Spring Interfaith Holidays 2021

Lizas HexTop
Glorious Color quilts by my cousin, Liza Prior Lucy

This post has become an annual tradition. Over more than a decade writing this interfaith blog, I have posted multiple essays on many of the spring Jewish and Christian holidays: PurimSt Patrick’s DayPassoverEaster. But the complex, interlocking quilt squares of #GenInterfaith now go far beyond Judaism and Christianity.

My new book The Interfaith Family Journal, is designed for all interfaith families, of any or all religions, or none. And while we make many different choices about what to believe, how to practice, and where to affiliate (or not), all of us in extended interfaith families (and increasingly, that is most of us) benefit from multi-sensory interfaith experiences with extended family, neighbors, and co-workers.

Just in the coming weeks, we have a dense schedule of holidays (for a more complete list go here). Note the ancient connections many of these holidays have to the spring equinox, and often, to each other. Religions and cultures are not static, but change in response to neighboring religions and cultures, just as we do as individual members of interfaith families.

Feb 16, Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras). For Roman Catholics and some Protestants, this day marks the end of feasting before the beginning of fasting for Lent. Shrove Tuesday is the finale of Carnival (Shrovetide), with notable multi-day celebrations in Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago, New Orleans, Venice, and some Protestant regions. Carnival may have many historical ties to the pre-Christian celebrations of the return of the sun.

Feb 17, Ash Wednesday, for Roman Catholics and some Protestants, marking the start of Lent. Lent is a period of prayer and penance in commemoration of Jesus’s 40 days in the desert, and in preparation for Easter. Many practitioners make a Lenten sacrifice, giving up a specific luxury food (chocolate, all sweets, alcohol) during Lent.

Feb 26, Purim. Jewish commemoration of the Biblical story of Esther in ancient Persia, celebrated with costumed reenactments (Purim spiels), three-cornered pastry (hamantaschen), carnival games, drinking, and charity. Some believe Esther is connected to the ancient fertility goddess Ishtar, and there may be a historical connection between Norooz and Purim.

March 11, Maha shiveratri, the Hindu festival honoring the night Lord Shiva created the world. The celebration includes staying up all night to meditate, chant, and dance, in the darkest season. Check out the twitter hashtag #DontYawnTillDawn.

March 17, St Patrick’s Day. Catholic commemoration of the Feast Day of St Patrick, primarily celebrated by Irish-Americans with parades, drinking, and the wearing of the green, as a way to connect with Irish heritage. Now celebrated in America by people of many religions. Possible historical connection to Ostara.

March 21, Spring Equinox. Ostara, ModernPagan/Wiccan commemoration of the spring equinox and Eostre, the Saxon lunar goddess of fertility. Celebrated with planting of seeds and nature walks. Possible historical connections between Eostre/Esther/Ishtar, and between Easter, Passover, and Norooz.

March 21, Norooz (Nowruz, Naw-Ruz). Zoroastrian/Bahai/Persian celebration of the New Year on the spring equinox. With roots in ancient Iran, people of many religions may celebrate Norooz together in the Balkans, Caucasus, Central and South Asia, and the Middle East, with spring cleaning, flowers, picnics, feasting, and family visits. Possible historical connection between Norooz and Purim.

March 25, Mahavir Jayanti, the Jain holiday celebrating the birth of Mahavir with temple visits, charity, and in recent times, rallies promoting non-violence and veganism, and running events.

March 28, Magha Puja Day. Buddhist commemoration of Buddha delivering the principles of Buddhism, on the full moon. Celebrated in Southeast Asia with temple visits, processions, and good works.

Sundown on March 28 to April 8, Passover (Pesach), Jewish commemoration of the flight from Egypt described in the book of Exodus. Primarily a home-based celebration with one or more festive Seder meals of ritual foods, songs, and prayer. As with Easter, Passover incorporates (presumably pre-Judaic pagan) spring equinox fertility symbolism (eggs, spring greens).

March 28-29, Holi. Hindu commemoration of the arrival of spring and love, celebrated with bonfires, throwing powdered color pigments and water on each other, music, feasting, forgiving debts, repairing relationships, and visiting. Popular even with non-Hindus in South Asia, and increasingly (and not without controversy over appropriation) throughout the world.

