Chilean miners, the Interfaith Spouse as Holy Other, Buber’s “I and Thou,” and Cats

As we watched the Chilean miners emerge last night, one by one, from their nifty rescue capsule, the camera captured one miner testifying about his faith in God. My thirteen-year-old son stunned me by commenting, “There are no atheists in foxholes.”

I do not know where he picked up this aphorism (or how he knows about foxholes), but I was interested to see the philosophical gears turning. Part of the Jewish identity I cling to, and one of the aspects I want to impart to my interfaith children, is the lifelong love of questioning and wrestling with the concept of God.

That questioning and wrestling is a constant theme in our interfaith families community, where we are lucky to have Rabbi Harold White as one of our two Spiritual Directors. Rabbi White tells engaging personal stories steeped in intellect and mysticism, and he constantly challenges the members of our community, both young and old, to wrestle with theology. My son listens closely when the Rabbi speaks.

Just last week, Rabbi White led us in a discussion of Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. Buber, who was born in Vienna and fled Europe for the Holy Land, lectured in his later years at New York’s Union Theological Seminary, a headquarters of progressive Christian thinking. During this same period, in the 1950s, Harold White was studying to become a rabbi at Jewish Theological Seminary, in the same neighborhood. “Morningside Heights, on the Upper West Side, was called the American Acropolis” because of the density of great teachers and thinkers there, recalls Rabbi White. He had the privilege of studying with many of them: Buber, but also Abraham Joshua Heschel, Paul Tillich, and others.

Buber lectured at the Christian seminary, and his influence, the rabbi noted, was perhaps greater on Christian theologians. His stance in favor of a single bi-national Israeli state embracing both Arabs and Jews created controversy in his own tribe, as did his openness to thinking about and writing about Jesus the Jew. (He wrote: “I do not believe in Jesus but I believe with him.”) Buber was an early proponent of interfaith dialogue, and his house in Germany now serves as a center for the International Council of Christians and Jews.

But Buber’s greatest contribution to religious thinking is the idea of the “I-Thou” relationship, a personal relationship the individual has with God, but also with fellow beings, with the “holy other.”  He described “I-Thou” meetings as “strange, lyric and dramatic episodes, seductive and magical, but tearing us away to dangerous extremes. . .shattering security.” Rabbi White has very eloquently cited his understanding of Buber in his own decision to perform interfaith marriages. (It is interesting to read the recent explanation by Rabbi James Ponet, who co-officiated at the wedding of Chelsea Cinton and Marc Mezvinsky, of how he came to make the same decision.)

Anyway, I was not entirely surprised to learn that Buber had married Paula Winkler, a woman of German Caholic background. She converted, but according to Rabbi White, she did so only years into their relationship, before having children (presumably so that the children would be considered Jewish). Buber was notoriously uncomfortable with answering questions from the press about his personal life. But when I asked Rabbi White whether he thought Buber’s intermarriage influenced his development of the “I-Thou” concept, he replied, “Of course!”

But Rabbi White (a great cat-fancier himself) pointed out that Buber also used as an example of the “I-Thou” relationship the deep and wordless communication he shared with his cat, who would sit on Buber’s round stomach, purring.  Of course, fully embracing a human being, a being who will talk back and who brings their own spiritual baggage, no matter what their religion, is significantly more complicated than communing with a cat.


My Big, Fat Interfaith Wedding

I got married 23 years ago today. Okay, so our wedding wasn’t really big or fat. It was a relatively modest affair, in a tent in my backyard, organized in a matter of weeks. But it was a joyous occasion for us, and for the extended family on all sides: Reform Jews, Episcopalians and Congregationalists, Catholics who married in and became Protestants, and at least one Protestant who now attends a mosque. We had been dating on and off for 12 years, and any hesitation our parents felt about our intermarriage was outweighed by relief that we were finally getting off the fence. Anyway, the fact that my own parents had been happily intermarried for a quarter of a century by then, tended to mute any concern about religious differences.

When we decided on a rabbi and a minister to co-officiate at our ceremony, we signaled to our friends and family that we were going to respect and draw on both family religions. In 1987, there was no such thing as a community for interfaith families. The interfaith movement was actually born that same year, when a group of families in New York City set up an interfaith afterschool program for their children at the private Trinity School. By almost incredible coincidence, the minister closest to us and the one we chose to co-officiate, my husband’s wonderful first cousin, the Reverend Rick Spalding, co-taught with a rabbi in that interfaith afterschool program.

