Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes: What Exactly is the Interfaith Lesson Here?

In recent days, I have been frustrated by bloggers who cite the breakup of celebrity couple Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes as a cautionary tale about interfaith marriage.

Interfaith marriage does not have to be difficult. My parents have been happily intermarried for over 50 years. In my community of interfaith families, out of hundreds of couples, my minister and rabbi can only think of a handful who have gotten divorced. Over 25 years of marriage, my husband and I have often argued. We have never had an argument about our religious differences.

It is particularly frustrating to see writers citing the outdated statistic that interfaith divorce is “three times more prevalent.” I recently spoke to one of the authors of the study that was the source of that statistic, the American Religious Identification Survey of 2001. Barry Kosmin confirmed to me that there is no valid measurement reflecting the current divorce rate or prevalence among interfaith couples. A survey from 2001 reflects divorce in the previous century, in the decades prior to that study, when interfaith couples were often excluded and shunned, and still had little support from extended family or clergy or houses of worship. Times have changed, and no one has produced the updated statistics.

I am not questioning the idea that religious difference, and pressure Holmes felt to raise her daughter as a Scientologist, may have been a factor in the Cruise and Holmes breakup. Press reports speculate that Holmes, who was raised Catholic, will return to Catholicism. What lesson do I take from this? The same lesson I take from the spectacular Reyes interfaith divorce case, in which a Catholic father who felt forced into converting to Judaism took his daughter to church for a stealth Baptism.

Bullying or sweet-talking a spouse into giving up his or her religion “for the sake of the child,” does not contribute to the stability of the marriage or benefit the children. The belief, often promoted by well-meaning clergy, that choosing one religion for the family will “solve” the challenges of being an interfaith family, can backfire if both parents actually have deep roots in and strong connections to their own religions.

Do I conclude that interfaith couples should not get married? No. Do I conclude that they should only get married if they don’t care deeply about religion? No. Do I conclude that they should only get married if they are willing to capitulate and subsume their own religious beliefs and desires for the good of the child? No.

I conclude that parents have the right to freely share their beliefs and family history and beloved rituals with their children. Both parents. And that the children will benefit from this rich religious and spiritual education.

Successful Interfaith Marriage: Cokie and Steve Roberts

Those of us living over here in the parallel universe of happy interfaith families continue to sigh and shake our heads at the persistence of the myth that interfaith marriage is, by definition, fraught with peril. In fact, there are no robust statistics on the current rate or incidence of success or divorce in interfaith marriages.

At the moment, we have only anecdotes. And so, I plan to continue to profile the many interfaith couples happily balancing two religions. For intermarried Jews and Catholics raising children with both religions, Cokie and Steve Roberts have served as inspiration ever since at least 2000, when they published From This Day Forward, a memoir of their own intermarriage. Last year, they followed up with Our Haggadah: Uniting Traditions for Interfaith Families. Together, these books build a portrait of a marriage marked by deep love and mutual respect, even as it approaches the 50-year mark.

Yesterday, our interfaith families community welcomed Steve and Cokie to a regular Sunday morning at the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington (IFFP). Our rabbi and our minister reflected on the theme of compassion on the first Sunday of Lent, Steve led us in our interfaith responsive reading, we all shared bagels and coffee, and then Cokie and Steve spoke during our adult group about their interfaith journey.

Cokie described her love of Catholic liturgy and ritual, her faithful attendance at mass. Steve described his secular Jewish family roots, and his own shift towards deeper Jewish practice, prompted by his Catholic wife. For many of us, this story is more familiar than exceptional: in choosing partners of another religion, we are forced to contemplate our own religion, and to be very purposeful about our own religious intentions. Could this lead to tension? Or course. Could it be creative tension? For some of us, yes. Could another result of religious difference in marriage be improved communication and mutual appreciation, as well as more profound connection to our own religion? Many of us think so.

I had heard Steve and Cokie speak several times before about their marriage, and I even appeared last spring on a public radio show on intermarriage, following an interview with Cokie. But somehow, welcoming this couple into the midst of our community of interfaith families, hearing them speak to an audience of hundreds of people who share their delight in partnering across religious boundaries, gave their stories new resonance.

