Spring Interfaith Holidays 2023

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

This post has become an annual tradition. Each year, the various calendars shift, pulled here and there by the sun and the moon, and the chronology and overlap of holidays will change. This year, the spring line-up begins with Shrove Tuesday tomorrow. And this year, we have Easter, Passover and Ramadan all converging–a special challenge and blessing for interfaith families with Abrahamic trifecta lineages!

Over more than a decade writing this interfaith blog, I have posted multiple essays on many of the spring Jewish and Christian holidays: PurimSt Patrick’s DayPassoverEaster. But interfaith families these days have multiple heritages, and multiple practices, well beyond Jewish and Christian. So this post takes note of some (but not all!) of the many interlocking spring religious holidays.

Note the ancient connections many of these holidays have to the astronomical and agricultural calendars, and often, to each other. Religions and cultures are not static, but change over time in response to neighboring religions and cultures, just as we change and grow through our interconnections in interfaith families.

February 21, Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras). For Roman Catholics and some Protestants, this day marks the end of feasting before the beginning of the fast for Lent. Shrove Tuesday is the finale of Carnival (Shrovetide), with notable multi-day celebrations in Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago, New Orleans, Venice, and some Protestant regions. Carnival is thought to have historical ties to the pre-Christian celebrations of the return of the sun.

Feb 22, Ash Wednesday, for Roman Catholics and some Protestants, marking the start of Lent. Lent is a period of prayer and penance in commemoration of Jesus’s 40 days in the desert, and in preparation for Easter. Many practitioners make a Lenten sacrifice, giving up a specific luxury food (chocolate, all sweets, alcohol) during Lent.

March 6, Purim. Jewish commemoration of the Biblical story of Esther in ancient Persia, celebrated with costumed reenactments (Purim spiels), three-cornered pastry (hamantaschen), carnival games, drinking, and charity. Some believe Esther is connected to the ancient fertility goddess Ishtar, and there may be a historical connection between Norooz and Purim.

March 6, 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 7, 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 (and not without controversy over appropriation) throughout the world.

March 8-10, Hola Mohalla. Sikh celebration including processions, ceremonial battles, poetry reading, and music. There is a historical connection between the Hindu festival of Holi, and Hola Mohalla.

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 heritage. Now celebrated in America by people of many religions. Possible historical connection to Ostara.

March 20, Spring Equinox. Ostara, Modern Pagan/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/Esther/Ishtar, and between Easter, Passover, and Norooz.

March 20-21, Norooz (Nowruz, Naw-Ruz). Zoroastrian/Bahai/Persian celebration of the New Year on the spring equinox. With roots in ancient Iran, people of many religions may celebrate Norooz together in the Balkans, Caucasus, Central and South Asia, and the Middle East, with spring cleaning, flowers, picnics, feasting, and family visits. Afghan refugees in your neighborhood may be celebrating Norooz. Possible historical connection between Norooz and Purim.

March 22, the new moon marks the start of the month-long daytime fast of Ramadan in Islam. The month commemorates the revelation of the Qu’ran. Muslim holidays are on a lunar calendar, so move through the seasons over time.

April 4, Mahavir Jayanti, the Jain holiday celebrating the birth of Lord Mahavir with temple visits, charity, rallies promoting non-violence and veganism, and running events.

April 14, Viasakhi, the Sikh New Year and harvest celebration marking the founding of the Khalsa order, a group of highly devout warrior-saints founded by Guru Gobind Singh. The holiday is marked by parades, community service, music (kirtans), and visits to the gurdwara.

April 6, Maundy Thursday. Protestant and Roman Catholic commemoration of The Last Supper. There may (or may not) be a historical connection between The Last Supper and the Passover seder.

April 7, Good Friday. Protestant and Roman Catholic commemoration of the Crucifixion of Jesus, with church services and fasting.

Sundown on April 5 to April 12, 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 9, Easter. Protestant and Roman Catholic 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, or may not, have a historical connection to pre-Christian rituals and the spring equinox.

April 16, Orthodox Easter (or Pascha) in many of the Orthodox Christian traditions using the Julian rather than Gregorian calendar, including Bulgaria, Cyprus, Ethiopia, Greece, Lebanon, Macedonia, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine, as well as millions of people with heritage from these regions now living in North America. Many of these cultures include a feast of lamb (connected historically to Passover) and hard-boiled eggs (possibly connected to more ancient fertility traditions).

April 20-23, Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting. Celebrated with prayer, family visits, new clothes, gifts, and charity.

April 30, Beltane, a Pagan festival with Gaelic roots, celebrates the return of the sun and the fertility of the Earth. It falls midway between the spring and summer equinox, and is celebrated with bonfires, and blooming branches. The American cultural phenomena of maypole dancing and hanging May Day baskets have roots in this holiday.

