This was another long, hard winter, with the pandemic continuing, and too much isolation for all of us. Today, on Valentine’s Day, we had flurries of snow here in DC, but the delicate snowdrops are already blooming with the promise of spring.
Valentine’s Day, for me, always means remembering the epic interfaith marriage of my parents. They got married on February 13th, 1960, in a snowstorm in upstate New York. When they woke up the next morning, they ate a one-pound chocolate heart for breakfast on Valentine’s Day together in bed. And every year, for Valentine’s Day, my father drew awkward and hilarious valentines for my mother, and for each of his four children, on the cardboard that came from the dry cleaners with his folded business shirts.
So Valentine’s Day has always been a family tradition for us. Every day for over 50 years of marriage, until death parted them, my parents demonstrated for me the idea that you can have a successful interfaith marriage. All of my work is a tribute to their joy, their creativity, their way of accentuating the positive.
And as a result, I look forward to the fact that I get to retell a bit of their story every year, when I get calls from media wanting to talk about interfaith love stories as Valentine’s Day approaches. This year, I was honored to be part of an hour-long show this weekend about interfaith families, on Interfaith Voices, the radio show broadcast on 90 radio stations across the country. And I have more podcast appearances coming up, so stay tuned.
I am also appearing at more than one interfaith couples workshop this season. My parents taught me that being in an interfaith relationship depends on deep communication skills. So I am always eager to talk to couples just starting out on their journeys together, and to provide them with the tools and advice built into The Interfaith Family Journal.
Even after more than a decade of talking about interfaith families professionally, I am finding new ways to see the world through the lens that is my legacy. Right now, I am putting together a new talk for college students on Complex Identities and Interfaith Relationships, after an invitation to return to Lafayette College this spring. I look forward to bringing that talk to more colleges, universities, and seminaries, so contact me now for 2022 bookings.
And coming up soon, on Sunday February 27th, I have the honor of co-facilitating a completely new interactive workshop with Rabbi Mark Sameth, entitled “Non-Binary God, Non-Binary Spirituality.” Watch this video, in which we get excited about the workshop. And register now to join us. I know my father, the grandson and nephew of rabbis, would have been proud of this new work. He wanted me to be an engineer, like him, but I know he also understood why making space for interfaith families became my calling.
On the first night of Hanukkah, I returned from my ancestral homeland, Honesdale, PA. This town, where my great-great grandparents are buried, lies in a deep valley in the foothills of the Poconos, at the confluence of the Lackawaxen River and Dyberry Creek. In Honesdale, we gather together from across the country every Thanksgiving. And on the night after Thanksgiving this year, we arrived at our teeny tiny ancestral temple for Shabbat prayers with my extended family, a mixed multitude of Jews and Christians and blood relatives and relatives-by-choice. This year, my young cousin Elizabeth led the prayers in the sanctuary where my father became a Bar Mitzvah.
Throughout our history, since my great-grandfather helped found Beth Israel congregation in 1849, we have often led services ourselves. Some weeks, in some years, rabbis drive over from New York City to lead Shabbat for us, but my family has been leading prayers on Fridays at our temple through four generations now. This week my cousin Liza, the current president of the congregation, arrived early and lit the electric yahrzeit (memorial) lights next to the names of all our family members–including my father and my (Episcopalian) mother–lighting up half the yarhrzeit plaques in the room. Once, this temple was thought to be the smallest in the world. We are small but historic, proud and persistent–the second-oldest synagogue in the country still occupied by the original congregation.
Earlier that day, I sat in the living room of the house my grandfather built for my grandmother in 1922, and listened as my son recorded his grandfather’s sister–still sharp and witty at 94–on his iPhone. Aunt Corinne told the story of the flood of 1942, when she was 14. It was a Friday night, and she went to temple with my grandparents and her little sister for the informal lay-led Shabbat prayers. Keep in mind that the temple is perched directly on the riverbank, just blocks downstream from the point where the Dyberry flows into the Lackawaxen.
Typically, in the 1930s and 40s, in winter, after 20 minutes of Shabbat prayers the whole congregation would go over to Honesdale High School for the weekly basketball game. My father’s band, The Swing Seven, would play for the dance after the game. But by 1942, my father had graduated and gone off to MIT. And it was May, not basketball season, and the waters were rising, so they all hurried home after the prayers, to the house ten blocks upstream, on Dyberry Creek.
