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.

Yes, We Celebrate Both (Hanukkah and Christmas)

Photo by Susan Katz Miller

And so we reach that most reductive time of the year, when the choices of Jewish and Christian interfaith families are judged by whether they celebrate Hanukkah, or Christmas, or both, or neither.

In my opinion, this is a poor method for understanding the textured and nuanced lives of interfaith families. To take just one example of our complexity, many “we are Jewish, period” families celebrate Christmas as a sort of cultural exception (in a secular way, or, say, with Christian grandparents). So, the choices an interfaith family makes around “winter holidays” provide only very limited insight into the spirituality, beliefs, practices, and identities of the various family members.

This year (as in every year), a number of families with one Jewish parent and one parent raised Christian are making emphatic statements about why they do not celebrate Christmas. What troubles me about these statements is not the choice these interfaith families made–it’s a choice that works for some families. What troubles me is the erasure of the spouse who is not Jewish, whose journey and feelings are rarely acknowledged by Jewish writers in the Jewish press.

One such essay this season is entitled “No, We Don’t Celebrate Both.” I take this headline as a sort of tribute, in that “doing both” is becoming a more familiar concept in our culture. In this essay, a Jewish mother rejects the label “interfaith family” (and also the label “interracial family”), detailing why she and her husband (who is Black) consider themselves only a Jewish family, and do not celebrate Christmas. She uses the familiar “we are celebrating someone else’s birthday” metaphor to explain to her children why, in spite of this decision, they bring Christmas presents to her husband’s Christian family. But she does not mention how or why she and her husband negotiated this choice, or the current religious or secular identity of her husband, who grew up Christian, and who seems to have no presence or voice in the essay.

And in the new animated short film “Blewish,” the protagonist is a boy with a Jewish mother and a Black father (a father who presumably was not raised Jewish, although we have no idea how he was raised, and of course multigenerational Black Jewish families exist). The boy faces a teacher and classmates who assume he celebrates Christmas, and white Jewish children who do not accept him as Jewish because he is Black, initiating a brief identity crisis. The six-minute film’s creator is himself the child of a Jewish mother and a Black father, and grew up in Conservative Judaism.

I love that adult interfaith children are using their voices and creating art and commentary. “Blewish” begins to fill a significant gap, in depicting the experiences of Black and Jewish children from their own perspective rather than from the parents’ perspective. But once again, the Black father’s religious identity (or even cultural identity) is not represented in the film. Is he an atheist? A convert to Judaism? A practicing Protestant? In Jewish media, and art, the parent of another religious heritage too often remains silent. (Ironically, this is a silent animated film, so everyone remains silent). But my point is that the perspective in this film, like so much written for interfaith kids, is very firmly that of a Jewish family member, minimizing the input or representation of any immediate or extended family members who practice another religion.

One must note how often these stories come to us from families with a Jewish mother–families who feel secure claiming Judaism for children who are “matrilineal” in their Jewishness. The authors of these stories may not be able to fully empathize with the more complex issues facing “patrilineal” Jewish families. All of us with interfaith heritage face the exhausting push and pull of two kinds of statements from society: “You’re Not Jewish Enough,” and “You’re Not Really Jewish.” But the calculus of what to do with this unsolicited advice, with these aggressions from inside and outside the Jewish world, plays out differently for matrilineal and patrilineal interfaith Jewish children.

For two decades now, I have been working to increase awareness of the diversity of interfaith families, and of the right for families to choose the practices and identities that work best for them. My second book, The Interfaith Families Journal, is devoted to helping families through this process, whether that means no Christmas, a secular Christmas, or heralding the Christmas angels.

Of these pathways, doing both Hanukkah and Christmas, and being both Jewish and Christian, is a demographically significant choice. A recent study of Jewish Chicago found 21% of interfaith families with one Jewish parent raising children in two religions. In my opinion, this is an underestimate, given that the sampling drew heavily from mailing lists connected to Jewish institutions. (Other studies have found the percentage of interfaith families with one Jewish parent raising kids with both religions to be 44% in Toronto,  46% in western Massachusetts, and 34% in Minnesota’s Twin Cities).

Nevertheless, the annual Hanukkah/Christmas skirmish triggers a defensive backlash from people who don’t approve of interfaith marriage, or don’t approve of choosing both. The wildest year involved a Jewish writer comparing me to a Barbie doll dressed as a “fancy-hot-pants prostitute.” Go figure.

We are facing another long, dark winter of trying pandemic times. Let us all strive to be gentle with one another, and find ways to bring light, whether that is the light of Diwali, Hanukkah, Christmas, Yule, or all of them. And let us all work to channel empathy for other interfaith families, and the choices they make.

