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.

8 Ways to a Peaceful December in Interfaith Families

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

We have reached (finally!) the last month of the longest year I can remember, 2020. And December means that many interfaith families are about to join in the dance of Hanukkah and Christmas, whether or not they feel like dancing. This year, the eight nights of Hanukkah start on December 10th, midway between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Personally, I prefer these years when Hanukkah begins and ends before Christmas, so that each holiday gets separate celebration, and there’s even a moment to pause between them.

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. We are also becoming more aware that “interfaith family” doesn’t always mean Jewish and Christian. The fastest-growing “interfaith” demographic, according to Pew Research, is Christian and “religious none” (a catch-all for atheists, secular humanists, agnostics, the spiritual-but-not-religious, and others who couldn’t find a better box to check). And an increasing number of interfaith families include members who are Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Pagan, celebrate indigenous religions, or reclaim African diasporic traditions including vodun, Santeria, or candomblé. Our interfaith families are becoming more richly complex.

Last year, I created 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, while claiming and creating a plan for December (and every other month) that works for your family. The Journal traces a five-week 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 your children? 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 after the horrific 2020 we have all just experienced, 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 this most difficult of years, until we tilt again towards the sun.

Note: I wrote an earlier version of this piece last year for 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.

Being Both…a Male and Female God: Q & A with Rabbi Mark Sameth

Rabbi Mark Sameth’s new book, The Name: A History of the Dual-Gendered Hebrew Name for God, chronicles how the God of ancient Israel was understood by its earliest worshipers to be a non-binary, male-female deity. Recently, I had a chance to ask the Rabbi about his new book, and how it might be particularly relevant to interfaith families.

Q: Your book chronicles the idea that the secret, unpronounceable name for God in ancient Israel is Hu-Hi, or “He-She,” an entity equally male and female. Tell us a bit about the influences of other religions and cultures on this idea of a dual-gendered God in the ancient world.

A: Dual-gendered gods were utterly normative in the ancient world. The Mesopotamians had them, the Egyptians had them. No one questions this. Israel sat between these two ancient regional superpowers. It’s hard to imagine how Israel could not have been influenced by them.

Q: And briefly, how is this idea of a dual-gendered God manifested in the Torah.

A: Well, for instance, in the Book of Deuteronomy it says that God “your Father” (32:6) “convulsed in labor for you,” (32:18) “gave birth to you,” (32:18) and “suckled you” (32:13). And there’s a lot more where that came from, if you can read the Hebrew. Moses addresses God in the second person masculine singular (attah) and the second person feminine singular (at). The adam, the human being — pointedly said to have been created in God’s own image — is referred to as “them” (otam). Indeed, the rabbis took this to mean that the original earth creature had been created as an androgynous being, which was later separated by God into the male and female characters Adam and Eve. 

Q: So then, how and why did that male-female aspect of God become suppressed and subsumed? Do you see that suppression as related to power and patriarchy? After all, there are no women commenting on the Torah in texts, until the 20th century.

A: I do wonder about the how and why. But yes, of course. I mean, there were occasional exceptions when women rose to power. Pharaoh Hatshepsut — considered one of the greatest of the pharaohs — was a woman, as of course was Deborah in Israel. In the early twentieth century, Hannah Rachel Verbermacher, known as the Maid of Ludomir, was a Chassidic master. But again, these were the rare exceptions. Gerda Lerner, some thirty years ago, wrote that “the system of patriarchy is a historic construct; it has a beginning; it will have an end. Its time seems to have nearly run its course—it no longer serves the needs of men or women and in its inextricable linkage to militarism, hierarchy, and racism it threatens the very existence of life on earth.” Amen, late sister.  

Q: We are in the midst of a dramatic shift in American culture in which individuals who have non-binary gender identities are telling their stories, creating space, and rising to leadership. How much did you think about this, while writing this book, and how is your book and this historical moment intertwined?

A: I have to say that, at first, I wasn’t thinking about it at all. I was really just trying to figure out the puzzle; trying to figure out why, in Hebrew, the Torah is gendered the way it is (men are referred to in the feminine; women are referred to in the masculine). It was only later that I began to consider how this intertwines with stories in my own family — stories about one pioneering, transgender cousin in particular, as well as about elderly gay and lesbian cousins who had been closeted their whole lives — and, as you say, how this intertwines with the historical moment. That’s chapter seven of my book.  

Q: I think for many progressive Jewish leaders, it has become relatively comfortable to speak about the intersectionality of being a feminist and Jewish, or gay and Jewish, or Italian and Jewish, or Black and Jewish. But when interfaith families want to talk about the enriching and formative effects on us of Hinduism and Judaism, or Paganism and Judaism, or, heavens forbid, Christianity and Judaism, the room goes silent. Has your historical work changed the way you see interfaith families who insist on teaching their children, or practicing, more than one religion?

A: It has. In Hinduism, the six-sided Shatkona star — in form and meaning — is indistinguishable from the Magen David (Jewish Star of David). They symbolize the intersection of male and female energy. As does the six-sided star of Shintoism, the Kagome Crest. Paganist reverence for the physical world is not alien to Judaism. The Chassidim teach what’s called avodah b’gashmiut, “bodily prayer.” Mystery — which we associate with Christianity — was central to how Jews did religion. The Zohar was considered a holy book, on par with the Torah, until historical circumstances (the Shabbatai Tzvi debacle, a story for another time) made Jewish mysticism seem too dangerous. So when you ask about teaching our children more than one religion, I think it’s worth considering that very important, spiritually essential, core Jewish beliefs and practices — such as non-dualism, body-centrism, and mysticism — have been nurtured in non-Jewish communities, and in some of our Jewish communities have been lifted up again only as people who grew up elsewhere have entered into contact, alliance, and sometimes affiliation with us.

