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Post opinion piece that purported to show that interfaith marriages are prone to failure, using extreme anecdotes and outdated and twisted statistics.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.

The Appeal of Buddhism in Interfaith Families

We are raising our children with Judaism and Christianity, the two religions in our family. Yet various friends and teachers have also exposed them to Buddhism, and at 14, my son currently identifies his religious identity on Facebook as “Jew/Christian swirl interested in Buddhism.”

Buddhism, like Unitarianism-Universalism (UU), has long provided a home for interfaith families and adult interfaith children, especially in places where there is no community specifically for interfaith families.

One of the friends who has brought Buddhism into my family is Sharron Mendel Swain, who was raised by one Jewish and one Christian parent, found a spiritual home in Buddhism in her 20s, and now runs a UU religious education program. Her Buddhist practice is based on the teachings of peace activist and Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King Jr., and created the Plum Village community in France. Recently, I asked Sharron about the appeal of Buddhism for her, as an interfaith child.

Why does Buddhism seem to have particular appeal for some intermarried or interfaith people?

The beautiful thing about Buddhism is that it never, in my experience, asks someone to choose.  For example, in the Plum Village tradition in which I practice, it would be unthinkable to ask someone of mixed race parentage, “are you Black or are you White”?  Same with asking someone with Vietnamese parents who was raised in the US:  “are you Vietnamese or are you American?”  Anyone who’s been around for any time would get it that you’re both!  It would be like asking a child “are you your father’s child or your mother’s child”?  Of course you are the child of both. . .

One of the central tenets, if you can call it that, of this practice is the notion of “interbeing.”  Interbeing is a deep recognition of how intricately interconnected our world is, from the subatomic level to the level of the cosmos.  Looking deeply, it is possible to see that Christianity cannot exist without Judaism, and Judaism as it is today cannot exist independently of Christianity.

For me, it is as if Christianity and Judaism are two rivers of my family’s experience flowing into the ocean of my life and experience.  Buddhism is the one place I have found that is big enough to embrace the whole ocean, never asking me to choose.

Do you see Buddhism as having particular benefits for interfaith people/families?

Buddhism doesn’t concern itself with the same questions, and is therefore focused on something other than the arguments that have been plaguing Christians and Jews for centuries, if not millennia.  The Buddha himself said he was not interested in the question of whether or not there was a God, and therefore focused his efforts and attention in a whole different direction.  Buddhism (when not practiced in a rote or devotional way, like anything else) is deeply experiential by nature.  It has a built-in “out” in that the Buddha basically said “look, try this, and decide based on your experience, not what I say.”  This is extraordinarily appealing to folks who have probably already broken a number of rules by venturing far enough outside their birth faith to marry someone raised in another faith.  Buddhism has countless practices that, if applied skillfully, can significantly assist in the process of transforming suffering, no matter what someone’s “religious” orientation may be.

And, an ironic thing about Buddhist practice is that it almost invariably leads the practitioner into a much closer examination of, and often deeper appreciation of, the religion (family, etc.) with which they were raised.  This often helps people arrive at a much more mature appreciation of the treasures buried in their birth traditions, and an ability to see the “garbage” for what it is.

Why do you think it seems to be easier for some people to combine the practice of Buddhism with Judaism, or Buddhism with Christianity, than it is to combine Judaism and Christianity?

The Buddha is completely innocent when it comes to the question of Christ’s death. Jews have been burdened for centuries with false allegations around this event, and all manner of prejudice and discrimination that flows from that.  Neither the Buddha, nor Buddhists, to my knowledge, participated in Crusades, or Inquisitions, or other bloody ways of spreading their faith.  Jews also, in many cases, have developed a strong (and justified) “fortress mentality” in the face of centuries of persecution.  The fact that the Holocaust was the experience of the older generation of Jews that is still living has undoubtedly created cultural and generational wounds that may take centuries to heal.

Nonviolence and nonharm are central to Buddhism.  People come into Buddhism with all kinds of wounds and baggage, but if they stick with it long enough, it helps transform all that.  There’s a recognition, perhaps like the Christian acknowledgement of sin, that we all suffer, but there’s no judgement with that.  It’s more like “we are alive, and so we suffer, we feel rage, we discriminate, etc. And we have the power to transform that suffering.  We’ve got all the ‘wholesome seeds’ within us, too.  This means that no matter how much anger or hatred is in us, we can shift the focus and nurture the altruism, the forgiveness, the kindness, and so on.”

