Big News! The Interfaith Family Journal

IFJ Cover

 

I am thrilled to announce that my next book, The Interfaith Family Journal, will be published by Skinner House on March 15th, 2019. In the Journal, thoughtful questions,  interactive exercises, and creative activities will take you through a five-week process to untangle misunderstandings and enhance the joy of being an interfaith family. With the help of the Journal, you can find your own best pathway as an interfaith couple or family.

I really love the bright colors and crafty style of this book cover! The cover of my first book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, featured a Venn diagram with two overlapping circles. This book extends the metaphor, with circles of many colors, overlapping in a multitude of different ways, as our families do!

Whether your family is Muslim and Christian, Jewish and Buddhist, Hindu and atheist, or any other set of religions, this Journal will support you. Whether you are dating, engaged, married, a single parent, a guardian, a family with younger or older children, or empty nesters, this Journal will support you. Even if your family is made up of two or more people from the same religion, the Journal can help you in figuring out the best way to do religion together.

The Interfaith Family Journal does not promote one single way of being an interfaith family. Instead, the Journal process will inspire deep conversation, and create better understanding of how one religion, or two religions, or more, or none, would work for your family.

Creating this book, I worked closely with our global interfaith family village. So I am sending out huge thanks to all of the families who test drove the Journal, and to my colleagues with interfaith expertise from multiple religions who gave feedback on the manuscript.

I hope all of you, blog readers, are as excited as I am to be part of bringing this Journal to the widest possible audience next spring, to provide support to interfaith families across the country and the globe. Make sure you are subscribed to this blog, and follow my facebook page and twitter feed, for all the news leading up to the book launch. And stay tuned for more #InterfaithJournal news soon, as we put the finishing touches on the book and plan launch events across the country.

 

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

 

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September: Interfaith Renewal

Pomegranate torah cover

“Do you remember, never a cloudy day…”

Earth, Wind & Fire is the soundtrack to my formative years, and the song “September” always gets me out on the dance floor. I was lucky to experience both the joy of nostalgia and the joy of celebrating love while dancing at two interfaith weddings in recent weeks: one Jewish and Christian, and the other Hindu and Unitarian.

This year, those recent moments of pleasure are helping to carry me through an unsettling first week of September. Yesterday was 9/11. Those of us in New York and Washington, in particular, think of the eeriness of the blue sky, the panic, the unfolding horror. And then we think of how many people in the U.S. from the Middle East, from South Asia, from Latin America–anyone with brown skin or a “different” name–have been harassed, targeted, and in some cases killed, in the years since then. And we think of how our government leadership has too often fueled that misunderstanding and hatred.

At the same time, on a very personal level, this week is both the anniversary of my mother’s death, and of her birth. September was always Mom’s month. I always associate the excitement of back-to-school with her excellence as a mother: the new school supplies, the thoughtfully packed lunch, the deep engagement with our lives. But now, the sudden coolness, the drop in humidity, the angle of light, the smell of September trees and plants, all of it signals my entire body to remember 9/11, and the morning that I was with my mother when she died two years ago on September 14th.

This year, these public and private sources of pain are bookmarked by the two Jewish high holy days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (always ten days apart). I grew up marking those days faithfully in my Reform Jewish family (with the support of my Episcopalian mother), attending hours of synagogue services at Temple Beth Elohim (“TBE”) in Wellesley, Massachusetts. And I still find the liturgy of reflection and renewal inspiring and restorative.

Here in the Washington DC area, we are lucky to have the Interfaith Families Project (IFFP), with high holy day services designed to be radically inclusive for anyone connected to Judaism in any way, and to acknowledge all that is good in our partnerships with Christians and people of other (or no) religions. Because it turns out that a service that does this is also an accessible and inspiring service for a whole range of people, including Jewish people.

What does a service designed by and for an interfaith families community look like? Each year is different, since there is a huge body of music and poetry and theology to draw on: traditional and contemporary Jewish liturgies, and sources from religions and cultures of the world. This year, we sang “Morning Has Broken” (a Christian hymn made popular by a man who later converted to Islam), and “If We Only Have Love” (a Jacques Brel chanson), alongside the traditional tunes for Avinu Malkeinu and many other parts of the service.

And we sang contemporary composer Noah Aronson’s lovely Bar’chu (call to prayer), “Am I Awake,” led by our own Rich Shegogue (who was raised Catholic). This provided a deep connection for me, since for many years, I have spent one of the high holy days with my parents at TBE, my childhood synagogue, where it just so happens that Noah Aronson was the longtime composer-in-residence. This is the temple where I became a Bat Mitzvah. (And also, the temple where the rabbi refused to officiate at my marriage). Since my family joined over 50 years ago, the synagogue has grown from 50 families to over 1000 families.