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 (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

A To-Do List

This week, there is cause for celebration in the interfaith family world. Hebrew College, a non-denominational rabbinical school outside Boston, has decided to admit rabbinical and cantorial students who have partners of other religions. Thus, they join the rabbinical schools of several progressive Jewish movements–Humanistic Judaism, Jewish Renewal, and Reconstructing Judaism–in admitting and ordaining people in interfaith relationships. Ed Case, the most prominent advocate for interfaith family inclusion in Jewish institutions, has written an important response to this new policy change, calling on the Reform movement to finally follow suit.

I am grateful for the work of rabbis and interfaith families working for change from within. The new policy at Hebrew College is a hard-won victory, and creates a shift that benefits all interfaith families in the progressive Jewish world.

And yet, a lot of work remains to be done.

From my position as a disruptor, or even heretic, I have the luxury of being very frank: we must not desist from this work. For years, I have been pointing out the changes that still need to happen. Here, I distill that work into a to-do list:

How Progressive Judaism Must Change to Thrive

  1. Progressive movements and rabbinical and cantorial programs must admit and ordain students without litmus tests related to the religious identities of partners, or children.
  2. All progressive religious institutions must uncouple gender from religious identity, by ending all reference to matrilineality and patrilineality. The gender of someone’s parents should be irrelevant to their claim on, or desire to engage with, Judaism. As I have written before, the gender binary is toxic to the future of progressive Judaism.
  3. All progressive religious institutions must accept that parents have a right to educate their children about any and all religions in their extended family. You cannot control the identity of children by withholding education from them. This means we must end Jewish communal policies that exclude children who are being educated in more than one religion.
  4. Progressive clergy must welcome the benefits of co-officiation at life-cycle ceremonies for interfaith families. Disrespecting another religion represented in the family by excluding it from a family celebration will not make Judaism more compelling to anyone. It will only lead to sorrow, and resentment.
  5. Progressive clergy must stop trying to demand or extract promises from interfaith couples about how interfaith children will be raised. These promises are coercive and alienating. They are meaningless, given that we never know how the beliefs and practices of the parents will change over time. And they are futile, given that children have agency, and inevitably develop their own ideas and identities.

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).

Template: Interfaith Coming of Age or B-Mitzvah

Families celebrating more than one religion can, and do, design interfaith coming of age celebrations for their children. These ceremonies sometimes start with, draw on, or incorporate the B-Mitzvah traditions in our heritage. Our Jewish and Christian interfaith family, along with beloved clergy, created ceremonies for each of our children (who are now 28 and 25). Over the years, I have often been asked for a coming of age ceremony template. And a reader asked again just this week. And so, I am finally posting a template!

The template below “leans Jewish” in that it includes the essence of a Shabbat Torah service, which is what many consider the essence of a B-Mitzvah. And, the whole idea of an individual coming of age, as opposed to a group confirmation, is a more Jewish than Christian tradition. Whether or not you want to include all these elements is up to your family. You can find a deeper discussion of the different choices my family made, and the choices available to you, in the Coming of Age chapter in my book Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family. There is also more of the backstory on our particular experience with our younger child, on my blog here, here, here, here and here.

For the sake of brevity, I did not include the actual prayers here, but they are widely available. I recommend including Hebrew, transliteration, AND gender-neutral English translation for every Hebrew prayer, as an educational tool, and to be most inclusive. The explanations of each prayer, important for a mixed multitude, can either be read by the reader, or simply included in the program for people to read on their own.

Interfaith Coming of Age and B-Mitzvah

Intro. Our programs started with a letter (which people can read to themselves while they wait for the ceremony to start) as an introduction from the parents. It explains the religious education and training that the young person has undergone, and thanks the various religious communities supporting them. It goes on to thank important mentors, clergy, and godparents.

Opening Song. Throughout the program, there are traditional Jewish songs for peace and Shabbat (Bim Bom, Lo Yisa Goy, Hine Mahtov, It is a Tree of Life). And, there are songs drawn from other sources (Morning Has Broken, All Things Bright and Beautiful, Let the Life I Lead, Peace Salaam Shalom).

Welcome from the clergy (in our case, both a rabbi and a minister spoke)

Opening Responsive Prayer (Led by the minister. Adapted by Susan Katz Miller from the Palo Alto interfaith families community)

Reader: We gather here as an interfaith community to celebrate the Coming of Age of (Name).

All: Some of us gather as the Children of Israel, some of us gather in the name of Jesus of Nazareth. Our influences are many.

Reader: May (Name), and all of our children, be nourished by strong family roots, and may all the branches of our family trees thrive.

All:  May they grow in compassion for all peoples and cultures, seek to heal the earth, and strive for justice around the globe.

Reader: May they use their understanding of the many different pathways to become bridge-builders and peacemakers.

All:  And may we all go forward into the world, knowing in our hearts that deeper unity in which all are one.

Shehecheyanu (Rabbi)

The rabbi explains that this is a Jewish prayer giving thanks for reaching any new or important moment.

Introduce the Torah. The Torah is a continuous scroll consisting of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Each Torah is handwritten by a trained scribe, using a quill and vegetable ink on parchment.  The Hebrew calligraphy used to write these scrolls has been the same for more than 2,000 years.  The Torah we are using today belongs to Georgetown University, where Rabbi White is a chaplain and professor.