Both because of his immersion in the interfaith culture of New York, and his family ties to us, Reverend Rick gave a warm and personal reflection at our wedding, casting our interfaithness in a most positive light. For a rabbi, we had to scrounge around a bit, after the rabbi at my temple refused to officiate. Finding a rabbi who would perform an interfaith marriage seemed to require my parents to make sotto voce inquiries, as if seeking a connection for some sort of illicit trade. I was grateful when they found Rabbi Benjamin Rudavsky, a brave and controversial rabbi who understood early on that rejecting interfaith couples is not good for the Jews. For me, the balance of the family warmth provided by Reverend Rick, and the ancient Jewish rituals and language provided by the rabbi, seemed fitting and right.

Although we met with both the Rabbi and the Reverend to plan our interfaith wedding service, we did not really have a plan for raising our children. In fact we were not ready for children yet at all, and we waited seven years before having our first child. But the idea that Rick was teaching those interfaith kids in New York certainly planted a seed of possibility in our minds.

Just three days after marrying, we set off to spend three years in Africa, and later spent three more years in Brazil. Ten years went by before we found ourselves settling back in the US with an infant and a toddler, and looking to establish a coherent religious identity for our family. In the meantime, the idea of an interfaith community had spread from New York to Washington, and as fate would have it, we settled right in the suburb where the DC interfaith group was beginning to take off. The rest, as they say, is history chronicled on this blog.

Today, I celebrate our 23 years as an accomplishment: a journey of passion and adventure, but also of hard work and compromises. Disagreements? There have been many. But I can say, with total honesty, that we have never had a disagreement about religious practice or theology, or how to raise our children as spiritual beings. We have found our interfaith community to be a font of inspiration, emotional support, and intellectual stimulation. And the essential interfaithness of our marriage has inspired creativity and heightened our mindfulness of family rituals and shared values.


Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller, available now in hardcover and eBook from Beacon Press.

Successful Interfaith Marriage: Marci and Rich

A year ago I wrote about the love story of my interfaith parents,  and this became one of the most popular essays on this site. People are searching for details on successful interfaith marriages, and I know hundreds of these success stories. So this week, I start an occasional series of portraits of happy interfaith couples.


Marci and Rich Shegogue met doing musical theater in college. In our interfaith families community (IFFP), they are active volunteers, infusing our program with music. Marci fronts the band during our weekly Gatherings, when we sing songs and reflect together, and she usually leads us in the Hamotzi (the Hebrew blessing over bread) before we break for bagels and cream cheese. Rich is known for his gorgeous tenor voice, and he frequently leads us in chanting the Lord’s Prayer, or performs a selection from Godspell. During Sunday School, Marci and Rich visit our interfaith classrooms with their guitars, teaching songs from both traditions.

Marci, what is your religious background? What is Rich’s background?

I was raised in Conservative Judaism, my husband was raised Catholic. My husband considers himself more “Interfaith” now.

How long have you been married, and how old are your children?

We have known each other for 25 years, been married for 18 years, and have two daughters, 13 and 9. We attended seminars on Interfaith marriage and read many books, once we decided to marry.

Did you discuss or try out other religious pathways as a couple before joining a community of interfaith families?

We had decided from the beginning that we wanted to have an Interfaith home, but weren’t really sure what that meant in reality. We thought about joining a synagogue, but couldn’t afford the dues. When the synagogue in our community said that we couldn’t have the privelege of naming our daughter there if we were not members, we looked elsewhere… and found IFFP.

How and why did you settle on joining an interfaith community?

We wanted a place where both of us felt comfortable in our beliefs… where neither one of us would be a minority, and where our children would be able to learn equally about both Christianity and Judaism without a bias toward one or the other. We also wanted to meet other families for purposes of finding out how other interfaith families handle the basics: holidays, in-laws, questions, life events, etc. We wanted to find a place where we could belong… because neither the churches nor the synagogues we visited felt like home to us.

We found IFFP through information in the back of an interfaith marriage guidebook, but waited a year until we called and talked for a long time to Sue Katz Miller who invited us to visit and see for ourselves. The first gathering we came to was the opening gathering of the year… Sept, 2001, the weekend after the 9/11 attacks… in the courtyard of a local middle school. While standing outside, with people we had yet to meet, we instantly felt the kinship and support of a community, and we joined that day.

What do you see as the benefits and drawbacks of the interfaith pathway for your family?

Benefits:  A much more well-rounded education in religion than we would ever get anywhere else. Deeper meanings, debates and conversations about the similarities and differences. A better sense of common ground. Increased tolerance of others’ spiritual choices. Kids who have a sense of belonging… not feeling like something is wrong with them if they aren’t one or the other. Always being challenged to look deeper, understand better, be patient, and think out of the box!