At that point my grandfather, as he had before in past floods, somehow hoisted the Steinway grand piano up onto stacks of books, hoping to keep it above the water rising from the floorboards. My grandmother and aunts retreated to the second floor. But then, my grandmother realized her children might get hungry, and went back down to the kitchen to get them some bread from the pantry. As she entered the pantry, the waters whooshed the door closed behind her, and almost trapped her. But she was a very small person (we are a family of small people) and she was able to squeeze out and slosh her way back upstairs. Late that night, the floodwaters on the Lackawaxen peaked at 50,000 cubic feet per second, killing 26 people and destroying 75 homes in Honesdale. The flood washed out every bridge in town, as well as the prized 1933 stained glass windows in the temple.
At the house of my grandparents, my aunt watched from the landing of the stairs as the grand piano rose up and turtled, floating upside down in six feet of water in the living room. The next day, from the safety of the roof, she saw a rowboat glide down her street, with a neighbor distributing bread to those trapped on rooftops. And she saw planes buzzing overhead, photographing the flood from the air.
The phone lines were out, and no one could reach my father with news they were safe. Several states away, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, an MIT classmate asked him, “Hey Katz! What’s the name again of your little town in Pennsylvania again?” My father replied, “Honesdale!” And his classmate said, “Well it’s flooded and it’s on the front page of the paper. Look at this photo!”
When the waters subsided, and the phones finally got reconnected, my grandfather called Steinway to report four grand pianos owned by different family members in town, all submerged in the Honesdale flood. Steinway declared them beyond repair, and my grandparents began a search for a new piano. As my aunt recounted this story, sitting in the living room of her childhood home, we all looked over at the replacement Steinway. The temple made the practical decision to replace the destroyed stained glass windows with plain glass. My aunts got sent away to a relative in the countryside for weeks while my grandparents cleaned and repaired the house. And eventually two dams were built–on the Lackawaxen and the Dyberry–to prevent another deadly flood.
I realized this week, in that temple sanctuary, and in the living room of the house of my grandparents, and at the Thanksgiving meal where we entertained ourselves with a fashion parade of Katz pajamas, that we were taking risks this year. Last year, we did not gather at all. This year, we made a fraught decision to gather in spite of the pandemic, fully vaccinated and with testing and masks, because one can only go so long without family. Each year is precious, because each year we remember together the new marriages and deaths, and listen to stories from our elders, stories that may be lost.
This year, because of the alignment of the sun and moon and the secular calendar, we just missed celebrating Hanukkah together. By the time Hanukkah arrived on Sunday night, we had all gone home–to San Francisco, New York, Boston, and Washington DC. As I lit the first candle in our window, alone with my husband and our pandemic puppy, I thought about miracles.
I thought about the connections between the Hanukkah miracle of light in the darkness, of the miracle of tenacity in hostile environments, of escape from narrow places, of self-sufficiency, of adversity as the mother of innovation, of physical and emotional repair. I thought about the miracle of diversity that enriches our given and chosen interfaith families. And I thought about how objects become imbued with history, with spiritual resonance. Sometimes a Steinway is lost, and we feel desperate to replace it. Sometimes stained glass windows are lost, and plain glass just makes more sense. Sometimes a temple is ransacked, and all it takes is a little oil to persist with rituals that heal and bind.
I have trouble letting go of the stories from each generation, the objects left behind. And that is how I found myself yesterday driving away from Honesdale, over the mountains, in a car filled with a rotary telephone, a hatbox, vintage Pyrex, embroidered linens, and photographs, desperate to preserve family history from the floodwaters of time. Inevitably I know that some precious objects, and some stories, will be lost, and some will be passed down. And I feel a sense of gratitude that my son wanted both my aunt’s words recorded on his iPhone, and that rusted enamel colander with the missing handle.
And so we reach that most reductive time of the year, when the choices of Jewish and Christian interfaith families are judged by whether they celebrate Hanukkah, or Christmas, or both, or neither.
In my opinion, this is a poor method for understanding the textured and nuanced lives of interfaith families. To take just one example of our complexity, many “we are Jewish, period” families celebrate Christmas as a sort of cultural exception (in a secular way, or, say, with Christian grandparents). So, the choices an interfaith family makes around “winter holidays” provide only very limited insight into the spirituality, beliefs, practices, and identities of the various family members.