Please stand.                       

Barchu and Shema (led by the person coming of age)

The Shema is the central prayer of the Jewish faith. In it, Jews declare their belief in one God, who is the God of all people.

Please be seated.

V’Ahavta (led by the person coming of age)

In this central prayer, each generation passes knowledge of the law and of Jewish ritual to the next. This prayer is included on the parchment scroll inside a mezuzah, posted on the doorframe of many Jewish homes.

Aliyot. The rabbi explains that an Aliya (plural is Aliyot) is the honor of saying the blessing before and after part of the Torah reading. Leading this blessing is often considered the central act of becoming a Bar or Bat Mitzvah.

Aliyot by parents, grandparents, any older siblings, and finally, the person coming of age.

Blessing before the Torah

Torah Reading. (In English or Hebrew. If it’s only in Hebrew, print the English in the program).

Blessing after the Torah

Reflection on the Torah portion (D’var Torah by the person coming of age)

Song

Reading from the New Testament (read by a Christian grandparent or mentor). It was our beloved rabbi who insisted we do a New Testament reading. (Read all about this twist in Being Both).

We Remember Them (Minister. Written by Sylvan Kamens and Rabbi Jack Riemer)

At this time we remember those who are gone but are here with us today in spirit, especially (name any grandparents or immediate family members or close mentors who have died).

Reader: At the rising of the sun and at its going down, we remember them.

All: At the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter, we remember them.

Reader: At the opening of the buds and in the rebirth of spring, we remember them.

All: At the blueness of the skies and in the warmth of the summer, we remember them.

Reader: At the rustling of the leaves and in the beauty of autumn, we remember them.

All: At the beginning of the year and when it ends, we remember them.

Reader: As long as we live, they too will live; for they are now a part of us, as we remember them.

All: When we are lost and sick at heart, we remember them.

Reader: When we have joys we crave to share, we remember them.

All: When we have decisions that are difficult to make, we remember them.

Reader: When we have achievements that are based on theirs, we remember them.

All: As long as we live, they too will live; for they are now a part of us, as we remember them.

Mourner’s Kaddish (Rabbi)

The Kaddish (“Sanctification”) is written primarily in Aramaic, the language spoken by the Jews living in Babylonia and Palestine in the sixth century BCE, and the language later spoken by Jesus.  The Kaddish is traditionally recited for those who have died, yet there is no mention of death.  Instead, the prayer praises God and promises peace. For many, the rhythmic repetition of syllables serves as a chanting meditation. 

Song: Oseh Shalom 

“Universal Prayer,” an interpretation of The Lord’s Prayer, by Rev. Cora Partridge.

Please read together:

Great Spirit of goodness and justice, our friend. We know you by many names, and in many languages, and by the manifestations of your great works in the universe. We want your influence of goodness to develop on this earth. Please provide all of us with what we need each day. Forgive our sins to the extent that we forgive others. Give us strength to resist temptations and willful wrongdoing, and protect us from evil thoughts, opportunities, and misfortunes that beset humankind. You are the everlasting good. We thank you. Amen.

Remarks by Parents

Remarks by Godparent/Mentor

Song

Laying on of Hands. Clergy put their hands on the head of the person coming of age to bless them, and the whole community then connects to each other in a supportive physical web. For further explanation, see Being Both.

Parting Words (Responsive reading led by minister)

Will you be there for (Name) when they need you to listen? All: We will.

Will you model love for one another and for all peoples? All: We will.

Will you surround (Name) with joy, music, poetry and art? All: We will.

Will you help them work for peace, justice and a sustainable world? All: We will.

Then go now, remembering always the community that we have become today, a community that envelopes and surrounds and supports (Name) with our love.

At the reception:

Hebrew/English blessing over the Wine

Hebrew/English blessing over the Bread

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).

Hanukkah AND Christmas Books For Interfaith Children

Once upon a time, December holiday books for children focused on either Christmas, or Hanukkah. Now, many children grow up in Jewish families celebrating Christmas with Christian grandparents. Or, they grow up in Christian families celebrating Hanukkah with Jewish grandparents. Or, they grow up in interfaith families celebrating both. Here, I update my growing list of Hanukkah and Christmas books, in chronological order of publication. No two interfaith families have the same way of celebrating in December. So, rather than simply listing the books, I review how each book might or might not work for your family, in order to help you find the right book for your young interfaith children or grandchildren.

1. The first popular book on this topic was probably Light the Lights! A Story About Celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas (ages 3-5), from 1999. This sweet and simple story focuses on a girl participating in both holidays at home, but does not go into the underlying religious meaning of either one. This may be frustrating for parents who want to teach religious literacy, but for young children celebrating one or both of the holidays in a secular fashion, or as a starting point for deeper discussion, this book will work.

2. In contrast, I do not recommend My Two Holidays: A Hanukkah and Christmas Story (ages 3-5) from 2010. The boy in this book feels “ashamed and embarrassed” in school to admit that he celebrates both holidays. While emotionally dramatic, this plot twist does not ring true in my experience with contemporary interfaith children, and reading it could make children who feel just fine about celebrating both, feel a sense of shame. The author seems to have bought into the (increasingly mythical) “December Dilemma” conflict. Avoid this book.

