New Video! May This Hamsa Protect Us All

After weeks confined at home, I felt a brief surge of creativity, and decided to make a speed coloring video. I had created the coloring pages a year ago to celebrate the publication of The Interfaith Family Journal. But I had never made time to actually color the pages myself. I found it did create peace and joy to color the detailed drawing of a hamsa. Speeding up the video means you can watch me color the whole page in less than 15 minutes, and I found watching the page fill up with color is indeed mesmerizing.

I commissioned the hamsa coloring page from a local artist friend, along with two other drawings. I encourage you to download the coloring pages for free on my website, and color along with the video. Both adults and kids seem to be enjoying coloring while , along with baking, doing jigsaw puzzles, reading, singing with family, and making videos!

While researching coloring videos, I discovered that some people watch coloring videos as a way to reduce stress, create calm, and even induce sleep, whether or not they enjoy coloring themselves. My musician son, 23, recorded an original soundtrack for the video on guitar, with a peaceful vibe. I hope it will bring you moments of pleasure.

For my coloring pages, I chose three images. Each image (a nature scene, a mandala, and the hamsa) resonates with more than one religion or worldview. The hamsa, an image of a hand or open palm, originated in ancient Mesopotamia and Carthage. It was retained as a symbol of protection throughout the Middle East, in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The hamsa goes by many names, including the Hand of Fatima (Islam), the Hand of Mary (Christianity), the Hand of Miriam (Judaism), and the Hand of the Goddess. For my hamsa coloring page, I asked artist Emily Ettlinger to incorporate Islamic tile designs, and the pomegranate, a sacred symbol in Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism.

If there was ever a moment when we needed the protection of a Mesopotamian goddess, this would be that moment. So if you are searching for ways to engage your kids at home, or to calm your own spirit in these difficult times, take a look at the new video. And then I hope you will be inspired to print out the coloring page and give it a try. Choose your own color scheme, and post the result as a comment on my facebook page. Share the beauty! And stay home. And stay well.

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.

Hamentaschen, Fertility, and Syncretism

Photo, Susan Katz Miller

Why is this hamentaschen upside-down? Is it a distress signal?

No! Just Purim fun, and feminist chutzpah. I simply rotated one of my old photos 180 degrees, to give you a new perspective.

I took this photo ten years ago, intending to visually signal the fact that a hamentasch (grammatically this is the singular) looks like a vulva, or a vagina, or a fruitful uterus, or some combination thereof. As someone who wrote my undergraduate thesis in the history of science on anatomical depictions of women in the Renaissance, drawing on semiotics and feminism, the symbolism of hamentaschen had always been obvious to me. I posted the photo “right side up” with an essay celebrating the interfaith marriage at the heart of the Purim story, and linking Purim to spring fertility rites predating Judaism.

Then five years ago, I posted a review of Strange Wives, a book about interfaith marriage in the Torah. I described how this book (by a rabbi and a Jewish scholar) documents how “women who married into the tribes of Israel continued to worship their own fertility gods even after marriage, and early Israelite farmers continued to appeal to fertility gods to bless their crops.” Their argument (and mine) is that Judaism has always been syncretic, picking up practices and ideas from the religions predating and surrounding it. For me, this is one example of how all religions are interfaith religions.

Purim is technically next week, but many communities hold their Purim carnivals this weekend. Yesterday, Arielle Kaplan posted “Yes, There’s a Reason Hamantaschen Look Like Vaginas” over at HeyAlma.com, a website founded by Jewish women. She has written a hilarious and definitive essay on the hamantasch as a fertility symbol, with nods to current politics, Broad City, and Polly Pocket. I highly recommend reading it.

Then, shake off your primary blues, pack up your Purell, and go make noise and celebrate Purim!

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Interfaith Families: Why I (Still) Use The Term

How do those of us who form families across religious (or secular/humanist/atheist) differences find other families like us?

How do we share resources and support each other?

How do we talk about our identities, advocate for our right to exist, create space at all the tables, and encourage the academic study of our experiences?

