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.

Peace, Salaam, Shalom

T-shirt, emma's revolutionMy children were four and seven years old on 9/11, though they both remember that day. In shock, we wandered to the center of town, and found a spontaneous gathering at the gazebo singing peace songs. I felt helpless: singing seemed to help.

Singing together, like drumming and working with clay, stems from a primal impulse. Song soothes the fretful, the sad, the cynical, the terrified. When my children were babies, I sang lullabies to them each night, including peace songs passed down from both sides of my interfaith family: “Oseh Shalom” and “Sim Shalom” in Hebrew, but also “Dona Nobis Pacem” in Latin. (I was not making a conscious effort to be even-handed: in those long sessions in the rocking chair, I sang every scrap of music lodged in my brain, including selections from “The Music Man” and “Hair.”)

The song I now think of as the quintessential interfaith song was written in the aftermath of 9/11. Our musician friends Pat Humphries and Sandy Opatow (known together as emma’s revolution), created a healing chant: “Peace, Salaam, Shalom.They performed it for the first time in New York City in the first large peace rally after 9/11, and 10,000 people wound through the streets of the city singing it for hours.

At my daughter’s interfaith Coming of Age ceremony last year, we were privileged to have Pat and Sandy (an interfaith couple!) lead our family and friends in singing “Peace, Salaam, Shalom.” This song, with one essential word in Arabic, has now joined the Hebrew and Latin lullabies in our interfaith family canon. The words are deeply embedded in my children, and only good can come of this.

As 9/11 recedes into history, as our memories inevitably fade, we must remember those who were lost, and our troops overseas, and all who live in fear of war and terror. But I also want to remember the way trauma brought us out into the streets to try to conjure peace. Tomorrow, I will wear my “Peace, Salaam, Shalom” shirt. If you see me, let’s sing together.

 

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.

Interfaith Marriage…in Israel and Lebanon

Mediterranean Coastline--photo Susan Katz Miller

If you think being intermarried in the United States is challenging, consider what it would be like in the Middle East. This week’s Economist has an interesting article about the prohibition on interfaith marriages in Lebanon. Couples who are Muslim and Druze Christian, or Jewish and Greek Orthodox, must fly to Cyprus, half an hour away, to tie the knot. That’s because there is no provision for civil marriage in Lebanon.

I raised my eyebrows at the mention of Cyprus. As a “patrilineal” half-Jew, Cyprus already has dark resonance for me. In Israel, I am not a “legal” Jew despite learning Hebrew, becoming a Bat Mitzvah, and all of the sacrifices made by my Christian mother to raise me without any Christian influence. But if I marry in Israel, I have to fly to Cyprus to do it. If I die in Israel, I have to fly to Cyprus to be buried. Is it any wonder I have deep ambivalence about Israel?

Speaking of Israel, the government there unveiled a campaign this week against interfaith marriage, comparing those who have married non-Jews to abducted missing persons. And yes, I know all the arguments for why a tiny and embattled religious minority feels the need to define and guard its tribal identity. Many of us believe that this aggressive and exclusive stance will drive away more “could be Jews” than it will attract. And it is simply offensive.

Meanwhile, newsflash–people from different religions are going to continue to marry each other, and even have the chutzpah to create children together. So be thankful if you live in the USA, where we have civil marriage, the right to raise our children as we please, and the right to be buried in our own country.

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.

“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.