March 29, Hola Mohalla. Sikh celebration including processions, mock battles, poetry reading, music. There is a historical connection between Hinduism’s Holi and Hola Mohalla.

April 1, Maundy Thursday. Protestant and Roman Catholic commemoration of The Last Supper. There may (or may not) be a historical connection between The Last Supper and the Passover seder.

April 2, Good Friday. Protestant and Roman Catholic commemoration of the Crucifixion of Jesus, with church services and fasting.

April 4, Easter. Protestant and Roman Catholic commemoration of the Resurrection of Jesus, celebrated with church services, family dinners, and baskets of candy for children. Fertility imagery including bunnies and eggs may, or may not, have a historical connection to pre-Christian rituals and the spring equinox.

April 13, start of the month-long daytime fast for Ramadan in Islam, commemorating the revelation of the Qu’ran. Muslim holidays are on a lunar calendar, so move through the seasons over time.

May 2, Orthodox Easter (or Pascha) in many of the Orthodox Christian traditions using the Julian rather than Gregorian calendar, including Bulgaria, Cyprus, Ethiopia, Greece, Lebanon, Macedonia, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine, as well as millions of people in North America. Many of these cultures include a feast of lamb (connected historically to Passover) and hard-boiled eggs (connected to more ancient fertility traditions).

New Bordered Diamonds Cover
Glorious Color quilts by my cousin, Liza Prior Lucy

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Book Review: Darius the Great is Not Okay

We need to listen to the voices of kids from all sorts of interfaith families, not just Jewish and Christian families. Darius the Great is Not Okay, by Adib Khorram, is a poignant, lyrical, hilarious novel, with an unforgettable protagonist from a complex interfaith family. This award-winning 2018 Young Adult (YA) novel stars Darius Kellner, an American teenager who happens to have a Persian-American Zoroastrian mother, and a European-American secular humanist father. The novel centers on a summer when Darius goes for an extended visit with his grandparents in Iran. While there, he meets a boy who happens to be Baha’i.

Darius may seem, on some levels, like a universal YA protagonist: awkward, insecure, and struggling with the feeling that he is disappointing his parents. He’s a nerd who loves Star Trek and Tolkien, and hates gym class. As the plot progresses, he faces some of his demons and bullies, comes to understand his flawed parents better, and grows into a more confident young man.

But this coming-of-age narrative stands out for multiple reasons. The author, who himself experienced clinical depression as a teen, creates a nuanced portrait of a teen with inherited depression who benefits from anti-depressants. His depiction of Darius as he begins to realize he is attracted to another young man is subtle and poetic. And the exploration of Iranian religions and culture is compelling, especially to those of us who are religious history nerds.

Most relevant here, Darius will fascinate anyone who is an interfaith kid. The novel, while absolutely unique, echoes some of the themes of previous YA books with protagonists from interfaith families, going all the way back to Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret (1970), up through the more recent books My Basmati Bar Mitzvah, and Mira in the Present Tense and including the brand new All American Muslim Girl. But the closest parallel may be found in prize-winning poet Naomi Shihab Nye’s Habibi. As in Darius, the protagonist of Habibi is a US-born teen with one European-American parent and one immigrant parent, who goes abroad to stay with grandparents, explores cultural and religious heritage, and makes a close friend of another religion. (In the case of Habibi, a teenage girl goes to stay with her Palestinian Muslim grandmother, and meets a nice Jewish boy).

Whether we grow up in Jewish/Christian, Muslim/Christian, or Zoroastrian/atheist families, interfaith kids share some common experiences. Darius describes himself as a “Fractional Persian.” He worries about whether he is Persian enough. He wonders whether he has the right to claim a Persian identity in Iran while feeling marked by his Persian identity back in the U.S. And he feels cut off from claiming Zoroastrianism because it is patrilinial (a barrier familiar to interfaith kids from other religions with gender-based inheritance traditions, including Judaism and Islam).

