Jew by Cynthia M. Baker: Book Review

Jew by Cynthia M. Baker

As someone who has been labeled a “first class disrupter,” I was of course immediately attracted to the chutzpah of a book entitled, simply, Jew. Published recently as part of the Rutgers University Press series “Key Words in Jewish Studies,” this slim volume by Cynthia M. Baker, a Religious Studies professor at Bates College, is dense with insight, nuance, and helpful frameworks for thinking about the complex histories and meanings of the word Jew, and more broadly, the complex histories and meanings of religion. Jew is not an easy read for the non-academic–I was grateful for my years living with semiotics majors in college, and my acquaintance with the ideas of Foucault and Derrida. But it is an essential read for anyone wrestling with contemporary Jewish ideas about identity, and that includes all of us in interfaith families with Jewish connections.

Faced as we are with an increase in public anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and racist acts in the current political climate, Baker’s elegant analysis of the word Jew (she chooses to italicize it and I will do the same) feels especially timely. Baker traces the evolution of the word through Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Aramaic. She illuminates how the term Jew was central to the “historical creation of Christian identity and worldview.” She delineates how Jew is often synonymous with “the other,” and has only recently been reclaimed as a (“fraught”) self-referential term of pride. She deconstructs the false binary of Jewish-by-religion versus Jewish-by-ethnicity, embedded in colonial and patriarchal Christian theologies. And she tackles the subtle differentiation of Jew and Jewish.

Baker writes of how the identity of Jew inhabits a space where “belonging and alienation, longing and being hover in a delicate–and sometimes indelicate–balance.” And she writes of the “dissolution of standard dichotomies–including us/them, homeland/diaspora, religious/secular, masculine/feminine, even Jew/Gentile…” This space, this balance, this dissolution, will feel profoundly familiar to those of us in interfaith families choosing interfaith education for ourselves and our children. 

In her final chapter, entitled “New Jews: A View From the New World,” Baker cites Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family. I am grateful that she acknowledged the significance of the 25% of Jewish parents in interfaith marriages raising children with both family religions. However, she goes on to offset the (mainly positive) experiences documented through surveys of hundreds of parents and children in Being Both, with a single anecdote meant to convey the “often-painful challenges” of embodying multiple identities. For this counter-example, she chooses an individual who is transgender, and whose parents became Orthodox. It hardly seems fair to critique the idea of interfaith education for interfaith children while layering on the complexities of conversion, fundamentalist religious practice, and gender identity. Nevertheless, I am glad we are included in the shade of Baker’s very big tent for this book. And I hope she will return to a deeper investigation of multiple religious practice in interfaith families–of who we are, where we are going, and what it all means.

 

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is a speaker and consultant on interfaith education for interfaith families. Her book Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available from Beacon Press.

 

 

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Hanukkah AND Christmas: 7 Books For Interfaith Children

 

Once upon a time, December holiday books for children focused on either Christmas, or Hanukkah. Now, many children grow up in Jewish families celebrating Christmas with Christian grandparents. Or, they grow up in Christian families celebrating Hanukkah with Jewish grandparents. Or, they grow up in interfaith families celebrating both. Here, I review seven Hanukkah and Christmas books, in order to help you find the right book for your young interfaith children or grandchildren.

1. The first popular book on this topic was probably Light the Lights! A Story About Celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas (ages 3-5), from 1999. This sweet and simple story focuses on a girl participating in both holidays at home, but does not go into the underlying religious meaning of either one. This may be frustrating for parents who want to teach religious literacy, but for young children celebrating one or both of the holidays in a secular fashion, this book is a safe choice.

2. In contrast, I do not recommend My Two Holidays: A Hanukkah and Christmas Story (ages 3-5) from 2010. The boy in this book feels embarrassed in school to admit that he celebrates both holidays. While emotionally dramatic, this plot twist does not ring true in my experience with contemporary interfaith children, and reading it could make children who feel just fine about celebrating both, feel a sense of shame. The author seems to have bought into the (increasingly mythical) “December Dilemma” conflict. Avoid this book.

3. Daddy Christmas and Hanukkah Mama (ages 5-8) from 2012, features jazzy modernist collage illustrations, and a recipe for Cranberry Kugel. The mixed media style echoes the hipster parents in this book, who mix the holidays together in a sort of Chrismukkah mash-up. They hook candy canes on their menorah, and leave latkes out for Santa. If your family does this kind of blending, this is your book. But for families trying to help kids to understand and respect the differences between the two religions, well, this is definitely not your book.

