Welcome Walker Diggs, Interfaith Child

It is easy to be cynical about celebrity marriages. And it is easy to fret about the obstacles faced by interfaith and interracial marriages. But I can’t help feeling thrilled by the birth this week of Walker Nathaniel Diggs.

Walker is the son of Broadway luminaries Idina Menzel (a nice Jewish girl from Long Island) and Taye Diggs (her African-American costar from the original Rent cast). The two started dating in the 1990’s, they married in 2003, they have endured racist harassment, and they waited until they were both 38 to have this baby. So in celebrity terms, they have already shown powerful longevity in their relationship, which bodes well for baby Walker.

For many interracial/interfaith couples, the faith issues take a back seat to more obvious race issues. But it is clear the couple have also thought about their interfaith status. They named their terrier after Sammy Davis Jr., the African-American entertainer who converted to Judaism.

Menzel is a role model to generations of girls for originating the feisty roles of Maureen in Rent and Elphaba in the girl-power musical Wicked. Last year, a reporter from the Jewish Chronicle asked Menzel whether they would raise their (theoretical) children as Jews. Menzel replied, “…I feel strong connections to my culture and, so yes, I would like to bring them up with knowledge of the stories and awareness of the history. I’m just not sure about the rest. I’m a spiritual person, not a religious person.”

Those are the exact words uttered by many of the parents who found their way to independent interfaith communities . I am sure Menzel will feel pressure from Jewish institutions to raise her son exclusively as a Jew. And she’s got the whole “matrilineality” thing working for her. On the other hand, in a Jewish context Walker Diggs, with his Christian last name and brown skin, will always be obvious as an interfaith child. Christians will make the assumption that he is Christian. So he will grow up with an interfaith identity on some level, even if he is raised exclusively as a Jew. In an interfaith community, he would grow up with “knowledge of the stories and awareness of the history” from both sides of his family.

 

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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“But Do You Actually Worship Together?”

Oak Tree II

On Sunday, our interfaith community met in the shade of an ancient oak tree. We spread blankets under the leafy canopy—new parents with babies, engaged couples, empty nesters. We stood, and chanted the Shema, and the Lord’s Prayer, and sang an Irish blessing. Those struggling with illness or sadness got up to place pebbles in a bowl, to share their burden with the community. Our minister reflected on the story of Jacob and Esau. Then, we sang the Hamotzi over our potluck feast. I crossed the lawn to greet our rabbi, a chaplain at Georgetown, who was decked out in a jaunty T-shirt reading “Georgetown” in Hebrew.

Our community encompasses Catholics, Protestants, Quakers, Buddhists, Jews of every stripe, agnostics and atheists. We come together in spite of our diverse and divergent theologies. But for many interfaith families, we are the only spiritual home, the only place they feel comfortable. I don’t call what we do together worship, because for me, theology is not the point. Rather, the community itself, and the primal experience of singing together and sharing our joys and concerns, creates the neurological response that humans label spirituality. It has little to do with belief, and much to do with making art together and providing support for each other in times of trouble.

In our community, we call this a Gathering rather than a worship service. Each Gathering begins with this responsive reading written by Oscar Rosenbloom, a founding member of the Interfaith Community of Palo Alto:

Reader: We gather here as an Interfaith Community

To share and celebrate the gift of life together

All: Some of us gather as the Children of Israel

Some of us gather in the name of Jesus of Nazareth

Some of us gather influenced by each

Reader: However we come, and whoever we are

May we be moved, In our time together

To experience that sense of Divine presence in each of us

Evoked by our worship together

All: And to know in the wisdom of our hearts

That deeper unity in which all are one.

Ten years into our journey with this interfaith community, my chidren have memorized the Shema, the Hamotzi, the Lord’s Prayer. They also recite by heart that interfaith responsive reading. They can articulate their sense of connection to this community, and the songs and readings stir their souls. Our community is an immense tree with branches growing in all directions, representing Jewish, Christian and other beliefs. No matter how much it irks some religious institutions, we insist on standing together to create a motley but massive trunk for this tree, a strong support for our children to climb and explore.

Back to School: Dual-Faith Religious Education

Interfaith Families Project--"stained glass" made in Sunday School

Tomorrow our community of over 100 interfaith families will picnic together for the kickoff of the school year. In our Sunday School, children learn about both Judaism and Christianity. It is a radical concept, but one that is spreading to new cities each year as more and more interfaith families choose to educate their children about both religions.

My children have attended this program since kindergarten, and they are now 15 and 12. When my daughter graduated from Sunday School at the end of 8th grade, she chose to keep coming with us on Sundays and became a teacher’s helper in the kindergarten class.

Many adults grew up hating Sunday School. Our community strives to make the experience as interactive and multi-sensory as possible, using storytelling, music, art and field trips. My daughter helps the kindergartners learn songs they will encounter in synagogues and churches—the roving music teacher comes into the class with a guitar to sing “It’s a Tree of Life” as well as “This Little Light of Mine.”

My daughter helps the children with craft projects: maybe constructing a tzedakah (charity) box to put coins in. Or decorating a cloth matzoh or challah cover with fabric markers. Or making “stained glass” with translucent gels on plexiglass. In fourth grade, after learning about the Christian story of the loaves and the fishes, her class used real fish to make Japanese fishprints on T-shirts.

My son, at 12, is just entering the two-year Coming of Age program. Last year, his classes included Hebrew literacy as well as a historical and theological survey of the Jewish and Christian denominations. They went on field trips to a local Reform Shabbat service, a Jewish museum, a Quaker meeting, and a Catholic mass. Each student presented reports on different denominations. My son chose to study the Mennonites, one of the religions in his complex personal ancestry. He also thrilled his classmates in his presentation on Chasidic Judaism by showing a youtube video of rapper Matisyahu and analyzing some of his lyrics.

As my son enters the two-year Coming of Age process, we will help him to decide how he wants to mark his passage into adulthood. We know he will participate in our group Coming of Age ceremony at the end of those two years. He could also have an individual ceremony, as his sister did. Will it be labeled a Bar Mitzvah? Will he read from the Torah? Does he want a Christian confirmation? Or will it be an integrated Jewish and Christian ceremony? Does he have to choose now, at the brink of 13? Does he have to choose later? Does he have to choose? To follow the story, follow the blog!

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.

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.