Darius also expresses a longing for unity across religious boundaries, and an attraction to learning about religious history, qualities many interfaith kids in my research share. He fondly notes the social solidarity of Persians in exile, who “celebrated Nowruz and Chaharshanbeh Suri together in big parties, Baha’is and Muslims and Jews and Christians and Zoroastrians…” And while in Iran, he speaks to the beauty of the muezzin’s call to prayer, the wonder of the Assyrian statues in Persepolis, and the power of the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence. Darius may identify with his father’s secular humanism, but he is also deeply engaged with his own complex religious heritage, and the religious landscape around him.

Last month, news broke that Darius the Great is Not Okay will become a film. And fans are eagerly awaiting a sequel novel due out in the fall: Darius the Great Deserves Better. A lot of the excitement around the sequel has focused on Darius’s coming out journey (Korram tweeted that one of the titles they considered for the sequel was Darius the Great is Not Straight). But I hope the film, and the sequel, also make space for Darius to contemplate his complex spiritual and cultural identity, as part of an extended interfaith family.

Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and a workbook, The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Seeking Interfaith Families…at the Parliament of the World’s Religions

99 Names Project
99 Names Project. Artist, Andrew Kosorok. Parliament art exhibit.

What if I told you that almost 10,000 people converged on Salt Lake City for the Parliament of the World’s Religions, to engage in interfaith activism, interfaith education and interfaith bridge-building? And what if I reminded you that more than a third of all Americans who are married or living with a partner are in interfaith or mixed-denomination relationships according to Pew Research? Given these two pieces of information, you might expect robust discussion at this Parliament on the role of interfaith families as interfaith educators and peacemakers. Am I right?

Registration Hall, Salt Palace Convention Center, Parliament of the World's Religions
Registration Hall, Salt Palace Convention Center, Parliament of the World’s Religions

The Parliament can be overwhelming: it helps to have a thread, a focus, to organize your days. I approached the Parliament through my own lens, that of an adult interfaith child who claims a complex religious identity. So on my first day in the Salt Palace Convention Center, I went looking for the stories of people from interfaith families inspired to become interfaith peacemakers. And of course, I found them, everywhere.

But not in the official program. The official program included some 1800 presenters, and there was exactly one presenter on interfaith families. That would be me. Why only one? Like so many other old-school interfaith organizations, the Parliament has traditionally been dominated by older men–I witnessed a panel composed entirely of men in dark suits at the opening plenary–and by religious institutions interested in keeping everyone in a “Box A or Box B or Box C” model of religious affiliation.

Those of us who blur boundaries, who claim Buddhism and Christianity, or Judaism and Paganism, or create families that transgress the invisible religious borders–we make religious leaders nervous. We are disruptors, even at a conference as radically inclusive as the Parliament. We are seen as marginal, even while we are now the majority in some religious communities, even while millennials are fleeing from “either/or” identities, and from religious litmus tests, and dogma, and membership criteria.

Labyrinth, Parliament of the World's Religions
Labyrinth, Salt Palace Convention Center, at the Parliament

So, I woke up early on my first full day at the Parliament (thanks to East Coast jet lag) and set out to find my interfaith family people. And in the very first session into which I wandered, Buyondo Micheal was explaining The Peace Drum Initiative, a project in which he teaches Muslim, Christian, and Hindu schoolchildren in Uganda to drum together, under the auspices of his Faiths Together Uganda program. As he began explaining how he ended up creating this program, he described his own interfaith education as part of an interfaith family, in which he shifted back and forth from Christian to Muslim schools throughout his childhood. Lo and behold, the very first presenter I heard at the Parliament turned out to be someone from an interfaith family, inspired by this background to do interfaith peacemaking.

Tibetan Buddhist sand mandala, Registration Hall, Salt Palace Convention Center
Tibetan Buddhist sand mandala, Registration Hall, Salt Palace Convention Center

Next, I lined up for langar, the lunch served by the Sikh community each day, and ended up sitting on the floor eating with a local woman who was volunteering at the Parliament, from a Mormon and Catholic interfaith family. (In the langar line on another day, I ran into a friend from my online interfaith activism world, from a Hindu and Sikh interfaith family). Each day while waiting in the langar line, I watched the sand mandala made by the Tibetan Buddhist monks slowly taking shape. The intricate patterns seemed to reflect the complexity of the interfaith world, and my own interfaith identity.

