The Interlove Project

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I have been following the powerful photography of Colin Boyd Shafer for years now. In the Interlove Project (2014-2016), Shafer created 50 black and white portraits of interfaith couples and families from throughout Canada. You could describe these families as Protestant and Jewish, or Catholic and Muslim, or atheist and Hindu. But instead, Shafer lets his subjects describe the nuances of their religious journeys and identities. And so, we meet a Catholic who became a Wiccan, a Hindu who became an atheist, a Muslim born to an intermarried Shia and Sunni couple who identifies with both. These Canadians, as individuals and as couples, illustrate the complexity and fluidity of the religious landscape.

Now, I am thrilled that Shafer plans to extend the Interlove Project to 50 interfaith couples in the US, starting this fall. If you are interested in being included, fill out the application now. The project is open to people who are in interfaith relationships, those from different sects or denominations of the same religion, those who may identify as having no faith, those who are spiritual but not religious, those in same-sex relationships, and those who identify as polyamorous.

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Recently, I had a chance to ask Colin Boyd Shafer a few questions about the Interlove Project. Here’s our Q & A:

Miller: What first inspired you to chronicle interfaith couples?

Shafer: My previous project Cosmopolis Toronto focused on the diversity that exists in one city. I photographed one person from every country of the world who has migrated to Toronto. Doing this project made me think about other aspects of diversity, and one of those was diversity of relationships. I have lived in countries (like Malaysia) where interfaith relationships are highly discouraged, but in Canada I felt as though people would be willing and safe to open up about the experience. When we look at the news and see so much hate, I think its important to tell stories of love – especially when that love is between people of different beliefs. I agree with the headline in the Toronto Star’s piece on my project: “World Leaders could learn from these couples”.

Miller: What has been the reaction to the Interlove Project in Canada?

Shafer: I would say the project has been received very well. I know for the couples involved it has created a community, and for other interfaith couples who have seen the project it has given them a sense of belonging.  I hope for some viewers who may have been doubtful as to the possibility of such relationships working, it may change their mind. Maybe INTERLOVE hasn’t been overly controversial because it isn’t trying to promote interfaith relationships and is instead trying to show that they do exist and they can work.

Miller: You’re embarking on the US version of this project at a time when many religious minorities are feeling threatened in the US. What effect might this have on the willingness of couples to tell their stories?

Shafer: That is an interesting question. I know even in Canada, for every 10 interfaith couples that saw the project, probably only one applied to participate. It is a big step coming out and telling your story in public. Unlike interracial relationships, interfaith couples are often hidden. Doing this project in the United States is especially important because I imagine such relationships have faced more opposition. I am definitely open to concealing identities of the participants because I believe that these stories need to be told regardless.

Miller: What are your goals in terms of what you want this project to convey?

Shafer: I hope it continues to provide a sense of belonging to the couples involved or to other interfaith couples who see this. I also hope it challenges some people’s preconceived notions about what relationships can work. It would be great if this project turns into a book that can reach people in countries outside of North America – in places where people may not even imagine ever being with someone of a different faith. With so many unhealthy relationships out there, it would be such a shame for a couple that are such a great match to not be able to be together just because of differences of faith. Ultimately, everyone wants to hear a beautiful love story, and Interlove delivers.

Photos copyright Colin Boyd Shafer

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

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Spring Quilt of Interfaith Connections (2017)

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Glorious Color quilts by my cousin, Liza Prior Lucy

 

 

(Last year, many people found this guide to spring celebrations helpful. So, I have updated the post with dates for 2017).

In eight years of writing this interfaith blog, I have posted multiple essays on many of the spring Jewish and Christian holidays: Purim, St Patrick’s Day, Passover, Easter. But the complex, interlocking quilt squares of #GenerationInterfaith now go far beyond Judaism and Christianity. Speaking in Chicago last year, I met a woman from a Jewish and Christian interfaith family with a Hindu partner, and a man from a Jewish and Christian interfaith family with a Muslim partner. Increasingly, I see the world of interfaith families, not as a Jewish/Christian binary, but as vibrant squares of many colors bound together into a greater design, and traced with embroidery that winds across the pieces.