Drawbacks:  Having people say “that doesn’t work,” or “your kids will be all confused,” or “you know you’ll have to choose at some point,” and having to take the time to educate them (well, maybe that’s a benefit in disguise though).  Not having the intense connection to one faith when it comes to celebrating with extended family.

How have your extended families reacted to your interfaith relationship and your choice of an interfaith community?

I think both sets of parents grew to accept and embrace the interfaith-ness of our family. We had to remember that it was a choice that WE made for ourselves, and that we had had time to grow and commit to it. They had to learn from experience how we dealt with our religions within our home before they could fully accept that we weren’t watering anything down, and that we kept important traditions. To have our mothers making latkes together while the dads played a spirited game of dreidel… and then the next week all singing Christmas carols together around the piano… priceless!

How do you feel about the formation of your childrens’ religious identities, so far?

They seem to have a good handle on their religious identities so far. We talk a lot about beliefs when they come up, and find that we can have some great conversations and debates. We celebrate all major holidays, and some minor ones too, in our home with great spirit and fullness. Our feeling is that, as long as they keep asking questions and feel free to discuss, interpret and explore all concepts of religion, then we are on the right track. We can only hope though, that we give them a good foundation on which to build their own beliefs and ideals.

What do you think are the secrets to your successful interfaith marriage?

Communication, trust, willingness to make compromises, being able to talk about difficult subjects, being willing to create new traditions that have meaning to our family, courage to forge through uncharted territory and challenge old ways of thinking, and being honest and respectful about our comfort levels when it comes to religion. For instance, having a Christmas tree was a big deal to my husband, but was initially uncomfortable for me. We compromised on a table-top tree that we bring home on December 20th every year. We know where each other’s limits are, and we respect them, but discuss them as well.


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

100 Essays: Interfaith Children, Interfaith Parents, Interfaith Families

I have now posted 100 essays on this blog: essays on interfaith identity, interfaith community, interfaith parenting, interfaith marriage. And yes, these are essays, not just “blogposts.” For 25 years, I wrote for Newsweek, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, New Scientist…and now I write for this blog. So I defend my online work as writing, while also claiming the blogger title.

Early on, I decided to buck the conventional wisdom that blog-readers do not want to read more than a paragraph or two. As much as I like to “drive traffic” to my blog, my primary goal here is to create a body of reflections on interfaith life, and to provide hope and encouragement to interfaith couples who continue to wrestle with distressed relatives, with misinformed or disapproving clergy, with the constant refrain of “you have to choose one.” To explain our complex and controversial approach to “doing both,” to provide detail and humor and depth, requires a longer essay format. So thank you for staying with me, and not clicking away after 200 words. The community connected through this blog continues to grow, and to spread geographically, so I do not think I overestimated your attention span.

While writing these hundred essays, I have witnessed a sort of coming-of-age for the idea of a more fluid and flexible interfaith identity. The election of our biracial President, a man raised in multiple cultures in two countries, exposed to multiple religions, brought widespread public attention to the idea of our shared hybrid future. The high-profile interfaith marriage of Chelsea Cinton marked another great “coming out” moment for interfaith couples. Meanwhile, surveys have been uncovering what many of us in interfaith families have known all along: that people will define their own spirituality, choose the rituals that still have meaning for them, and switch religious affiliations as adults. And, finally, prominent rabbis have begun to speak out about the need to accept the fact that some interfaith families are going to choose to educate their children about both religions, and they have even begun to imply that this might not be the end of the world, or even the end of the Jews.

The idea of a “half-Jewish” identity is now so de rigeur in the Jewish community that even those who are not half-Jewish are trying to ride the wave: I was amazed and amused recently to read the title of a one-man show currently touring Jewish community centers and theater festivals: “Elon Gold: Half Jewish, Half Very Jewish.” Gold was raised Orthodox, went to Jewish day school, keeps Kosher and doesn’t perform on the Sabbath. This comedian is 100% Jewish, almost any way you want to define it. But he’s riffing on the fact that it’s a half-Jewish zeitgeist out there right now. And he’s probably trying to appeal to all the Jews with interfaith marriages in their families, which is just about all of them, as Jewish intermarriage has reached 80% in some cities.

Meanwhile, Krista Tippett, the host of the most influential religion show on public radio, is changing the name of her program from “Speaking of Faith” to “On Being.” I like to think she’s been reading this blog. But the truth is that both of us have been charting the shift away from religious doctrines and institutions, and toward independent spiritual practices and communities. Tippett’s canvas is broad, all-encompassing, wide-ranging, while I continue to try to chart the untold story of one category of star-crossed interfaith lovers, lovers often forced to defy their families, their institutions, their tribal rules.

