“…Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, Will Be Able to Join Hands…”

January Snow

Celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr‘s birthday this year, I found myself standing with hundreds of other interfaith family members, singing “We Shall Overcome.” Leading us in song, their arms wrapped around each other, stood a trio of extraordinary spiritual leaders: a rabbi who met Dr. King and has spent a lifetime devoted to interfaith dialogue and social justice, a white minister born into a Southern Baptist family who now practices mindfulness and serves interfaith families, and an African-American woman who is a powerful Catholic gospel song leader.

Rabbi Harold White, Reverend Julia Jarvis, and Catholic cantor Thomascena Nelson lead our celebration this year. And the good news is that communities across America now create such interfaith gatherings to celebrate the legacy of Dr. King. This year, the synagogue I was born into, Temple Israel in Boston, formally invited a local imam to speak for the first time in its history, and I felt a surge of hope.

But for interfaith families, the words of Dr. King speak to us on a whole different level–an intimate level. My community, the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington, includes over 100 families who not only hold hands once a year, but have married across religious boundaries and live an interfaith reality. Many of us also married across the traditional lines of race, culture, class, nationality, or sexual orientation. In our diversity we represent truly radical unity, a unity we experience day in and day out, throughout the year.

Singing with my interfaith family, I look out and see a dad raised Jewish and a dad raised Christian holding hands with their biracial daughter, who knows all the words to both the Christian and Jewish blessings. I see children adopted from Latin America and Asia, as well as intercultural interfaith families with parents rooted in those regions. I see an African-American Christian dad and a white Jewish mom lead an interfaith responsive reading, holding their squirming toddler.

I see a dream made real. Together, we form a community in which no individual is a guest, everyone can partake, nobody is excluded, and no parent must give up or minimize their own beliefs or practices or culture in order to join us. We are Jews and Catholics and Protestants and Humanists and Buddhists holding hands, forming families, and celebrating together. We have reached a time and place when we can be who we are as families, together in joy.

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


Black and White, Jewish and Christian

Mixed race, mixed religion. To what extent are these parallel states of being? What experiences do we, as children of racial and religious intermarriage, have in common? And at what point does this powerful metaphor break down? I have spent a lifetime contemplating these questions, most recently this week, when I read an essay by author Thomas Chatterton Williams in The New York Times, in which he worries that “a new multiracial community could flourish and evolve at black America’s expense.”

Williams and I are both the “mixed” children of blond-haired and blue-eyed mothers. We were both raised to identify exclusively with our paternal half: in his case African-American, in my case Jewish. We each, nevertheless, “intermarried” in adulthood–he married a white woman, I married a Protestant. The comparisons between white/black and Jewish/Christian identity resonate in part because of all the ways in which Judaism has functioned historically as a race, culture, and civilization, as well as a religion.

Several writers of African-American and (white) Jewish parents have written memoirs exploring the convergence and divergence of race and religion in their own families, and the usefulness and limits of the interracial/interfaith metaphor, notably Rebecca Walker in Black, White and Jewish, James McBride in The Color of Water, and anthropologist Katya Gibel Azoulay in the more scholarly Black, Jewish, and Interracial. Williams himself compares the two states towards the end of his recent essay, writing, “I am struck by the parallels that exist between my predicament and that of many Western Jews, who struggle with questions of assimilation at a time when marrying outside the faith is common.”

How did Williams become aware of this Jewish struggle? It is worth watching this engaging and disarming video produced for the release of his memoir in 2010, in which he discusses the role of books in his life with his father, a sociologist and huge bibliophile. Both men feel a special attachment to Jewish scholar Maimonides, and have read deeply in Jewish history and philosophy.

In this week’s essay, entitled “As Black as We Wish to Be,” Williams acknowledges the right to self-identify. He concludes that his (theoretical) children “will have to make up their own minds” about their racial identity. My children will also have to make up their own minds, which is why I adapted Maria Root’s Bill of Rights for Mixed Race People into the Bill of Rights for Interfaith People.

On the other hand, Williams worries that “the cost of mixed-race blacks deciding to turn away” from the African-American community “could be huge.” He asks, “Do a million innocuous personal decisions end up having one destructive cumulative effect?” This is precisely the fear expressed by institutional Judaism when faced with those of us who insist on educating our children about both Judaism and Christianity. But why does learning about both have to be interpreted as abandoning Judaism? Why does checking both a white and an African-American box on the census have to mean turning away from the black community?