This is a profoundly healing perspective, and when it is combined with skillful teachers and real practice, it changes lives.

Could you expand on the idea of Interbeing, a concept that sounds very relevant to interfaith families?

The first three mindfulness trainings of the Order of Interbeing (at least in Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition) may give some insight into what Buddhism offers:

1. The First Mindfulness Training: Openness

Aware of the suffering created by fanaticism and intolerance, we are determined not to be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist teachings are guiding means to help us learn to look deeply and to develop our understanding and compassion. They are not doctrines to fight, kill, or die for.

2. The Second Mindfulness Training: Nonattachment from Views

Aware of the suffering created by attachment to views and wrong perceptions, we are determined to avoid being narrow-minded and bound to present views. We shall learn and practice nonattachment from views in order to be open to others’ insights and experiences. We are aware that the knowledge we presently possess is not changeless, absolute truth. Truth is found in life, and we will observe life within and around us in every moment, ready to learn throughout our lives.

3. The Third Mindfulness Training: Freedom of Thought

Aware of the suffering brought about when we impose our views on others, we are committed not to force others, even our children, by any means whatsoever – such as authority, threat, money, propaganda, or indoctrination – to adopt our views. We will respect the right of others to be different and to choose what to believe and how to decide. We will, however, help others renounce fanaticism and narrowness through practicing deeply and engaging in compassionate dialogue.

Has Buddhism been helpful to you in your interfaith family? Post your comments…

In Which One Interfaith Family Sings Gospel…

All four members of my family got up onstage at an outdoor Roots Festival in West Baltimore recently and sang some flat-out gospel numbers. We had joined up with about a hundred other singers to help the Alternate Roots organization stimulate healing in a neighborhood ravaged by bad urban planning (including the notorious “Highway to Nowhere“).  The dynamic Tony Winston, of Payne Memorial AME church, led us in the gospel numbers. We also sang African songs (led by  Fred Onovwerosuoke) a labor song (led by Charm City Labor Choir Director Darryl! L.C. Moch), and peace, love and understanding songs (led by Elise Witt, who happens to hail from a Jewish/Christian interfaith family, which was somehow no surprise to me, since she’s a classic bridge-builder). With only two rehearsals, we had more enthusiasm than precision, and were very thankful that Tony Winston brought in some ringers from his choir.

My husband grew up in an undemonstrative brand of northeastern Episcopalianism, and I grew up in a rather dry and cerebral form of Reform Judaism (despite my interfaith background). Neither of us were prepared from youth to stand up in the middle of an African-American neighborhood and sing gospel, though my husband went to a majority-black public school for awhile, and actually has sung in his gospel choir at work in Baltimore. I credit my years of immersion in an interfaith families community with allowing me to become comfortable enough with talking (or singing) about Jesus. I have also vowed, in choosing to teach my children about both Judaism and Christianity, to seek out opportunities for them to access this kind of authentic experience with progressive, social-justice-minded Christian believers.

I should also note that after living in Baltimore and Washington, and in Africa, I came to respect the important role that Christianity, and Jesus, plays in the African-American community. I want my children to experience this part of their community, to feel comfortable in West Baltimore. So in a spirit of cross-cultural encounter, it made sense to me to sing out in this temporary semi-gospel choir, and not hold myself apart somehow. I am secure enough in my own connection to Judaism (though others might see me as imperiled by my interfaith pedigree) that I did not feel threatened in any way by participating.

So there we were. My teenage son ended up drumming with the corps of djembe-players, my husband was off at the other end of the huge stage somewhere in the bass section, and my teenage daughter and I sang our hearts out. We danced and sang to the African chants, we urged an end to war, racism, sexism, homophobia. And when Tony Winston got up, in his elegant white suit, we sang “Total Praise” and “He is an Awesome God” and even “Jesus paid the price, now I’m free from sin. I am souled out…” In fact, this last song, while it does not reflect my own beliefs directly, has been stuck in my head for weeks now. It reminds me of the joy on my daughter’s face, singing next to me on stage, when she finally shed her exquisite teenage self-consciousness and got caught up in the spirit of the experience.

For me, part of the opportunity of being in an intefaith family, is the special role and responsibility we feel to reach out and truly embrace the other, even when it means stretching a bit and singing about Jesus. I believe that religion can be a force for good in the world (as well as an excuse for wrongdoing), and I want my children to believe this. But good does not happen spontaneously. We make it happen. And one way we can make it happen is to participate in deep encounters like the one we had in West Baltimore.