4. Published last year, Eight Candles and a Tree (ages 3-5), follows Sophie as she explains to friend and playmate Tommy that she celebrates Hanukkah and Christmas. Tommy only celebrates Christmas. I appreciated the very gentle tension as Sophie diplomatically answers questions about how and why she celebrates “both.” Sophie explains the miracle of the oil lasting eight nights in the Temple, but both children mention only the more secular aspects of Christmas (the tree, the feast), so this book works for interfaith Jewish families celebrating a secular Christmas at home, as well as families celebrating both religions. This would also be a good pick for young Christian kids curious about a cousin or friend who celebrates both, as they can identify with Tommy.

5. New this season, Nonna’s Hanukkah Surprise (ages 3-8) features the most dramatic and emotionally satisfying plot of any book for interfaith children I have seen. Rachel is flying with her family to spend Hanukkah and Christmas with her father’s Christian family. Rachel is upset when she leaves behind her menorah on the airplane, but her kind Nonna (Italian for grandmother) saves the day by creating a lovely new menorah for her, out of recycled perfume bottles. The Christian cousins gather affectionately around the menorah with Rachel to help her celebrate, modeling bridge-building across the religious divide. The author weaves in some of the meanings of Hanukkah, but the references to Christmas are oblique. This book (from a publisher of books on Judaism) was clearly written for interfaith children being raised Jewish, who celebrate Christmas only with extended family. In fact, it was a recent selection for PJ Library, the free Jewish book program for children. But I recommend it for any interfaith family.

6. The other new book this season is perfect for those who celebrate both holidays, and want to begin to teach their children the underlying meaning of both Hanukkah and Christmas. December’s Gift (ages 3-8) follows Clara as she helps her Bubbe to make latkes, and then helps her Grammy to make Christmas cookies. (The book includes recipes for both, and charming illustrations). Bubbe tells Clara the story of the destruction of the temple and the miracle of the Hanukkah oil. And Grammy teaches Clara how the star-shaped cookies and the star on the tree represent the star that led wise men to the birth of a king. There is no mention of Jesus by name. But for interfaith parents who want to give their interfaith children an interfaith education, this book is an excellent start.

7. Finally, I cannot resist writing about a book I have long imagined—a book that does not exist, yet. One of my very favorite authors, Patricia Polacco, is from an interfaith family, but has yet to write a book about that experience. She has written many Christmas books, and perhaps the two very best children’s books about loving friendships between Jews and Christians (Mrs. Katz and Tush, and The Trees of the Dancing Goats). A book about an interfaith family from Patricia Polacco is at the top of my holiday fantasy wish list.

 

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.

 

The Nones (Including Interfaith Kids) Are Alright: A Book Review

The Nones Are Alright

Interfaith families celebrating two or more religions are not actually “religious nones.” I sometimes describe my people as religious maximalists instead of religious minimalists. We may be atheists, or agnostics, or mystics, but we are determined to honor all of our religious heritages. Some of us spend double the time and effort on religious study and practice, rather than no time at all.

And yet, those of us with what theologian Duane Bidwell calls “multiple religious bonds” sometimes get swept into the catch-all category of “religious nones.” This happens because surveys do not let us check more than one box, and because researchers don’t really know how to deal with what they see as the theological dissonance of the way we practice and identify. So we get thrown into the “none” bin, with a tremendous variety of other fascinating, religiously complex, fluid and flexible people.

Writer Kaya Oakes paints detailed portraits of some of the people whirling about in this contemporary religious and spiritual kaleidoscope, in her slim yet revealing new book, The Nones Are Alright: A New Generation of Believers, Seekers, and Those in Between (Orbis Books, 2015). Oakes is the author of previous books including a spiritual memoir, and teaches writing at Berkeley: I have long admired her work in the literary online magazine Killing the Buddha. Rather than a dry academic study, she gives us clear and lively prose and even poetic phrases like this one: “…faith is a tidal motion, an ebb and a surge, a push and a pull.”

But the backbone of this book is journalism, which in this case means important qualitative research in an emerging field. Oakes interviews a series of (mainly) millennials who might find themselves in the “religious nones” category for a whole host of reasons. They grew up atheist, or grew disgusted with religious doctrine and became atheist. They continue to practice religion on their own terms while being agnostics, or go to divinity school while doubting the existence of God, or adopt Buddhist meditation alongside other traditions as part of “liminal” religious practice, or remain “believers” but disaffiliate from religious institutions because they cannot live under the doctrines oppressing women and queer people. Oakes describes how many of her subjects are involved in community service and social justice work despite their disaffiliations, and writes, “Lost in the hand-wringing over the rise of nonbelievers are these kind of stories.”