My book Being Both is devoted to the idea that interfaith children, in particular, benefit from exploring that whole quilt through interfaith education. But actually, all of us in extended interfaith families (and increasingly, that is most of us) benefit from interfaith education. Meanwhile, with political demagogues busy stirring up ugly religious intolerance, now is the time for every American (and every world citizen), whether or not we have extended interfaith families, to do a better job of educating ourselves about the religions around us.

Just in the coming weeks, we have a dense schedule of religious holidays, providing many opportunities to celebrate with interfaith family, and interfaith friends. If you don’t have family and friends who will invite you over, check out my Beacon Press colleague Linda K. Wertheimer‘s suggestions on how to get out and visit local houses of worship. And if you don’t live near any temples or mosques, there is always the free online courses from Harvard’s Religious Literacy Project.

Below, I have written up a quick list of just some of the spring religious holidays (for a more complete list go here). Note the ancient connections many of them have to the spring equinox, and possibly, to each other. And notice how many of these spring festivals are now celebrated by people of multiple religions. My belief is that we are all religious syncretists, tied to the religions that came before us, and the religions that surround us. And so as part of #GenerationInterfaith, I celebrate these connections:

Feb 28, Shrove Tuesday/Mardi Gras. In many cultures, including in Europe, the Caribbean, Brazil, and New Orleans, this Christian celebration incorporates the masquerades and role reversals of Carnival, drawing on various historical pagan roots.

Feb 29, Ash Wednesday/Start of Lent. Christian observance of fasting and prayer, marking the start of the period leading up to Easter.

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

March 12, Magha Puja Day. Buddhist commemoration of Buddha delivering the principles of Buddhism, on the full moon. Celebrated in Southeast Asia with temple visits, processions, and good works.

March 12, Purim. Jewish commemoration of the Biblical story of Esther in ancient Persia, celebrated with costumed reenactments, three-cornered pastry (hamantaschen), drinking, and charity. There may be a historical connection between Norooz and Purim.

March 13, Holi. Hindu commemoration of the arrival of spring and love, celebrated with bonfires, throwing powdered color pigments and water on each other, music, feasting, forgiving debts, repairing relationships, and visiting. Popular even with non-Hindus in Asia, and increasingly throughout the world.

March 13, Hola Mohalla. Sikh celebration including processions, mock battles, poetry reading, music. There is a historical connection between Holi and Hola Mohalla.

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

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

April 9, Palm Sunday. Christian commemoration of the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem, celebrated with church services and processions with palm fronds. Among Indian Christians, the Hindu practice of strewing flowers such as marigolds has been adapted for Palm Sunday.

April 10, Mahavir Jayanti. Jain commemoration of the birth of Mahavira, celebrated with temple visits for meditation and prayer, decoration with flags and flowers, and charitable acts.

April 10, Passover (first evening). Jewish commemoration of the flight from Egypt described in the book of Exodus. Primarily a home-based celebration with a festive Seder meal of ritual foods, songs, and prayer. Incorporates (presumably pagan) spring equinox (fertility) symbolism (eggs, spring greens).

April 13, Maundy Thursday – Christian commemoration of The Last Supper. There may be a historical connection between The Last Supper and Passover.

April 14, Good Friday. Christian commemoration of the Crucifixion of Jesus, with church services and fasting.

April 16, Easter. Christian commemoration of the Resurrection of Jesus, celebrated with church services, family dinners, and baskets of candy for children. Fertility imagery including bunnies and eggs may have a historical connection to Eostre, and the spring equinox.


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Glorious Color quilts by my cousin, Liza Prior Lucy

 

 

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.

Tu BiShvat & “Intermarriage” News

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Tu Bishvat                Photo: Susan Katz Miller

Last weekend, my husband and I celebrated Tu BiShvat, the Jewish new year of the trees. We sang songs about trees in Hebrew, said blessings over fruits of the trees, and shared grape juice, almonds, and dates in a Tu BiShvat seder meal. We sat at long tables filled with small children, parents, and grandparents, from the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington DC. We are a community of over 200 families led by a minister and a rabbi, working together to honor both of our family religions.

When I got back home, I noticed a new article sent out by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) entitled “Outside the synagogue, intermarried are forming community with each other.” First, as always, I had to recover from the jarring language (which included repeated use of the term “non-Jew”). I’m sad to report that my recent article in the Forward, explaining all the problems with the word “intermarriage,” has not had a broad impact. I do not consider myself “intermarried.” For three generations, my family has used the term “ interfaith family,” and I love how this allies us with everything positive about interfaith activism, bridge-building, and peacemaking.