This year (as in every year), a number of families with one Jewish parent and one parent raised Christian are making emphatic statements about why they do not celebrate Christmas. What troubles me about these statements is not the choice these interfaith families made–it’s a choice that works for some families. What troubles me is the erasure of the spouse who is not Jewish, whose journey and feelings are rarely acknowledged by Jewish writers in the Jewish press.
One such essay this season is entitled “No, We Don’t Celebrate Both.” I take this headline as a sort of tribute, in that “doing both” is becoming a more familiar concept in our culture. In this essay, a Jewish mother rejects the label “interfaith family” (and also the label “interracial family”), detailing why she and her husband (who is Black) consider themselves only a Jewish family, and do not celebrate Christmas. She uses the familiar “we are celebrating someone else’s birthday” metaphor to explain to her children why, in spite of this decision, they bring Christmas presents to her husband’s Christian family. But she does not mention how or why she and her husband negotiated this choice, or the current religious or secular identity of her husband, who grew up Christian, and who seems to have no presence or voice in the essay.
And in the new animated short film “Blewish,” the protagonist is a boy with a Jewish mother and a Black father (a father who presumably was not raised Jewish, although we have no idea how he was raised, and of course multigenerational Black Jewish families exist). The boy faces a teacher and classmates who assume he celebrates Christmas, and white Jewish children who do not accept him as Jewish because he is Black, initiating a brief identity crisis. The six-minute film’s creator is himself the child of a Jewish mother and a Black father, and grew up in Conservative Judaism.
I love that adult interfaith children are using their voices and creating art and commentary. “Blewish” begins to fill a significant gap, in depicting the experiences of Black and Jewish children from their own perspective rather than from the parents’ perspective. But once again, the Black father’s religious identity (or even cultural identity) is not represented in the film. Is he an atheist? A convert to Judaism? A practicing Protestant? In Jewish media, and art, the parent of another religious heritage too often remains silent. (Ironically, this is a silent animated film, so everyone remains silent). But my point is that the perspective in this film, like so much written for interfaith kids, is very firmly that of a Jewish family member, minimizing the input or representation of any immediate or extended family members who practice another religion.
One must note how often these stories come to us from families with a Jewish mother–families who feel secure claiming Judaism for children who are “matrilineal” in their Jewishness. The authors of these stories may not be able to fully empathize with the more complex issues facing “patrilineal” Jewish families. All of us with interfaith heritage face the exhausting push and pull of two kinds of statements from society: “You’re Not Jewish Enough,” and “You’re Not Really Jewish.” But the calculus of what to do with this unsolicited advice, with these aggressions from inside and outside the Jewish world, plays out differently for matrilineal and patrilineal interfaith Jewish children.
For two decades now, I have been working to increase awareness of the diversity of interfaith families, and of the right for families to choose the practices and identities that work best for them. My second book, The Interfaith Families Journal, is devoted to helping families through this process, whether that means no Christmas, a secular Christmas, or heralding the Christmas angels.
Of these pathways, doing bothHanukkah and Christmas, and being both Jewish and Christian, is a demographically significant choice. A recent study of Jewish Chicago found 21% of interfaith families with one Jewish parent raising children in two religions. In my opinion, this is an underestimate, given that the sampling drew heavily from mailing lists connected to Jewish institutions. (Other studies have found the percentage of interfaith families with one Jewish parent raising kids with both religions to be 44% in Toronto, 46% in western Massachusetts, and 34% in Minnesota’s Twin Cities).
Nevertheless, the annual Hanukkah/Christmas skirmish triggers a defensive backlash from people who don’t approve of interfaith marriage, or don’t approve of choosing both. The wildest year involved a Jewish writer comparing me to a Barbie doll dressed as a “fancy-hot-pants prostitute.” Go figure.
We are facing another long, dark winter of trying pandemic times. Let us all strive to be gentle with one another, and find ways to bring light, whether that is the light of Diwali, Hanukkah, Christmas, Yule, or all of them. And let us all work to channel empathy for other interfaith families, and the choices they make.
For generations, interfaith families who felt excluded, misunderstood, or disrespected by Jewish clergy or institutions, have found other homes. Some gravitated to Unitarian-Universalism, which draws on many religions. Some added Buddhism, or Sufism, or Paganism, to their spiritual practice. And for more than a quarter of a century now, interfaith families have been building their own dual-practice communities in which to honor both Judaism and Christianity.