The book is clearly rooted in the author’s own complex, nuanced Catholic perspective–Orbis is the Maryknoll press. For those from other religions, the American Christian orientation is evident in the emphasis on “faith” or “belief.” (For Jews and Buddhists and Hindus and many indigenous peoples, practice and culture often have more weight than litmus tests of belief). And the second half of The Nones Are Alright focuses specifically on interviews with people who have left the Catholic Church, have perhaps rejoined it (“boomerangs”), and then sometimes left again.

But this is also one of the first books to emphasize the important contribution of interfaith families to the complexity of religion in America right now. Oakes cites Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, and writes that future children are “increasingly likely to grow up ‘both/and’.” For instance, her portrait of “Carolyn” reveals how the daughter of a Lutheran mother and Jewish father worked for a mainline Protestant organization, studied in Israel but was alienated by the anti-intermarriage rhetoric there, briefly considered conversion to Judaism, and continues to seek out both Christian and Jewish experiences. She tells Oakes, “This whole idea about you don’t have to fit into a box has been useful and a relief.”

In all, the author gives us a tremendously useful disambiguation of the rich diversity of people caught up in the broad sweep of the nones. Millennials and those who come up behind them are in the midst of organizing their own religious structures and spiritual lives, and designing the new academic field of interfaith studies. In this context, the depth of each new portrait in this book will help to further our understanding of who is disaffiliating from religious institutions, why they are doing so, what the role of interfaith families will be, and how many of us are finding and creating meaning, support, and community outside the boxes in the 21st century.

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 Education For Every Child

Faith Ed

 

In Being Both, I document the idea that interfaith children benefit from interfaith education. Learning about more than one religion from a young age yields specific benefits for children who have more than one religion in the extended family. But I also write about the idea that every child, in this era of global interconnection, would benefit from learning about the religions in the neighborhood, and the religions of the world.

In an important new book from Beacon Press (disclosure–Beacon is my publisher) entitled Faith Ed: Teaching About Religion in an Age of Intolerance, journalist Linda K. Wertheimer reports on efforts around the country to teach (not preach) more than one religion in public school classrooms. The book essentially starts from the premise that teaching religions in public schools is a key to combating religious ignorance.  But how best to accomplish the task?

Wertheimer is a thorough reporter, interviewing students, parents, teachers, administrators, and education experts about experiences with interfaith education in the schools. In describing the successes and failures encountered in these pioneering classrooms, she addresses a number of important questions including the following:

  • How do schools negotiate the tension between separation of church and state, and the desire to teach interactive and multi-sensory interfaith education?
  • Are field trips to mosques and temples necessary, or somehow risky?
  • What age is the right age to teach about religions in the public schools?
  • What effect does interfaith education have on children from minority religions?
  • And for those in the religious majority (usually Christians), can these programs reduce religious ignorance and intolerance?

The book is a lively read: a travelogue of Wertheimer’s encounters as she crisscrosses the country to report on both the model classrooms and the controversies. She takes us to Texas, where a high school teacher gets into hot water for letting her students try on a burka while studying Islam. Then we travel to suburban Boston, where a middle school comes under scrutiny after a field trip to a mosque. In Florida, we learn about how a particular guest speaker in the world religions program attracted unwanted national attention for a high school in Tampa. In Kansas, Wertheimer reports on the pressures encountered by an elementary school teaching about Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And in Modesto, in the “California Bible Belt,” she describes how high school teachers manage to teach world religions in a context of megachurches and a growing Sikh minority.

In a memoir thread running through the book, Wertheimer returns to her childhood home in rural Ohio to confront the “Church Lady” who taught Bible stories in her elementary school classroom in the 1970s. Her poignant description of feeling very uncomfortable as the only Jewish girl in the class still has great relevance today. Wertheimer finds Christian education (preaching, not just teaching) still going on during the school day in some schools, though students leave to attend this religious school just off campus.