And, I must ask, how can those of who are “mixed” ignore the race, religion, culture, and influence of the “majority” (white or Christian) people in our families? I understand the compelling political and sociological argument for choosing blackness, as outlined by Williams, and as explained by my friend Denise in a comment on one of my previous blogposts on this topic. But I find that the parallel electric lines of this metaphor converge, cross, and short out in sparks of frustration, when I feel like I am being told I should only be Jewish, or my children should only be Jewish. My children may choose Judaism because they feel the Jews need them more, or simply because they love the ritual or history or theology or culture. But I feel exhausted sometimes by the domination of this discussion by the imperative to maintain Jewish continuity: the pressure, the guilt, the disrespect for the experiences and feelings of those who marry Jews, and for those of us who want to celebrate kaleidoscopic identities.

Williams plans to teach his children “that they, too, are black–regardless of what anyone else may say–so long as they remember and wish to be.” In the same way, and for many of the same reasons, I have insisted on teaching my children to identify with their Judaism, and have provided them with the education to be able to defend that identity, if they so choose. But I have also taught them to acknowledge and understand and appreciate the complexity of their identities, and to acknowledge everyone who contributed to that complexity.

Being Both: Biracial, Bireligious, Multiracial, Multireligious

Today’s front-page story in the New York Times under the headline “Black? White? Asian? More Young Americans Choose All of the Above” describes how mixed-race youth are claiming their right to what I call “the joy of being both.” I often write about the parallels between biracial and interfaith children. A lot of the quotes in the article from students at the University of Maryland will resonate with those of us who are “mixed-religion” children. The President of the university’s Multiracial and Biracial Student Association, when asked how she marks her race on a form, replies, “It depends on the day, and it depends on the options.” This is exactly my response to forms that ask for my religion.

The reporter does an excellent job of explaining that these youth are not necessarily trying to transcend the categories, they are simply “asserting their freedom to identify as they choose.” And an interfaith child should have the right to choose to be a Jew or a Christian (or whatever religion they want), or to keep the interfaith label. “All society is trying to tear you apart and make you pick a side,” says another biracial Maryland student. “I want us to have a say.” And that’s what interfaith children want.

On the other hand, the realities of African-American history, of Jewish history, of the minority experience, mean that the two sides are weighted and freighted unequally. One mother of biracial black/white children told me, “I have always been crystal clear with my kids: you are black.” Many interfaith families choose Judaism for their children, for similar reasons. Be proud and stand with your people, others are going to identify you as black (Jewish) anyway, do not try to “pass.”

Nevertheless, the US census began allowing mixed-race children to check more than one box for race in 2000. A somewhat snarky line in the New York Times article attributes this change to “years of complaints and lobbying, mostly by the white mothers of biracial children.” This ignores the contributions of adult mixed-race people such as psychology researcher Maria Root, whose work was considered by the government in their decision to change the census format.

With her permission, I adapted Root’s powerful “Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage” into a parallel “Bill of Rights for Interfaith People.” Less well known is her equally compelling “50 Experiences of Mixed Race People.” The first experience on this list: “You have to choose; you can’t be both.” Familiar, indeed.

President Barack Obama, born as both a biracial and an interfaith child, writes in his first memoir of choosing to be black, and choosing to be Christian. Part of the point that mixed-race students make in today’s article is the right to this self-identification. On the other hand, some of us claiming and exploring the positive aspects of mixedness, or bothness, can be zealous in our newfound enthusiasm. We cannot help spotting and pridefully claiming fellow interfaith (or multiracial) children. The reporter describes tension between students who claim Obama as a mixed-race President, and an African-American student who pleads, “Stop taking away our black president.”

As an interfaith child, I recognize the right of any mixed child to self-identify. I respect Obama’s self-identification, just as I recognize Gabrielle Giffords as Jewish, a choice she made after being raised with a bit of “both.” I’m not trying to take away anyone’s first Jewish congressperson from Arizona. Or anyone’s black President. But as intermarriage continues, and as the population of “both” children grows, how we label ourselves, and the labels we give each other, will inevitably continue to change.

