Rosh Hashanah, Interfaith Style

Rosh Hashanah apple--photo by Susan Katz MillerYesterday, our interfaith community celebrated the Jewish New Year. Yes, we are early by a week. We want our members to be able to go to synagogues next weekend with their extended Jewish families, with parents and grandparents.

As it happens, my own parents were visiting yesterday and came to our early Rosh Hashanah. They stood up as I introduced them to our community as interfaith pioneers. At ages 85 and 79, they are celebrating 50 years of interfaith marriage this year, proof that it can be done, and done with incredible depth and style.

The presence of my own personal wise elders was fortuitous. Our Rabbi, Harold White, reflected on Jewish respect for old age as a thread that runs through the Jewish New Year. We read about Abraham and Sarah, delighted in old age by the birth of their son Isaac. The rabbi pointed out that we celebrate the New Year, not in spring as one might expect, but at the end of the agricultural cycle, in fall. The autumn of our years, he explained, is just as important to Jews, just as much an integral part of life, as birth.

Yesterday, my Jewish father got to sit next to his grandchildren while singing “Oseh Shalom” and “Adon Olam” hearing the call of the shofar, reciting the Shehecheyanu, and the Reader’s Kaddish.

And my Christian mother got to sit next to her grandchildren as they recited the Lord’s Prayer. Why the Lord’s Prayer at a Rosh Hashanah celebration? The Rabbi pointed out that this Christian prayer appears to be based on the Kaddish. And that the Kaddish is written in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke in the streets of Jerusalem.

My Jewish father recited the Lord’s Prayer along with us—it happens to be lodged deep in his memory. In small town Pennsylvania in the 1930s, children recited the prayer each day in his public schools. There is no mention of Jesus in the prayer. Dad says, “I didn’t know it was a Christian prayer until about ten years ago.”

Celebrating the New Year a week early may seem like a dress rehearsal for the real thing. But an interfaith celebration, while it may be devoted to a particular Jewish or Christian holiday, has unique flavor because it inevitably touches on the historical reality of the interplay between the two religions. And it creates a way to celebrate these connections—whether we are interfaith children, interfaith parents, or interfaith grandparents.

Children of Abraham

Sue in Senegal, 1980s

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nourishing the Roots

Temple Beth Elohim

Tomorrow I am taking my children to our ancestral Jewish homeland—Wayne County, Pennsylvania, where there’s more cows than people. Or at least that’s the tagline we always give it in my family. It seems like an unlikely source of Jewish culture, but my roots on my Jewish side, my father’s side, go very deep there.

My great-grandfather emigrated from Germany to Honesdale, the seat of Wayne County, in 1864. There, he lived peaceably beside German Catholic and Lutheran neighbors. William Jonas Katz and his brothers started peddling from a horse and cart and built this into the Katz Brothers department store, the anchor store on Main Street. As a child, I delighted in “working” at the store on vacations, making ribbons for Christmas packages, or helping my beloved Cousin Nathan put change into the little canisters that went whooshing along the ceiling in vacuum tubes.

Katz Brothers closed after the arrival of big box stores in the strip mall outside town. But for my children, Honesdale still holds the magic of family history. At my grandmother’s house, where we gather as a family even though she’s been gone for 15 years, they love the laundry chute and the slate sidewalks. And they know that the little white building with the steeple downtown, on the bank of the Lackawaxen River, is actually Temple Beth Israel, where my father became a Bar Mitzvah.

My family returns to the temple when we are in Honesdale for Shabbat or lifecycle ceremonies. The memorial yahrtzeit plaques on the back wall bear the names of my grandparents and great-grandparents. We visit the town cemetery at least once a year, and say the mourner’s Kaddish with my father, and place pebbles on the graves. My children listen to their only Jewish grandparent tell stories of their ancestors. And my daughter, who is “only a patrilineal quarter-Jew,” wants to learn the Kaddish so that she can recite it in the cemetery and the temple.

And how could this not be a wondrous thing, and even “good for the Jews”? Who would maintain that she has no right to this knowledge, this gut-level connection to her family history? Who dares to tell her that she somehow does not count in the graveside minyan? I cannot think of anyone who could possibly count more.

The First Synagogue in the New World

My kids hate museums, or so they claim. My daughter, 15, says she doesn’t like the way the objects are taken out of context, isolated and pinned to white walls like butterfly specimens.

So on our trip to Brazil last month, I only dragged them through one museum: the Kahal Zur Israel Synagogue in Recife, commemorating the site where the first synagogue in the Americas was built around 1636. As an interfaith parent, I could not resist the opportunity to weave this thread of Jewish history into our lives.