So far, publishers have had trouble understanding how to market a book on “being both.” They fret, “It doesn’t fit into any of our categories.” The irony, of course, is that not fitting into those little boxes is precisely the topic at hand. At some point, publishers will understand who we are, understand “being both.” Whether or not you are in an interfaith family yourself, all of you who follow this blog understand that if we venture out of our boxes to dance and converse and study together, the world will be a better place.

New Religious Knowledge Survey: Interfaith Perspective

Atheists, agnostics, Jews and Mormons scored higher on a survey of religious knowledge than Protestants or Catholics did, according to a report released today by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. The survey emphasized religious history and the practice of the major world religions. So what does this survey reveal to me as someone with an interfaith identity, living in an interfaith family?

One of my primary goals in choosing an interfaith education for my children was to make sure they were not ignorant about either of the religions in their family tree. So, I am pleased to report that my sixteen-year-old daughter took the 15-question online version of the Pew survey, and, as she put it, she “beasted it.” In adult-speak, that means she got 14 out of 15 questions right. For this success, I credit our interfaith Sunday School, in which we spend an entire year on the history and evolution of the different Jewish and Christian movements and denominations. My daughter points out that she also picked up some of the answers from her AP US History class, and from the dinner-table conversations in our household, where we are somewhat obsessed with comparative religion. But I like to think that we have inspired her, in our interfaith religious education program, to soak up religious knowledge.

Most interfaith couples cite education as the most important reason they made the controversial decision to throw in their lot with a community of other interfaith families, rather than (or in addition to) joining a synagogue or church. To see my data on why these families chose interfaith education, you’ll have to wait for my book. The Pew survey, of course, did not create a category for respondents who self-identified as “Interfaith” or “Jewish/Christian.” As always, those with an interfaith identity were forced to check one box. The choices, beyond Jewish, Christian, and Atheist/Agnostic, included the tone-deaf and dismissive “Nothing in Particular.”

If I had been called by the pollsters and asked to pick one religious identity, I would not have labeled my passion for religious history and ideas and spiritual practice as “Nothing in Particular.” I guess I would have chosen Jewish, though many Jews would argue with my right to that label, and I myself feel reduced and misrepresented by it.

Why did Jews do so well on the survey? I got to thinking about how Jews are a minority in our Christian culture, but also about how the majority of Jews now have Christians in their extended families, with 80% intermarrying in some cities. I think this helps to explain why Jews might be more knowledgeable about other religions, and about Christianity in particular. Many of the folks who chose “Jewish” as their label in this survey are married to Christians, have a Christian parent, might even have chosen both Judaism and Christianity if the pollsters had let them. So it is not surprising, in fact it is statistically obvious to me, that they might be able to answer a question about Martin Luther. On the other hand, the vast majority of Christians are not from interfaith families, and thus have no intimate acquaintance with which to answer a question about Maimonides.

The “check one box” problem haunts this survey in yet another way. Did Jewish atheists check Jewish, or atheist as their identity box? How many of the Jews are also atheists? At High Holy Days this year, a friend who went to shul did his own informal survey, making a game of trying to find a Jew who would whole-heartedly claim belief in God. Reader, he did not find even one. And this was among Jews who went to services. The high proportion of atheists among practicing Jews, Jews who go to synagogue and recite prayers, is well-known among fellow Jews, but still confounding to Christians. I believe it may well have confounded some of the results in this survey.

Our community of interfaith families includes a large proportion of atheists and agnostics (to find out the percentage, you’ll have to wait for my book). It may seem counterintuitive for Atheists to take interest in, or want their children to learn about, world religions. One cynical theory (already in the blogosphere) to explain the exceptional religious knowledge of atheists is that reading holy books like the Bible creates atheists. However, the atheists who join our interfaith community and put their children in our interfaith Sunday School want their children to study religion. In fact, they want their children to have double the information, to understand both family religions, as an important part of cultural literacy, despite their atheism.

Interfaith Novel for Teens: Three Religions in “Habibi”

What goes on inside the head of an interfaith child? An interfaith teenager? How do they process the idea of straddling two cultures, two religions?

My favorite book about being an interfaith teen was written by Arab-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye. In her (clearly autobiographical) young adult novel Habibi, Nye tells the story of fourteen-year-old Liyanna Abboud, born and raised in St. Louis, who moves with her family to Jerusalem to be near her Palestinian grandmother and experience “doubled lives.” Nye eloquently describes the sense of displacement in moving between two cultures. The expatriate and the immigrant share many of the “both/and” qualities of interfaith children. But in Nye’s book, the protagonist is not only living in two worlds, but born into both of them as an interfaith child.

