I do wonder about the how and why. But yes, of course. I mean, there were occasional exceptions when women rose to power. Pharaoh Hatshepsut — considered one of the greatest of the pharaohs — was a woman, as of course was Deborah in Israel. In the early twentieth century, Hannah Rachel Verbermacher, known as the Maid of Ludomir, was a Chassidic master. But again, these were the rare exceptions. Gerda Lerner, some thirty years ago, wrote that “the system of patriarchy is a historic construct; it has a beginning; it will have an end. Its time seems to have nearly run its course—it no longer serves the needs of men or women and in its inextricable linkage to militarism, hierarchy, and racism it threatens the very existence of life on earth.” Amen, late sister.  

Q: We are in the midst of a dramatic shift in American culture in which individuals who have non-binary gender identities are telling their stories, creating space, and rising to leadership. How much did you think about this, while writing this book, and how is your book and this historical moment intertwined?

A: I have to say that, at first, I wasn’t thinking about it at all. I was really just trying to figure out the puzzle; trying to figure out why, in Hebrew, the Torah is gendered the way it is (men are referred to in the feminine; women are referred to in the masculine). It was only later that I began to consider how this intertwines with stories in my own family — stories about one pioneering, transgender cousin in particular, as well as about elderly gay and lesbian cousins who had been closeted their whole lives — and, as you say, how this intertwines with the historical moment. That’s chapter seven of my book.  

Q: I think for many progressive Jewish leaders, it has become relatively comfortable to speak about the intersectionality of being a feminist and Jewish, or gay and Jewish, or Italian and Jewish, or Black and Jewish. But when interfaith families want to talk about the enriching and formative effects on us of Hinduism and Judaism, or Paganism and Judaism, or, heavens forbid, Christianity and Judaism, the room goes silent. Has your historical work changed the way you see interfaith families who insist on teaching their children, or practicing, more than one religion?

A: It has. In Hinduism, the six-sided Shatkona star — in form and meaning — is indistinguishable from the Magen David (Jewish Star of David). They symbolize the intersection of male and female energy. As does the six-sided star of Shintoism, the Kagome Crest. Paganist reverence for the physical world is not alien to Judaism. The Chassidim teach what’s called avodah b’gashmiut, “bodily prayer.” Mystery — which we associate with Christianity — was central to how Jews did religion. The Zohar was considered a holy book, on par with the Torah, until historical circumstances (the Shabbatai Tzvi debacle, a story for another time) made Jewish mysticism seem too dangerous. So when you ask about teaching our children more than one religion, I think it’s worth considering that very important, spiritually essential, core Jewish beliefs and practices — such as non-dualism, body-centrism, and mysticism — have been nurtured in non-Jewish communities, and in some of our Jewish communities have been lifted up again only as people who grew up elsewhere have entered into contact, alliance, and sometimes affiliation with us.

Q: In interacting with interfaith families, religious institutions often present the idea that different religions are completely distinct, and that to be authentic, one must practice them in some pure, unadulterated, static form. In contrast, as with gender identities, many people from interfaith families see their religious identity as more “both/and,” or hybrid, or non-binary. It may not be a coincidence that a growing percentage of young adults are no longer affiliating with religious congregations (of any religion). I find religious scholars like yourself often understand the complexity and shades-of-grey realities of the history and culture of religions, and how interfaith families might be claiming that complexity. But how would religious institutions need to change to accommodate this kind of thinking? And is that going to happen?

A: Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, may his memory be for a blessing, said a religion is like a cell. If anything can pass through the membrane, the cell dies. If nothing can pass through the membrane, the cell dies. I think it would behoove religious institutions to bear in mind that there’s no such thing as “pure, unadulterated, static” religion. It never existed; it doesn’t exist today. Religions — like all other eco-systems and organisms — evolve. And they keep on evolving. The Jewish community is evolving toward a greater awareness of and appreciation for how much the community is enriched by all the panim chadashot — all the new faces, new talents, new perspectives.

Binaries will always exist, of course. You and I are speaking just after a presidential election, right? Not everything can be both/and. Sometimes we have no choice but to make a choice. Having said that, the families of the president-elect and vice-president-elect alone comprise — in addition to a host of ethnic and racial backgrounds and blends — Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Jews, Hindus, and Baptists.

Welcome to America. Seeing the opportunities, approaching each other with openness and curiosity, wondering what we might learn from each other, developing a nuanced sense of what religions are capable at their best of doing — all of this can all help us progress as humans, individually and collectively. Is it going to happen? It’s happening.

Mark Sameth was named “one of America’s most inspiring rabbis” by The Forward (inaugural list, 2013). His published essays include “Is God Transgender?” in the New York Times. His book, The Name: A History of the Dual-Gendered Hebrew Name for God was published by Wipf & Stock in 2020. Follow him on Twitter @fourbreaths.

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 (2019). Follow her on Twitter @susankatzmiller.

The Interfaith Family of Kamala Harris

Kamala means lotus in Sanskrit. Photo Susan Katz Miller

When Joe Biden picked Kamala Harris as his running-mate yesterday, he created the possibility of the first interfaith kid in an interfaith marriage in the White House. ““I grew up going to a black Baptist Church and a Hindu temple,” Harris told the Los Angeles Times. And at her marriage to Jewish husband, attorney Douglas Emhoff, they included both a flower garland from the Hindu wedding tradition, and breaking a glass from the Jewish tradition. So a self-identified Baptist with a Hindu mother and a Jewish husband may be headed to the White House (inshallah). We can only hope this helps to normalize the rich religious complexity many of us now embody personally, and in our families.

Kamala’s mother, Shyamala Gopalan, a Tamil immigrant from India, met her father Donald Harris, a Black immigrant from Jamaica, when they were both doctoral students at UC Berkeley. They gave both their daughters Sanskrit names, to reenforce their connection to Hindu culture–Kamala means lotus, and is a form of the goddess Lakshmi. Their mother, a cancer researcher, also took Kamala and her sister Maya back to Madras to spend time with their Hindu family. Donald Harris became a Stanford economics professor. The couple took their young girls to civil rights demonstrations, but divorced when the girls were still small. Harris has described how they were part of the Black community in their Oakland, California, neighborhood, even after her parents divorced.

Harris chose Howard University, and pledged the powerful Black sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha,. She is close to her Jewish stepchildren and in-laws, and did a hilarious but affectionate impression of her Jewish mother-in-law. She’s also close to her husband’s ex-wife, Kerstin, who hails from Minnesota (I don’t see any published account of Kerstin’s maiden name or religious upbringing). The stepkids call Kamala “Momala,” and Harris has written that “We sometimes joke that our modern family is almost a little too functional.”

It’s worth noting that another interfaith kid, Maya Rudolph, played Kamala Harris in an Emmy-nominated series of appearances in the Saturday Night Live primary campaign skits. Rudolph’s dad is an Ashkenazi Jew; her mother was Black singer Minnie Ripperton. A lot of folks (I suspect including Kamala Harris) are looking forward to Rudolph reprising that role in this election season.

This morning, it was interesting to see The New York Times describing Kamala Harris with many of the phrases and images that were used for Barack Obama (another interfaith kid): “shaped by life in two worlds,” “without ever feeling entirely anchored to either,” “difficult to pin down,” and “by virtue of her identity, not like any other.” The language referred to insider/outsider political status, but also, clearly echoes her complex racial and religious heritage.

Going forward, I look forward to the time when language that telegraphs discomfort with racial and religious ambiguity wanes. I look forward to more people with rich and complex heritage and multiple religious claims and practices rising to prominence, and speaking to the benefits, not just the challenges, of our experiences.

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 (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.