Muslim and Jewish: Interfaith on “Shahs of Sunset”

I don’t usually watch reality TV. But recently, I found myself gorging on the entire first season of Bravo’s Shahs of Sunset, which concluded earlier this month. The show depicts Iranian-American (Persian) singles partying and shopping their way through LA and Las Vegas in the highest of styles. Critics have focused on ravaging the shallow stereotypes of the Persian community, and decrying the predictable glitz and hyped-up drama of reality shows.

What drew me to Shahs was the unusual depiction of a close circle of Jewish and Muslim friends. Bound by their common experience as Persians from refugee immigrant families, their loyalty and affection transcends religious difference. I am struggling to come up with another such microcosm of intense Jewish and Muslim friendship on television, or in any other medium. If you can think of one, please post it in the comment section!

I find it interesting to note that the women featured on the show (MJ, GG, Asa) all come from Muslim families, though they also drink champagne with abandon and none of them is depicted as partaking in any sort of religious practice (with the possible exception of Asa, who considers herself a mystical “intergalactic Persian princess”).

The three Persian men in the circle all have Jewish ancestry. Mike’s family Shabbat was featured on the first episode. Mike worships his Jewish mom, who urges him to marry a nice, Jewish Persian girl. The characters discuss the fact that the chemistry between GG (Muslim) and Mike (Jewish), may be doomed because of religious difference, though Mike is currently dating a Latina (presumably a Christian).

But the most fascinating story line for me as a “patrilinial half-Jew” is that of Reza, born to a Muslim mother and a father who converted from Judaism to Islam in order to marry. Reza’s Jewish grandmother attended the wedding dressed in black. Reza lays the blame for the divorce of his parents squarely on the reaction of extended family to their religious difference, saying their marriage “never had a fair shot.” After the divorce, Reza’s father moved east, and essentially abandoned his son.

Despite being raised by his Muslim mother, with a Muslim first name, Reza explains that he has been to many family Bar Mitvahs, never been in a mosque, and “feels more Jewish than Muslim.” One could attribute this to greater exposure to Jewish religious practice. But I find it interesting that it fits into the pattern I see in Jewish/Christian interfaith children of Judaism exerting an outsized effect, even when it’s the father who is Jewish.

In the harrowing penultimate episode of the season, Reza travels to Great Neck, Long Island, for a reunion Shabbat with his extended Persian Jewish family. As the family gathers, Reza’s Jewish grandmother gives Reza what can only be described as the evil eye. When Reza confronts his father, the father admits that Reza’s grandmother considers Reza a “goyim” (non-Jew), and that she has been pressuring her son to ignore Reza.

In a series strewn with expensive baubles, drunken sprees and artificial catfights, the very real and poignant tears of an interfaith child excluded by his own family, and of a father who feels torn between religious loyalty and his own son, shocked and moved me. Reza embodies the “tragic interfaith child,” a character akin to the “tragic mulatto.” And yet, hope lies in the boundary-transcending friendships of Reza’s generation. Despite the caviar and fast cars, the real estate deals and the mean girls, I do not think I will be able to stop myself from tuning in for the next season of Shahs of Sunset this summer, to follow the interfaith story lines.

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 a workbook, The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Interfaith Love for Pink Martini

It’s easy to gripe about holiday music.  A dearth of good Hanukkah tunes. Too many cheesy strings. Novelty songs about reindeer and snowmen. Bob Dylan dredging up material from school assemblies of yore.

My approach has been to stick with the classics: brass quintets, lush classical choirs, Nat King Cole, Mel Torme. But now that I have teenagers, I must try to stay relevant. So I made an impulse purchase a couple of weeks ago at the counter of guess-which-coffee-franchise, and bought Joy to the World by a “little orchestra” based in Portland, Oregon.

Oh, Pink Martini! How do I love thee? Let me count the ways:

1. Such visual taste! Your pale pink packaging, as comely as a cupcake, with cut-out skyline featuring a church and a mosque, and only the most subtle of references to the complementary colors of red and green.

2. Such musical taste! Spare jazz guitar and trombone, glorious harmonies, a slide guitar, a cello, an accordion, a mandolin.

3. Such intellect! The duo fronting Pink Martini, classically-trained pianist Thomas Lauderdale and singer China Forbes, met as Harvard undergraduates. Joy to the World features songs and verses sung in Ukrainian, Japanese, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Hebrew, Ladino and Arabic. Oh, and NPR White House correspondent Ari Shapiro sings (astoundingly well) on both of the Jewish-themed songs.