Positive Interfaith Identity in Children: Five Strategies

Those of us born into more than one race, culture or religion share a bond of “bothness.” Whether from immigrant families, adopted, multifaith, multiracial, raised overseas, or simply of mixed Irish and Italian background, we share the experience of growing up with more than one worldview. And we share the reality of existing outside of neat, labeled identity boxes. As an interfaith child and parent, I am teaching my own children to leap joyfully in and out of those boxes, and frolic in the space between them.

My parents (one Jewish, one Protestant) have been happily intermarried for more than fifty years now. I revel in being a “both/and” person rather than an “either/or” person. Through working with a community of over 100 interfaith families, counseling interfaith couples, and writing an interfaith families blog, I have distilled principles to help in cultivating the joy of being both:

1. Give children permission to explore and connect with all sides of their heritage. This sounds obvious, but there is tremendous pressure from society to reduce your child’s identity to a single label. Every time we fill out a form and check one box for race, or religion, we face this reductive and diminishing pressure. Ironically, ignoring a significant part of a child’s background can create a situation in which the “forbidden fruit” becomes more attractive than the identity you are trying to foster.

2. Avoid setting up an expectation that the child will “choose” an identity someday. Pressure to choose can create a sense of competition. Understand that your child may shift identities in different circumstances, and over time. We are complex, not confused. Pioneering psychologist Maria Root has written a “Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage” every “both” child should hang in his or her bedroom. With Dr. Root’s permission, I have adapted this into a “Bill of Rights for Interfaith People.”

3. Understand that those who are not born into bothness, even those who are intermarried, may never fully appreciate the idea of being both. For historical, political, or practical reasons, we all choose labels sometimes that simplify our backgrounds and allow us to fit in, or make a statement of solidarity with one of our cultures. In the presence of anti-Semites, I loudly proclaim my Judaism, rather than denying it. Many black/white biracial children find it necessary in American culture to identify as African-American. But we still feel our bothness.

4. Insist on the joy of being both. In the face of skepticism from the media, friends, family and clergy, stay true to the vision that inspired you to intermarry, move to a new culture, or adopt across boundaries. Communicate to your children that they represent hope for the future, bridges of peace and understanding, crucial new connections across rigid, deteriorating barriers.

5. Seek and develop communities that share your bothness. I grew up as the only “half-Jewish” kid I knew. Now, I see my children thriving in a community of interfaith families. Find or construct a community that shares your family’s complexity. This will be easier in Brooklyn or Vancouver than in a rural area. If you are an interfaith family, check the list of resources on my blog, onbeingboth.com. (An interfaith families community in Philadelphia is just starting up!) No matter where you live, it is getting easier for us to find each other online. Because we are the demographic future.


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.

I wrote this essay for the debut issue of  Bridge Magazine, a Philadelphia-based digital publication created to tell the stories of the intereverything generation (biracial, interfaith, transracially adopted, etc.). Special thanks to Sam Watson, founder and editor, for permission to repost.

Tuned to the “Bothness” Frequency

As I write this morning, I’m also watching the Wold Cup match between Japan and Cameroon. I was living in West Africa in 1990 when Cameroon emerged as the first African team to make it to the quarter-finals. I became a lifelong soccer fan in those moments when the entire continent would go silent, huddled around televisions powered by car batteries, and then cheer in unison at each goal.

Why am I writing about soccer? Because no matter what I’m doing, I seem to be inadvertently tuned in to a frequency broadcasting the growing “bothness” of our world. Just now, I heard the announcers mention that one of the Ghanaian players is half-German. He’s both. And one of the Japanese players was born in the soccer-obsessed nation of Brazil. He’s both too. Increasingly, we’re all on the bothness spectrum, whether through intermarriage, immigration, adoption or simply through choosing to ally ourselves in new ways, through purposeful. global recombination.

Also this week, I tuned in to the “bothness frequency” when Diane Ives and Jon Lickerman, my fellow members of the Interfaith Families Project, got a letter published in the Washington Post testifying to the strength of interfaith marriages and families supported by our community and to the exuberant “bothness” of their son.

And also this week, I attended the Network of Spiritual Progressives conference in Washington, and tuned in to the bothness frequency as I heard speaker after speaker testify to the importance of “breaking down boundaries,” “crossing borders” and “embracing the other.” While not everyone engaged in interfaith dialogue likes to acknowledge this, interfaith families walk this walk every day. The proliferation of official interfaith conferences and organizations creates a constant hum on the bothness frequency, even though many do not (want to) understand what they hear this way.