While acknowledging that choosing both religions is not the right path for every family, Steve and Cokie explained why they chose to celebrate both religions with their children. Each partner had a strong identity, and neither partner ever considered conversion. “I must say it would have helped to have had a community like this when we were raising them,” Steve told us, yesterday. “Because there was an absence of encouragement and support for families like us, and like you, at that time.” Today, interfaith families are encouraging and supporting each other, as we educate our children in both religions, in DC, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and beyond. And our families, and marriages, are strengthened by these grassroots communities.

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).

Good and Bad Interfaith Marriage: On Stage, and Off

It is second nature to look for reflections of our own lives, and affirmation for our own choices, in both fiction and in the media. Happy interfaith families are rarely rewarded with seeing our experiences depicted in print, or on the screen, or on the stage. Happiness is boring. Conflict is necessary to drama, whether it is the “real life” drama in a blogger’s column, or the more constructed drama of the theater.

So I was prepared for the inevitability that the interfaith marriage in Renee Calarco’s new play “The Religion Thing,” (at Theater J at the DCJCC through January 29th), would be conflicted. And I was drawn to the witty dialogue, the elegant set, the surprising plot twists. I also want to credit Theater J with recognizing that the topic–interfaith marriage–merited a talk-back or audience discussion after many of the performances. Folks have a lot to say on this topic, and Theater J organized a way for us to say it.

On Sunday, three of us served as panelists in an apres-matinee discussion on the topic “Every Interfaith Family is Interfaithful in its Own Way.” Therapist Jennifer Kogan, Rabbi (and therapist) Arthur Blecher, and I, shared the stage: all three of us are in longtime interfaith partnerships/marriages. Together, the three of us have worked with or interviewed hundreds of interfaith couples. All three of us testified to the existence of healthy, happy, interfaith families. Rabbi Blecher’s most recent book, The New Judaism, chronicled that reality, as will my own book, forthcoming in 2013.

The interfaith relationship in this play is not just conflicted: it’s a train-wreck. After four years of marriage, this fictional couple had not even discussed how to raise children. They excluded religion from their wedding. They failed to educate themselves or each other about their respective traditions. And in the course of the play, they pull away from each other as they return to their religions of origin.

Such intermarriages do occur. Some couples are deficient in communication and collaboration skills, some lack support from family and clergy, some blame underlying issues on religious difference. And of course, there’s no law against portraying such a bad marriage on the stage.

Unfortunately, this play comes in the wake of a scandalously misleading Washington Post opinion piece that purported to show that interfaith marriages are prone to failure, using extreme anecdotes and outdated and twisted statistics. This opinion piece was written by an affiliate of an anti-gay-marriage and “pro-marriage” think tank (an affiliation the Post failed to acknowledge). Because this piece appeared in a major newspaper, it has been subsequently quoted as a “source” for the “fact” that interfaith marriages tend to fail, with little acknowledgement that the piece was published on the editorial page, not in the news section, and contained no original research.

Given this recent incident in the Washington media, it was hard not to see this play as, presumably unintentionally, fueling anti-intermarriage polemics. Most disturbing, for me, was the play’s framing device, featuring a comedy sketch about the Amish tradition of rumspringa–a period when adolescents are permitted to sow wild oats before choosing whether or not to return to the strict demands of their culture and religion. It was hard not to conclude that the playwright intended to draw a parallel to the Jewish and Catholic characters in the play experimenting in a sort of interfaith rumspringa before returning to their cradle religions. As the child of a tremendously successful 50-plus year interfaith marriage, I have to admit I find this metaphor misleading and inept.

I was relieved to see that a large cohort of the play’s audience stayed after the show for the discussion. Some were eager to testify about the vibrant interfaith marriages in their families. And others who pointed out the challenges of interfaith marriage (the challenges are real, of course), felt that the couple in the play, who had not even discussed “the religion thing,”  strained credulity.

In the end, the points I made on the panel are the same points I often make on this blog. Interfaith families can be successful. Choosing one religion for your interfaith children has benefits and drawbacks but clearly can work. Choosing both religions for your interfaith children has benefits and drawbacks, but is working for over 100 families in my interfaith community, and in other communities across the country. Providing interfaith children with a sense of community (whether it’s a Jewish community, Christian community, interfaith community, or secular community) is essential.