4. Such cosmopolitan sophistication! Rhythms from Afrobeat to Brazilian samba revive songs I thought I never wanted to hear again (“We Three Kings,” “Auld Lang Syne”). And Forbes’s sultry, smoky lounge sound makes new such classics as “White Christmas” and “Santa Baby.”

5. Such leaping across boundaries! Forbes is half African-American and half European-American. Bothness! My theme! Just like an interfaith child, she embodies the future, recombines cultures. Nimbly avoiding the “let’s throw in one lame Hanukkah song” tradition, Pink Martini does justice to Flory Jagoda’s Sephardic tango of a Hanukkah song, “Ocho Candelikas,” and a gorgeous contemporary setting of part of the Amidah, a central Shabbat prayer (out of place? who cares?). And how many holiday albums attempt to move beyond dialogue to trialogue? In an inspired oblique reference to all three Abrahamic faiths, Joy to the World features poetic Arabic verses on two songs, including “Silent Night.”

6. Such historical hipsterism! In interviews, Thomas Lauderdale admires the golden age of Christmas music written between 1940 and 1965. Joy to the World includes definitive renditions of two of my guiltiest secret pleasures from that era, “The Little Drummer Boy” and “Do You Hear What I Hear.” Who knew that the latter song was a plea for peace written in response to the Cuban Missile Crisis? And if you just cannot bear “The Little Drummer Boy” again, well, you’re missing something.

Pink Martini will broadcast live this evening on Prairie Home Companion. Garrison Keillor got all crotchity last year on the subject of Christmas songs, I know. But how many holiday albums truly reflect the joy of our global, cross-cultural, interfaith world? Tune in, bliss out, enjoy the glow of Pink Martini.

 

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 Novel for Teens: Three Religions in “Habibi”

What goes on inside the head of an interfaith child? An interfaith teenager? How do they process the idea of straddling two cultures, two religions?

My favorite book about being an interfaith teen was written by Arab-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye. In her (clearly autobiographical) young adult novel Habibi, Nye tells the story of fourteen-year-old Liyanna Abboud, born and raised in St. Louis, who moves with her family to Jerusalem to be near her Palestinian grandmother and experience “doubled lives.” Nye eloquently describes the sense of displacement in moving between two cultures. Immigrants share many of the “both/and” qualities of interfaith children. But in Nye’s book, the protagonist is not only living in two cultures, but born into both of them as an interfaith child.

Nye lovingly describes a family that is “half and half, like a carton of rich milk.” But she also includes moments of tension, and frustration. In one scene, Liyanna’s father tells her that Arab women don’t wear shorts, and Liyanna, a rebellious teen, mutters, “I’m just a half-half, woman-girl, Arab-American, a mixed breed like those wild characters that ride up on ponies in the cowboy movies…the half-breeds are always villains or rescuers, never anybody normal in between.”

The plot takes a new twist when this half-Muslim, half-Christian girl (raised by spiritual but not particularly religious interfaith parents) befriends a Jewish Israeli boy. Nye does not sugarcoat the Middle East for her young audience–at least not entirely. She depicts anger and misunderstanding, and violence. But she also layers in a mystical connection (between the Jewish boy and the Muslim grandmother), and leaves her readers with a sense of hope. A few adult readers have objected to the “naive” or “pro-Palestinian” politics in Habibi. It would be difficult to accurately depict the contentious and intricate politics of the Middle East in a novel narrated by a teenager. In my opinion, the book is not about politics, but about the interior and exterior lives of Liyanna and her younger brother as they grapple with their new surroundings, their extended family, and their “bothness.”

As anti-Muslim rhetoric continues to swirl around us, in the media, in the streets, I am all the more determined to ensure that my children draw on their interfaith family roots to become peacemakers. They do not have to become world leaders to accomplish this. But they do need to listen with open minds to people from every religion and background. Habibi creates an engaging model for young teens doing just that.

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 a workbook, The Interfaith Family Journal (2019).

On the Eid, and the New Year, Savor Sweetness

This morning all of us are attempting, once again, to understand what happened on 9/11, and how that day changed us, while pondering with alarm the recent proliferation of anti-Muslim sentiment in America. All of this, while mourning all who were lost, all that was lost. The theologians will analyze, the clergy sermonize, the politicians make speeches. I have no profound words, no balm, no answers. But every year, I feel compelled to write from my perspective as an interfaith person, someone who spans two cultures and two religions, someone acutely aware of the danger of pigeonholes, and the promise of bridges.