But very few of these people with complex religious practices (and I have studied hundreds of them) stopped practicing Judaism altogether, or stopped calling themselves Jews.
The irony is that Jews who did stop practicing Judaism altogether are considered Jewish in the new Pew study of Jewish Americans in 2020, as long as they don’t claim a second religion. But if you claim two religions, you forfeit your right to have Pew consider you part of the Jewish community. They excluded 200,000 adults who filled out the survey but claim Judaism and another religion.
This approach is not going to help draw interfaith families closer to Jewish institutions or communities. The Pew study betrays a failure to understand the fluid and non-binary religious complexity of Jews today—of our families, our practices, our identities, our affiliations. And that failure contributes to a misunderstanding of the overall size and diversity of the Jewish community.
A lot has been writtenaboutinterfaith families in this Pew study already, including by me. But in the weeks since the study was released, I have continued mulling it over, or stewing really, trying to figure out why I feel the study does not capture the American Judaism I know and love. And I have come to the realization that those 200,000 Jews who were actually tallied and then excluded by Pew are only a small fraction of those who were excluded. And that is because many of us never would have finished the survey.
Let me explain.
Imagine you are Jewish and Buddhist, or Jewish and Wiccan, or Jewish and married to a Quaker and giving your children an interfaith education. In short, imagine you are a Jew who is a multiple religious practitioner, or raising multiple religious practitioners. (There is an entire academic literature on multiple religious belonging. I have been the keynote speaker at an international conference on the topic).
Now, imagine sitting down to fill out the Pew survey online, and being faced by a barrage of questions about how you feel about Israel, a country that does not allow interfaith marriage, or allow interfaith couples to be buried together, or accept patrinileal Jews as Jews, or accept Reform conversions. Or, imagine your answer to the religious identity question is, “It’s complicated,” for any number of reasons. In section A on the survey, one third of the questions are about Israel. In section B, half of the questions (or eight questions) mention Israel. Oh, and then in section G, there are “a few questions” on Israel.
Personally, I would have clicked away long before section G. I would not have completed the survey. And neither would a lot of the Jews I know who are raising interfaith kids. And neither would many of the young Jewish activists for Palestinian rights. (Of the people who did complete the Pew survey and qualified to count as Jews, less than half said they feel attached to Israel). The Jewishness we are creating together does not depend on Israel as an identity marker.
Any institution that is trying to understand my Jewishness, while putting that amount of emphasis on a country that doesn’t accept me as a Jew, and while excluding Jews who practice Buddhism or Wicca, is not ready to understand my Jewishness. And, any such institution is not ready to understand the Jewishness of a significant percentage of young progressive Jews in America. They are not ready to understand that virtually all of us in the non-Orthodox Jewish world in America now have extended interfaith families, filled with a kaleidoscope of Jewish practices, identities, and affiliations. And whether or not you choose to count us, we are taking the demographic lead.
How can we fix this?
Honestly, to get better data, data that describes the realities of young progressive Jews in America, and their almost universally interfaith families, we have to wait for new funders to fund new studies. We need studies without the patriarchal “continuity” narrative, and without loyalty to Israel dominating the questions. To fund these new studies, we have to wait for generational or self-made wealth from progressive adult interfaith kids, and from those who are themselves Jewish and Buddhist, or Jewish and Unitarian, or Jewish and Quaker. Or just Jewish, and just insistent on human rights for Palestinians. We are waiting for investment in this inspirational future–a future with all of us who claim Judaism, together creating a path forward for our complex selves, and for our complex families, and for this beautiful and ancient religion.
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.
A Christmas without family, friends, or going to church. A Christmas without choirs, or caroling. Even in that fictional scenario without packages, boxes, and bags, when the Grinch tried to stop Christmas, people imagined they would always be able to stand in a circle and clasp hands. But not this year.
Early in the pandemic, I wrote about a silver lining, of being able to gather on zoom with people from across the country and the globe. I wrote of being able to zoom into accessible services anywhere, of trying out different religious communities through the miracle of technology. If you are looking for a Christmas Eve service designed by and for interfaith families, you are welcome to zoom in to the Interfaith Families Project in DC this year.