I know it’s just a play, but given the sensitivity of this topic and the weight and history of institutional opposition to interfaith marriage, I must conclude with a reminder that one bad (and, in this case, fictional) intermarriage does not a trend make. Look around you, and I suspect you will find in your own family and community happy couples reflecting the dynamic and fluid religious, racial, ethnic and sexual diversity of our culture. Maybe we make for boring theater. But we lead satisfying lives.

My Interfaith Family: Passover and Easter Week

Every year, I spend this week with my extended interfaith family: 21 members of our clan celebrating Passover and Holy Week together on Siesta Key. We are a charoset: a mixture of nuts, fruit, spirits, spice, more than the sum of its parts. Often, I am asked the recipe for raising happy children in an interfaith family. Here are some ingredients from our interfaith Spring Break together:

In the days leading up to the Seder, we collaborate on the formidable preparation of the ritual meal. My Episcopalian-common-law-Jewish mother directs the making of my Jewish grandmother’s southern-style charoset. My Jewish niece with three Jewish grandparents, who is eight (and adopted from China), helped me make the chocolate-toffee-matzoh this year, while we talked together about the connections between the Passover story and the struggle for Afircan-American freedom.

By moving tables and chairs between three condos, we managed to seat all 21 of us at a long Seder table. This year, we have a Catholic boyfriend and a Catholic girlfriend with us, neither of whom had ever been to a Seder before. As a former teacher, I love introducing Jewish traditions to newcomers. And the way I see it, as intermarriage continues, the pool of folks who will gain familiarity with Judaism, and potentially teach their own children these rituals, will expand. I know the idea of a Seder can be daunting to non-Jews–in length and content–but song and laughter and those four cups of wine work magic in our family.

My 87-year-old father leads our Seder using instructions he wrote out in 1977,  on a sheet of yellow legal paper with Haggadah page numbers carefully noted, when he first led the Passover Seder for the Sunday School of the local Unitarian Church in our small New England town. His editing works well for an interfaith family, with most of the “Rabbi so-and-so said such-and-such” left aside, and all of the explanations of the symbolism carefully retained.

My Catholic sister-in-law reports that her eldest, my eight-year-old nephew who is being raised Catholic, finds our annual Seder very important in coming to terms with the idea of his Jewish father as a religious “out-parent” in their family. He is the grandchild who is named for my Jewish father, and he bears a distinctly Jewish name: he will have to reckon with being an interfaith child, as we all do, no matter what religious education and label our parents choose for us. This year, he read the Four Questions (in English), and found the afikomen. These childhood experiences will connect him forever to his Judaism and his interfaithness, even while he is an ardent Catholic with only one Jewish grandparent, who wears a Saint’s medal around his neck, and has just been Confirmed and had his First Communion.

On a trip to Sarasota Jungle Gardens with his little sisters on Good Friday, we ambled down a sandy path and stumbled on “The Gardens of Christ” exhibit, with scenes from the life of Jesus carved in wood by an Italian-American sculptor in the 1960s. I had been to Jungle Gardens many times with my own children, but somehow never discovered this permanent exhibit before. The eight scenes, including the Sermon on the Mount, the Nativity, and the Crucifixion, seemed to serve as both an educational and a spiritual counterweight to the (secular and Pagan) plastic Easter eggs scattered throughout the Jungle Gardens, and the man in the bunny suit there. But I also thought again about the American presumption of Christianity, especially in the South, and about how non-Christian families feel when they turn a corner at Jungle Gardens and encounter this display.

Contemplating Jesus on the cross on Good Friday certainly seemed appropriate. After a week of seashore experiences, my nieces were drawn to the “After the Resurrection” scene, with Jesus on the shores of the Galilee, calling to the fishermen. Then we were off to look at the giant koi and flamingos by the pond.