3. Daddy Christmas and Hanukkah Mama (2012, ages 5-8) features jazzy modernist collage illustrations, and a recipe for Cranberry Kugel. The mixed media style echoes the hipster parents in this book, who mix the holidays together in a sort of Chrismukkah mash-up. They hook candy canes on their menorah, and leave latkes out for Santa. If your family does this kind of blending, this is your book. But for families trying to help kids to understand and respect the differences between the two religions, well, this is definitely not your book.

4. Eight Candles and a Tree (2014, ages 3-5), follows Sophie as she explains to friend and playmate Tommy that she celebrates Hanukkah and Christmas. Tommy only celebrates Christmas. I appreciated the very gentle tension as Sophie diplomatically answers questions about how and why she celebrates “both.” Sophie explains the miracle of the oil lasting eight nights in the Temple, but both children mention only the more secular aspects of Christmas (the tree, the feast), so this book works for interfaith Jewish families celebrating a secular Christmas at home, as well as families celebrating both religions. This would also be a good pick for young Christian kids curious about a cousin or friend who celebrates both, as they can identify with Tommy.

5.  Nonna’s Hanukkah Surprise (2015, ages 3-8) features the most dramatic and emotionally satisfying plot of any book for interfaith children I have yet seen. Rachel is flying with her family to spend Hanukkah and Christmas with her father’s Christian family. Rachel is upset when she leaves her menorah behind on the airplane, but her kind Nonna (Italian for grandmother) saves the day by creating a lovely new menorah for her, out of recycled perfume bottles. The Christian cousins gather affectionately around the menorah with Rachel to help her celebrate, modeling bridge-building across the religious divide. The author weaves in some of the meanings of Hanukkah, but the references to Christmas are oblique. This book (from a publisher of books on Judaism) was clearly written for interfaith children being raised Jewish, who celebrate Christmas only with extended family. In fact, it was a recent selection for PJ Library, the free Jewish book program for children. But I recommend it for any interfaith family.

6. December’s Gift (2015, ages 3-8) is perfect for those who celebrate both holidays, and want to begin to teach their children the underlying meaning of both Hanukkah and Christmas. Clara helps her Bubbe make latkes, and then helps her Grammy to make Christmas cookies. (The book includes recipes for both, and charming illustrations). Bubbe tells Clara the story of the destruction of the temple and the miracle of the Hanukkah oil. And Grammy teaches Clara how the star-shaped cookies and the star on the tree represent the star that led wise men to the birth of a king. There is no mention of Jesus by name. But for interfaith parents who want to give their interfaith children an interfaith education, this book is an excellent start.

7. New this season, Happy ALL-idays (2022, ages 1-5) is a very simple board book explaining that different families celebrate different holidays in December. It features illustrations and brief rhyming descriptions of families celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and a presumably interfaith family celebrating “Chrismukkah.” The families are notably diverse (including a boy in a wheelchair, and what appear to be single parents,  multigenerational families, LGBTQ parents, and interracial couples). The inclusion of an interfaith family alongside families who celebrate one December holiday is novel, and refreshing. If you like to keep Hanukkah and Christmas separate, and avoid using the term “Chrismukkah,” this, sadly, is not the right book for your family. I worry that it depicts hanging dreidels on the tree as the norm, when not all interfaith families mix the two holidays together. But if you’re Team Mashup (and many families are, when it comes to December decorations), this book could be perfect for you.

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

8 Ways to a Peaceful December in Interfaith Families

My little sister and I, in our interfaith family in 1964.

We have reached December, the last month of the third year of the pandemic. And whether you feel like you are in the mood for dancing or not, December means that many interfaith families are about to join in the dance of Hanukkah and Christmas. This year the dance involves new steps because the eight nights of Hanukkah end on Christmas Day. So, whether you celebrate one of those holidays, or both, or neither, all of us need to cultivate empathy for our partners and family members in December, while honoring our own needs, and being mindful of how this season can trigger both joy and sadness, especially in a year of pandemic.

Just before the pandemic, I delivered a new resource, The Interfaith Family Journal, to help any and every family figure out how to honor diverse religious or spiritual or cultural roots, and formative childhood experiences. This workbook can help you in claiming and creating a plan for December (and every other month) that works for your family. The Journal traces a process of writing prompts, discussion topics, and creative activities. The result is a unique resource for therapists, clergy, and families. Here, I distill from the Journal eight ways to plan for a deeper, more mindful, and peaceful season:

1. REFLECT

Ask yourself about how you experienced December as a child. What did you celebrate? How did you feel about Christmas music, decorations, movies, in American popular culture? Were you aware of being part of the religious majority or minority? How have those feelings changed over time?

2. DISCERN

Ask yourself which of your childhood winter holiday rituals you want to continue in adulthood, or take on in the future? What traditions do you want to transmit to any children in your life? Is this because they have religious meaning, spiritual meaning, and/or cultural meaning for you?