Sitting with my parents in the vast and glorious modern worship space at TBE, I have been lucky to learn many of his new tunes from Aronson himself, strumming his guitar as he leads thousands of voices. So, hearing “Am I Awake” this year in our more informal and intimate service at IFFP, served as an unexpected thread of connection between my experiences.

At IFFP, we remain a DIY (do-it-yourself) community–even the special high holy day cover for our torah was made by a community member, appliqued with a pomegranate to symbolize the sweetness of the new year (photo above). What makes our services feel especially inclusive? Maybe it’s the moment when a couple gets up and talks about Rosh Hashanah from their perspectives as partners–one Jewish, one Mexican Catholic–and what this community means to them. Or maybe it’s the fact that our rabbi, Rain Zohav, feels free to draw on Christian mystics (including Julian of Norwich and Meister Eckhart) for her Rosh Hashanah talk on protecting the earth.

The high holy day opportunity to meditate, reflect, ask forgiveness, and renew vows to make the world a better place–all of this will help to get me through my mother’s yahrtzeit (the anniversary of her death), and her birthday, and another year of living in Washington DC. And tonight, midway between the two high holy days, I will be writing postcards to get out the vote in a neighboring state for the midterm elections. Because the high holy days inspire me to work for justice. And because, in September, all of us have the opportunity to begin again.

 

Susan Katz Miller is a speaker and consultant on interfaith families and interfaith bridge-building, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family.

High Holy Days: Interfaith Connections

Heads up! Rosh Hashanah starts early this year, on the evening of September 9th. Over the past decade, in some of my over 300 essays here, I have written about many different aspects of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, from the context of an interfaith family. Here is one of the most popular essays from that collection. –SKM

 

When we experience the religious rituals of the “other,” we usually cannot help but respond with an internal running commentary, seeking connections to our own past. I know that whenever I heard the blast of a conch shell at an Afro-Brazilian rite during my years in Brazil, my mind would skip back to the sound of the shofar in my childhood temple.

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, many Christians (and Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists) find themselves attending services with Jewish partners, or parents, or other family members. These services, while tremendously important to Jews, can be difficult for those without Jewish education to access, due to length, solemnity, and the density of Hebrew.  Nevertheless, I always strongly recommend that those of other religions accompany their Jewish partners or parents to synagogue services, both to keep them from feeling lonely, and to learn and reflect.

In our Interfaith Families Project, a community of interfaith families raising children with both Judaism and Christianity in Washington DC, for a decade we had the great fortune to have annual High Holy Day services led by Rabbi Harold White (may his memory be a blessing), a rabbi who spent 40 years working with Jesuits at Georgetown University. Years ago now, he shared with our community these interfaith interconnections to look for on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur:

  1. Awe. Since the highest of holy days in Judaism is actually the weekly Shabbat, many rabbis prefer the term “The Days of Awe” to describe Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Think of awe not as fear, but as a mystic trembling meant to “stir up divine sparks.” Rabbi White compared the swaying of Jews at prayer (known in Yiddish as shuckling) to the quaking of Quakers and the shaking of Shakers.  Rhythmic body movement during prayer, whether it’s dancing or repeated bowing, occurs in virtually every religion, from Africa to Asia to American Indian traditions: the mind and body come together, self-consciousness falls away. Says Rabbi White, “Evangelicals have the right idea on this, with hands thrown up in the air.”
  1. Mystical numbers.  Yom Kippur marks the end of an annual 40-day spiritual quest in Judaism. All three Abrahamic religions share an obsession with the number 40, which Rabbi White describes as “a magical number in the Middle East. Moses was on Sinai for 40 days, Jesus was in the desert for 40 days, even Ali Baba and the 40 thieves. You think it’s a coincidence. It’s not.”
  1. Asking for Forgiveness.  The liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur hinges on the idea that all of us have sinned. “I know that sounds very Christian, but it’s very Jewish at the same time,” says Rabbi White. “There is no one on the face of the earth who hasn’t sinned.”
  1. Praying for Material Well-Being. For most of the year, Jewish prayer focuses on praise and adoration, rather than petition. Asking for direct intervention tends to be more closely associated with Christian prayer. But Rosh Hashanah is the exception, when Jews pray for health and life. “We don’t ask for anything the rest of the year,” says Rabbi White. “But on the Days of Awe, we ask.”
  1. Birth of Three Faiths. On Rosh Hashanah, the Torah reading describes the arrival of Abraham’s two sons: Sarah gives birth to Isaac, Hagar gives birth to Ishmael. Sarah becomes the matriarch of Judaism (and thus Christianity), Abraham sends Hagar into exile. But in Muslim writings, the heroic Hagar (Hajir) becomes the mother of Islam. Charlotte Gordon (an adult interfaith child) has written a sensitive analysis of the story of Hagar in her book The Woman Who Named God: Abraham’s Dilemma and the Birth of Three Faiths.
  1. Miracles. Sometimes Jewish students approach Rabbi White and assert, with a certain smugness, that Christianity requires belief in miracles and Judaism does not. The Rabbi points to the miracle of the birth of Isaac, when Abraham and Sarah are in deep old-age (Abraham is 100). Genesis specifies that Sarah not only has suffered from lifelong infertility, but is post-menopausal.  Virgin birth, post-menopausal birth, both miracles.
  1. Songs and Canticles. The Biblical passage known as the Song of Hannah, a reading from the prophet Samuel, is the haftara reading chosen to complement the Torah reading on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. The infertile Hannah has prayed for and been given a son, and her song of Thanksgiving is thought to have inspired the most famous of all canticles in the Christian liturgy, the Song of Mary, known as the Magnificat.