Meanwhile, we are going through boxes of matzoh like nobody’s business, despite the fact that only my father and I are keeping kosher for Passover (not eating leavened bread). Over the years, I have encouraged my children to eat matzoh during Passover by serving it in creative ways, but when we are on vacation with Christian cousins who are eating bread, staying in the same condos, it has been all-but-impossible to enforce a no-bread rule. Nevertheless,whether they have four, three, two, one or zero Jewish grandparents, everyone in our crew devours matzoh with butter, matzoh with peanut butter, matzoh with Nutella, matzoh with cheese. One of my brothers has bought a jar of gefilte fish and is eating it straight out of the refrigerator, even though we don’t serve it at our Seder. He says it reminds him of the little jars of “chickie stick” sausages we ate as toddlers: comfort food.

Early in our week together, I locked myself in one of our three condos in order to serve as the guest on an NPR call-in radio show about interfaith families. My entire clan listened in on a laptop, in the condo next door. When I emerged at the end of the hour-long program, Catholics, Protestants, agnostics, Jews, Buddhists, and seekers, they all cheered my defense of interfaith families and the right to choose our different religious pathways. Family is still the most important, and precious, community for me.

On Easter, my Catholic sister-in-law has promised to return from the sunrise Easter service on the beach in time to make a special breakfast of Dutch Babies, the skillet pancakes that puff up in the oven. Ironically, my father remembers his German-Jewish mother making these same pancakes, though not during Passover. I will make matzoh brie, for my father and myself, and anyone else who wants to partake. It’s great with a side of leftover charoset.

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.

Mardi Gras and Carnival: Joyful Interfaith Syncretism

We have arrived at my favorite moment in what I think of as the syncretic calendar:  the cycle of celebrations around the world acknowledging that religions collide, intertwine, hybridize, just as human beings in interfaith families do. This moment is called Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Carnaval in Brazil, and Carnival in Haiti and many parts of the Catholic world. Pre-Lenten revelry has roots in Christian Europe, nourished by pre-Christian pagan traditions, and then by indigenous and African religions in the Americas. I find particular resonance in the inclusive nature of Carnival, a time for playing with and vaulting over traditional boundaries of gender, race, and religion.

Experiencing Carnaval in Brazil contributed to my own fluid religious identity. I was born into an interfaith Jewish/Christian family with roots in New Orleans, predisposed to noticing religious interplay. As a young adult, I spent three formative years in Senegal, a progressive Muslim country built on African religious traditions and Catholic colonial history. Then, as a young mother, I spent three crucial years in Brazil,  a progressive Catholic country built on African and Amerindian traditions.

Brazil’s population is just as wildly diverse as ours: indigenous cultures, Africans, Japanese farmers, Germans and Italians and Arabs, Jews who arrived with the first European explorers. The entire country (except for disapproving evangelical Protestant sects) feels the right to celebrate together during Carnaval.

The time of revelry comes to a peak this week with Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras), the day before Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. In Brazil, each day of this week entails a vast, complex, and region-specific universe of rituals, songs, dances, stories and costumes melding Catholicism, Yoruba rites from West Africa, and indigenous traditions. In my beloved city of Recife, there is a night of drumming, frevo dancing with umbrellas, spangled Afro-Brazilian Maracatu dancers clenching flowers in their teeth, masked revelers recalling the origins of Carnival in Europe.

Living in the cold (dare I say frigid?) north, we are deprived of Carnival, and I feel weltzschmertz, a world-sadness, when, instead, I am trapped in a March landscape of ice and dormant grey trees. On Fat Tuesday, our children go to school as if it were any other day (in Brazil they would have the week off). Perhaps on Ash Wednesday they notice ashes on the forehead of a Catholic friend or two, or perhaps not. Our culture seems only vaguely aware that Lent is upon us. I miss the warmth and daring of Carnival. I miss the feeling of a whole country celebrating together for a week, reveling in the joyful syncretism of Mardi Gras.

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.

Interfaith Families: Wrestling with Jesus

In my community of interfaith families, we do not avoid confronting and contemplating the concepts of Jesus that we hold, as Jews and Christians. In our Adult Group this morning, we wrestled with Jesus, and at times, with each other.