3. INQUIRE

Ask your partner(s) or other intimate family members or co-parents how they felt during December as children. Do you understand how your childhood experiences overlap, or diverge? What are the differences? What are the synergies?

4. EMPATHIZE

Ask your partner which public expressions of the season–in public town displays, on the radio, on TV–might make them feel joyful, nostalgic, sad, or alienated, this year. Do you understand why? How has this changed for them, over time? Note that secular or cultural does not necessarily mean less important than religious or spiritual!

5. SENSE

No matter what religious (or non-religious) affiliation(s) or identity you have chosen for your family or children, are there multi-sensory December experiences that you would like to retrieve, or pass down, or take on? Music? Recipes? Crafts? Is your partner okay with tasting, smelling, hearing these with you?

6. PLAN

The number of celebrations can feel overwhelming in December, especially for interfaith families. Make a plan! Which holidays this month will you spend with which extended family members (and when)? Which will you spend with friends? And which will you spend with just your partner(s) and/or kids? With the pandemic surging, balance celebrations you can do at home with zoom call celebrations with extended family. This is a good year to really focus on home-based traditions with your partner(s) and/or children! Make sure that your partner feels comfortable with the plan.

7. GIVE

Whether or not you celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah as a family, December can be an inspiring time to think about helping your community and to prepare for New Year’s resolutions. Especially in this ongoing pandemic, community service can help to keep the midwinter blues at bay. Talk to your family members about starting a tradition of December giving, or December action, to help to heal your community or the world.

8. SNUGGLE

No matter which traditions you celebrate, the scientific reality is that this is the darkest and coldest time of year in the northern hemisphere. It is probably not a coincidence that near the midwinter solstice, we try to brighten our world with the Yule hearth, Christmas lights, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa candles, or firecrackers for the Chinese Lunar New Year. So be gentle with yourself, and with your family members, as we move through the darkest days of another challenging year, until we tilt again towards the sun.

Note: An earlier version of this piece was published in 2019 in Psych Bytes, a publication that subsequently folded in the pandemic.

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.

Dance of Hanukkah and Christmas: 8 Tips for 2022

The solar Gregorian calendar determines the timing of Christian holidays, while both the sun and moon guide the Jewish calendar. As a result, each year interfaith families who celebrate both must choreograph the dance of Hanukkah and Christmas in a new way. In 2022, the last night of Hanukkah falls on Christmas Day. So this year, I am updating this guide because the dance will require some expert steps.

The convergence of the two holidays increases the complexity of preparation, and coordination, in order to give each its own time and space and integrity. But after more than 60 years of celebrating both holidays, I know that it can be done, without actually mixing or blending or fusing the two together. So here are my eight strategies for a nimble Hanukkah and Christmas dance this year:

1. Accept that balance occurs in the course of a year, not every day. On Christmas, it’s natural for those who celebrate both holidays to lean into Christmas. So in a year like this one, when Hanukkah ends on Christmas, why not shift the emphasis on Hanukkah to the start of the eight-day holiday? Try starting Hanukkah with mindful intention, and set the tone for the holiday early in the week, before the overlap with Christmas festivities.

2. When traveling, check your interfaith packing list. If you are going to be staying with Christian family members, remember to pack the Hanukkah menorah! (And, here’s a great children’s book about an interfaith family who forget to pack their menorah). In the excitement of Christmas Eve and the exhaustion at the end of Christmas day, don’t forget to set aside a few minutes to gather everyone to light candles for the last two nights of Hanukkah. This is a year to enjoy the synergy of a glowing Hanukkah menorah and a sparkling tree, and talk about the common theme of light at the darkest time of year. (And, an important safety tip: If you are going out to a church service or caroling, be sure the candles are safely burned out before you leave the house!)

3. Give Hanukkah gifts at the start. Consider frontloading gifts at the start of Hanukkah this year, rather than competing with Christmas at the end of the week. Some families like to emphasize books and clothes as Hanukkah gifts for children, rather than toys, to further differentiate the two holidays. Try to resist the false competition between the holidays that has given rise to the idea of piles of Hanukkah gifts. Be confident that when they are grown, children will remember lighting the candles, as much as a game or toy.

4. Time the parties. This year, Christmas lands squarely on the last weekend of Hanukkah. So for families who celebrate both holidays but want to keep them separate, the first night of Hanukkah, Sunday December 18th, is the obvious night this year to throw a Hanukkah party without overlapping with Christmas. Personally, I can barely fry enough latkes for my own crew. So in my family, we gravitate towards the simple weeknight vegetarian (or vegan) Hanukkah supper consisting of latkes, apple sauce, and salad. And as the pandemic continues, these intimate celebrations are a wise choice.

5. Tell the Hanukkah story. The religious freedom aspect of the Hanukkah story resonates in interfaith families drawn to social justice themes. We are lucky to live in a time and place with the freedom to marry for love, and to celebrate either, or both, or any religion. And we need to stand ready to protect the right for everyone to marry without restrictions on race, gender, and religion. Singing the Hanukkah song Rock of Ages (different from the Christian hymn of the same name) with English lyrics rather than Hebrew on the nights you celebrate with extended Christian family members will make the story, and the theme of opposing tyranny, more accessible to all.