After curried potatoes, spicy cauliflower and chai tea at langar, I went to give my talk on interfaith families as interfaith peacemakers. During the discussion, the young woman who was randomly assigned as a volunteer to our session, who was there to make sure the projector worked, raised her hand tentatively. She said, “I didn’t even know what this session was going to be about. But I’m an interfaith child. My parents are Mormon and Baha’i. And I’ve never heard anyone talk about it in this way before. I thought I was the only one. So I just wanted to thank you.” That moment, right there, made the trip to Salt Lake City worthwhile.

Each of these Parliament participants born into an interfaith family was motivated to walk through the doors of the Salt Palace because of, not in spite of, their experiences as interfaith bridge-builders in their own families. But I only got a glimpse of these inspiring stories in the liminal spaces—in the lunch line conversations, and as tangents. At the next Parliament, we need to hear about the rich complexity of interfaith family life in multiple panels, and in the plenary sessions.

Assembly Hall, Temple Square, Salt Lake City
Assembly Hall, Temple Square, Salt Lake City

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.

Cathedral of the Pines: A Worship Space for All Faiths

Cathedral of the Pines

My husband and I were lucky enough to be driving around New England on a recent summer weekend when we spotted the Cathedral of the Pines on a map. We drove an extra hour to Rindge, New Hampshire, to see this 200-acre outdoor worship space founded in 1945 in response to World War II, for “all faiths, one family, one earth.” I love a cathedral. And the idea of a plein-air cathedral struck me as inspired and inspiring.

I was curious to see how this memorial and sanctuary wove together the threads of war and peace and patriotism and interfaith understanding, a complex set of themes not always found together. My father, 89, is a Word War II veteran and a part of that “greatest generation,” and we had just spent the Fourth of July with my interfaith parents, outside Boston. The soundtrack to my childhood is my father playing Sousa marches and “Grand Old Flag” on the piano (along with American songbook standards, hymns, and Bach). Perhaps this is why I always feel very American, somehow, in New England.

We discovered that the Cathedral of the Pines was founded in 1946 by Douglas and Sibyl Sloane, a couple who lost their only son when the plane he piloted was shot down in 1944 over Germany. Lieutenant Sanderson Sloane had planned to build a home with his wife on the hilltop. After his death, his parents created the outdoor Cathedral there instead.

Approaching the site, a crest of tall pines comes into view, clustered around a single bell tower built from local field stones. The tower, with English and Flemish carillon bells chiming on the hour and four bas-relief bronze plaques designed by Norman Rockwell, was built as a memorial tribute to all American women who sacrificed their lives for their country. The four panels depict women in combat forces, civilian women who supported the troops (a war correspondent, a USO entertainer, a nun, a Salvation Army officer, and Rosie the Riveter), nurse and Red Cross founder Clara Barton, and a pioneer woman. Dedicated in 1967, it is the first national monument to women lost in conflict.

Beyond the tower, on a ridge looking across the valley to Mount Monadnock, simple wood benches in an outdoor amphitheater face a stone altar constructed in 1946. This Altar of Nations incorporates stones from all 50 states, soil from Jerusalem, and stones contributed by every President starting with Harry Truman. In 1957, Congress recognized the Altar as a National Memorial to all American war dead.

Cathedral of the Pines, Altar of the Nations

A simple cross rises permanently from the altar. However, other religious symbols including a star of David, and the Muslim crescent moon and star, are positioned beside the cross for interfaith celebrations. And when the amphitheater is used for a Jewish service, for instance, an antique Sephardic wooden ark containing the Torah blocks the cross from view.

At other times, that ark is protected from the elements in a small indoor all-faiths chapel adorned with a string of flags displaying the symbols of Baha’i, Native American, Buddhist, Hindu and many other religions. Beyond the outdoor altar, paths meandering down the hillside take visitors through a Zen garden and smaller outdoor chapels and memorials with lush plantings and a waterfall, as well as inspirational and Biblical inscriptions in English and Hebrew. Weddings, baptisms, and bar mitzvahs take place in the amphitheater and in the various gardens and chapels.