Years ago now, a member of our community, Lance Flitter, contributed an essay to the compilation Seeing Jesus Through Jewish Eyes, about how his interfaith marriage transformed his attitude towards Jesus. Like many other Jews, Lance admits that he did not think about Jesus very much until he married a Christian woman. He compared Christianity to the air: something pervasive, all around him, but rarely acknolwedged. After his intermarriage, he began exploring the historical Jesus, and came to appreciate him as a religious reformer who stood up for what he thought was right, as other Jewish prophets had done before him. Lance also discovered Jesus as a social egalitarian, willing to hang around with women, lepers, the outcasts of the time. As we continue to build our interfaith families community, without much support or acknowledgment from religious institutions, Lance notes that  “Jesus as a breaker of social barriers resonates with me in the context of an interfaith community.”

Longtime Adult Group leader Ian Spatz, also Jewish, then described his positive attitude toward a Jesus whom he sees as standing for inclusion. He noted, “To become a Christian, you don’t have to be part of a certain tribe, or be born from the right mother.” These issues of tribalism sit heavy on the hearts of many intermarried, interfaith and converted Jews. Another Jewish partner talked about what I think of as Jesus Envy: a sense that Jesus brought peace and inspired spirituality in a way that is inaccessible to Jews.

But then a Jewish woman admitted to being frightened in childhood by the idea of Jesus, of being uncomfortable with the idea of Jesus even now. Others nodded, finding her fear familiar. Lance pointed out that this fear is logical after two thousand years of some Christians labeling Jews as Christ-killers. A Jewish man said, “So much is done in the name of Jesus that is antithetical to his social justice teaching.”

A Catholic talked about growing up with the idea of Jesus as love, and being shocked to discover that Jesus could cause fear and discomfort in her partner, in others. A Protestant woman described growing up in the Bible Belt, where she experienced Jesus as a “weapon of exclusion” rather than inclusion, explaining, “I understand the fear, because I see how Jesus was used to exclude people who did not accept him as a savior.” A woman raised in Orthodox Judaism talked about being taught to believe that Jesus was a heretic, a false prophet, and that Christians were lazy for believing that Jesus died for their sins, rather than taking responsibility for their own sins. Sitting beside her Christian partner, she now calls this attitude “arrogant.”

Another woman raised as  a “Trinitarian” says she can no longer subscribe to the idea of Jesus as a personal savior, but that the historical Jesus is “what keeps me calling myself a Christian” and that the attempt by religious historians and theologians to understand what Jesus actually said and did, as opposed to the later evolution of Christian dogma, is potential common ground for Christians married to Jews. Another Jewish woman, married to a Catholic, concluded the discussion with these wise words:  “I don’t think we can or should smooth it all over.”

A similar conversation is taking place now all over America, in what I think of as small “i” interfaith dialogue. But here in capital “I” Interfaith Families, there is no retreating from this topic into separate corners at the end of the discussion. No matter how hard these conversations sometimes are, we must wrestle with them continuously, in order to create a healthy environment of mutual respect for our children. This does not mean we wish to solve or dissolve the differences, or erase the experiences we bring to our families as Christians and Jews. In raising children together, we share a common goal of presenting a Jesus who is not feared or forbidden, who preached on the subject of love, who inspires to this day. To do this, we do not need to aspire to or pretend to consistency within our families, or within our community, on the question of his divinity.

Successful Interfaith Marriage: Anne and Danny

When a family chooses a religious identity, each family member has a unique response based on background, expectations, and personality. Today, I post the thoughts of Anne Stewart, a long-time Sunday School teacher in our Interfaith Families Project (IFFP). Her husband, Danny Weiss, arrived at IFFP deeply sceptical, and quickly became Chair of the Board. Anne speaks to the benefits, and the drawbacks, of choosing the interfaith pathway for themselves, and for their two daughters, who are now 12 and 15 years old.

Religious Background

I was raised in a Vatican II-era Catholic Church in Pittsburgh in which social justice work in the community was the primary concern of the parish.  I went to Catholic school through the fifth grade, and to a Catholic women’s college.  My father was raised Protestant, and he did not attend church with us.  He did, however, go to a Catholic college, and was pretty comfortable with the traditions. My parents were married in the Catholic Church, but they had to stand “outside the altar” because my father was Protestant.  Both of my grandparents accepted that their children were marrying “outside the faith” in part because they were all in the same neighborhood/social class.