Finding a welcoming service, getting off work, arranging childcare, sitting through services, fasting, gleaning meaning from ancient prayers in an unfamiliar language: none of this is easy. But it is excellent experiential education for anyone connected to Judaism through family ties. For Jews, having the support of a partner in these days of deep reflection and soul-searching, of repentance and renewal, provides comfort and bonding. For interfaith children, having both parents sitting with them at services provides a clear message of respect and appreciation and love, by the parents for each other, and for the children, and for ancient ritual.

 

 

Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, from Beacon Press. She works as an interfaith families consultant, speaker, and coach. Follow her on twitter @SusanKatzMiller.

Interfaith Families, Beyond Chrismukkah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Manischewitz: A Tale of Two Bottles

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This year was the first time we held a Passover seder in my childhood home, since my Episcopalian mother died. My father still lives in the house, and my siblings and I gathered this year to create a seder with, and for, him. At 93, Dad still sits at the head of the table and leads us through the prayers and songs in the haggadah (the booklet that sets out the service before and after the Passover meal).

To lead, he uses a sheet of yellowed paper with an outline of pages to include and pages to skip, tucked into our stack of haggadot. In my father’s penciled block lettering, the sheet is marked “First Parish, 1977.” That was the year he first edited a one-hour model seder for the Sunday School at the Unitarian church overlooking our town green. As one of the only Jewish people in our New England village in that era, he felt both honored and obligated to take on this annual educational duty. Dad’s distillation of the seder turned out to be the perfect length for our extended family of all ages and all religions. And so the “First Parish, 1977” seder became a part of our own tradition.

If my father was in charge of the service, my mother was always in charge of the kitchen. And we struggled this year with trying to replicate her seder. Her matzoh balls were always perfect. Mine fell victim to multi-tasking: they fell apart and floated out into the soup, more like stratus clouds than cumulus. My sister and I chopped the charoset, but then I kibbitzed as she sauteed the nuts in butter, just like Mom used to. Mom swore it made the charoset taste better, but this step seems “de trop,” and somehow not in the proper kosher spirit to me now.

Every moment of seder preparation this year felt like a meditation on time and tradition, with a hundred small decisions about whether to stick to the ways of our past or move on. So this became the year that I finally poured the last dregs of Manischewitz from a bottle we had used for decades down the sink. This is cheap wine, but the $2.59 price sticker (and the font of that sticker) spoke to the ancient origins of this particular bottle. No one in our family drinks the stuff: we only use a glug or two for the charoset each year. So the bottle had lasted almost forever, like a Passover miracle. The remaining wine was brown and cloudy with sediment, but I had a hard time letting go of the lovely old bottle, imagining how my mother’s hand had lifted it each year and poured the sacred libation into the charoset.

I thought about tucking the empty Manischewitz bottle into my carry-on bag and sneaking it home, but I am a notorious pack rat and decided to do the brave thing instead. Before I consigned it to recycling, I set up the old and new bottles side by side, and studied the changes over time. The wine has gone from 12 percent alcohol to 11 percent: my brother who lives in Napa Valley tells me this is presumably a cost-cutting measure. The lovely images of grape leaves are now smaller and less distinct and the dusty blue Concord grapes have become more standard purple grapes on the new bottle. There is less Hebrew, and the looping Hebrew cursive script is gone. The gold Star of David has become smaller. And most notably, the Old World rabbi with the long white beard on the original bottle has disappeared completely on the new bottle.