Thou Shalt Love...Cathedral of the Pines

The Sloanes, according to a brochure, created intended that Cathedral be “not a church, meeting house, temple or synagogue,” but rather “all of these depending on what may be happening there.” The Cathedral facilitates the celebration of the common elements shared by so many religions–healing grief and striving for peace through meditation in nature, singing together, and cultivating mutual understanding–as well as the particular rituals that make each religion unique and rooted in specific cultures.

This summer, events at the Cathedral include a lecture on Islamic art, a drum circle for the solstice, services by Congregational, Polish Catholic, Seventh Day Adventist, Lutheran, and Baha’i groups, a Blessing of the Animals in the outdoor Saint Francis chapel, an annual Blessing of the Bikes for the motorcycle community, many concerts, and an interfaith service, as well as an annual renewal of wedding vows for all, by a New Hampshire Justice of the Peace.

Douglas Sloane called the Cathedral that he and his wife built “A place where all may come and worship, each in their own way.” While the site retains roots in Christianity–the use of the word cathedral, the primacy of the cross–the family who created this space in the 1940s were visionaries unusual in their time, early interfaith activists, and their legacy benefits all of us. Now run by a non-profit relying on donations, the mission of the Cathedral of the Pines organization is to “honor service to the nation by promoting peace, interfaith understanding, and respect for the natural environment.” In creating this space, one family of idealists turned the terrible personal loss of war into an opportunity for all of us to experience peace and interfaith sprituality on a New Hampshire hilltop.

Ask Interfaith Mom: Is it OK for Interfaith Parents to Adopt Interfaith Identity?

Path Through Dunes

Dear Interfaith Mom,

I’m the Jewish parent of my interfaith family. My husband and I are raising our children in both traditions. He grew up Methodist. What we are discovering is that we don’t want our interfaith children to have a different religious identity from us so we’ve decided to call ourselves “interfaith” also. I try to celebrate and dive into Christmas just like my husband dives into the Hanukkah nights. Now we are all “interfaith”!  What do you think of this?

–Interfaith Family

Dear Interfaith Family,

First of all, if it’s working for you, it’s working! And I like your feisty and creative attitude. What I see as important here is that you feel a sense of unity, and mutual appreciation, and you are giving your children knowledge of and access to their complete religious heritage. The labels are less important.

Families want to feel unified. For some interfaith families, the solution is to choose one religion and have that be the family religion (whether or not the “out-parent” converts). This choice can work if there is one parent willing to forgo, or minimize, their religion. Other families decide to unify around being secular humanists or join ethical societies, dropping religious tradition and ritual altogether. This can work if neither parent feels attached to the God concept, or the specifics of their original religion. And still other families choose to unify around a “third” religion, such as Unitarian-Universalism (UU), Buddhism, Baha’i, or Quakerism.

For families in which both parents want to continue to celebrate a religion, and share that religion with children, we now have interfaith family communities providing dual-faith education, and the opportunity for families to sit and sing and reflect together as equals, with no “out-parent.” This can work when both parents are open to learning about and sharing, on some level, the spouse’s religion. Clearly, this is the case in your family.

You are not alone in feeling that the interfaith identity label, the label more and more of us have chosen for our children, has unique benefits and positive associations. I feel that way myself. In telling your story, you still identify yourself as the Jewish parent. It makes sense to continue to embrace the fact that you are the parent who brings Jewish extended family and Jewish history to the family. Surely your children know this, even if you have all adopted the interfaith label. I don’t think this complexity of religious identity will be confusing to them. It represents a reality. They have one parent from a Jewish background, and one parent from a Christian background. As an interfaith family, you practice together, unified by shared rituals and love.

Those of us in complex families often give more than one answer when we are questioned about our identities, as psychologist Maria Root has documented. I continue to claim my Jewish label, particularly in the presence of anti-Semitism, and I expect my children to do the same. But I also claim the right to celebrate my interfaith identity, as my children do. And you have that right, as every human being has the right, to self-identify in whatever way best describes your very individual and interior religious and spiritual landscape.