To search, google, connect to each other, and join relevant conversations, we use the term interfaith families.

I have been using that term since I was born into an interfaith family in 1961. I have been using that term for more than a decade of blogging, writing books, and posting on social media on this topic. And I used it in founding the Network of Interfaith Family Groups.

As I have acknowledged in the past, the term is imperfect. For instance, “faith” is more central for Christians and Muslims than it is for Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, or (obviously) atheists. But the alternative often used in Jewish contexts, intermarriage, is loaded with all kinds of problematic linguistic baggage, as I wrote here.

So, why write about this now?

Today, the longtime Jewish organization doing outreach to interfaith families, interfaithfamily.com, unveiled a rebranding, moving away from the term “interfaith family” in their title. They are now “18Doors: Unlocking Jewish.” Of course, to explain the purpose of the organization, the “About” section refers to interfaith couples, families, and “Jewish interfaith relationships.” To my point, interfaith families looking for help are not going to find this organization, or understand that it is meant for them, without explicit use of the term “interfaith families.”

Interfaithfamily.com has always encouraged Jewish institutions to be more welcoming and inclusive, and has always supported interfaith families practicing Judaism. Thus, they play an important progressive role in Jewish institutional spaces. That is why I have worked on occasion with interfaithfamily.com since its inception, providing essays and reviews, and most recently, speaking to their rabbinic fellows.

On the other hand, it has been awkward, at times, having a Jewish organization devoted to a relatively narrow slice of interfaith families (those “making Jewish choices”) claim all rights to the language “interfaith family.” Interfaith families include families that don’t make Jewish choices–or any religious choices at all. Interfaith families also include Hindu and Muslim families, and Pagan and atheist families, and families celebrating Catholicism and spiritual practices of the African diaspora, and many more permutations. My work now is to support all interfaith families, of any or all religions or none. The Interfaith Family Journal  takes this expansive and global approach to the interfaith family landscape. This approach, my approach, is more about creating and leading, and less about hoping for inclusion or to be welcomed, or hoping for any particular religious outcome.

With the change to 18Doors, the organization formerly known as interfaithfamily.com claims a hip, clever, and more explicitly Jewish title, leaving more space for all of the rest of us from the kaleidoscope of interfaith families worldwide to use the “interfaith family” language as the term of art.

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.

The Problem with Gendered Descent

The author. Photo by Lucy Jean Brettler

Religions, many of them, lag and drag on issues of gender equality. We see this in the patriarchal texts and liturgies, the dearth of women in religious power, the resistance to full inclusion of LGBTQ+ people. A growing percentage of young adults no longer feel any need to affiliate, or any use for religious institutions. One reason at the top of the list is antiquated perspectives on gender and sexuality. Another interrelated reason: exclusion of interfaith families.

Gendered descent, the idea that religious identity is passed down, but only through the parent of a particular gender, is a corrosive, archaic, unworkable concept in the 21st century. It is deeply troubling to me as a “patrilineal Jew,” and as a human being. And it is found in multiple religions. The Orthodox and Conservative Jewish movements, and the state of Israel, go by matrilineal descent in deciding whom they consider to be Jewish. Meanwhile, many other religious cultures (from Muslims to Zoroastrians) traditionally go by patrilineal descent. Either way, interfaith families have a problem, and that means young adults who want to engage with religion, generally, are going to have a problem.

If we accept gendered descent, what is the religion of an interfaith child with two moms? Two dads? Two non-binary parents? Two trans parents? Multiple co-parenting parents? An egg or sperm donor? And, why should only one parent have the “right” to pass down a religion, based on their gender?

The painful absurdity of gendered descent is made plain, once again, in a recent decision by a rabbinical court in Israel. A Jewish mother gave birth to a baby conceived with an egg from a Jewish donor. But a state rabbinical court has now ruled that because the donor was anonymous, they can’t be sure the donor was Jewish enough and they refuse to register the baby as Jewish. (Was there a convert in the lineage somewhere? Were the rabbis who oversaw that conversion kosher enough?). So the baby does not get Jewish religious identity according to the state. This has real consequences in Israel, since, for instance, religious courts control marriage (there is no civil marriage) and interfaith couples have to fly to Cyprus or elsewhere to get married.