I don’t know what year Manischewitz edited out that rabbi. I tried to google for a date, but found only a piece from NPR describing how the wine was once popular with African-American men in particular, with a link to a marvelous television ad featuring Sammy Davis Jr. One can imagine that the company made most of the label changes in order to attract a consumer base beyond the Jewish community. As for the rabbi on the bottle, a Manischewitz brand manager was not sure what year the label changed. But she told NPR, “you’re not going to find it on the shelf—and if you do, goodness, don’t drink it, I don’t know how old it is.”

Oops. We did find it on a shelf, in the bottom of the wet bar, in the suburb of my youth. And we did use it in our charoset last year, with no ill effects. But this year, it was time to let go.

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

 

 

Coming Soon: A New Book for Interfaith Families

Frozen Pine Needles
Photo by Susan Katz Miller

 

It has been a freezing winter, with everything cased in ice, still waiting for a thaw. Meanwhile, my longtime followers may have noticed that my blog has been in hibernation. After almost a decade of posting, and more than 300 essays on the topic of interfaith families, I have been sluggish in writing new material here. Instead, I curled up in my den, trying to keep warm through seasons of family grief, and dark times for the country, and the planet.

But now spring is on the way. And, while hibernating, I have been gestating a new book for interfaith families. Now that I have submitted the manuscript, and the sun is returning, and grief is receding, I will return to posting more often here. In the meantime, you can always find my curated links for interfaith families on my facebook author page, and on twitter.

The percentage of interfaith families continues to grow, and there is still a serious lack of informed and impartial books and resources by, for, and about us. Before 2018 ends, if all goes according to plan, my new book will reach you, providing support and inspiration for all interfaith families, whether Protestant and atheist, Muslim and Jewish, Hindu and Unitarian-Universalist, Pagan and Catholic. And I am already booking a new round of speaking engagements and workshops for next fall and winter, so that we can continue these conversations in person. So, stay in touch here for more details, as we awake, stretch, and stumble out into the spring light together.

 

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

“Intermarriage” and a Rabbi Roundtable

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I could not resist responding to a piece posted today in The Forward, as part of a new regular feature called the Rabbi Roundtable.

The topic: “Is Intermarriage a Problem or an Opportunity?”

Where to start? Let’s start with the sample. The Forward published answers from 22 rabbis, and half of them are Orthodox. Only two are Reform. According to Pew Research (2013), 10% of American Jews claim Orthodox affiliation, and 35% Reform (by far the largest denomination). As I read through the first five rabbinic responses, all of them Orthodox or Conservative, my mind was blown as I noted each rabbinic affiliation. Why would The Forward skew the sample so radically away from the reality of the American Jewish landscape?

Next, there’s that word, intermarriage. This is not a word used by most people in interfaith families to describe themselves. Among the 72% of American Jews who are neither Orthodox nor Conservative, you are rarely going to hear anyone call themselves “intermarried.” Less than a year ago, The Forward published my piece, “Four Reasons We Should Stop Calling People Intermarried.” I hope more of the rabbis in this Roundtable will read it, and talk with real life interfaith families about how they feel about this term.

Also problematic: giving the rabbis a stark choice of “problem, or opportunity.” I don’t experience my family as a problem, or as an opportunity for the Jewish community (or any other community). Interfaith family members are taking leadership roles in religious communities across the spectrum, and we may be your best hope for understanding and engaging with the unaffiliated. But we don’t experience our families from the perspective of Jewish market share. We see our interfaith families as embodying and celebrating boundary-busting ritual and liturgical creativity, and spiritual inspiration, and interfaith bridge-building, and cross-cultural peacemaking.

And finally, I must speak to the corrosive content of many of the rabbinic responses. In today’s Roundtable, rabbis call interfaith marriage “a sin,” “tragic,” a way “for Jews who are not interested in Judaism to leave,” something we “must work harder to combat,” and the “high price for acceptance” that is leading to Judaism being “hugged and kissed to death.” Of course, many of these rabbis, even some of the Conservative and Orthodox ones, also spoke to the importance of trying to be more welcoming and inclusive. Unfortunately, the extreme bias in the survey sample in this case means that interfaith families will feel neither welcome nor included after browsing through these Roundtable opinions. Today’s piece in The Forward badly misrepresents the experiences of interfaith families, and minimizes the important reality of shifting rabbinic opinions on our existence.

 

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