Half-Jewish, Half-Christian, Raised Both: Baseball’s Sam Fuld

In the current issue of The New Yorker, eloquent sportswriter Ben McGrath profiles Tampa Bay’s superstar outfielder Sam Fuld, an acrobatic mensch with an unusual background. A Stanford grad raised by a state senator and an academic, a role model for kids with diabetes, and a statistics geek, Fuld has been described in multiple media outlets as Jewish. Bloggers gleefully claim him for fantasy “Jewish baseball” rosters, just as they have claimed many interfaith ballplayers in the past, including Ryan Braun, Mike Lieberthal, Ian Kinsler and Lou Boudreau (who was raised Christian, for Pete’s sake). The preponderance of Jewish(ish) ballplayers who are interfaith children probably reflects the simple demographic reality of increasing interfaith marriage (though it is tempting to theorize about hybrid vigor). Meanwhile, try to imagine if Christians had the chutzpah to “root for their team” in this context and claim these players for Christianity: it would be unseemly, even shocking. Judaism, as the spunky underdog, has the fan advantage.

Nevertheless, I wish high-profile interfaith children actually raised with both religions would dare to be more “out” and proud, that they would stand up and be counted, and help explain to the world the benefits of growing up interfaith. Instead, interfaith athletes and celebrities are often given special dispensation, and counted as Jews in situations in which interfaith children would be excluded.

For those of us who are “patrilinial half-Jews,” the irony of celebrity interfaith children lauded as Jews, no matter which parent was Jewish, no matter how they were raised, feels surreal. It reminds me of the hilariously transgressive “Racial Draft” skit by comedian Dave Chappelle, a must-see for anyone (over 18) interested in identity politics. I do understand and appreciate the effort to be more inclusive, to welcome any and all interfaith children who choose to identify as Jews. But the double-standard, when so much of the Jewish world denies the Judaism of non-celebrity interfaith children, is clear. Milwaukee outfielder Ryan Braun’s non-Jewish mother called this out, saying, “Ryan is proud that people want to claim him now, but where were they before?” She added, “You know how that stuff works.” Yes, I do.

In our increasingly diverse world, we must allow people to define their own identities. Here’s what Sam Fuld told The New Yorker about his religious upbringing: “I feel like I’m almost letting some people down when I tell them, ‘Well, my mom’s Catholic, and I was kind of raised celebrating both.'” He may be letting down those who want to claim him for the Jewish team. But as a fellow interfaith child, here is what I would like to say to Sam Fuld:

You aren’t letting down your fellow interfaith children, you are making us proud.

You aren’t alone. A growing cohort of interfaith children are being raised with both religions. Your parents chose a valid path for interfaith families: each pathway has specific benefits and challenges.

Don’t let others define you. You are not defined only by your Jewish fraction. Define yourself as interfaith if that’s who you are, and be proud of that identity.

Your mom and dad are equally important. You can claim both sides of your heritage.

If you want to explore your interfaith identity, in a neutral space, I invite you to guest blog at “On Being Both.” Speak out! Join us! 

My Interfaith Son: The Bar Mitzvah and Coming of Age

My son chanted from the Torah with a new silk tallit (a Jewish prayershawl) draped around his shoulders last Saturday, flanked by two rabbis, and my 86-year-old father—his only Jewish grandparent.

Yes, we have chutzpah.  We decided to politely ignore everyone who thinks my son is not Jewish because his Judaism is patrilineal. We decided to politely ignore everyone who thinks my son is not Jewish because he has been educated in both of his family religions—Judaism and Christianity.

We listened respectfully to everyone who told us what a Bar Mitzvah should or should not include, and then we made our own decisions, and chose our own labels.

Our boy is becoming a man, not just as a Jew, but as a whole person, with an exuberantly complex and rich set of traditions. So this coming-of-age ceremony, from our perspective as an interfaith family raising our children in an interfaith community, needed to acknowledge and celebrate both his Jewish and Christian heritage. Preparing the way over the past year, together with my son, my daughter, my husband, two rabbis and a minister, confirmed for me, once again, that we are on a pathway that can inspire deep spirituality.  We feel whole, as a family, and as a community, honoring both religions at this tender moment of transition in my son’s life.