The decision takes place in a context of increasing bullying of the more progressive Jewish movements by Israeli rabbinical courts. These courts are now suspicious of anyone with Reform Jewish identity in ruling on who can immigrate, who can marry whom, who can be buried where. The Israeli theocracy seeks to disempower and disenfranchise Reform Judaism, pushing back on this movement’s adoption (in 1983) of gender-neutral policies on Jewish descent. In Israel, the religion of the father is chopped liver–irrelevant.

An egg has no religion. At birth, a baby has no religion. As adults, we create religious rituals to claim children. We create practices to immerse them in our religious culture. We create systems for their formal religious education. And then they grow up, and make their own decisions about beliefs, practices, affiliations, and identity. As the Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran writes: “They come through you but not from you, And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.”

And, none of this has anything to do with gender. Trying to police religious identity based on the gender of parents (and grandparents, and great-grandparents) is just one more way to exclude interfaith families, exclude LGBTQ families, and exclude those who might actually want to participate in what remains of progressive religious culture. It is past time for gender-neutral religion.

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.

Halloween in an Interfaith Families Community

Halloween is the quintessential interfaith holiday, with both pagan and Christian roots, and an enthusiastic following among Jews. When I was growing up, no one questioned that American Jews (or people of any other religion) should celebrate Halloween. But then again, it was an era when many Jews celebrated secular Christmas.

More recently, fear of assimilation and a shift among some progressive Jews to more traditional practice triggered a lively debate on whether or not Jews should celebrate Halloween at all. In my interfaith family, and and in our interfaith families community, our thirst for full educational disclosure drives us to explore the religious origins and meaning of the holiday, rather than staying on the secularized, commercial surface. And thinking about the history of this interfaith holiday, and even developing a specifically Jewish perspective on Halloween, enlivens and enriches the holiday, and imbues it with special resonance for me, as part of an interfaith family.If you’re wondering how this works, here is a description of our interfaith family community’s celebration back in 2009, the year I created this blog. The Spiritual Leader of the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington, Reverend Julia Jarvis, stood in front of the hundreds of members of our community on Sunday morning and explained the pagan origins of Halloween, and how a Roman Pope encouraged the incorporation of this pre-Christian festival into the Catholic calendar, and the distinctions between All Saints and All Souls Days. A Catholic member of our group, married to a Jew, recounted with wise humor how praying to Saint Gerard, patron saint of motherhood, gave her comfort and strength when she was facing infertility.

Next, our Spiritual Advisor, Rabbi Harold White, stepped up to give a Jewish perspective on All Souls and All Saints. He made the distinction between the Christian veneration of dead saints, and the mystical Jewish tradition of the 36 righteous people (Lamed Vav Tzadikim), akin to living Jewish saints, who walk the earth in each era. He also compared the restless souls of Halloween to the dybukkim of Jewish folklore: I imagine the Christian and Jewish spirits roaming together among the living, neither of them able to settle into their graves.

Then our folk band lead us in singing  Mi Sheberach, a prayer of healing, while community members placed rocks into a bowl in remembrance of their personal saints, or loved ones who struggle or are gone from us. This is a ritual our community adapted from Unitarian congregations, but by singing a traditional Hebrew prayer, we both comfort our Jewish members with a familiar song and help to create a connection in our children to Jewish practice.

So what did our interfaith community take away from our All Saints and All Souls gathering? The sizable contingent of adult atheists and secularists in our community enjoyed the cerebral and historical perspective. The practicing Catholics appreciated recognition of the spiritual side of these holidays, so often overshadowed by pumpkins and chocolate. Children heard an affectionate reflection on saints from a Catholic parent. They learned from our rabbi that this is a Christian holiday, but that Jews can have a respectful and appreciative perspective on it. And they learned about the Jewish tradition of the 36 righteous, and about dybbukim.