Danny was raised in a culturally Jewish household that celebrated all the major Jewish holidays–Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, Chanukah and Passover–at home, not in a temple.  They did not belong to a temple and  did not attend religious school.  They had a secular Christmas celebration during which they exchanged presents, but they did not have a tree. He grew up overhearing a lot of talk from one side of his family about “Goyem this…” and “Goyem that…”, which Danny interpreted as disparaging of non-Jews.

Interfaith Marriage

We became a couple in 1988 and married in 1992.  Our first serious discussion of religious identity as a couple came with the planning of the wedding.  I insisted that we be married under some greater authority than the State, but had no preference about a rabbi, priest, or both. When Danny and I first became a couple in 1988, Danny was living in the home of Reverend William Sloane Coffin, and his wife Randy. Bill Coffin was an old and close friend of Danny’s mom. It became obvious that the Weiss family, including Danny, would feel most comfortable with Bill doing the wedding.  In our first meeting with Bill, Danny asked that Bill not use the word “God” in our ceremony.  I strongly disagreed, as that was the point of having a person of the cloth. Bill was used to this sort of thing, and said. “Danny, my boy, you’ll get over it.”  Coffin was a hero to my liberal family, so that was an easy compromise.  To this day, I believe that the presence of Bill Coffin in Danny’s life played a pivotal role in my trusting that Danny would “come around” to being okay with religion in our lives.

Choosing a Religious Community

As a married couple, we went to a few masses at Georgetown and to our local church.  For me, they were too white and upper-class, so that was that.  We went to a service at one temple because Danny had a connection to a rabbi there and I went to check out another one.  I didn’t like the Reform synagogues—too much like Protestant churches, or something.  Danny did not really feel comfortable in a synagogue, anyway. I saw an ad in a paper for IFFP, and decided we would check it out.  When we got there, we saw our pediatrician, which gave us the feeling that it wasn’t “weird.”  I think Danny may have chatted with a kindred sceptic. It was Danny who felt comfortable.  I could be comfortable anywhere, so this was a big plus that he liked the guys he talked to there.

Benefits and Drawbacks of Choosing Both

The Benefits seem obvious—you live in a bigger world, you learn more, you understand more, you discuss/debate more.  All things we both like, that suit our personalities.

Drawbacks—what we are/do is really hard to explain; no helpful vocabulary (we are NOT Unitarian); we are a minority; our children are “different” from their observant Catholic or observant Jewish friends—there is no getting around this one—they have the burden of explaining; they get told things like:  You can’t be Jewish because your mother isn’t; You can’t take Communion (but they do); You don’t really know Hebrew, right?  In the end, telling someone you belong to an interfaith congregation is either a conversation starter or a conversation stopper.  On average, I would say that it is a conversation stopper if I am talking to someone who is Jewish.

Family Responses

My extended family is progressive/liberal thinking, so our choice has not been an issue.  I think the fact that my Irish Grandfather married a Hungarian and that my Catholic Mom married a Protestant were helpful in all of this. Danny is a special person—everyone loved him from Day 1, so that helped.  My extended family was thrilled to come to our older daughter’s Bat Mitzvah.  It has been an added benefit that Rabbi White is from Georgetown (a Jesuit university).

Danny’s family has had a harder time with Danny being in any religious community, particularly his mom, who was raised atheist. In recent years, Danny’s dad has thanked me for bringing Jewish learning into the family. It was very moving that Danny’s dad participated in our daughter’s Bat Mitzvah—he hired a tutor for himself to learn the Torah Reading. I believe strongly that without IFFP, Danny would not have found a comfortable place to develop a religious identity.

Identity of the Children

Our older daughter has stated that she is glad she can “count herself as Jewish” when she is with Jewish kids.  When asked why she feels she can, she says it is because she had the Bat Mitzvah. She hated IFFP, because of the touchy-feely nature of the program/gatherings. But she loved the Bat Mitzvah process she went through with a close friend from IFFP. She may have been better-off in a traditional Sunday school/church/synagogue setting—she is not a person who likes to stand out or be different.