Earlier this month, the bothness frequency came in loud and clear as I read the bewildered response of a Jewish blogger to Orthodox Rabbi Brad Hirschfeld’s realistic and open-hearted acknowledgement of families raising their children with both religions. The blogger notes with discomfort the Rabbi’s “relaxed attitude towards syncretism,” as if all religions were not, by nature and throughout history, inherently syncretic. The fact is that more and more members of the clergy are beginning to understand that interfaith communities are not going away, and may even have some merit.

Finally, one of my favorite bloggers, MaNishtana, wrote a powerful post this week about his own bothness: he is an African-American, and a Jew. His words reflect and amplify and resonate for all of us who are both, in all of our many ways of being both. He’s broadcasting loud and clear on the bothness frequency. Check it out.

Bill of Rights for Interfaith People

Most interfaith parents worry about their interfaith children. Will they be secure? Confused? Happy?

I’m a happy interfaith child and parent, but I don’t pretend to have all the answers about how to raise interfaith children. Each pathway has benefits and drawbacks. Each family needs to choose a pathway based on their own situation.

What I do strongly advocate is talking to your children about their identity, about the way the world is going to see them, about being strong in their own beliefs no matter what negativity they encounter about their identity.

There is an entire literature on this subject, not for interfaith families, but for mixed race families. I realize that biracial or mixed race children have a different, and often much larger, set of challenges. In a white American context, they stand out in a way that interfaith children usually do not. Nevertheless, and in large part because of the persistent tribal/racial/ethnic/cultural aspects of Judaism that make it more than just a private belief system, I find the mixed race identity literature compelling and relevant for interfaith children.

Today, I have a new post up at Jewcy.com about how I created the  “Bill of Rights for Interfaith People,” a manifesto I adapted from Dr. Maria P.P. Root‘s “Bill of Rights for Mixed Race People.” Check out that post. And if you have interfaith preteen or teen or adult children, have them read my adapted bill of rights, and then post their reactions in the comments section below…

Bill of Rights for Interfaith People
Not to justify my existence in this world.
Not to keep the religions separate within me.
Not to justify my religious legitimacy.
Not to be responsible for people’s discomfort with my religious ambiguity.

To identify myself differently than strangers expect me to identify.
To identify myself differently than how my parents identify me.
To identify myself differently than my brothers and sisters.
To identify myself differently in different situations.

To create a vocabulary to communicate about being interfaith.
To change my identity over my lifetime–and more than once.
To have loyalties and identification with more than one group of people.
To freely choose whom I befriend and love.

(Adapted by Susan Katz Miller, with permission, from the Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Race, copyright Maria P.P. Root, PhD, 1993, 1994)


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

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.

A Beer with Barack

Today I claim Barack Obama as a fellow interfaith child. Of course he’s a Christian. He made that choice, and has every right to do so. I waited years to claim him as an interfaith child because I so badly wanted him to be President, and I willingly participated in the liberal media conspiracy to downplay his Muslim roots.

But at this moment, I am filled with nachas (Yiddish for pride in the accomplishment of a relative) because Obama will be drinking beer this evening at the White House with a black professor and a white police officer. I see this inspired gesture as quintessential interfaith, or bicultural, behavior. He sees the conflict from both perspectives, and inserts himself in the middle to become the human bridge between the two.

Of course, race is still the primary identifier in America, and Obama’s status as a mixed-race child trumps his interfaith background. But when you listen to his moving speech in Cairo last month, it is clear that he benefits from his formative experiences with Islam. While he did not know his Muslim biological father, growing up with knowledge of this family connection can have a strong effect on an interfaith child’s identity. Even more important was his experience as a boy in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world, with a Muslim stepfather. Obama is both a practicing Christian and someone raised with an intimate knowledge of Islam. I celebrate his interfaithness, and see that the world has already benefitted from it.

As an interfaith child, I am proud to share the “both/and” perspective with many other Americans–children who embody two or more races, immigrants who straddle two cultures, expatriate offspring raised in other countries. All of us see ourselves in Obama. Many of us aspire to use our “both/and” status to become religious bridges, Obama-style. I don’t happen to like beer, which is just as well given the different religious perspectives on alcohol. Anyone want to come over for a root beer?

%d bloggers like this: