Interfaith Identity: More Than One Box

Little Boxes, photo Aimee Helen MillerMost interfaith Jewish/Christian children share a set of pivotal moments, epiphanies that help to forge our interfaith identities. These realizations well up in response to confrontation with the following facts:

  • Hitler targeted interfaith children as well as full-blooded Jews.
  • Hitler did not make a distinction between matrilineal and patrilineal half-Jews.
  • Many Jews (sadly, even Reform Jews) do not recognize patrilineal Jews.
  • Israel does not recognize patrilineal Jews or allow interfaith marriage.
  • Standardized forms do not allow us to check more than one religion box.

The shared experience of confronting these facts marks each of us with a sense of common interfaith identity which transcends our adult choices about affiliation. I think of Maine’s Senator William Cohen, who studied for a Bar Mitzvah but was then informed that he couldn’t have one because he was patrilineal. For Cohen, that epiphany was a turning point: he later became a Unitarian.

In contrast, being forced to check one religion box on a standardized form does not seem like a big deal. But just yesterday, my 15-year-old daughter had this experience for the first time, and it made an impression on her. She was taking the PSAT at high school, the first of the college admission tests, and the information they gather to match colleges with potential applicants apparently includes religion.

“It had Episcopalian. It had Jewish. But I wasn’t allowed to check both.  I could have checked “none” but that isn’t right,” she reported. “None” would indeed be all wrong for a child who has studied Hebrew, learned the stories of the Hebrew and Christian bibles, can recite prayers from both traditions, and now gets up early every Sunday morning to teach interfaith Sunday School.

So she checked the box that said, in essence, “none of your business.” A wise choice for many reasons. But it certainly made her think about her interfaith status. She reported, “Mom, they were trying to force me into one little box, just like you’re always writing about…”  I felt gratified that for a moment she understood my obsession with the interfaith topic. And I felt a strengthened bond with her, a fellow member of the growing interfaith clan.

Glad I’m Not Intermarried in Israel, Part Two

Lover's Lane, photo Susan Katz MillerToday’s profoundly disturbing NPR story titled “Vigilantes Patrol for Jewish Women Dating Arab Men” is causing a stir in the blogosphere. First of all, once again, thank God I live in the United States where it would not be legal for a municipality to support a group of religious zealots to accost teenage couples parked in a lover’s lane.

The NPR story brought on a storm of protest and questions from listeners. Immediately, we’re plunged into the eternally circular argument over whether Judaism is primarily a religion or a tribe. Is the  “mixed dating” problematic to these vigilantes because it is mixed by religion or ethnicity?  It’s convenient to forget that Jewish girls may actually be Arab  (or Ethiopian, or Russian). Arab boys may be Muslim, or Christian, or Jewish for that matter. So the whole concept of Jewish/Arab mixed dating conflates and confounds.

Why did the NPR reporter interview the Jewish girls and vigilantes , but not the Arab boys? The tone was snarky, and appeared to discount the possibility that there was any possible value to the romantic relationships between young Jews and Arabs. What about Jewish boys dating Arab girls? How does Jewish matrilineality versus Muslim patrilineality play into this? All the vigilantes are men. How do Jewish mothers feel about their daughters dating Muslims/Christians/Arabs? How do Arab mothers feel?

More questions than answers here, and a rather thin story. But the idea of the vigilantes, the threat of violence in an attempt to keep lovers apart, brings to mind Romeo and Juliet. The vigilantes appear to be thrashing around in a desperate last-ditch attempt to forestall the inevitable. It’s ironic that these couples are a byproduct of Jewish settlements built in Arab neighborhoods. A battle against the power of hormones seems doomed.  If we live together, there will be stolen kisses, there will be real love in some cases, and there will be interfaith children.

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

Without Jesus I Could Not be a Jew

Buddha in Adobe, Lama, photo Susan Katz MillerWell, that’s not exactly true. I’m riffing on the title of a new book by theology professor and former Catholic priest Paul Knitter: Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian. Peter Steinfels reviewed it yesterday in The New York Times in his “Beliefs” column, calling it a “compelling example of religious inquiry.” I have asked this before and I must ask it again: why is it considered groovy and intellectual to claim Buddhism and Christianity, or Buddhism and Judaism? And why is it, at the same time, considered deeply transgressive and troubling to claim Christianity and Judaism? Sigh. The primary reason seems to be that extreme Freudian tension in the Judeo-Christian family tree leads to discord and dissonance. In contrast, Buddhism is an alluring, exotic distant cousin: we are all on our best behavior when visiting Buddhism.

I have not read Knitter’s book yet–I really do look forward to reading it. According to the column, Knitter argues for religious “double-belonging.” I am very pleased to welcome a thoughtful and daring academic as he  throws in his lot with all of us who have been in the interfaith families movement for decades, “double-belonging” without the approval of religious institutions.

Columnist Steinfels remains skeptical. He asks whether Knitter can continue to call himself a Buddhist Christian, or whether he will have to become a Christian Buddhist. No. No. No. Do not take our “both/and” state and try to force us back into “either/or” boxes. That’s the whole point. We are both, or as Knitter says, we double-belong.

Steinfels’ binary question reminded me of a seminal episode in my education at Reform Jewish Sunday School. The teacher drew a line down the center of the room and asked us to stand on one side of the line or the other, based on whether we considered ourselves Jewish Americans, or American Jews. Stringing together identities like that, listing one as a modifier of the other, requires prioritizing. Even as a child, I understood that the terms were loaded. I understood that the teacher wanted us to choose “American Jews” because Judaism was more important to her than being American. I knew the truth was that I had two religious heritages, Judaism and Christianity. And the truth was that being in America was more important to me than either of my religious identities. I was utterly paralyzed. I wanted to straddle the line. As an interfaith child, I am allergic to choosing, and I defend my right to resist categorization.

I am not a Jewish Christian. I am not a Christian Jew. I am both. I am neither. I am an interfaith American. I am springing out of those boxes, along with an entire generation of interfaith children. We are waiting for academics, and religious institutions, and journalists, to catch up with us.

Finding Interfaith Spirituality

Labyrinth at Lama, photo Sue Katz MillerI subscribe to the theory that spirituality is primarily a neurochemical response to music, dance, beauty, and sense of community. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I seek out the rush of spirituality, and have found it in synagogues, churches, nature, and concert halls. I have felt that rush in a crowd of people transported by the live music of Bob Marley, the Grateful Dead, Regina Spektor.

Clearly, I’m not alone. All mystic traditions make use of these same elements to inspire spirituality, and the fact that these elements are common across the lines of dogma and theology, across even the boundaries of monotheism, polytheism and atheism, confirms my interfaith perspective. The Chasids, the mystics of Judaism, know the power of dancing and chanting, as do the Sufis, the mystics of Islam. The Jewish Renewal movement is reclaiming this power, uncoupling it from the orthodoxy of Chasidism and merging it with a more progressive framework.

Many recent studies have tracked the shift by Americans away from religion, even as they seek and experience more spirituality. Other studies have implied that it is spirituality, not religion, that breeds happiness.

As an interfaith child, I have had profound spiritual moments in the dim stained-glass light of Chartres Cathedral, while listening to Bach’s Easter Oratorio at the Peabody Conservatory, while dancing and chanting a Shlomo Carlebach song with Rabbi Tirzah Firestone, and while dancing and chanting a Sufi zikr in the thin air of New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo mountains in a sacred grove at the Lama Foundation.

My interfaith children have deep grounding in the specific traditions of Judaism and Christianity bequeathed to them by ancestors. So you could say that they have “permission” to access the swell of emotion invoked by singing Handel’s Messiah in Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church at Christmas. And they have “permission” to feel the primal call of the shofar penetrate their souls. But as interfaith children primed to seek out the spiritual, their comfort zone expands far beyond these two inherited traditions. My 12-year-old son has gone on more than one Buddhist retreat. My artist daughter feeds her soul on the ephemeral outdoor sculptures of Andy Goldsworthy. Deep is good. Tradition is good. But for our family, more is also better. We want as much singing, dancing, beauty and community as we can fit into our lives. We seek out these experiences wherever and whenever we can find them.

Interfaith Teens: Not Dazed or Confused

photo Susan Katz MillerOn Yom Kippur, I watched my 15-year-old daughter stand up before our interfaith community and lead the Jewish call to prayer: “Barchu et adonai hamvorach…”  She learned this chant for her interfaith coming of age ceremony when she was thirteen. But I wasn’t sure if she would ever have the opportunity to lead the prayer again, or whether the melody would stick in her mind. Some of us who were raised as Jews, let alone those like my daughter raised as interfaith children, rarely use our Bar or Bat Mitzvah education in the ensuing years or decades.

Seeing her stride up to the front of the sanctuary, hearing her voice ring out with such assurance surprised and thrilled me. I had not anticipated this moment, because our Yom Kippur service is designed and lead by our interfaith teen group, and being teens, they don’t necessarily keep parents in the loop. All I knew was that while I was busy in the half-hour before the service began, setting up the tables of challah and egg salad for the meal to break our fast, she was making last-minute decisions with the other teens about who would lead which part of the service.