So, we included the Torah reading, the Sh’ma and V’ahavtah, the mourner’s Kaddish. We drew on the Shabbat theme of Shalom, of peace. My daughter, the proud big sister, led us in the haunting traditional Reform melody of “Oseh Shalom.” We sang a klezmer rendition (complete with sax and clarinet) of another peace song,  “Lo Yisa Goy” (from the Biblical verse about beating swords into ploughshares). And when my son led a procession around the congregation holding the Torah, we clapped along to “It is a Tree of Life” with the refrain of “Shabbat Shalom” (Sabbath Peace).

All of this might have happened at any Bar Mitzvah. But then, an uncle, who is studying for the Episcopal priesthood, read from the gospel of Mark, from the passage in which the young Jesus affirms the importance of the central prayers of Judaism, the Sh’ma and V’ahavtah. Our rabbi then reflected on this passage. Both Christian grandmothers gave readings. And we had two Christian hymns related to the environmental theme of my son’s Torah portion. One hymn was led by a band composed of one Sufi raised Christian, one agnostic Jew, one Buddhist Jew and one pastor’s daughter who prefers Judaism. My Jewish father pounded out the other hymn on the grand piano.

It was my husband who came up with the idea of asking the minister to give her final blessing during a “laying on of hands,” in which every person in the room connected to the people around them, and ultimately to our son. While this ritual may be most familiar to Christians, from both ordination of clergy and confirmation of adolescents, it has roots in Judaism.  In Genesis, Jacob lays hands on his grandsons as he blesses them, and Jewish parents bless their children on Shabbat, placing hands on their heads as they do so. In our version, both grandmothers, but also both rabbis and the minister, reached out to connect with our son, initiating what ended up as a giant, group hug. So what may have seemed to some like a startling Christian element grafted on to a Bar Mitzvah, to us felt like a completely appropriate acknowledgement of the echoes and synergies in the sibling relationship between these two Abrahamic faiths.

We are neither forging a third religion, nor cowering safely in a “Kumbaya” common ground. We acknowledge the angular differences between our two religions, in the delicate politics of including Jesus in the ceremony, and in the arduous hours my son spent learning how to read the cantillation marks that guide the ancient melodies for chanting from the Torah. Our ceremony honored the shared space, but also the particularities.

On the day itself, I managed to stop worrying about balance and inclusion, and to be in the moment, feeling the love of all who were there as they shared this peak experience in our interfaith journey. Afterwards, non-Jewish friends and family remarked wistfully that they envy the Jewish tradition of Bar and Bat Mitzvah. This week, we claimed that tradition for our interfaith son, as we did for our daughter three years ago.

We have so much to celebrate. We celebrate our son’s arrival at physical adulthood, his desire for independence, his readiness for mature responsibilities, and his years of study in the religions inherited from both sides of his family. We celebrate him as a full member of our interfaith community, and as someone ready to make informed decisions about his own religious future. How often will he use his new tallit? Or his uncle’s gift of an Episcopal hymnal? He may continue to use both, or neither. None of us can know where life will lead our children. Children grow up, and make their own choices, whether they are interfaith children or monofaith children. All we can do is prepare them with love, and with deep knowledge of our own traditions. And that is what we have done.

Bar Mitzvah of an Interfaith Child: Creative Ferment

In the final days before my son’s Bar Mitzvah and interfaith coming-of-age ceremony, we have been blessed with many opportunities for philosophical discussion (as well as a certain amount of inevitable logistical and sartorial tussling). Last Friday night, our Rabbi and our Reverend, who will co-officiate at the ceremony, came for Shabbat dinner, and we reflected together on the balance of the songs and readings: Judaism and Christianity, King David and Walt Whitman, Heitor Villa-Lobos and Marvin Gaye.

Last night, I left my son at the computer, with instructions to finish his D’var Torah: the speech reflecting on the Torah portion he will chant in Hebrew. When I returned a while later, I discovered that instead, he had been researching quotes that inspire him from Buddhist thinkers, for possible inclusion in the ceremony. Well, okay, great idea! We talked about all of the people in his life (including our minister and his official, chosen Spiritual Mentor for his coming-of-age year) who practice Buddhism. Then he wanted to know the definition of dharma. I could tell him that the dharma concept is common to a set of Dharmic religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism), in contrast to the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). Then we huddled over the laptop together, surfing through pages on the many meanings of dharma.

I remembered that at about my son’s age, I read Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. In more recent years, I  have tried to keep up with all the brilliant contemporary novels by Indian writers (Salman Rushdie, Jhumpa Lahiri, Arundhati Roy, Abraham Verghese). This year, I bought my son a signed copy of Rushdie’s current coming-of-age tale, Luka and the Fire of Life, and he enjoyed the mix of adventure and philosophy. Part of the tremendous excitement of coming of age, to his bookworm mother, is that my son can now begin to devour all of the great literature of the world.