But anyway, after looking past the language in this article, I appreciated that the reporter seems to have understood that interfaith families are tired of being disrespected by traditional religious institutions, and by programming that implicitly privileges “inmarried” couples and conversion. He hinted at the yearning many of us in interfaith families feel to control our own narratives, and to engage with religion in a way that will support the whole family.

And yet, all the programs described by the reporter in this article are supported exclusively by Jewish institutions, and most are created and/or led by rabbis or other Jewish educators. Nowhere does this piece explore how the Christian (or Buddhist or Hindu) partners feel about the fact that they are still expected to learn about Jewish ideas and practice, without any reciprocation. Meanwhile, the reporter ignored programs that provide interfaith education for interfaith families. He ignored independent communities formed by and for interfaith families, with balanced leadership, including thriving communities like mine.

And yet, we had hundreds of people at our celebration of Tu BiShvat on Sunday immersed in Jewish learning, discussing the Kabbalists and the mystical meaning of trees, and brainstorming how to become a greener community. Sometimes, this is what it looks like when a community of interfaith families designs their own programming. I wish more well-intentioned religious educators, clergy, and reporters would come and actually take a look.

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

Interfaith Families, Interfaith Activists

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Women’s March, Washington DC, 2017                    Photo Susan Katz Miller

On Saturday, my daughter and I joined in the fierce and ecstatic experience of the Women’s March on Washington. Although my mother died four months ago, I felt we carried her with us–that we were marching for all three generations of women from our interfaith family.

I have always been an activist. I testify at city and county council meetings, I call elected officials, I support progressive non-profits, I march. For me, this work is spiritual work. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, after marching in Selma with Martin Luther King Jr., wrote that while he marched, “my feet were praying.”

But what does all this have to do with being from an interfaith family? Growing up in an interfaith family is a constant reminder that love wins. I’m talking here not about love in the abstract, but radical love between two individuals who are face to face and committed to engaging with each other for the long term. In an interfaith family–or an interracial or intercultural or LGBTQ family–we live with the idea that love vaults over boundaries, love challenges prejudice, love wins over hate.

Part of my work now involves amplifying the voices of people from interfaith families who are speaking out for love: interfaith leaders, interfaith peacemakers, interfaith activists. Our commitment to love comes from the gut, fueled by our most intimate full-time reality, informed by our family experiences.

Perhaps the idea of interfaith family members inspired to be interfaith activists sounds like a tiny niche platform to you. But this is #GenerationInterfaith. Pew Research recently found that one in five Americans grew up in an interfaith family, but that is just the start. If you live in a metropolitan area, and your family has been in the US for at least a generation, you probably have a partner, parent, child, sibling, aunt, uncle, grandparent, step-grandparent, half-sibling, or beloved-neighbor-you-consider family, with a different set of religious beliefs or practices from your own. Not to mention the idea that every family is an interfaith family, in the sense that no two people have identical religious beliefs, practices, traditions, histories, or experiences. Even a partnership between two atheists is going to be informed by the plural religious histories of parents and grandparents, and by cultural traits derived from those various religious traditions.

In this sense, we are all from extended interfaith families. And we can all draw inspiration and motivation from those family ties. Those ties impel me to stand up against anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, to stand up for refugees and immigrants, and to advocate for interfaith literacy. And by extension, because love wins, and because my interfaith lens helps me to become more aware of the complex intersectionality of identity, I stand up for other marginalized communities including LGBTQ people, people of all abilities, and #BlackLivesMatter.

And so, together, let us march.

 

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

 

Muslim Women, Interfaith Families

 

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Noor Ibrahim: Contribute to her research

Being Both tells the stories of a few Muslims in interfaith relationships, and a number of additional guest bloggers have written about such relationships on this blog. But my work has focused primarily on Jewish and Christian families, and I often say that I am waiting for a whole body of literature to evolve…featuring voices from Buddhist, Quaker, Muslim, Hindu, Pagan, atheist (and many more) interfaith families. Below, Noor Ibrahim, a young journalism colleague, recounts how and why she seeks to tell the stories of Muslim women in interfaith relationships for a project that I hope will be published in some form. If you can, share your story with her, and help to grow this body of literature. Thank you! –SKM

In a world where interfaith love is an inevitable and increasingly common reality, it is important to engage with the stories that are often left untold. The story I want to tell is about Muslim women who have decided to marry outside of their faith.