When we lived in Brazil in the 1990’s, archaeologists had just uncovered evidence of the synagogue’s location—a mikvah, or ritual bath, made of stone. My children were less than four and one when we left the city of Recife after living there for three years.  By the time we returned last month, twelve years had gone by and a museum had grown up around the mikvah, which is now covered with clear plastic so that you can walk over it and peer down in.

The museum chronicles how Jews arrived in northeastern Brazil with the Portuguese explorers and played a key role in the thriving colonial sugarcane plantations in northeastern Brazil under Dutch rule, until the Portuguese regained control of Recife in 1654 and imposed the Inquisition. Some Jews fleeing Recife ended up in New York, where they founded the first congregation in the city, Shearith Israel.

The museum is modest–the mikvah is about all that is left from the original building. A new synagogue now crowns the building, and I felt the deep satisfaction of connecting my children to another synagogue that plays a role, no matter how small, in our family chronicle. For an hour, they absorbed another segment of the entwined histories of Judaism and Christianity. And I was satisfied to inject an hour of thinking about Judaism into our celebration of the boisterous pagan and Catholic Sao Joao (Saint John) festival–two weeks filled with bonfires, fireworks and dancing.

After patiently touring the Synagogue and Museum, my children stepped back out onto the street, beneath a canopy of fluttering Sao Joao flags and lanterns. On the map of Recife, this street is marked the Rua do Bom Jesus: the Street of Good Jesus. But I know, and now my children will never forget, that the first name for this street was the Rua dos Judeus: the Street of Jews.

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.

To Be or Not to Be…a Half-Jew

I appreciate the in-your-face “we can call ourselves whatever we want” quality of the half-Jew movement. Many of us have issues with the fact that Jews can’t even agree on who is a Jew, and yet they try to tell us we can’t call ourselves half-Jews.

Traditional Jewish law known as halacha specifies that either you’re a Jew (because your mother was a Jew) or you’re not. Your Jewish father? He’s, uh, chopped liver. But since 1983, Reform Jews have officially accepted either matrilineal or patrineal half-Jews as Jews, as long as they have been “raised Jewish.” The seemingly endless arguments over “Who is a Jew” continue to alienate interfaith families.

Meanwhile, many of us insist that being half-Jewish is a unique and even positive state, despite widespread disapproval. A spunky website called halfJew.org died an untimely death after vicious flaming shut down the comments section. But in the 21st century, it will be hard to ignore half-Jews as we come into our own. By the year 2030, there will be more half-Jewish children than there will be “full-blooded” Jewish children in America. As Robin Margolis, founder of the Half-Jewish Network points out, “If we’re the majority, we’ll decide who’s a Jew.” You can read great blog posts just this month about being half-Jewish at jezebel.com and thefbomb.com.

Personally, while I’m cheering on the half-Jew movement, I usually identify myself as an interfaith child rather than a half-Jew. I like the positive associations of interfaith—of cooperation, of interweaving, and even the possibility that we are talking about faith or spirituality, as well as culture. I don’t like the way “half-Jew” ignores and diminishes my other half. I identify myself as a whole, not as a fractional Jew. And I have common ground with interfaith children who aren’t Jewish at all—whether they’re Muslim/Hindu, or Christian/Buddhist. Finally, I think about my own children, who are only one-quarter Jewish, and the “wrong” patrilineal quarter at that. Our family shares a label, a community, a history now. We’re not a half-Jewish family. We’re an interfaith family.

“How Can You Be Both? What About Jesus?”

I didn’t grow up with Jesus. My parents raised us as Jews, and the topic never came up at our dinner table. So no, I don’t believe Jesus is my personal savior. So you could call me a Jew who is particularly knowledgeable about Christianity. Or you could call me a Unitarian I guess. But go and ask ten of your Christian-born friends if they believe that Jesus is their personal savior. If you’re reading this blog, I’m going to make an educated guess that most of you born or raised Christian think of Jesus as a role model, an important historical figure, a revolutionary rabbi, an inexplicable mystery, or even an inspiring myth. Or as the son of God, in the sense that we are all sons and daughters of God. All of which works for me just fine. It is rare that I find I actually disagree on theological grounds with the Christians in my circle of family and friends.

It wasn’t until I came of age, and got safely through my Bat Mitzvah, that I began to tentatively probe at my Christian roots. As a teenager in the 1970s, I would privately indulge in Jesus Christ Superstar or Godspell and feel like I was gobbling forbidden fruit. Jewish composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz apparently understood the primal appeal of the Jesus story. I’m glad that he, and so many other Jewish writers and artists throughout history, felt free to infuse the story with such passion (so to speak). And I’m glad that my children can feel swept away by these stories, without feeling a lot of Jewish guilt. The head rush I know as spirituality is almost always the direct result of great art, music, or community action. Ideology, not so much.

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