Q: In interacting with interfaith families, religious institutions often present the idea that different religions are completely distinct, and that to be authentic, one must practice them in some pure, unadulterated, static form. In contrast, as with gender identities, many people from interfaith families see their religious identity as more “both/and,” or hybrid, or non-binary. It may not be a coincidence that a growing percentage of young adults are no longer affiliating with religious congregations (of any religion). I find religious scholars like yourself often understand the complexity and shades-of-grey realities of the history and culture of religions, and how interfaith families might be claiming that complexity. But how would religious institutions need to change to accommodate this kind of thinking? And is that going to happen?

A: Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, may his memory be for a blessing, said a religion is like a cell. If anything can pass through the membrane, the cell dies. If nothing can pass through the membrane, the cell dies. I think it would behoove religious institutions to bear in mind that there’s no such thing as “pure, unadulterated, static” religion. It never existed; it doesn’t exist today. Religions — like all other eco-systems and organisms — evolve. And they keep on evolving. The Jewish community is evolving toward a greater awareness of and appreciation for how much the community is enriched by all the panim chadashot — all the new faces, new talents, new perspectives.

Binaries will always exist, of course. You and I are speaking just after a presidential election, right? Not everything can be both/and. Sometimes we have no choice but to make a choice. Having said that, the families of the president-elect and vice-president-elect alone comprise — in addition to a host of ethnic and racial backgrounds and blends — Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Jews, Hindus, and Baptists.

Welcome to America. Seeing the opportunities, approaching each other with openness and curiosity, wondering what we might learn from each other, developing a nuanced sense of what religions are capable at their best of doing — all of this can all help us progress as humans, individually and collectively. Is it going to happen? It’s happening.

Mark Sameth was named “one of America’s most inspiring rabbis” by The Forward (inaugural list, 2013). His published essays include “Is God Transgender?” in the New York Times. His book, The Name: A History of the Dual-Gendered Hebrew Name for God was published by Wipf & Stock in 2020. Follow him on Twitter @fourbreaths.

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.

The Interfaith Family of Kamala Harris

Kamala means lotus in Sanskrit. Photo Susan Katz Miller

When Joe Biden picked Kamala Harris as his running-mate yesterday, he created the possibility of the first interfaith kid in an interfaith marriage in the White House. ““I grew up going to a black Baptist Church and a Hindu temple,” Harris told the Los Angeles Times. And at her marriage to Jewish husband, attorney Douglas Emhoff, they included both a flower garland from the Hindu wedding tradition, and breaking a glass from the Jewish tradition. So a self-identified Baptist with a Hindu mother and a Jewish husband may be headed to the White House (inshallah). We can only hope this helps to normalize the rich religious complexity many of us now embody personally, and in our families.

Kamala’s mother, Shyamala Gopalan, a Tamil immigrant from India, met her father Donald Harris, a Black immigrant from Jamaica, when they were both doctoral students at UC Berkeley. They gave both their daughters Sanskrit names, to reenforce their connection to Hindu culture–Kamala means lotus, and is a form of the goddess Lakshmi. Their mother, a cancer researcher, also took Kamala and her sister Maya back to Madras to spend time with their Hindu family. Donald Harris became a Stanford economics professor. The couple took their young girls to civil rights demonstrations, but divorced when the girls were still small. Harris has described how they were part of the Black community in their Oakland, California, neighborhood, even after her parents divorced.

Harris chose Howard University, and pledged the powerful Black sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha,. She is close to her Jewish stepchildren and in-laws, and did a hilarious but affectionate impression of her Jewish mother-in-law. She’s also close to her husband’s ex-wife, Kerstin, who hails from Minnesota (I don’t see any published account of Kerstin’s maiden name or religious upbringing). The stepkids call Kamala “Momala,” and Harris has written that “We sometimes joke that our modern family is almost a little too functional.”

It’s worth noting that another interfaith kid, Maya Rudolph, played Kamala Harris in an Emmy-nominated series of appearances in the Saturday Night Live primary campaign skits. Rudolph’s dad is an Ashkenazi Jew; her mother was Black singer Minnie Ripperton. A lot of folks (I suspect including Kamala Harris) are looking forward to Rudolph reprising that role in this election season.

This morning, it was interesting to see The New York Times describing Kamala Harris with many of the phrases and images that were used for Barack Obama (another interfaith kid): “shaped by life in two worlds,” “without ever feeling entirely anchored to either,” “difficult to pin down,” and “by virtue of her identity, not like any other.” The language referred to insider/outsider political status, but also, clearly echoes her complex racial and religious heritage.

Going forward, I look forward to the time when language that telegraphs discomfort with racial and religious ambiguity wanes. I look forward to more people with rich and complex heritage and multiple religious claims and practices rising to prominence, and speaking to the benefits, not just the challenges, of our experiences.

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.

New Video! May This Hamsa Protect Us All

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hamantaschen, Fertility, and Syncretism

Photo, Susan Katz Miller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interfaith Families: Why I (Still) Use The Term

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

How do we share resources and support each other?

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

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

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

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

So, why write about this now?

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

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

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

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

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

The Problem with Gendered Descent

The author. Photo by Lucy Jean Brettler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Halloween in an Interfaith Families Community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and a workbook, The Interfaith Family Journal (2019).

Sukkoth in an Interfaith Families Community

Sukkah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and a workbook, The Interfaith Family Journal (2019).