We mourned and provided comfort to each other as a community. And then, to emphasize the continuity of life even in the face of death, the band struck up a rowdy rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Community members leapt into the aisle and joined hands to dance in a line that wove around the room: it was a joyful interfaith hora, New Orleans style. My 12-year-old son darted from his place in the band and joined the dancers, playing a djembe strapped to his chest. I am betting that he will remember that there is more to Halloween than candy, and that he will feel in his bones that belonging to an interfaith community can be both a cerebral and ecstatic experience.

This essay is adapted from an essay on this blog from November 3, 2009.

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).

Sukkoth in an Interfaith Families Community

Sukkah

(This essay is adapted from a post from 2013).

The three great agricultural festivals in Judaism–Sukkoth, Passover, and Shavuot–tie us to our ancient origins, when we lived in intimate relation to nature. During the week of Sukkoth, we build temporary outdoor huts (or tabernacles), cover them with branches, and festoon them with harvest fruits. We are commanded to eat and sleep in the Sukkah–to look up through the branches at the stars, and sense our own fragility, and the infinity of the universe. Sukkoth appeals in part because it draws on every child’s fantasy of living in a treehouse– of living off the land in the primal way depicted in My Side of the Mountain.

This week, I will celebrate with traditional prayers and rituals in a Sukkah with my interfaith families community. One of our goals in interfaith education is to go beyond the most obvious Hanukkah/Christmas/Passover/Easter rotation of holidays–to go deeper into both religions. The elemental, natural, pagan elements preserved in Sukkoth please my interfaith soul.

I see every religion as fundamentally syncretic (and that’s a good thing)–as a historical accumulation of evolving influences rather than as something static and pure and singular. On Sukkoth, we stand in the Sukkah and shake a fruit called a citron or etrog, and a bound bundle of palm and myrtle and willow branches (the lulav) in six directions (north, south, east, west, to the skies, and to the ground). The parallel between this ritual and Native American rituals involving the cardinal directions has not gone unnoticed (and feels especially resonant in a year when Sukkoth starts on Indigenous Peoples’ Day). The etrog and lulav are thought to originate in harvest fertility rituals that predate Judaism, with the etrog representing the feminine, and the lulav clearly phallic. When we shake the lulav, we hear the sound of the wind, and invoke rain at the start of the ancient rainy season in the Middle East.

As urban-dwellers, and people of the scroll, we need to get outside more often–close our books and turn off our electronic phones and tablets, contemplate the sun and the stars, and get in touch with the elemental. Sukkoth provides that opportunity.

In autumn, our interfaith families community tends to feel very Jewish. On the heels of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and Sukkoth, we will celebrate Simchat Torah. We want our children to experience all these holidays, and feel connected to Judaism through them. But we also keep in mind that the Christian members of our families are celebrating with us. We provide context for every prayer and ritual, and give them ways to not only participate, but to lead. And we weave in St Francis, and All Saints and All Souls, and see the parallels as well as the differences.

One year, our musical director Marci Shegogue led us in the Sukkoth prayers. And then her husband Rich, who was raised Catholic, stood under the Sukkah, and led us in singing an 18th-century Christian hymn, perfectly suited to a Jewish agricultural festival, adapted and set to music by a nice Jewish boy from Long Island, Stephen Schwartz:

     We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land,

     But it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand...

Schwartz took the words for “All Good Gifts,” along with most of the other Godspell lyrics, straight out of an Episcopal hymnal. As the daughter of a Jewish father and an Episcopalian mother, I find this fact resonant, and gratifying. The Hebrew prophet Zechariah predicted that in the end of days, all nations would celebrate “the feast of tabernacles” (Sukkoth) together. You could say that interfaith families gathered for Sukkoth are simply working on fulfilling this prophecy.

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).