Nye lovingly describes a family that is “half and half, like a carton of rich milk.” But she also includes moments of tension, and frustration. In one scene, Liyanna’s father tells her that Arab women don’t wear shorts, and Liyanna, a rebellious teen, mutters, “I’m just a half-half, woman-girl, Arab-American, a mixed breed like those wild characters that ride up on ponies in the cowboy movies…the half-breeds are always villains or rescuers, never anybody normal in between.”

The plot takes a new twist when this half-Muslim, half-Christian girl (raised by spiritual but not particularly religious interfaith parents) befriends a Jewish Israeli boy. Nye does not sugarcoat the Middle East for her young audience–at least not entirely. She depicts anger and misunderstanding, and violence. But she also layers in a mystical connection (between the Jewish boy and the Muslim grandmother), and leaves her readers with a sense of hope. A few adult readers have objected to the “naive” or “pro-Palestinian” politics in Habibi. It would be difficult to accurately depict the contentious and intricate politics of the Middle East in a novel narrated by a teenager. In my opinion, the book is not about politics, but about the interior and exterior lives of Liyanna and her younger brother as they grapple with their new surroundings, their extended family, and their “bothness.”

As anti-Muslim rhetoric continues to swirl around us, in the media, in the streets, I am all the more determined to ensure that my children draw on their interfaith family roots to become peacemakers. They do not have to become world leaders to accomplish this. But they do need to listen with open minds to people from every religion and background. Habibi creates an engaging model for young teens doing just that.

Yom Kippur in Our Interfaith Family


I cannot quite let go of Yom Kippur yet. As happens in many years, my introspection on this Day of Awe was deep enough to have changed me, at least for now. I want to keep the sense of the new year, the desire to improve, as long as possible. I want to remember the benefits of unplugging, stepping back, tunneling inside my own head. And while many would (mis)characterize the observance of our interfaith families as somehow “light” on the invisible scale used to weigh Jewish practice, this Holy Day was utterly fulfilling for me.

First of all, I was pleased that my entire family (my Christian husband, both my interfaith teens) decided to fast together this year. For my thirteen-year-old son, this was his first time, and it served as reassurance to this Jewish mother that he is, indeed, coming of age, and that he, does, indeed, take pride in his Jewish identity, no matter what kind of ceremony or Bar Mitzvah we might end up creating to mark this transition.

In some years, I have found fasting alone to be difficult, especially if I did not have the luxury (living abroad in cities without synagogues, or as a mother of young children) of day-long services. This year, my fast was easier due to the solidarity provided by a whole family chorus of rumbling tummies, and to the accountability provided by many sets of sympathetic eyes when passing through the kitchen.

We met up with our interfaith families community for a final hour of prayer and repentance, led by our teen group, and to break the fast together. The service started with a moment of creative chaos. Luckily, being an interfaith “project,” we posess well-oiled flexibility. In this case, the staff person from the Unitarian church did not show up to let us in the doors. So, seeing as it was a gorgeous fall day, we all unloaded the folding soccer-mom chairs from our minivans and set up on the lovely deck under the trees, prepared to hold an outdoor Yom Kippur. Quite a few community members independently came up with some version of this wry metaphor: we may be marginalized as interfaith families, locked out, but we will persist in celebrating Yom Kippur anyway. It was a totally unscripted and unanticipated moment of interfaith community bonding.

In the end, we got into the sanctuary at the last moment (setting off an alarm, which added to the chaos). After a moment of centering, the service finally began. At the apex, a Jewish dad from our community, Bob, chanted the Kol Nidre, one of the central, haunting prayers of Yom Kippur. The gorgeous, resonant, minor melody floated over and through us three times, each time louder, each time with deeper emotion. In those moments, there was nothing “light” about our observance of this day. No professional cantor could have sung more soulfully.

The closing moment of the service was provided by my young friend Cheney. Cheney has autism, and he also has a mystical affinity for Judaism. He was given a shofar at his Bar Mitzvah (at which, yes, he did chant his Torah portion).  So at Yom Kippur, my sixteen-year-old daughter, who has been friends with Cheney since she was born, had the honor of calling out the final Tekiah Gedolah to mark the end of the Yom Kippur fast. And Cheney, looking radiant and positively rabbinical with a full beard on his teenage chin, stood in front of his congregation and blew a perfect, long note on his shofar. I plan to hang onto the echo of that note for as long as possible. I am thinking it will carry me all the way to next year.