Religious leaders have an infuriating tendency to posit, without reference to any current objective research, that interfaith children raised with dual religions will turn out lost, apathetic, ignorant, confused. In fact, there is no current objective research. All we have are anecdotes. So I offer my own. At our Yom Kippur service, I did not see confused. I saw a teenage boy confident enough to get up and talk about repentance and prayer and charity. I saw a teenage girl confident enough to get up and give a spontaneous, touching and entertaining Yom Kippur reflection. I saw my own daughter made stronger by a day of fasting:  I saw her as an adult endowed with spiritual insight and the gift of leadership.

I wish every clergy member, of every religion, could come and observe our  teens leading the Yom Kippur service each year. They are the ultimate proof that children raised with substantive education about two religions, in a caring community, with access to spiritual experience, seem to be turning out fine. Fine indeed.

A Wandering Jew on Yom Kippur

photo Susan Katz MillerI have a confession.  I am not taking my children to a High Holy Days service at a synagogue this year.  When they were small, I took them to free family services at a local synagogue where they handed out kazoos, presumably on the theory that these plastic noisemakers resemble shofars. As soon as the kids got their hands on the instruments, chaos ensued. The Rabbi spent the rest of the service trying to regain control of his mutinous miniature congregants. The atmosphere was not particularly conducive to deep contemplation.

Last year, I thought my children were old enough to go to an adult service with me, so I bought tickets. I did my research and chose a congregation known for its choir. I was hoping to replicate my positive High Holy Day experiences growing up in a Reform Synagogue. We had a gorgeous choir with a ringer Irish soprano: the music is what got me through those long and hungry hours, and even inspired glimmerings of spirituality. But the morning I took my kids happened to be one that did not feature the choir after all. And it went on, and on, and on, with heavy Hebrew and unfamiliar new tunes. In terms of helping my children feel positive about going to synagogues, it was what they would term an “epic fail.”

When I can, I try to fly home to my parents for these holidays, to the synagogue of my childhood. But the congregation has tripled in size–I don’t know anyone anymore. The rabbi who refused to officiate at my interfaith marriage has retired. Realistically, I cannot fly my children to Boston for both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur while school is in session. And I also know that this congregation, as with most congregations, would be challenged by the idea of how to truly welcome children with only one Jewish grandparent–and a Jewish grandfather at that.

So on Yom Kippur, we will be where we feel most at home, with our interfaith community. Our service is only an hour long, at the close of the day, to accommodate those who go to work, and those who go to temple services. But honestly, it is just the right amount of time for kids and Christian spouses. And we know for darn sure that the sermon will not be about the “dilemma” of interfaith marriage, or who should get to be a Jew, or whether we are passing all the litmus tests for raising our children correctly. And we will know just about everyone in the room. These are my people now.

Jewish Autumn, Christian Winter…

Fall Leaves, photo Susan Katz MillerGrowing up, my family often went apple-picking after Rosh Hashanah services. My Jewish New Year memories are intertwined with the cidery scent of apples rotting in the grass, the sound of bees buzzing, the long angle of late New England sun, and the brisk air that meant the excitement of new school clothes.

In autumn, our interfaith community celebrates Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), and the harvest festival of Sukkot. It may, in fact, appear that we are giving Christianity short shrift, because the “must do” Jewish holidays are stacked up front. When prospective members come to check us out in the fall, the Jewish partner in the couple tends to feel perfectly comfortable. If I can, I give those Jewish partners a heads up that as winter approaches, they will need to reckon with Christianity.

After a transition through the mostly secular Thanksgiving period, we shift into what I think of as our Christian season, with Advent and Christmas. We celebrate Hannukah of course. But since Hannukah is not actually among the top five Jewish holidays in terms of importance, we don’t attempt to give Hannukah and Christmas equal weight. “Being both” is not about distorting either religion to create false equivalencies. We do not have a Hannukah bush, or menorahs on our Christmas tree. Instead, we celebrate Advent and Christmas with as much historical integrity and spiritual depth as we can muster, to offset the commercial Christmas so prevalent in American culture. Jewish partners learn to accept, or not, seeing their children light Advent candles, sing carols, and talk about the birth of Jesus, that nice Jewish boy.

In spring, “being both” comes to a head with the twin week-long celebrations of Passover and Holy Week. Most interfaith families know this as the season of true “interfaith dilemma.” Jews are forced to confront the idea of resurrection. Christians are forced to confront the historical anti-Semitism associated with Easter. Everyone in the family must negotiate the “chosen people” language embedded in the Passover Seder, and the horror of the drowning of the Egyptians. And we must be nimble diplomats to avoid making a mishigas of meals with extended family featuring Easter buns, matzoh balls, ham and brisket.

With the end of the school year, our interfaith community goes into sleep mode, as do many religious communities. For some strange and convenient reason, there are no major holidays in either Judaism or Christianity during the summer. Instead, many of us use this time to reflect on whether or not we will recommit ourselves to the communities we have chosen—especially those of us who are wandering Jews, wandering Christians, or both.

 

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 @beingboth.