But, here we are, ten months in, and the silver linings are all wearing thin. We try to appreciate the calm, the stillness, the intimacy, perhaps the shift away from commercialism, of holidays this year. Or perhaps we appreciate the ability to more easily control holiday menus (in our house, this means more vegan options!).
But the pandemic is surging. Our relationships with those we live with full-time may be fraying. And depression, major and minor, is now pandemic too. The Christmas music that feels the most on point this year may be Judy Garland singing the mournful “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” or the wistful Charlie Brown special classic “Christmastime is Here.”
In the past, I have written and spoken about the importance in interfaith families of feeling empathy for each other, of being gentle with our partners and children in this season of long nights and short, cold days. And that has never been more true than this year, on this solstice, at this pandemic apex.
I had not dreamed of some of the challenges facing interfaith families this year. Most interfaith families in the US, Canada, and Europe have one Christian partner. For many who are atheist, agnostic, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, or Pagan, having a Christian partner has meant, in the past, celebrating Christmas with our partner’s extended family. Some of these interfaith families have preferred not to have a Christmas tree, or lights on the house, or prepare a Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes, or hang stockings, but have been glad to experience these Christmas traditions every year at the homes of a partner’s parents or extended family.
This year, it is not possible, not safe, to celebrate at Grandma’s house. (And some of us have lost grandparents, and parents, in the epidemic). Instead, isolated at home, many interfaith families have had to make decisions about whether to have a first Christmas tree, a first visit from Santa, hang lights for the first time outdoors. In some families, a partner who did not grow up with these traditions may now feel new pressure to host them, adding to holiday sadness. In some families, a partner who grew up celebrating these traditions with extended family may feel the additional sadness of celebrating in isolation with a partner who did not grow up with those traditions. And, some interfaith families have already been through the parallel sadness of negotiating these same intersections of interfaithness and pandemic isolation over Diwali, or Hanukkah. For Pagans, the same may be true for the winter solstice, and Yule.
There are no right or wrong answers to the question of how to navigate this very hard season, in this very hard year. For some families, it may feel right to “haul out the holly” and “turn on the brightest string of lights.” For others, it may feel right to just try to let it go, and hibernate through the winter, until spring is here at last. As in all years, as in all families, the right way for your family to be an interfaith family can only be discerned through intimate conversations. But in every case, and especially this year, we are called on to be as empathetic as we can possibly be, and to be extra gentle with each other, as we await the return of the light, and our turn for the vaccine.
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:
Stina Kielsmeier-Cook and her husband Josh, the son of a missionary, met at an evangelical Christian college, married, and spent time living off the land together in a Christian farming community. But a few years into their marriage, Josh announces that he has stopped believing in God. This book charts Stina’s journey through adjusting to this new asymmetry in their relationship to Christianity. Seeking spiritual support and community, she engages with an order of Catholic nuns in their neighborhood in downtown Minneapolis, in an attempt to learn what it is like to be “spiritually single.” But the nuns reject this term, and instead help Stina to feel connected to multiple communities, and to feel less alone by the end of the book.
The memoir follows a chronology through the seasons and the liturgical calendar of that first year after Josh leaves Christianity. Their two small children serve as minor characters, illustrating the universally messy reality and comic relief of parenting. But the focus of this memoir is Stina’s struggles: to reimagine life without a Christian partner, to face her own doubts on religion and marriage, to find community, and to forge new relationships and religious growth with the nuns. Josh, rather than being the antagonist, is depicted as a mensch, often coming to the rescue to pick up Stina and the kids at church, and patient and considerate with his wife as she works to process his revelation. By the end of the book, she has traveled through shock and fear and grief at Josh’s loss of religion, to an eventual sense of trust and peace and acceptance.
Stina is a seeker, ecumenical by nature, willing to learn from others, but with a perspective deeply rooted in the Protestant world. She describes her experiences as part of Presbyterian, evangelical, Mennonite, Episcopalian, and Baptist communities, and her enrichment through discovering Catholic liturgies, saints, and monastic life. For interfaith families who are not Christian, the language of believers versus nonbelievers, of being unequally yoked, of heaven and hell and salvation–may not resonate. By definition, this book will be most relevant for practicing Christians who have spouses who have left Christianity. And there are many.