Spring 2019 Interfaith Connections

Lizas HexTop
Glorious Color quilts by my cousin, Liza Prior Lucy

This post has become an annual tradition! In ten years of writing this interfaith blog, I have posted multiple essays on many of the spring Jewish and Christian holidays: PurimSt Patrick’s DayPassoverEaster. But the complex, interlocking quilt squares of #GenerationInterfaith now go far beyond Judaism and Christianity.

My new book The Interfaith Family Journal, is designed for all interfaith families, of any or all religions, or none. And while we make many different choices about what to believe, how to practice, and where to affiliate (or not), all of us in extended interfaith families (and increasingly, that is most of us) benefit from multi-sensory interfaith experiences with extended family, neighbors, and co-workers.

Just in the coming weeks, we have a dense schedule of holidays (for a more complete list go here), providing many opportunities to deepen our interfaith education. If you don’t have family and friends who will invite you over, check out my Beacon Press colleague Linda K. Wertheimer‘s suggestions on how to get out and visit local houses of worship.

Note the ancient connections many of these holidays have to the spring equinox, and often, to each other. Religions and cultures are not static, but change in response to each other, just as we do as individual members of interfaith families.

March 17, St Patrick’s Day. Catholic commemoration of the Feast Day of St Patrick, primarily celebrated by Irish-Americans with parades, drinking, and the wearing of the green, as a way to connect with Irish culture. Now celebrated in America by people of many religions. Possible historical connection to Ostara.

March 20. Spring Equinox. Ostara, ModernPagan/Wiccan commemoration of the spring equinox and Eostre, the Saxon lunar goddess of fertility. Celebrated with planting of seeds and nature walks. Possible historical connections between Eostre, Easter, Passover, and Norooz.

March 20-21, Holi. Hindu commemoration of the arrival of spring and love, celebrated with bonfires, throwing powdered color pigments and water on each other, music, feasting, forgiving debts, repairing relationships, and visiting. Popular even with non-Hindus in South Asia, and increasingly throughout the world.

March 20-21, Purim. Jewish commemoration of the Biblical story of Esther in ancient Persia, celebrated with costumed reenactments, three-cornered pastry (hamantaschen), drinking, and charity. There may be a historical connection between Norooz and Purim.

March 21, Norooz (Naw-Ruz). Zoroastrian/Bahai/Persian celebration of the New Year on the spring equinox. With roots in ancient Iran, it is celebrated by many people of all religions throughout the Balkans, Caucasus, Central and South Asia, and the Middle East with spring cleaning, flowers, picnics, feasting, and family visits. Possible historical connection between Norooz and Purim.

March 21, Magha Puja Day. Buddhist commemoration of Buddha delivering the principles of Buddhism, on the full moon. Celebrated in Southeast Asia with temple visits, processions, and good works.

March 21, Hola Mohalla. Sikh celebration including processions, mock battles, poetry reading, music. There is a historical connection between Hinduism’s Holi and Hola Mohalla.

April 18, Maundy Thursday. Christian commemoration of The Last Supper. There may (or may not) be a historical connection between The Last Supper and the Passover seder.

April 19, Good Friday. Christian commemoration of the Crucifixion of Jesus, with church services and fasting. The convergence of Good Friday and the first Passover seder may pose logistical challenges for many interfaith families this year, as it did last year.

Sundown on April 19 to April 27, Passover (Pesach), Jewish commemoration of the flight from Egypt described in the book of Exodus. Primarily a home-based celebration with one or more festive Seder meals of ritual foods, songs, and prayer. As with Easter, Passover incorporates (presumably pre-Judaic pagan) spring equinox fertility symbolism (eggs, spring greens).

April 21, Easter.Christian commemoration of the Resurrection of Jesus, celebrated with church services, family dinners, and baskets of candy for children. Fertility imagery including bunnies and eggs may have a historical connection to Eostre, and the spring equinox.

New Bordered Diamonds Cover
Glorious Color quilts by my cousin, Liza Prior Lucy

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 (forthcoming in 2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.