So I search through my history, and my present experience, for fragments of hope.

Growing up in a small New England town, I knew no Muslims. Even at my cosmopolitan university, I was unaware of Muslims: surely they were there, but stayed quiet, invisible. My first face-to-face encounter with Islam was in the moderate and tolerant Muslim country of Morocco, before I moved to the moderate and tolerant Muslim country of Senegal. My boyfriend (who later became my husband) was living and working in Rabat, and my visit happened to coincide with Ramadan. I was immersed in the rhythm of people fasting through the long, hot days, and celebrating in the cool desert night. I remember sitting at sunset in a cafe overlooking the Djemaa el Fna, the famed public square in Marrakesh, watching as hundreds of people, their spoons poised over bowls of traditional harira soup, waiting for the call of the muezzin to signal the end of the fast. Actually, some of them were waiting, poised with cigarette and lighter in hand, for the first smoke of the day. Not as scenic, but perhaps equally admirable in terms of devotion to the fast.

Years later, after living on three continents, we chose to raise our children in a community that would mirror the world, offering as much diversity as possible. I yearned to feed my children the rich cultural food I had encountered around the globe, to fill them with knowledge and understanding of the peoples of the planet. In the Washington, DC, area, we found what we were seeking. We have family friends, and my children have classmates, from a broad array of ethnicities and religions, including Mormons, Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims. Over the past month, as our Muslim friends celebrated Ramadan, both my husband and my daughter were invited to iftars, celebrations of breaking the fast.

My husband went to an iftar with international development colleagues, organized by Islamic World Relief. My daughter was invited by an Egyptian-American classmate to his home, where he and his family prepared an iftar feast for several of his school friends. I felt profoundly moved and comforted by this gesture, by this seeming confirmation that we are raising our children to be at home in the world, in a future of living and celebrating together across cultural and religious divides.

This year, as anti-Muslim rhetoric seemed to swell into an ugly cacophony, I took comfort, too, in the way that the religious stars (actually, the religious moons) seemed to align. Rosh Hashanah, our Jewish New Year, and the Eid ul-Fitr, the feast to celebrate the end of Ramadan, overlapped with each other and with 9/11. For me, the sweetness in these holidays helped to take the edge off my 9/11 sorrow and distress.

The holidays share a theme of sweetness: the sweetness of Jewish honey cake, of apples and honey, for a sweet New Year, and the sweetness of the end of the fast, as Muslims celebrate with dates and honey-infused pastries. One year, my husband fasted alongside Moroccan colleagues, as he usually does out of respect and solidarity when working with Muslims, and then went to an iftar where he was served a pastry, called sfouf, so rich and sweet that he actually passed out as his blood-sugar levels went haywire.

To prevent any such untoward event from recurring this year, and because I am a ferocious chocoholic, I confiscated the chocolate world my husband received as iftar swag from Islamic World Relief, and ate it. But first, I took a photo of it for this blog. I love the synergy between the roundness of this sweet semi-globe, and the round hemisphere of raisin challah I bought for our Rosh Hashanah. The round challah, a special shape found only at the New Year, symbolizes the circle of life at the start of the New Year. A round chocolate world, a round raisin challah. Sweetness and symmetry in Judaism and Islam. May we all strive to make our real world, our integrated and unified world, sweeter this year.

Summer Fiction: Interfaith Love Story

We now have three generations of voracious readers in my family: I am sandwiched between my book-loving mother, and my book-loving teenage daughter. Rather than going to the library, my mother buys novels and then recycles them to us, in a heroic effort to keep her local independent bookstore from going under. Each time I visit her, I find a stack of books next to the guest bed, and  stuff them in my carry-on.

This summer, I scored a wonderful new hardback novel, and before I could get at it, my daughter grabbed it off my book pile. “I didn’t realize until I was hooked that this is an OLD PEOPLE love story,” she remarked a few hours later, peering at me with wide eyes from behind the half-finished novel. True enough, the main characters in Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand are mature, but they are also funny, intellectual, and engaged in a passionate interfaith love story. My daughter raced through the book–then I did the same.