In short, I think it is marvelous that your whole family shares an interfaith identity. You must be prepared to have to explain how this works to those who will question and challenge you. But as interfaith families, we will face questions of one sort or another, no matter which pathway we choose. What I love is the joy you have found in sharing traditions with each other. Your children will benefit from this joy.

Interfaith Mom

Identity Labels: Interfaith, Multifaith, Dual-faith, Bifaithful, Cross-cultural?

Is “interfaith” the best word to describe my family, and my community of families? Recently, a reader of this blog  wrote in, expressing ambivalence about the term, and proposing an alternative:  “I sometimes wonder about the term “inter”faith, which to me seems to imply stuck between two faiths, like someone in a boat stuck between two islands. I am wondering if “multi”faith might work better, at least for my family.”

Well, first of all, whatever works for your family, works for your family! I absolutely endorse the right of interfaith children, and interfaith families, to self-identify, create their own labels, as described in the Bill of Rights for Interfaith People. Claiming a label is a powerful act of self-definition and empowerment for any group that has been marginalized. And yes, interfaith people and families have been marginalized.

I, too, have mixed feelings (pun intended) about the interfaith label, though primarily because the term is in wide use to express something very different: dialogue between religious institutions or representatives determined to keep rigid, impermeable boundaries between them. For interfaith families, osmosis across “cell walls” not only happens, it is often the defining, and joyfully positive, characteristic of our religious or cultural identity.

I can also empathize with those who are uncomfortable with the emphasis on “faith” in interfaith. Often, these folks are secular, atheist or agnostic Jews, since Judaism puts more emphasis on ritual practice and less on credo. Christians sometimes struggle when they encounter practicing, atheist Jews, though this is a common paradoxical state. (There is a parallel, growing cohort of secular Christians who acknowledge Christianity as their formative religious culture but might be equally uncomfortable with talk of “faith.”) Those squirmy with the whole faith concept (I count myself here) might gravitate towards “cross-cultural” or “multicultural” as labels, though these terms are already in wide use with other (distracting) connotations. And they do not express the reality that in many interfaith families, faith of one sort or another does play a role.

On the other hand, I do not share the reader’s discomfort with “inter” as a chosen Latin prefix. My community, the Interfaith Families Project, uses a Venn diagram to represent the interlocking rings of Judaism and Christianity. The central, overlapping “inter” space is not an empty ocean between two islands, but the most vibrant and full part of the metaphor: the place where Judaism and Christianity share history, theology, ritual, and ethical grounding.

I worry that the concern over being “stuck between two islands” stems from immersion in the dismal soup of interfaith family portrayals in literature and on the internet. Most of these negative images are created through a process funded or influenced by religious institutions that are anti-intermarriage, or anti-interfaith-families, or anti-interfaith-families-raising-kids-with-both.

Well, but, what’s wrong with “multifaith?” Nothing, except that to my ear, “multifaith” strongly connotes more than two religions. The word does reflect the reality of a small but growing cohort of interfaith kids (those with, say, one Jewish grandparent, two Christian grandparents, and one Hindu grandparent). On the other hand, it seems to invite the all-too-frequent criticisms of “mile wide, inch deep” religious education. Teaching more than two religions with depth and meaning is a daunting task, though one that is admirably tackled by Unitarians, and Baha’i.

So if the family in question wants to embrace “multifaith” as their label, perhaps because they share more than two faiths, I cannot possibly object. In the end, for me, the strongest reason for sticking with “interfaith family” and “interfaith child” is a practical one: the relatively long history of using “interfaith” in this context, and the ability to google-search whatever resources and literature are available on the topic.

But also, I happen to have positive associations with “interfaith.” The linguistic harmonics include intersect, interweave, interlace, interdependent, interact and intercourse. Oh, and intertwine! (A word I have to stop myself from intertwining into each blog post.) Anyway, all good stuff. And none of it really works with “multi” as a prefix (multisect, multiweave, multilace, multidependent, multiact, multicourse, multitwine?). Though I suspect those lively words may evolve at some point in the near future, and I welcome them, as I welcome future multifaith families.

 

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.