Our younger daughter is a more naturally spiritual soul.  She does not mind IFFP, and sees herself as both. However, the rituals that you get in a Mass, or maybe even in an Orthodox Jewish service, are probably something that she would like more. She would have liked to know more about angels, mystery, etc. She loves to go to Mass with my Pittsburgh family—the candles, the smells… It concerns me how quick she likes to say that Jesus did not really rise from the dead.  I have to coach her about being more sensitive about this topic. I believe both my children are missing a sense of wonder, mystery, overall “Godness” that I had growing up in the Catholic Church.  This is a loss, and they may get it on their own someday, but I think it is harder as an adult.

The Secrets of Successful Interfaith Marriage

I hear a lot of people say that the way interfaith marriage works is through acceptance.  In our marriage, I would say that each of us has embraced the other’s traditions.  I mean really enjoyed them, learned about them, got excited about them, looked forward to them and then shared them.   I have loved all the cooking I’ve done for Jewish holidays—and inviting people who may have never celebrated them.  My mother’s 70th birthday was over Passover—we had a formal Passover dinner as part of the weekend celebration.  Danny loves to go to the Christmas Eve Service, the tree, the crèche, all of it.  So I think the “secret” is that you remember why you married the person—to expand your life, to make your world bigger. That has given us the rich opportunity to learn more about the religious traditions we grew up with, and then learn about each other’s, and then create more traditions together. Danny and I and our children have a more spiritually fulfilling life as a result.

 

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.

 

Saint Patrick, Snakes, and Interfaith Green Bagels

Both my kids have a special affinity for Saint Patrick’s Day, because they have red hair. When they were little, with bright copper ringlets, people would stop and stare and sometimes even ask where they came from, as if they might not be my kids at all. (I have rather dull brown hair). Occasionally, I am sorry to admit, I would shoot back with a snarky, “I adopted them from Ireland.”

My children have Jewish, Presbyterian, Methodist, Quaker, Mennonite, and Roman Catholic ancestors, from England, Scotland, Ireland, Holland, Switzerland and Germany. Their red hair comes from my red-headed Jewish father, and from my English-Dutch-Swiss husband. So although they are redheads, and part Irish, the Irish part is not the red-headed part. Nevertheless, living life as a redhead, or “ginger” as the Brits call it, does seem to increase their identification with their Irish background. My thirteen-year-old son, who is small and lively, with a mischievous freckled face to go with his red curls, delights in dressing up each year as a leprechaun. Today, he wore green madras shorts, a lime green slicker, and a green felt hat with a feather to school. His words:  “Mom, I OWN this holiday.”

Meanwhile, my sixteen-year-old daughter read a book about Saint Patrick to her interfaith Sunday School kindergarten class this week. I asked if it explained about the snakes, and she said, “What snakes?” I guess it was some kind of seriously historically-correct picture book, because it did not explain why every lithograph of Saint Patrick depicts him with snakes. According to folklore, Saint Patrick banished the snakes from Ireland. Sadly, according to scientists, there have been no snakes in Ireland since at least the last ice age, since it is an island cut off by frozen seas from the mainland snakes.

So the Irish snakes are apocryphal, or metaphorical. Some historians believe they represent the pagan and druid spirits, driven out by Saint Patrick’s missionary fervor. After all, the snake represents evil in the Biblical context. For this reason, some modern pagans are torn about whether or not to celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day. Meanwhile, snakes play a huge role in the Yoruba-based religions of Haiti (Vodou) and Brazil (Candomble), where Saint Patrick is revered for his power over snakes. The snake spirit in the African Yoruba religion is linked with Saint Patrick in these syncretic religions of the Americas, and the lithograph of Saint Patrick banishing the snakes is common in Vodou and Candomble altars and houses of worship.

“Well, if he didn’t drive out the snakes, what was the book about?” I asked my daughter. This is the downside of growing up Jewish without any Christian education I guess. I am dangerously ignorant at times about Western Christian culture. It pleases me that my own interfaith children, schooled in both religions, now teach me about such things.