For years, I have been reviewing new interfaith fiction, while the list of non-fiction on interfaith love remains frustratingly short. For some reason, our fiction writers recognize love across cultural and religious barriers as a central theme in our globalizing culture, a very contemporary theme with ancient resonance. The treatment in fiction of these issues can be far more nuanced, more elegant, and more sympathetic than the territorial posturing of non-fiction writers, who usually have an axe or two to grind on the subject of interfaith marriage.

In any case, I urge you to immediately buy, borrow, or (sigh) download Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, an utterly engaging first novel by British author Helen Simonson, an expatriate now living outside Washington. In her book, Major Pettigrew, a very proper, lonely widower, falls for Mrs. Ali, a Muslim Pakistani widow and the shopkeeper in their tiny English village. Adventures both hilarious and poignant ensue.

At one point, Mrs. Ali flees the village, and the village Vicar delivers to Major Pettigrew words that many of us, in interfaith families, will find all too familiar. He attempts to comfort the Major, saying:  “…it’s for the best, believe me.”  He goes on to describe the interfaith couples he has married, and the opposition they face from their own families, and how they come to him for guidance. “They want me to promise they’ll be together in heaven, when the truth is I can’t even offer both a plot in the cemetery. They expect me to soft-pedal Jesus as if he’s just one of many possible options.”

Simonson touches on some very real issues here. Many cemeteries exclude interfaith couples from family plots. Many Christian clergy, and family members, fret that the Christian partner in an interfaith marriage will abandon Jesus, or that the non-Christian partner will not go to heaven.

Simonson’s characters are complex, never one-dimensional, and I even felt a bit of sympathy for the Vicar–he represents one of the last vestiges of a cultural empire, trying to toe a fast-vanishing line as he makes his best case against interfaith love. But (spoiler alert!) I was relieved to discover that he cannot stop the Major, in the end, from loving or pursuing Mrs. Ali. Those of us in happy interfaith families will be anxious to discover whether or not this charming couple will prevail, and join our ranks.  Thanks for passing this book on, Mom!

Annoyed by the Dalai Lama

No, really, the Dalai Lama is a lovely man, wise and full of goodness. But his editorial in The New York Times today plucked on my last interfaith nerve. He writes of being inspired by an early meeting with Trappist monk Thomas Merton, and goes on to announce, “I’m a firm believer in the power of personal contact to bridge differences, so I’ve long been drawn to dialogues with people of other religious outlooks.”

Well, it’s all fine and dandy when a very holy and celibate Buddhist monk and a very holy and celibate Catholic monk have “personal contact” and dialogue. But when mere mortals have personal contact, they sometimes fall in love and create families. Then sometimes these “dialoguers” begin to have second thoughts about how personal the contact should be. And then they retreat to citing the importance of maintaining boundaries, and tribal purity laws. I’ve written about this before. What bothers me is what feels to me like hypocrisy: do reach out and touch somebody from another religion, but for God’s sake don’t take the ultimate step of actual intimacy.

A lot of what the Dalai Lama wrote in today’s paper is great stuff: the yearning for peace, the importance of learning, the defense of maligned religions. Refreshingly, he admits that as a boy he thought Buddhism was superior to other religions. He goes on to underscore his support for Karen Armstrong’s marvelous “Compassion movement,” and is careful to include Islam as a partner in this. But then, I couldn’t help noticing that his new book is subtitled “How the World’s Religions Can Come Together.” For those of us who are the products of this coming together, it is hard not to see that title as naive, or perhaps ironic.

I tried to explain my annoyance to my teenage daughter, who has grown up with Buddhist mentors in addition to Jewish and Christian family and education. She is far less cynical, and in general, far less annoyed, and far more, well, Zen,  than I am. “You’re looking for a problem, Mom,” she said. “As an interfaith person I’m not offended by that at all if they want to stick to their own religions, as long as they don’t tell me what to do.” Ah, but so many of them do.

Ten Things I Love About Islam

I spent three formative years living in Senegal, a stable democratic country that is more than 90% Muslim. I emerged with a deep appreciation of Islam, and I believe my experiences as an interfaith child helped me to be open to forming these positive impressions. My friend Surabhi commented on my blog post “Ten Things I Love About Christianity” that there are probably ten things we love about each religion we come to know. So I was inspired to write a personal and somewhat random list for the third of the three Abrahamic faiths.