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.

An Interfaith Halloween, All Saints, All Souls

Fall Maple Leaves, photo by Susan Katz Miller

I am reposting this 2009 essay on how our interfaith families community celebrates this season, in dedication to Rabbi Harold White, may his memory be a blessing.

On Halloween, I was out late partying with people dressed variously as a dying newspaper, Facebook (the culprit), Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. On Sunday morning, I woke up, shook off my candy hangover, and went to celebrate All Saints and All Souls Days with our interfaith community.

Halloween is a quintessential interfaith holiday, with a tangled history of both pagan and Christian roots, and an enthusiastic following among Jews. When I was growing up, it was widely considered a secular holiday, celebrated in the public schools, and no one questioned that American Jews should celebrate Halloween. But then again, it was an era when many Jews celebrated secular Christmas.

More recently, fear of assimilation and a return to deeper Jewish practice triggered a lively debate on whether or not Jews should celebrate Halloween at all. As an interfaith family and 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 interfaith families.

The Spiritual Leader of our interfaith community, 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.

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

High Holy Days 2021: Interfaith Connections

Heads up! The Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah starts VERY early this year, this Monday (Labor Day) evening, September 6th. This year, you can zoom from anywhere into Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services created by and for interfaith families, HERE or HERE or HERE.

Over the past decade, in some of over 300 essays here, I have written about many different aspects of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the context of an interfaith family. Below, I reprint one of the most popular of those essays, preserving some of the wisdom of Rabbi Harold White (z’l) on ways for interfaith partners to connect to these Days of Awe. –SKM

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Count. We Just Weren’t Counted.

More on Pew’s Jewish Americans in 2020

For generations, interfaith families who felt excluded, misunderstood, or disrespected by Jewish clergy or institutions, have found other homes. Some gravitated to Unitarian-Universalism, which draws on many religions. Some added Buddhism, or Sufism, or Paganism, to their spiritual practice. And for more than a quarter of a century now, interfaith families have been building their own dual-practice communities in which to honor both Judaism and Christianity.

But very few of these people with complex religious practices (and I have studied hundreds of them) stopped practicing Judaism altogether, or stopped calling themselves Jews.

The irony is that Jews who did stop practicing Judaism altogether are considered Jewish in the new Pew study of Jewish Americans in 2020, as long as they don’t claim a second religion. But if you claim two religions, you forfeit your right to have Pew consider you part of the Jewish community. They excluded 200,000 adults who filled out the survey but claim Judaism and another religion.

This approach is not going to help draw interfaith families closer to Jewish institutions or communities. The Pew study betrays a failure to understand the fluid and non-binary religious complexity of Jews today—of our families, our practices, our identities, our affiliations. And that failure contributes to a misunderstanding of the overall size and diversity of the Jewish community.

A lot has been written about interfaith families in this Pew study already, including by me. But in the weeks since the study was released, I have continued mulling it over, or stewing really, trying to figure out why I feel the study does not capture the American Judaism I know and love. And I have come to the realization that those 200,000 Jews who were actually tallied and then excluded by Pew are only a small fraction of those who were excluded. And that is because many of us never would have finished the survey.

Let me explain.

Imagine you are Jewish and Buddhist, or Jewish and Wiccan, or Jewish and married to a Quaker and giving your children an interfaith education. In short, imagine you are a Jew who is a multiple religious practitioner, or raising multiple religious practitioners. (There is an entire academic literature on multiple religious belonging. I have been the keynote speaker at an international conference on the topic).

Now, imagine sitting down to fill out the Pew survey online, and being faced by a barrage of questions about how you feel about Israel, a country that does not allow interfaith marriage, or allow interfaith couples to be buried together, or accept patrinileal Jews as Jews, or accept Reform conversions. Or, imagine your answer to the religious identity question is, “It’s complicated,” for any number of reasons. In section A on the survey, one third of the questions are about Israel. In section B, half of the questions (or eight questions) mention Israel. Oh, and then in section G, there are “a few questions” on Israel.

Personally, I would have clicked away long before section G. I would not have completed the survey. And neither would a lot of the Jews I know who are raising interfaith kids. And neither would many of the young Jewish activists for Palestinian rights. (Of the people who did complete the Pew survey and qualified to count as Jews, less than half said they feel attached to Israel). The Jewishness we are creating together does not depend on Israel as an identity marker.