6. Give to others. The final nights of Hanukkah this year would be perfect for giving back, in lieu of more gifts that compete with Christmas gifts. Stress that both holidays encourage us to care for those in need. Let children know that the legend of Saint Nicholas has him giving to the poor and the hungry. Engage children in deciding what causes they want to support with charitable donations for both holidays this year.

7. Organize acts of service. Christmas encourages empathy for those who, like Mary and Joseph, must travel and seek shelter. Hanukkah provides an opportunity to reflect on how Jewish history compels us to work to promote social justice. Celebrate these intertwined themes by planning and engaging in acts of service together to support refugees and religious minorities in the new year.

8. Try not to stress. As you move through the dance of Hanukkah and Christmas this year, don’t fret over a misstep or two. Many of us forget to light candles on occasion. Many of us feel judged, or still judge ourselves, for how we mark December holidays. Everyone has a different comfort level with where to place the Hanukkah menorah in relation to the Christmas tree. Through it all, do your best to find the still, small moments that create holiday peace and joy.

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.

Brand New Bubbe: Book Review

Children born into interfaith families have an intuitive understanding of the benefits and challenges of interfaith family life. But what happens when a child suddenly finds themselves at the center of a new interfaith family, when a parent remarries or chooses a new partner? The new blended family can be both enriched and complicated by cultural and religious differences.

Brand New Bubbe by Sarah Aronson is the first picture book to address the sudden formation of an interfaith family through remarriage, from a child’s perspective. The story, by an experienced children’s author, is told with great charm and gentle humor, and accompanied by engaging illustrations. The book is highly recommended for children struggling to adjust to a new interfaith family, or any blended family. Brand New Bubbe is a unique and important addition to the small but growing list of books written for and about children in interfaith families.

Jillian, who has grown up in a family that is not Jewish, finds her new Jewish stepdad “really nice.” But she’s not sure at first about her new grandmother: “Jillian already had a Noni and a Gram. Bubbe didn’t get the hint.” Psychologically, Jillian’s discomfort in adjusting to the new family is displaced onto Bubbe as a safe target.

Jillian, a spirited only child vaguely reminiscent of the iconic Eloise, goes on a protest strike, refusing to give in to Bubbe’s lavish affections. She worries that her beloved Noni and Gram will feel left out, or replaced. The detailed illustrations amplify the subtle humor, with a parallel plot involving the tension between Jillian’s cat and Bubbe’s small dog. When Jillian stages her protest, the cat joins in, carrying a sign protesting Bubbe’s dog.

Jillian’s mother finally intervenes to point out that Jillian is being too tough on Bubbe. Jillian ultimately works through her dilemma of how to integrate Bubbe into the family by inviting all three grandmothers to come to a soup celebration. They cook together, share the meal together, and love ultimately abounds and prevails. The moral of the story, once again, is that the more supportive people we have in our lives (and the more soup), the better. And by association, for me, the implication is that our lives can be enriched by multiple religions in one extended family.

Brand New Bubbe is enhanced by excellent recipes for Bubbe’s matzoh ball soup, Noni’s Italian wedding soup, and Gram’s gazpacho. (I judge they are excellent by the inclusion of parsnips in the matzoh ball soup). The book also includes a brief resource section, including a shout-out to The Interfaith Family Journal.

Brand New Bubbe is not didactic on the subject of Judaism (or anything else). Beyond matzoh balls, there is only brief reference to the unfamiliar new holidays Jillian is experiencing, and to her exposure to new Yiddish words like kvelling and kvetching. Instead, Brand New Bubbe focuses on the child’s emotional journey–her resistance and evolution as part of a new interfaith family. Jillian expresses a kaleidoscope of feelings as she goes through this evolution–at first worried, petulant, and disruptive, but ultimately resourceful, creative, and affectionate.

By the end of the book, Jillian has assumed the role of an interfaith ambassador, working to build bridges, in order to play her part in creating a new and successful interfaith family. This feisty protagonist is a great addition to the interfaith family canon, and I hope there will be sequels. In the final pages of Brand New Bubbe, the observant reader will note the arrival of a baby, raising the possibility of a sequel on siblings in a blended interfaith family. I look forward to reading what happens next for Jillian, and Bubbe.

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.

Extra, Extra! Jewish Press Talks to Interfaith Partners

The complexity of interfaith family experiences. From the cover of The Interfaith Family Journal

We have to call it big news when a generally conservative Jewish media outlet summons 10 “non-Jewish spouses” of Jews and asks them about anything. So the publication of the piece in The Tablet last week, entitled “The Minyan: Non-Jewish Spouses,” represents progress. And that’s because most of the Jewish press coverage and academic work on interfaith families has been based on interviews and surveys with the Jewish partners, and only the Jewish partners. My book Being Both, almost a decade after publication, is still a rare source on what both partners in interfaith relationships think, and feel.

