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.

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.

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Speaking of Interfaith Dreamboats…

As a counterpart to interfaith dreamboat Paul Newman, consider Scarlett Johansson. Unfortunately, an outrageously sexist and objectifying piece about her appears in today’s New York Times Style Magazine. It’s about the only section of the NYT I don’t read. Luckily, my husband was perusing it for some reason and alerted me to the religion reference. “What?” I asked, my antennae shooting up. “Why are they talking about her interfaith status in a fashion magazine?”

It took me a while to page through the glossy, saturated mix of indistinguishable ads and editorial to find the little column about Johansson. And it took me a while to find the religion reference, because I came to a complete standstill after almost every sentence. The author manages to compare Johansson to a headless fertility statue, drool over her curves and “pubescent lips,” and impugn her intelligence and convictions.

Finally, I found this: “…Johansson’s physiognomy seems to combine two countervailing materials: strong Semite (her mother is Jewish) and etiolated Northern European (her father was born in Denmark).” Etiolated means pale–as in a plant deprived of light. So it connotes feebleness, weakness–not very nice to the Danes. In this context, we have to then also question the characterization of Semites as “strong.” Strong how exactly? I shudder to think what was on the author’s mind.

In essence, the piece promotes Johansson as an example of the “hybrid vigor creates more beautiful children” theory. According to this thinking, genetic mixing creates greater facial symmetry–and humans perceive symmetry as beautiful. The social science behind this theory is shaky, beauty being notoriously subjective and laden with social constructs. Given the context in such an apalling and superficial story, the reference to Johansson’s ancestry makes me queasy. She’s not a hybridized plant. She’s a talented actress, she is in fact gorgeous, and I’m happy to claim her as a fellow interfaith child. I’m just sorry that this reference to her interfaith heritage is embedded in such a snarky and salacious context.

Half-Jewdar

paul-newman

I have Half-Jewdar—a radar detector for half-Jews. I exult with an “I knew it!” whenever I find out someone has mixed religious background, especially when it’s someone intriguing. Why do I do this? My family gets tired of my interjecting “interfaith child!” whenever someone mentions Marcel Proust, John Kerry, J.D. Salinger, Frida Kahlo, Arlo Guthrie, Fiorello LaGuardia, Harrison Ford…

I daydream about comparing notes with these celebrities to find out how they integrated their Jewish and Christian ancestry. Recently, I found myself mourning the loss of Paul Newman, not only as a great actor but as a fellow interfaith child. He has to be the ultimate argument for the controversial “mixed children are more beautiful” theory. Bill Maher talked about his interfaith background this year in his documentary “Religulous.” He’s a witty, bitter half-Jew who now disdains all organized religion. I have also been pondering the religious education of Michael Jackson’s interfaith children. According to what I’ve read, the Jackson family now includes Christians and Muslims. But because their biological mother is Jewish, Orthodox and Conservative Jews continue to insist on claiming the two older children as Jews. If they grow up without contact with Judaism, I wonder whether either of them will ever explore this “forbidden half.” Many interfaith children seem to feel strongly compelled to investigate their suppressed familial religion (see authors Robin Margolis and Susan Jacoby).

Why does it matter who shares my interfaith background? Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, when marriage between Christians and Jews was less common, I felt marginalized. Nowadays, interfaith children are the norm rather than unusual in many Jewish congregations. And my family belongs to a thriving independent community made up entirely of interfaith families. Nevertheless, I cannot stop myself from tallying interfaith children—I feel comfort in our growing numbers and prominence. When we are successful, or simply happy, we prove a point. We are here, in growing numbers. And our parents were not mistaken or misguided when they created us.

 

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.

A Rabbi and a Minister…

My rabbi often expounds on “radical amazement,” a concept that his teacher, philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel, used to describe our response to creation. Me, personally, I am radically amazed that I have a rabbi. And I am equally, if not even more radically amazed that I have a pastor. We are living in strange and wondrous times, when a person, an interfaith person, can have both.

Here’s how it works. Rabbi Harold White and minister Julia Jarvis lead the Interfaith Families Project in song, prayer and reflection twice each month. That means sometimes the rabbi will give a reflection about Lent, and the minister will give a reflection on Sukkoth. It sounds meshugenah but this cross-fertilization leads to dazzling insights. And for those of us who are interfaith children, it leads to profound opportunities to feel like an integrated whole, rather than a half-something.

I never thought I would have a rabbi again. I had reconciled myself to a life of exile from organized Judaism, and I assumed that meant exile from the likes of Rabbi White, who combines warmth and crinkly smile lines with deep wisdom and erudition. My exile began, like that of many other intermarried Jews, the day my father went to our family rabbi and asked if he would officiate at my marriage to a lapsed Episcopalian. The answer my father brought back was, “He says he can’t touch it.” Later, I learned that many synagogue Boards forbid their rabbis to perform interfaith marriages as a condition of employment. This may help to explain why I have returned to a rabbi, but not to a synagogue.

I never dreamed I would have a minister, nor did I pine for one, since I never had one growing up as a Reform Jew. But it turns out that everyone can benefit from a minister. Clergy of all stripes actually know this—they often benefit from spiritual direction from different faith traditions. Julia Jarvis is a gifted empath who has given me personal support, and creative dedication to the task of raising healthy interfaith children in our community. She has given me the courage as a Jew to accept the help of a pastor. It may seem radical. But it is also amazing.

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.

“So Why Aren’t You a Unitarian?”

I love Unitarians! Some of my best friends are Unitarians! I grew up in New England, where Unitarians are very active, widely respected, part of the cultural norm. When the Unitarian Church in our town studied Judaism each year, my father, the local nice Jewish guy, would put on a Passover seder for them. And I am grateful that what has become the Unitarian Universalist (referred to as “UU”) Association has provided a home for countless wandering interfaith families.

I am aware of the lively debate on whether Unitarians are more “post-Christian” than Christian. I know that the Christian flavor of any given UU congregation varies greatly from church to church. And I also know that interfaith families have brought an active “Jewish UU” subculture to many of these churches. But still, it is a church, and some Jewish parents of interfaith children have trouble getting beyond that. Me, I feel comfortable, even inspired, in many UU churches.

But it is unlikely that a church (or synagogue) of any stripe will ever provide what I have now: an entire community of interfaith families on a journey together, an entire Sunday School filled with interfaith children dedicated to exploring both sides of their heritage. And we are dedicated to delving as deeply as we can into both the Jewish and Christian traditions. So, for instance, our program teaches the Hebrew alphabet and has a rabbi on the staff, which is not likely to happen in a UU Church.

My family is one of over a million interfaith Jewish/non-Jewish families in America now, and that number is growing by 40,000 new families each year. We need all the options to stay open for us. We need Jewish institutions to welcome us. We need churches to notice and try to understand us. And we need to continue to develop new models of how to be true to ourselves and give our children access to their rich inheritance.