I am a 20-something graduate student in New York City, one of the most diverse spots in the world. As an individual who has spent many years of my life away from my home country, I’ve been exposed to people of varying nationalities, ethnicities and religions. We share ideas and workspaces, classrooms and apartments, dish recipes and traditions. We build life-long friendships and global social networks. Sometimes, we fall in love.

For my Masters project, I will be looking into the topic of Muslim women who have, or are planning to, marry someone who does not share their faith. Given the lack of reporting on this specific topic, I am hoping to include the voices of a wide range of interfaith couples, each with their own unique set of experiences and insights.

I realize that this is a very personal issue for many, and as a result I feel a personal obligation to conduct my reporting as thoroughly and accurately as possible. So I am conducting in-depth interviews with couples about the interfaith marriage process, the social implications, the trials and triumphs, and their hopes for the future.

As I move forward with this project, I am hoping to connect with more Muslim women who have married outside their faith and talk to them about their experiences. If you feel you fit these criteria and are willing to share your story, please do not hesitate to email me at noor.ibrahim94@gmail.com. There is a space for your narrative, and I am ready to listen.

 

Noor Ibrahim is a Jordanian-Canadian student at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, where she is currently working on a Masters project about interfaith marriage in the US.

Interfaith Kids: Carrie Fisher (RIP) and Harrison Ford

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I grew up in what feels now like a galaxy far, far, away. In that galaxy, interfaith kids were few and far between, and we didn’t talk about the fact that we were interfaith kids. But early on, I developed a keen sense of what I now think of as “interfaithdar,” often correctly guessing which famous people came from interfaith families. Since I did not know many interfaith families in real life, each realization of another person out there from a multi-religious background gave me a tiny thrill.

And so, like many interfaith kids, I have kept a mental list of famous people with interfaith heritage who have been important to me in one way or another, including Paul Newman, Carly Simon, Peter Sellers, Adam Yauch, Lena Dunham, Drake, Bruno Mars, Matt Stone, David Yazbek, Barack Obama, Fiorello LaGuardia, Dorothy Parker, Marcel Proust, JD Salinger, Gloria Steinem, Frida Kahlo, Adrienne Rich, Gabriela Mistral, St Teresa of Avila, and Raoul Wallenberg.

But the relationship of two interfaith kids with powerful on-screen chemistry, namely Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford in the Star Wars trilogy, represent the summit of celebrity interfaith geography. And so the death of Carrie Fisher today set me to thinking about the silent bonds many of us share as interfaith kids.

Each interfaith family is different, and interfaith children can be raised with one religion, two religions, no religion, many religions, and an almost infinite variety of combinations of culture and belief and practice. Every child with mixed heritage ultimately grows up to choose their own identity, their own label. And I am not in the business of applying labels to other people based on my own frame of reference. But however we are raised, and however we identify as adults, those of us with extended family from mixed religious backgrounds share certain hallmark experiences, and learn to code-switch in a dual-faith or interreligious or intercultural context. We see the world through more than one set of lenses, and often, we learn to spot other people wearing those interfaith bifocals and trifocals.

Carrie Fisher, the daughter of the star actress Debbie Reynolds and the star pop singer Eddie Fisher, was raised “Protestant light” by her mother, but later felt affectionate bonds to her father’s Judaism. Her own daughter, actress Billie Lourd, studied religion at New York University. (In Being Both, I describe intellectual curiosity about religion and the religions of the world as a hallmark of many interfaith children). Meanwhile, Harrison Ford, the son of a Russian Jewish mother and an Irish Catholic father, once commented: “As a man I’ve always felt Irish, as an actor I’ve always felt Jewish.” I cannot help speculating about whether their parallel experiences as interfaith kids may have played some role in the way they connected, and in the off-screen romance revealed by Fisher in her most recent autobiography.