I also appreciated that two of the twelve “non-Jewish” partners in this group conversation are raising children with both family religions, and that they were allowed to explain what they see as the benefits of this choice. Andrea, who was raised Presbyterian, married a Jew, and now sees herself as interfaith, explains to the group, “I think that kind of bi-literacy, bilingualism, can increase our understanding in the world. Everything is so fractional right now, so divisive. I just have hope that people who are in interreligious marriages are maybe a microcosm for how the world can bridge difference.” And Kavya, a Hindu married to a Jew, adds “it’s not that novel, the idea that our children can celebrate two deep lineages and backgrounds.”

This published conversation also adds to the growing body of literature describing the tremendous damage done by exclusion of interfaith couples, including refusal to officiate at marriages, family members who refuse to visit, and family members who refuse to attend weddings. And it adds to the literature describing the tremendous damage done by gender-based religious gatekeeping in the form of excluding children of Jewish patrilineal descent. These parents describe a refusal to perform a bris, an interfaith child raised Jewish who studied and jumped through every Jewish hoop but was still called a non-Jew, and a rabbi who ripped tefillin off a boy’s body.

All of this is important for a Jewish audience to hear. And yet, this piece is also an example of a very focused Jewish lens, a lens that distorts the experience of people married to Jews through selection bias, and the choice of questions. To start with, not one of these 12 partners-of-Jews actually currently identifies as Christian, according to the bios. So the Jewish bias is already inherent in the selection of a sample of partners who have mostly left Christianity behind. The editors also “deliberately narrowed the field to those married to Jews who care about being Jewish.” What does that even mean? In this case, it means this is a conversation primarily among people who married “practicing” Jews and agreed to put aside their own religion, or who had left their own religion, and are raising “Jewish only” children. Eight out of ten couples with children in this sample are raising children “Jewish only,” which is a huge oversampling of that subgroup.

And, note that all of the questions, with the exception of a nod to the (arguably secular) Christmas tree and Easter eggs, are about Judaism. And even the tree and eggs are discussed in terms of their effects on the Jewish partners. The discussion topics include Passover, the High Holidays, Torah study, Israel, Jewish persecution, and conversion to Judaism. These partners are asked how their Jewish in-laws felt about the marriage, but not how their own (mostly Christian) parents felt. There are zero questions about how they feel about leaving their religions behind, whether there are traditions that they miss, what their children might gain from Christian (or Hindu) extended family. In the end, it’s an interesting discussion, but it’s not really about these partners of Jews at all. It’s about (once again) what it all means for Judaism.

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.

Ramadan, Passover, and Good Friday. Interfaith Families Making it Work

The crescent moon will appear this Saturday night, marking the start of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting and reflection. I am a Jewish and Christian interfaith kid who spent three years in Senegal, a predominantly Muslim country, so I pay attention to our intersecting religious calendars. And this year, we will have a great convergence, as all three Abrahamic religions mark important religious holidays on the night of April 15th. Good Friday falls not only on the night of the first Passover seder, but in the middle of Ramadan. So interfaith families, whether Jewish and Christian, Christian and Muslim, Jewish and Muslim, or encompassing all three religions, will need to do some extra planning this year.

It is not uncommon for Good Friday to fall during Holy Week (from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday). This is because both Christianity and Judaism are guided by an intricate dance of the moon and the sun–the lunisolar calendar–for these spring holidays . When Good Friday and the first Passover Seder fall on the same night, it can maximize the logistical and emotional challenges for interfaith families who celebrate both religions. (I first wrote about this convergence in 2012, and again in 2015, 2018 and 2019). Meanwhile, Ramadan is on a fully lunar calendar, so the month shifts through the seasons of our Gregorian solar calendar year.

Theologically, many interfaith families experience more cognitive dissonance in the spring holidays, than they do in December. Some Jewish and Muslim family members find it easier to celebrate the birth of Jesus with Christian family members, than they do to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus as the only son of God and the central event that led to the creation of Christianity. And for Jews, historically Holy Week was a time of pogroms and increased antisemitism in Europe, and that generational trauma can persist.

The idea that the Last Supper was a Passover Seder is a tantalizing point of connection, though historically debatable. But for Jews, this idea may also raise the red flag of supersessionism—the problematic idea that Judaism was simply a starter religion in the evolution of Christianity. The recent enthusiasm among evangelical Christian communities for holding “Christian seders” without Jews there to guide them has also created friction. Although to be clear, inviting Christians–whether family or friends–to a seder led by Jews does not pose the same problems.

The contrasting moods of Passover and Good Friday may also create a challenge. Good Friday is a solemn commemoration of the crucifixion. A Passover Seder is a joyous celebration of the exodus from slavery in Egypt, involving feasting and drinking. This joy is tempered by acknowledging the violence of the plagues, and the ongoing effects of slavery and colonial oppression worldwide. And the Exodus story, which turns on conflict between Jews and Egyptians, can trigger discomfort in interfaith families given ongoing conflict in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, in the realm of the practical, both Passover (no leaven) and Good Friday (no meat) involve culinary restrictions. And the emphasis on wine as a key ritual component of the seder can pose a problem for Muslim family members.