My daughter explained to me that Saint Patrick, who was actually a Briton, possibly from Wales, was shipped off to be a slave in Ireland, escaped, and later returned as a priest to convert the pagan and druid Celts to Christianity. Perhaps ambivalence over Patrick’s background, not to mention ambivalence about mass conversions, explains why the Irish themselves did not originally make a big deal out of Saint Patrick’s Day. It was Irish-American immigrants, seeking a way to restore some national pride in the face of terrible discrimination in the New World, who ramped up the holiday with parades, green beer, green dogs, and ultimately, green bagels. Now that I think about it, a green bagel is oddly reminiscent of a green snake holding its own tale, in a symbol of the endless cycle of life.

Both Irish corned beef and cabbage, and green bagels, arose from the culinary cross-fertilization of Irish and Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side. Sadly, green bagels are hard to come by outside of New York City—a city with adequate Jewish and Irish culture to support such whimsical commercial collisions. On this Saint Patrick’s Day, I feel a certain wistfulness that we, an all-American Irish-Jewish family, do not live in that great city, supporting the green bagel market. Corned beef and green bagels: it could be the start of a beautiful interfaith cookbook.

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 (forthcoming in 2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Haitian Spirits

My mother-in-law has a sequined Vodou flag hanging above her fireplace in Connecticut. When people inquire, she explains that it depicts the ship Imamou transporting the Haitian dead to the land of the spirits. Visitors tend to go quiet as she delves into the belief system of Vodou, the national religion of Haiti.

This week, Imamou groans through the waves, tragically overloaded with tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of passengers–Haitian earthquake victims. As the horrific news and images swirl around us, I wait to hear whether my husband’s skills as a Creole-speaker and relief worker will mean he gets on a plane. I know he wants to go: of all the countries he has worked in around the world, Haiti is his first love, never forgotten.

In 1983, I went to visit him while he was working in a home for street boys in Petionville. In preparation, I read Maya Deren’s Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, a seminal work on Vodou written by a filmmaker in the 1950s. Then I read Robert Farris Thompson’s influential Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy, a book describing how West and Central Africans brought their religions to the New World and preserved them by interweaving them with Catholicism in places including Haiti, New Orleans, and Brazil.
I arrived in Haiti during the week when the Christian holidays of All Souls, All Saints and the Day of the Dead converge with the most important Vodou celebrations. In the night, we heard drumming, and got out of bed to walk until we saw a circle of dancing Haitians dressed in white. An eager journalist, I wanted to approach the circle. My husband, with healthy respect for the culture in which he was living, convinced me that we should return to bed, and not intrude.

Somehow, our lives have continued to circle the Atlantic in a mysterious pattern echoing the slave trade. We lived for three years in West Africa, including trips to Benin, Togo and the Yoruba centers that so informed the religion of Africans in the Americas. Later, we found ourselves living in northeastern Brazil, where African religions absorbed Catholic saints and symbols to become Candomble.

So why write about all this on my interfaith blog? A lot of folks (Pat Robertson, David Brooks) are making ignorant comments this week about “voodoo” (a Hollywood construct) and Haiti. For those who want a deeper understanding, I recommend the two books above–both are authoritative, deep yet lively. Joseph Campbell wrote the introduction to Deren’s book.

In my own interfaith journey, Haiti provided the first thrilling encounter with complex, compelling and obviously syncretic religious practice. Later, I came to see all religions as syncretic: evolving together, influencing each other, intertwining and swapping information like strands of DNA. In Haiti and Brazil and Africa, adhering to more than one religious worldview simultaneously is often central, not marginal. In my quest for interfaith acceptance, I take inspiration from my time in these rich and deeply spiritual cultures.

Sorting through our photos from Haiti, trying to choose one for this post, I found many images of the street boys who taught my husband Creole. They should be men now in their prime, and it is very hard to think about their fates this week. As others have pointed out, death is always close in Haiti, and the dead remain an intimate part of the family. After the spirit Agwe ferries Imamou through the waters, their souls are home again in Ginen (Guinea), the land of the ancestors. The idea provides comfort, much like the consoling Judeo-Christian idea of heaven as green pasture. So I chose a photo of a bit of green in Haiti’s mountains, remnants of farmland and trees, in an attempt to envision a peaceful place for all of these souls, and a remnant of hope for a future of ecological and agricultural renewal in Haiti.

 

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