So, after an evening of possibly tangential but certainly important research and discussion on world religions, the speech remains incomplete. But we are both, mother and son, more enlightened (or at least educated)  than we were yesterday. My life has also been enriched by the daily decision-making required by the ceremony, through constant consultation with my two teenagers, my parents, my husband, our siblings, our clergy. Could my mother (Episcopalian by birth) read her favorite Bible passage from Genesis, or will she be interpreted as a creationist? (Hmmm, thinking). Are my son’s keen young eyes strong enough to read from our community’s tiny Torah, the one that will fit him so perfectly in the procession around the sanctuary? (Yes!) How do we handle being called to the Torah, when many of our family members (including my Jewish father) do not have Hebrew names? (Consult the rabbi).

We are creating this new interfaith tradition as we go along, guided in our decisions by the environmental theme  in my son’s Torah portion, and evident in his life, and in the life of our think-global-act-local family. Long before we chose a Bar Mitzvah date, my son had plunged in the freezing Chesapeake to raise funds for climate action, and written a ballad about global warming. In this spirit, could he wear one of my brothers’ (barely worn) timeless blue blazers from the 1980s, instead of buying an entire suit he will outgrow next month?  Yes. Could there be a perfect pair of penny loafers at Value Village, the used clothing store? Yes. But perhaps we should spring for the colorful Fair Trade yarmulkes imported from Guatemala by a former Peace Corps volunteer? Yes.

I am trying to find calm in these last whirlwind days before my son officially becomes a man. I love the idea of meditation: I have had little success with it, personally. My monkey mind races, my to-do lists proliferate. I do stop, at times throughout the day, to take a deep breath or two. And to focus on thankfulness: to my son and daughter and husband for taking on this challenge, to my extended family and friends for understanding the importance of the day, to my interfaith community for pioneering such a radically-supportive context.

Matzoh, Peeps, Jelly Beans: Interfaith Passover and Easter Leftovers

Many of us who celebrate both Passover and Easter just spent the last few weeks explaining, again and again, how we do not mix the two holidays together, but instead give them each separate space and specific depth and traditional respect. Passover is Jewish. Easter is Christian. Historically, they are connected, but I do not advocate combining them, any more than I advocate celebrating Chrismukkah.

All of this is serious, weighty, ponderous even. And yet, both Passover and Easter should be joyous: spring flowers, liberation, renewal.  And we cannot, and perhaps should not, completely suppress the lightness and even humor of the reality of our intertwined interfaith lives, and the inevitable moments of comic overlap and cross-fertilization.

So now that  the season of solemn and authentic celebration of both holidays is coming to a close, I am letting my wacky, transgressive interfaith side show with some creative uses for leftover matzoh and Easter candy.

Peep S’mores. This original Peep and Matzoh S’more video (above), has inspired much commentary and even sequels.  The helium-addled rendition of “Dayeinu” on the soundtrack as the Peep inflates in the microwave provides a dark, campy twist, somewhere between terrifying and hilarious. Some people will actually eat Peep S’mores: the blandness of matzoh nicely balances the tooth-ache sweetness of chocolate and marshmallow. My favorite use for leftover Peeps (with no reference to Passover) is the equally bizarre Rice Krispies Treats with Floating Peep Heads. And hey, it’s gluten free!

Matzoh House. Meanwhile, thanks to my friend Geneva, a great cook and designer and interfaith parent, for sending this link to gingerbread-style houses made with matzoh and jelly beans. As with gingerbread houses, these are perfect for using up candy (and matzoh) without actually having to consume it. And check out some sillier uses for leftover matzoh (with no reference to Easter candy) in this youtube song. Enjoy!

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.

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.

Passover, Easter, Oy! Interfaith debate on HuffPost…

Yesterday, my debut column went up on Huffington Post.  The debate in the comment section has been lively, to say the least, with disgruntled atheists, disgruntled Christians, disgruntled Jews, and disgruntled Pagans all weighing in. It is hard to encompass, in a single post, the entire philosophy of interfaith families communities. At Huffington Post, I will continue over time to present my perspective as a member of an interfaith community, as an interfaith child, and as an interfaith parent who has chosen to educate my children about two religions. Please join the conversation there! At the same time, no worries, I will continue to post at On Being Both.