I was sixteen when I saw Carrie Fisher star as a 19-year-old in Star Wars. And so today, with the rest of the sci-fi geek world, I mourn Fisher as an icon of my youth. Her life was not easy: the lives of children raised in Hollywood rarely are. And she struggled with bipolar disorder, and with drug addiction. But as a writer, and an actress, she charmed the world with her humility, wry humor, and strength. Whatever galaxy she finds herself in now, she is at peace. And may her memory be a blessing.

 

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

 

 

The Dance of Hanukkah and Christmas: 8 Tips for Interfaith Families

Christmas and Hanukkah cookies, photo Susan Katz Miller
Photo, Susan Katz Miller

The Woolf Institute in Cambridge, England, works on Jewish, Muslim, and Christian relations. They asked me to write on how interfaith families will choreograph Hanukkah and Christmas celebrations this year. In general, organizations in the UK are more open to discussing interfaith families as a part of interfaith relations than their US counterparts are. I am grateful whenever anyone acknowledges the role that interfaith families can play in interfaith peacemaking. Visit the Woolf Institute blog to see my new post there, or read it below…SKM

The solar Gregorian calendar determines the timing of Christian holidays, while both the sun and moon guide the Jewish calendar. As a result, each year interfaith families must choreograph the dance of Hanukkah and Christmas in a new way. In 2016, this dance will require some expert steps, since the first night of Hanukkah falls on Christmas Eve.

This convergence increases the complexity of preparation, and coordination, in order to give each holiday its own time and space and integrity. But after more than 50 years of celebrating both holidays, I know that it can be done, without actually mixing or blending or fusing the two together. Here are my eight strategies for mastering the Hanukkah and Christmas dance this year:

  1. Don’t forget Hanukkah on Christmas Eve. If you are traveling, remember to pack the Hanukkah menorah. In the excitement of Christmas Eve, don’t forget to set aside a few minutes to gather everyone and actually light the first candle. Enjoy the synergy of a glowing Hanukkah menorah and a sparkling tree, and talk about the common theme of light at the darkest time of year. Safety tip: If you are going off to a mass or church service, be sure to light candles when they will have time to safely burn down.
  1. Postpone Hanukkah gifts. On Christmas day, lean into Christmas. After a full day of Christmas and stacks of presents, do remember to light candles for the second night. But consider putting off Hanukkah gifts until later in the week. In fact, resist the false competition between the holidays that has given rise to the whole idea of Hanukkah gifts.
  1. Tell the Hanukkah story. Emphasizing the religious freedom angle in the Hanukkah story is a perfect activity this year. We are lucky to live in a time and place with the freedom to celebrate either, or both, or any religion. Singing the Hanukkah song Rock of Ages (different from the Christian hymn of the same name) in English rather than Hebrew on the nights you celebrate with extended Christian family members will make the story more accessible.
  1. Give to others. Once Christmas has ended, lean into Hanukkah. The middle nights of Hanukkah would be perfect for giving back, in lieu of more family gifts. Stress that both holidays encourage us to care for those in need. Engage children in deciding what causes they want to support with charitable donations this year.
  1. Organise acts of service. Christmas encourages empathy for those who, like Mary and Joseph, must travel and seek shelter. Hanukkah provides an opportunity to talk about how Jewish history compels us to work to promote social justice. Celebrating these intertwined themes by engaging in acts of service together to support refugees and religious minorities.
  1. Give Hanukkah gifts at the end. If your family does give Hanukkah gifts, wait until the end of the week when the novelty of Christmas gifts has worn off. Some families like to emphasize books and clothes as Hanukkah gifts for children, rather than toys, to further differentiate the two holidays.
  1. Time the parties. Hanukkah spans two weekends this year, and Christmas sits squarely on the first weekend. So the second weekend could be a good time for a Hanukkah party. Try a party on Friday night with the festive lighting of both Shabbat and Hanukkah candles. Or, plan a family New Year’s Eve party with the lighting of havdalah candles for the close of Shabbat, followed by Hanukkah candles. Or, arrange an elegant adult New Year’s Eve party with caviar on latkes, champagne, and gambling with dreidels.
  1. Try not to stress. As you move through the dance of Hanukkah and Christmas this year, don’t fret over a misstep or two. Everyone forgets to light candles on occasion. Everyone has a relative who makes some awkward comment about interfaith families. Everyone has a different comfort level with where to place the Hanukkah menorah in relation to the tree. Through it all, do your best to stay in touch with a sense of holiday joy.

 

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