Nevertheless, despite the challenges and inspired by our differences, we create families across religious boundaries, and insist on marking holidays together, in all our complexity and diversity. So, in a year like this one, how to honor two or three religions, with grace under pressure? Keep in mind that every family celebration, especially when there are small children involved, is going to be imperfect. As multifaith bard Leonard Cohen reminds us, “Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

Here, I suggest some practical strategies for the spring holiday convergence this year:

  1. Flexible Scheduling. Many Jewish families celebrate multiple Seders–before, during, and even after the official eight days of Passover. If Christian family members want to fast and attend church on the night of Good Friday this year, consider shifting the first Seder to a night later in the week, when the mood could be more festive for both Jewish and Christian family members.
  2. Adapt the Seder Menu. Some Christians may be fine with going to a noon service on Good Friday, and then a first Seder on Friday night. And some interfaith families will feel they must hold the first Seder on the traditional date. In this case, it would be thoughtful to adapt the Seder main dish, if your Christian family members are avoiding meat for the Good Friday fast. So, salmon instead of brisket? This would also please pescatarians and those who don’t eat red meat. Or, explain to extended family ahead of time that your Christian family members may skip the brisket, and fill up on matzoh ball soup.
  3. Honor the Sunset. When holding a Passover seder during Ramadan in a Jewish and Muslim interfaith family, be sure to time the first seder foods for after sundown, which will not be until 7:45pm on April 15th this year on the East Coast of the US. This way, Muslim family members will be able to break their fast by sharing in the Passover meal. As early as 1806, Thomas Jefferson moved the time for an official White House dinner to sunset, in order to accommodate a Muslim envoy from Tunisia. Muslim and Christian families might also consider holding the Easter meal after dark this year, during Ramadan.
  4. Consider the Fruit of the Vine. Fancy sparkling non-alcoholic grape juice for children has always been a part of most seders. In our family, over the years, numerous family members have stopped drinking alcohol because they live with addiction, because they are elderly, or for other health reasons. With Muslim guests and family members in attendance, consider shifting to sparkling grape juice for all. Your relatives in recovery will appreciate it. And the blessing over the fruit of the vine works just as well!
  5. Honor the Iftar. The foods included in an Iftar meal to break the Ramadan fast vary with different cultures. Of course providing water is important, and many break the fast with dates. Why not include plates of dates on the seder table? And in the spirit of Passover as a celebration of social justice and liberation, some people include an olive on the seder plate for Palestinians and all oppressed peoples. Olives are typically included in an Iftar feast, and plates of olives to pass around the seder table feels like a welcoming gesture.
  6. Consider the Passover Liturgy. The haggadah, the booklet of prayers and songs and reflections to guide the seder service and meal, has myriad versions, including placing the Exodus story in conversation with civil rights, the plight of refugees, or LGBTQ+ experiences. Many families create their own haggadot, drawing on multiple sources. For a Jewish and Muslim interfaith family seder, you might want to take a look at this 2019 haggadah including Muslim prayers and readings from the Qur’an, created by and for Jewish and Muslim women holding a seder together with the Sisterhood of Salaam-Shalom.
  7. Adapt the Easter Menu. When Easter falls during Passover, look for ways to make Easter easier for Jewish family members avoiding leavened bread. For breakfast, we like to make matzoh brei (eggs scrambled with matzoh) instead of the traditional Easter pancakes—the savory protein dish offsets the sugar rush of Easter candy. And at Easter dinner, my interfaith family serves lamb, a Passover tradition in many Sephardic homes, rather than ham. (Be aware that there is a big debate about whether and what kind of lamb you can eat at Passover). Avoiding ham reduces the culinary dissonance for both Jews and Muslims in interfaith families.
  8. Try Not to Stress. Attempting to reenact every single family Passover and Easter and Ramadan tradition in one night may cause parents and children to melt down like Peeps in the microwave. Every family, whether monofaith or interfaith, instinctively curates the family traditions they want to preserve, and sets aside others. So, for instance, as much as I loved the idea of my mother’s traditional Easter cake made in the shape of a lamb, my family now skips this tradition. I don’t love cake made from matzoh meal, and the idea of cutting into a lamb cake would not amuse my vegan daughter now. Our preferred dessert for the weekend is matzoh toffee brittle.

As always, creating successful interfaith family holidays depends on putting yourself in the shoes of others, clear communication, and flexibility. If a strategy works for you, try to tune out the self-proclaimed experts telling you that you are doing it wrong, that your innovations are inauthentic, or that you have to do it all. Remember that all religious traditions change over time: they cannot be pinned down like desiccated butterfly specimens in a museum case. Be confident in the knowledge that the different ways to celebrate together are as numerous as the leaves of spring grass.

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.

Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and the Flood of 1942

Vintage postcard depicting our temple

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.

This year’s first night of Hanukkah, photo Susan Katz Miller

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.

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