The most urgent need is explaining to the world, again and again, that we are not attempting to mix two religions together, but to recognize and celebrate the differences. I think the terms “Interfaith Passover” and “Interfaith Easter” cue assumptions that we are creating mash-up celebrations, even though I stated otherwise. I explained this most recently, here, in my “Interfaith Purim” post. Purim is Purim. Passover is Passover. Easter is Easter. We celebrate these holidays together as an interfaith community, because we are a community, and because the experience of celebrating together as interfaith families is powerful. But the liturgy, the traditions, the contents of the celebrations may well be more traditional than you would find in some “monofaith” communities.

Please read my Passover and Easter post at HuffPost, and join me in explaining why we do what we do: become my HuffPost “fan,” click “like” on the article, and most importantly, post a comment and join the discussion there. To engender greater acceptance, we need to stick our necks out of the happy interfaith bubble we have created, and engage with the world at large.


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

Easter Approaches: Talking with Interfaith Children About Jesus

Hyacinths and daffodils are splashing new color through suburbia, signaling the approach of Passover and Easter. For those of us dedicated to educating interfaith children about both holidays, this is the moment for some complex but essential conversations. Today, I was reading in my son’s Bar Mitzvah study guide that in 1976, the Central Conference of American Rabbis issued a policy statement on Jewish traditions, in which it states that Reform Jews (like me) are called on “to exercise their individual autonomy, choosing and creating on the basis of commitment and knowledge.” And that’s exactly what I feel I’m doing in raising interfaith children, and educating them about both family religions.

But what does this education look like on a day to day basis? And in the Easter season, how do we, as interfaith parents, approach the topic of Jesus? This week, another parent in our independent interfaith families community shared with me a recent conversation he had with his daughter, and agreed that I could share it with you. How do these conversations happen in your own family?

Today after Sunday school Myka and I bicycled to the Woodside Deli in Silver Spring.  Over grilled cheese and a Greek salad we had our most extensive theological discussion to date.

For those who don’t know, I’m co-teaching Myka’s first grade class at the Interfaith Families Project. This morning we told the story of the 12-year-old Jesus coming to the temple and impressing the rabbis and other elders with his knowledge and questions. Except for the Christmas story and a couple parables told by an unnamed “teacher,” we haven’t focused much on Jesus yet. So as we started eating, I asked Myka if her classmates understood where Jesus fit in in relation to Abraham and Sarah and Judaism. She said she thought some of them did but a lot were confused. I asked if she wanted to know more about the Jesus story, and she did.
For the next 30 minutes I laid out as objectively as I could the story of Jesus. She said she understood that Jesus was a Jew. I told her about how he had been raised in the Jewish tradition but that he also disagreed with some of the teachings in the temple at that time. I told her about Jesus finding his disciples, including the fishermen – “I will make you fishers of men” – about his traveling around the countryside and saying good things for three years. I told her about the Romans and the governor where Jesus lived and how the government grew concerned about this man with such a following. White donkey. Palm branches.  Barabbas. We covered a lot of ground.
Then I told her where all this had come from, what the Gospels were and when they were written. I told her that, because there were no tape or video recorders back then, and because those books had been written so many years after Jesus died, it’s not clear how much in them is true.
“Why would people write something that wasn’t true?”
Sharp kid.  I said some people think parts of them were written to blame the Jews for bad things, including killing Jesus. I said we clearly know that much is wrong. The Romans killed Jesus.
Then I told her the story about Jesus’ crucifixion, death and resurrection. I told her about the women finding the stone rolled away, about Mary Magdalene and how Jesus said to her, “Don’t you see that it is me?” I told her how he showed his nail holes to “doubting” Thomas.
“I think Jesus after he died was kind of scary.”
I had to agree to that.  I finished up with the story of the Ascension.
Then I said that it’s because of this story about Jesus coming back to life that we celebrate Easter, and that Easter Sunday is the day that Jesus supposedly rose from the dead.
Myka was immediately stunned.  “Then what about the Easter Bunny and chocolate and eggs?  They’ve got nothing to do with Easter!!”
I said that was true, except probably for the part about the egg.  We then briefly touched on the seder and its origins, and about Christianity borrowing from Judaism.
On the bike ride back home I said the Easter Bunny was kind of like Santa Clause — both Easter and Christmas are supposedly about Jesus, but neither the Easter Bunny nor Santa has anything to do with them.   I asked Myka if she wondered how it got started that we have the Easter Bunny and Santa.
After a second she answered, “They were waiting in the non-human category for a job to open up.”
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.