  1. Ethnic Inclusivity. Muslims don’t think of themselves as a tribe. Indonesia, Mali, Jordan—three Muslim countries, three different races. I am inspired by Malcolm X’s 1964 “Letter from Mecca,” in which he begins to overcome his own antipathy to white people when he sees Muslims of all colors praying together
  2. Humility in Worship. When we lived in Dakar, our apartment balcony looked out on a street that was filled each Friday with the faithful bowed down in prayer. Businessmen in European suits and embroidered African robes, and the lowliest street sweepers in rags, all would roll out their mats side by side in the street and kneel down together.
  3. The Sound of the Muezzin. President Obama remarked on the evocative sound of the call to prayer. We used to spend weekends on the Senegalese island of Goree, where our friend Harriet had a house with a rooftop terrace covered with Mauritanian leather pillows. We would lounge up there, drinking tea right under the megaphone on the mosque next door. Each time the call went out across the island, it moved and thrilled me.
  4. Islamic Design. In Islam, the prohibition against making figurative art evolved into gorgeous calligraphy, and murals and tiles in intricate patterns tied to the rich history of Arab geometry, algebra and astronomy.
  5. Islamic Architecture. I remember the silhouette of a splendid minaret against a huge orange moon rising from the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Dakar. And the ancient mud mosques of Djenne, in Mali, are worth the endless bus ride from Bamako. Magnificent, like dip-drop castles by way of Gaudi, each spire topped by an ostrich egg.
  6. Sufi Dancing. I’m a sucker for a circle dance. For all my half-Jewish ambivalence about Israel, I adore Israeli dancing, and Greek dancing too. The Sufi zikr, ecstatic chanting and dancing, has developed a tremendous following in the United States and Europe. Some Westerners seek to divorce Sufism from Islam, and to avoid the Muslim label. I like to credit Islam with giving birth to a practice that has such universal appeal.
  7. Senegalese Music. The Islamic brotherhoods of Senegal have inspired music appreciated around the world. I groove to the Muslim references in songs by Toure Kunda, Baaba Maal, Youssou N’Dour, and anything by the deeply spiritual Cheikh Lo.
  8. Rumi. The ever-popular thirteenth-century Persian poet and Sufi mystic, widely appreciated for his ecumenical philosophy, was nonetheless a devout Muslim.
  9. Hagar. Mother of Abraham’s son Ishmael, and thus the matriarch of Islam, Hagar was exiled in the desert, but survived and prevailed. Israeli peace activists who advocate for a two-state solution in the Middle East now cite her as inspiration. Charlotte Gordon’s fascinating new book revolves around Hagar’s central role in the founding of the three Abrahamic faiths.
  10. Jesus the Prophet. I’m not the first to realize that the Muslim view of Jesus–that he was one in a line of prophets descended from Abraham–could actually fit into my Jewish (or at least Jewish/Christian) world view. As an interfaith child, I look for these opportunities for a personal “meeting of the three faiths.”

Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover and eBook from Beacon Press.

The President’s Interfaith Family

President Obama, University of Maryland, photo Susan Katz Miller

All this time I’ve been relating to Barack Obama as a fellow interfaith child, because his father and stepfather were Muslim and his mother’s family was Christian. Not to mention his wise interfaith Buddhist half-sister, and his wife’s cousin the rabbi. Now, it turns out he has a half-brother who is half-Jewish. And of course, many Jews in the blogosphere have been quick to point out that Mark Obama Ndesandjo is “halachically 100% Jewish” because his American mother, teacher Ruth Nidesand, is apparently Jewish. Although so far, Mark Ndesandjo has made no comment on his own religion, as far as I know. Ndesandjo spoke to the press about his connection to the President for the first time this week, in conjunction with the publication of a novel that appears to be heavily autobiographical. The topic of religion was reportedly barred in the ground rules of the press conference.

Why do we care? The idea that this could be the first American president with relatively close Jewish (step or half) family members appeals to our tribal pride. Almost 80% of American Jews voted for Obama: many of us continue to want to claim him, we crave the thrill of nachas. We don’t know much about Ruth Nidesand, but  we know she managed to escape from what Ndesandjo depicts in his book as an abusive and alcoholic Barack Obama Sr. She raised a son who went on to get a physics degree from Brown (my alma mater), an MBA, learn Mandarin and classical piano. In short, I suspect that Ruth is a strong, smart woman, in the same mold as Ann Dunham, no surprise there.