Throughout the book, Wertheimer skillfully weaves a brief history of religion in the schools, key legal cases, and some theory, into her reporting. I wish Faith Ed included a closer look at some of the interfaith education models developed around the world, including in the UK (which requires interfaith education in government-funded schools), in Unitarian-Universalist communities (which have long taught world religions in a context of teaching and not preaching) and in interfaith families communities (which also teach more than one religion without imposing a specific creed). American educators developing multi-religious education for secular schools would benefit from exchanging resources, curricula, and strategies with those in other countries, and those in the inclusivist religious world with expertise in teaching more than one religion.

But this slim book is sure to spark necessary conversations on the importance of interfaith education in the schools. Students, parents and teachers in the book testify to the idea that education about religions is a key strategy to prevent bullying, fear, and alienation, among children from religious minorities. Faith Ed is timely, provocative, and essential reading for all of us in religiously plural settings in America, which is to say, for all of us.

 

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.

Strange Wives: The Paradox of Biblical Intermarriage

Stange Wives, by Ned Rosenbaum

 

Abraham, Moses, Ruth, David, Samson, Joseph, Esther, Solomon.

What do they all have in common?

They were intermarried.

 

Thus begins Strange Wives: The Paradox of Biblical Intermarriage, a comprehensive and compelling exploration of the formative effects of intermarriage in Biblical times. This book provides a very readable guide to the history of intermarriage in the mixed multitude of cultures and practices and beliefs coalescing gradually, over centuries and millennia, into the people Israel. The authors conclude that the “early willingness to reach across tribal and ethnic boundaries was a source of strength, which Jews later forgot or chose not to remember.”

Here, I am glad to claim my relationship to the three people who created this long-awaited book. Strange Wives was written by Stanley Ned Rosebaum, with Rabbi Allen Secher, and edited by Mary Heléne Pottker Rosenbaum. Ned and Mary co-wrote Celebrating Our Differences: Living Two Faiths in One Marriage, a groundbreaking chronicle of a dual-faith family. Rabbi Allen was the first rabbi working with interfaith families communities in Chicago. I met Mary, Ned and Rabbi Allen at a series of national conferences to support interfaith families, through the Dovetail Institute.

Ned studied at Hebrew University and the Sorbonne, got his PhD in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis, published scholarly books on Biblical topics, and spent almost three decades as a beloved professor of Jewish Studies at Dickinson College. Then in 2011, he died in a tragic automobile accident, leaving Mary and Allen to get this book out into the world. Which they did, and for which I am very grateful.

As an interfaith child, and an interfaith parent, I have often faced the argument that Judaism has always prohibited intermarriage. This book puts that idea to rest, with deep erudition, wit, and aplomb. Strange Wives is nothing if not thorough, with footnotes, a full bibliography, and plenty of credit given to academics writing on this topic. But this is a book for all of us, with crystal clarity, and lively tone.

Strange Wives draws on both Scripture and archaeology to describe the Biblical setting as a cultural caravansary at the nexus of Africa and Europe, and of the Indian and Mediterranean Oceans. The authors document marriages of Israelites with Ammonites, Amalekites, Moabites, Midianites, Samaritans, Canaanites, Amorites, Hittites, Egyptians, and Babylonians. The women who married into the tribes of Israel continued to worship their own fertility gods even after marriage, and early Israelite farmers continued to appeal to fertility gods to bless their crops, and saw their God as competing with, incorporating, subsuming, and possibly even (inter)marrying other local gods. “Tradition has forgotten,” the authors write, “if it ever knew, how religiously diverse early Israel was.”

The authors argue that the fact that Ezra the Scribe, on his return from Babylonian exile, called on Jews to divorce their “strange wives,” is simply proof that such marriages were indeed common. Rather than seeing intermarriage as a threat to some essential or pure monotheism, they write, “Without the contribution of all these foreigners, mostly women, Judaism would have had a vastly different shape—or perhaps no shape at all.”

But didn’t the wives (for they were mainly wives) convert to Judaism? Like Ruth? While the idea of Ruth as the “first convert” is popular in contemporary Jewish culture, academics have long understood that, as the authors puts it, “there was no conversion in any meaningful sense” until two thousand years after Ruth.

Rosenbaum and Secher, towards the end of this book, write that they both “share the standard fear for the future of the Jewish community.” However, they also write, “We feel strongly that the very positive role so many intermarriages played in Israel’s formative centuries…ought not to be neglected or, worse, misrepresented for partisan purposes.” As we enter yet another period of extensive interfaith marriage in the Jewish community, Strange Wives asks us to study, and remember, this part of our past.

 

Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.