Any institution that is trying to understand my Jewishness, while putting that amount of emphasis on a country that doesn’t accept me as a Jew, and while excluding Jews who practice Buddhism or Wicca, is not ready to understand my Jewishness. And, any such institution is not ready to understand the Jewishness of a significant percentage of young progressive Jews in America. They are not ready to understand that virtually all of us in the non-Orthodox Jewish world in America now have extended interfaith families, filled with a kaleidoscope of Jewish practices, identities, and affiliations. And whether or not you choose to count us, we are taking the demographic lead.

How can we fix this?

Honestly, to get better data, data that describes the realities of young progressive Jews in America, and their almost universally interfaith families, we have to wait for new funders to fund new studies. We need studies without the patriarchal “continuity” narrative, and without loyalty to Israel dominating the questions. To fund these new studies, we have to wait for generational or self-made wealth from progressive adult interfaith kids, and from those who are themselves Jewish and Buddhist, or Jewish and Unitarian, or Jewish and Quaker. Or just Jewish, and just insistent on human rights for Palestinians. We are waiting for investment in this inspirational future–a future with all of us who claim Judaism, together creating a path forward for our complex selves, and for our complex families, and for this beautiful and ancient religion.

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

Jewish Americans (and Interfaith Families) in 2020

Trying to survey the Jewish community is an important, and thankless, task.

Today, Pew Research released their first national study of the Jewish American landscape since 2013. Every assumption, every question, every result, will be scrutinized and debated for years to come.

For interfaith families, there is not really a whole lot that is new to report. In fact, more intriguing and detailed data and analysis has been released elsewhere recently. But I’ll get to that in a moment.

From the point of view of interfaith families, it is important to remember that virtually all studies of interfaith families and the Jewish community, including this Pew report, are funded by Jewish foundations or institutions. So the framework is built on the concerns and questions of institutional Judaism in America. As a result, there are a lot of questions that will feel archaic or beside-the-point to a lot of young American Jews, and to a lot of interfaith families. There’s a lot about relationships to Israel. There’s a lot about participating in traditional Jewish ritual and membership. There are gendered analyses about the role of the mother and the father.

Some two dozen rabbis are thanked in the Pew report acknowledgements, including those notorious for opposing interfaith marriage. It all feels fraught, and weighed down, with traditional Jewish continuity narratives, given how mixed a multitude we are now.

What does this mean for interfaith families? Many of us were excluded from the study. Pew classified people as Jewish, Jewish background, or Jewish affinity, with the bulk of the study focused only on those deemed “Jewish.” Pew created a complex set of rules based on parentage, upbringing, and current identity, for deciding which category to put each person.

  • Regardless of their Jewish parentage or Jewish upbringing, anyone who claimed to be both Jewish and Buddhist, or Jewish and Unitarian-Universalist, or Jewish and Pagan, or Jewish and any other religion, was excluded from counting as Jewish, and from the body of this study.
  • Someone who claims Jewish cultural identity but no religious identity, and has only one Jewish grandparent, was counted as Jewish if they were raised Jewish.
  • Someone who claims Jewish cultural identity but no religious identity, and has only one Jewish grandparent, but was not raised Jewish, was counted only as having Jewish affinity.

Pew did include in their overall Jewish population what they estimate are 200,000 children being raised in Judaism and another religion. However, they excluded an estimated 200,000 adults who identify as Jewish and another religion. Pew’s explanation: “This accounts for the uncertainty inherent in projecting how children will identify when they grow up; some children who are raised as Jewish and another religion go on to identify, in adulthood, solely as Jewish.”

Pew cautions us not to compare this year’s study directly with their last study of Jews in America in 2013. In part this is because they have shifted their sampling from phone calls, to written and online responses. It is not immediately clear to me why the percentage of interfaith couples raising children with more than one religion would have gone down from 25% in 2013 to 12% in 2020. I suspect this has something to do with the increasing number of multi-generational interfaith families being excluded from the “Jewish” category.

What I do know is that the 12% figure does not align with my experience as someone who works full-time supporting interfaith families, nor does it align with recent individual community studies. Anecdotally, one group of Reform rabbis told me that about 50% of the interfaith couples they are now marrying want to “do both.” And recently, I was contacted by two Reform rabbis to speak to a group of interfaith couples, after the rabbis discovered that all of the couples in their group were intending to “do both.”

Even though they are funded by Jewish communities, some recent studies of specific regions align more closely than today’s Pew study with my experience of the growing awareness that you can, indeed, give interfaith children an interfaith education.

In Toronto, 44% of interfaith couples with one Jewish parent are raising kids “with two religious heritages” (as opposed to 39% raising kids exclusively Jewish), according to a 2020 report. This detailed report on interfaith families in Toronto appears to have drawn heavily on my work, revealing texture and nuance, and I will return to it in another post.

Another survey done last year in the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts (including Amherst and Northampton), found 46% of interfaith couples with one Jewish parent are raising kids “Jewish and another religion,” (as opposed to 33% raising them exclusively Jewish by religion).  And in Minnesota’s Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St Paul), a 2019 study found 34% of interfaith couples with one Jewish parent raising children with two religions, while 16% were raising them exclusively Jewish by religion. Not surprisingly, studies (many older) of the big cities in the East with many deep-rooted Jewish institutions found smaller percentages (many of them 11-18%) of interfaith families “doing both.”

Later this week, the new Pew report will be analyzed by Jewish interfaith family professionals in an online briefing. I intend to listen to that session, and hope to report back here on anything new or noteworthy. Stay tuned.

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.

Menorah Conclusion: Interfaith Family, Year 60

Photo Susan Katz Miller

My kids only had one Jewish grandparent, my father, may his memory be a blessing. When he died two years ago, I promised to chronicle what happens in an interfaith family when all the remaining generations have interfaith heritage.

So here, I’m reporting in.

According to Jewish pessimists, my children should be thoroughly assimilated into the (increasingly mythical) Christian majority by now. They are 26 and 23 years old, and just recently launched into the (perilous) world.

And in the last 24 hours, they each, independently, casually asked if I had a menorah to spare.

Oh, you know I do! I have a whole collection of them. (And yes, I call them menorahs, not chanukiahs, because that’s what my father the rabbi’s grandson called them).

So, I packed up one menorah, and it’s headed to Brooklyn in the mail. It’s the one with the star of David, and the wobble where the screw threads are worn out. Friends are incredulous. My son can’t get his own menorah, in Brooklyn of all places? He can’t just make a menorah out of ziti or something? Of course he can. But it’s Hanukkah, and what else am I gonna give this grown-ass kid? He does not crave stuff. And he asked for this…one…thing.

Then my daughter came by to peruse my small menorah collection, and picked the teeny-tiny menorah that takes birthday candles. It will serve double-purpose as an instructional artifact in the Montessori forest school where she is teaching.

Coincidentally (or not, since Hanukkah starts this Thursday night), the New York Times just published a mournful piece by a woman with a Jewish father and Christian mother, about why she is not going to celebrate Hanukkah with her toddler. On twitter, reactions are split. I see exclusivist Jewish thinking (“you’re not Jewish anyway so why would you celebrate Hanukkah”), the same thinking that has pushed so hard against the very existence of interfaith families in the name of “Jewish continuity.” And then I see those who empathize, and diagnose her alienation as a direct result of those exclusivist policies. That toddler, like my children, has one Jewish grandparent. And while every interfaith family has the right to choose how they will identify, and which rituals they will celebrate, it set me to thinking about why my children do feel connected to Judaism, in the third generation of our interfaith family.

How do I explain why both my children now feel called to be interfaith ambassadors and bridge-builders? Why do they intend this year to share ancient Jewish ritual with their households of friends, with young pupils, with their communities? Here I want to name just two of what I see as the many interconnected reasons for the persistence of Jewish ritual in the third generation of my interfaith family.

One reason was the charisma and determination of my beloved Jewish father, who was the last living grandparent for my children. At Hanukkah, we would gather around his piano to sing “Rock of Ages” each night while he played for us by the light of the menorah, with my Episcopalian mother and husband harmonizing. He gave us affection for these rituals, and he gave us a model of a harmonious interfaith family that persisted in celebrating both heritages despite all manner of official resistance from religious institutions.

The second reason is the work that my husband and I, and our interfaith families community, and our rabbis and ministers, put into raising our children to feel they have a right to claim both family religions. We made sure they had basic Jewish literacy, we made sure they felt connected to Judaism, we made sure they felt called to stand up against anti-semitism.

In light of the menorah requests this week, I now feel moved to declare that this is the moment, sixty years into our three-generation experience with interfaith family living, that I am ready to draw a definitive conclusion. Interfaith kids in the third generation, including those raised with both family religions, can feel deeply connected to Judaism (or any other religion in which they are educated). So, to all those who predicted our inevitable assimilation into the Christian majority, I conclude based on personal experience that you were wrong.

But if Jewish institutions want to ensure that menorahs do not all end up sitting unused in boxes in closets, they must ensure that we do not continue to alienate interfaith families who want to engage in Judaism. Here are the five urgent (overdue) strategies for doing that:

And if you need further advice on the hows or whys of all this, I am available to consult.

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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