But me, I’m primarily intrigued by Ndesandjo, not because of his Jewishness, but because of his bothness: both black and white, both Muslim and Jew, both African and American. We are just beginning to see Muslim and Jewish intermarriage, so any Muslim/Jewish interfaith child in his forties is of interest to me, by definition, as a fellow pioneer in interfaithness. I imagine that he fled to China to escape the relentless efforts to stuff him into identity boxes: black, white, African, American, Jewish, Muslim, as well as to escape the traumatic memories of abuse by his father. Ndesandjo says he’s thinking about publishing his memoirs, and I hope he does. I don’t really care if he’s capitalizing on the Obama name to sell books—I know how hard it is to sell books these days. We need more interfaith children to tell their stories in order to help us all grow into our hybrid future together. And we need to hear the stories of “and/both”  people of all kinds (whether adopted, converted, biracial, immigrant, bisexual, intersexual, bilingual or otherwise bicultural).

Children of Abraham

Sue in Senegal, 1980s

In 1987, I got married, quit my job as a Newsweek reporter, and moved to the West African country of Senegal. I had to forge a new identity as a nice half-Jewish girl, married to a Protestant boy, working for a Catholic organization, in a Muslim country. The word “interfaith” had always implied Jewish and Christian to me. Now I found myself immersed in a moderate, thriving democratic culture with a Muslim president, Abdou Diouf, who was married to a Catholic. My world view expanded radically, and I began to see the world through three religious filters instead of two.

The full realization that Islam and Judaism are siblings came to me in dramatic fashion soon after arriving in Senegal. In the celebration known in West Africa as Tabaski (the Eid al-Adha to Muslims around the world), families sacrifice a ram to commemorate the story in which God asked Abraham to bind his son, but then provided a ram to sacrifice instead. Sound familiar? To Jews, the son was Isaac, Sarah’s son. Muslims believe it was Ishmael, Hagar’s son. Jews read this story from the Torah each autumn on the Jewish New Year—Rosh Hashanah.

On both holidays, we seek forgiveness. In synagogues, we say that God will forgive us for sins against God, but only our fellow human beings can forgive us for sins against them. We say this, and every year we intend to go out and actually ask forgiveness, but how many of us follow through?

On my first Tabaski, in the home of a Senegalese schoolteacher,  friends and neighbors dropped by throughout the day. Our host explained, “God forgives sins against God, but these visitors come to ask us for forgiveness for sins against them.”  I was humbled by and envious of the sincerity, the personal action, the deep communal bonding going on before my eyes. Somehow, this essential part of the forgiveness ritual had disappeared from the American suburban Reform Judaism of my youth.

Since 9/11, many Americans are attempting to include the growing American Muslim population in a “trialogue” to replace the old interfaith dialogue between Christians and Jews. We acknowledge that these three faiths share a history, that we are all “children of Abraham.” As the Jewish Days of Awe approach this year, I think again of the possibilities for reconciliation between the children of Abraham. American Jews and Christians now live side by side with Muslims–we go to school together, even marry each other. The day of reconciliation, an awesome day indeed, will be hastened as we all overcome our ignorance through personal experience.

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 Beer with Barack

Today I claim Barack Obama as a fellow interfaith child. Of course he’s a Christian. He made that choice, and has every right to do so. I waited years to claim him as an interfaith child because I so badly wanted him to be President, and I willingly participated in the liberal media conspiracy to downplay his Muslim roots.

But at this moment, I am filled with nachas (Yiddish for pride in the accomplishment of a relative) because Obama will be drinking beer this evening at the White House with a black professor and a white police officer. I see this inspired gesture as quintessential interfaith, or bicultural, behavior. He sees the conflict from both perspectives, and inserts himself in the middle to become the human bridge between the two.

Of course, race is still the primary identifier in America, and Obama’s status as a mixed-race child trumps his interfaith background. But when you listen to his moving speech in Cairo last month, it is clear that he benefits from his formative experiences with Islam. While he did not know his Muslim biological father, growing up with knowledge of this family connection can have a strong effect on an interfaith child’s identity. Even more important was his experience as a boy in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world, with a Muslim stepfather. Obama is both a practicing Christian and someone raised with an intimate knowledge of Islam. I celebrate his interfaithness, and see that the world has already benefitted from it.

As an interfaith child, I am proud to share the “both/and” perspective with many other Americans–children who embody two or more races, immigrants who straddle two cultures, expatriate offspring raised in other countries. All of us see ourselves in Obama. Many of us aspire to use our “both/and” status to become religious bridges, Obama-style. I don’t happen to like beer, which is just as well given the different religious perspectives on alcohol. Anyone want to come over for a root beer?

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