Nevertheless, the book describes challenges that are common for interfaith couples, whether they are Christian and Jewish, or Pagan and atheist. What does it feel like to sit alone (or alone with children) in a place of worship, feeling that everyone else is sitting with a spouse? What does it feel like to feel exhausted by the burden of trying to transmit your religious heritage to children without a partner’s participation? What does it feel like to realize your children may not go to your beloved childhood religious school or camp?
I admire the author’s determination to capture this pivotal year while the experience was still fresh. As such, it will be most useful to other couples at the start of an interfaith relationship. On the other hand, those who have been in interfaith relationships for many years or decades may need to search their memories to recall some of the feelings described. The desire for a spouse to convert (or in this case, re-convert), expressed frequently in this book, may not be as familiar to those from non-proselytizing religions. And it is a feeling that has been faced and firmly put aside in many mature interfaith relationships. The strict binary of “faith” or “no faith,” (again, a traditionally Christian-centric way of considering the concept of religious identity), often shifts in longtime interfaith relationships into a more complicated conversation. And many of us eventually shift away from the undue influence of societal insistence that interfaith families are problematic, to an appreciation for the benefits and richness that interfaith families can bring.
So I hope that Stina will report back some years from now on her fascinating journey with a sequel to this spiritual memoir. We have precious few books written from inside interfaith families, and even fewer by writers aspiring to literary non-fiction. In the meantime, I will be adding this book to my list of resources for interfaith families. It pairs nicely with Duane McGowan’s more journalistic book In Faith and in Doubt, written from the point of view of an atheist married to a Christian, describing many such families. I am grateful to Stina Kielsmeyer-Cook for adding to the growing roster of authors from interfaith families who are chronicling our myriad experiences, and creating a new category in the world of books.
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.
This was a big decade for me. Both personally and professionally, the past ten years have featured dizzying highs and devastating lows, interwoven achievements and heartbreak. I am, frankly, exhausted just thinking back on it. And yet, it seems important to do just that–to try to gain perspective and a sure footing as I gaze out at the horizon of the next decade.
I have been laid low. I experienced more personal loss in this decade than in my whole previous half-century. The big, gorgeous, three-generation interfaith family I depicted in my first book, Being Both, changed dramatically. I lost my father, my mother, and my mother-in-law. I lost my teenage nephew. My husband and I each had to empty and sell multigenerational family homes, severing ties to two formative places in our entwined family history. And this year, we lost our 17-year-old dog.
And yet I wrote, and spoke, and advocated. Somehow, in this same decade, my experience as a journalist on three continents, and my lifetime in an interfaith family, all culminated in a new body of work. I felt called to document interfaith family life, and to speak up and speak out to defend the full diversity of our experiences. In this spirit, I published two books, including The Interfaith Family Journalthis year, and ten years worth of essays (368 of them) on this blog. I published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and a dozen other media outlets. I was invited to speak in more than 30 cities in more than 15 different states and countries. And I founded the Network of Interfaith Family Groups, a national support hub for interfaith families celebrating two or more religions.
This work, making space for interfaith families, has often felt risky. I have received threats from organizations and individuals, and nasty attacks in the press. I have had people refuse to share a stage with me. At least one brave non-profit lost a funder because they invited me to speak. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that all of this tsuris (Yiddish for troubles) is over families that insist on loving across boundaries.
At the same time, this work continues to feel essential. And the work is not done. Interfaith families around the world are still in danger. Interfaith families in the US still face exclusion, misunderstanding, and intolerance. Meanwhile, many of us, interfaith and monofaith, are reevaluating traditional religious systems and institutions, seeking meaningful connections to carry forward.
I do see progress. After a decade of writing and speaking about the joys of being part of an interfaith family, about embracing each other, and about the benefits of interfaith education for all adults and children, I see these ideas catching on. Or at least they are now deemed worthy of debate. I see this progress in the Jewish institutional world, and in other religious, spiritual and humanist contexts.
And I do have hope. I see interfaith families inspiring and innovating new ways of being religious, spiritual, and humanist, going forward. In this decade, I have witnessed interfaith families coming together to create our own communities, use our own voices, and tell our own stories. As we begin to take on leadership roles in religious, spiritual, and secular arenas, it will become harder to talk about us, without us. May the skills and insights we have gained living as interfaith families benefit everyone, in all of our cultures, in all of our countries, as together we navigate 2020 and beyond.