The Identity of Interfaith Children: Downton Abbey Edition


I don’t always blog about fictional interfaith families, but when I do, it’s because they’re discussing the identity of interfaith children. Season 5 of Downton Abbey, which concluded this week in the US, featured the courtship and interfaith marriage of Rose (niece of Lord and Lady Grantham) and Atticus (son of Lord and Lady Sinderby). But for me, the most interesting episode aired last week, when we witnessed the following conversation between Lord Sinderby and Atticus:

Lord Sinderby: “The second Lord Sinderby may be Jewish, but the third will not…”

Atticus: “Any children we may have will be brought up to know both sides of their heritage.”

Lord Sinderby: “Your children will not be Jewish. Don’t you understand that! Their mother will not be Jewish, and neither will they.”

Atticus: “They may choose to convert. Or are you implacably opposed to giving anyone a free choice.”

 Lord Sinderby, quietly: “How easy you make it sound…”

Although the episode takes place between the two World Wars, that conversation sounded very familiar, very modern, and possibly painful, to a lot of contemporary interfaith families. I was not surprised to learn that it was based on an experience the writer Julian Fellowes had himself, while dating a Jewish woman. Interfaith couples today still face worried and frustrated family members who try to discourage interfaith marriages based on the following myths:

1. The myth that the children cannot be Jewish, if their mother is not Jewish. This is no longer the policy of Reform Judaism, the largest Jewish movement in America, and it hasn’t been since 1983. We now have rabbis with mothers who never converted to Judaism, including Jewish luminaries such as Rabbi Angela Buchdahl.

2. The myth that you can’t raise children with both religions. I did it. Hundreds of families are providing interfaith education to interfaith children in organized interfaith family communities. And clergy and religious institutions are beginning to acknowledge this choice as part of the religious landscape. A Chicago rabbi recently told me that fully half of the interfaith couples he marries plan to raise children with both religions. And, I would argue that there is a level on which all interfaith children are exposed to both heritages, even if you give them a single religious label. So Atticus may have sounded naive to Lord Sinderby, but I would argue that he was simply ahead of his time.

3. The myth that Judaism is so strongly tribal that you cannot convert into it. Many people choose Judaism and convert. And some interfaith children can and do choose to convert in order to gain full membership in the movement of their choosing. Sadly, Lord Sinderby is right that it isn’t always easy, and Jews-by-choice still face exclusion, restrictions and prejudice in some Jewish communities. But that’s not a reason to avoid interfaith marriage, or avoid conversion. It is a reason to continue to press for policies that will include and welcome interfaith families.

Finally, Atticus makes reference to free choice in religious practice. In the US, we are lucky enough to have the freedom to choose our own religious identities and practices, to love across traditional boundaries, and to educate our children as we see fit. And our children, whether born into single-faith or interfaith families, will grow up to do the same.


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

Successful Interfaith Marriage: Thelma and Ralph, Facing the End

Ralph came from an evangelical Christian family, Thelma was Jewish. After 34 years of very successful interfaith marriage, Ralph was diagnosed with leukemia in 2004, at age 64, and died a year later. Thelma started a blog, Widowsphere, in loving memory of her husband, and to chronicle her journey as a widow. Recently, Thelma contacted me to point out that I had not devoted much attention on my blog to second marriages, or interfaith marriages later in life. I also know that I have barely begun to address all of the issues surrounding death, burial, and mourning in interfaith families. I appreciate this opportunity to appreciate the inspiring marriage of Thelma and Ralph, and to launch a conversation about facing the inevitable, natural ending in a happy interfaith marriage.
How long did you date your husband before marrying, and what were your thoughts about the benefits and challenges of interfaith marriage before the wedding?
We met at a party, my first foray into the singles world after a divorce.  He called the next day and asked if he could come by, then he asked me out.  What went through my mind was, “He’s not Jewish, but he’d be okay to practice on.”  By the time we married two years later, I was more comfortable with the fact that he wasn’t Jewish than with the fact that he was five years younger than me.
Who officiated at your wedding? How did your extended families respond to your interfaith marriage?
We were married by a justice of the peace, who deleted all Christian references from the ceremony at my request. My two children were nine and seven, Ralph’s son was five. I think my family was outwardly supportive but inwardly very upset.  His family was very accepting of me and my children but never quit hoping that I would convert to Christianity.  I have remained very close to them since Ralph’s death and will be visiting them next month.
After marrying, did you and your husband continue to practice your religions? Did you share any of the rituals or traditions with each other?
After we married, we joined my synagogue as a family. We always went to church when we visited his family. We celebrated Jewish holidays and we exchanged gifts at Christmas and had a dinner then because as the children got older, they were home from college at that time.  We did not have Christmas trees or any other decorations.
How did your interfaith marriage influence the children? How were they raised, religiously?
The children went to synagogue with us. I was not a particularly religious Jew, more of a cultural, ethnic Jew, although I did have a cousin who was a rabbi. Neither of us made any effort at converting the other.  We were what we were. Today, my children identify as Jewish; his son does not.
When your husband fell ill, did the interfaith nature of your marriage pose special challenges?
Just before he entered the hospital for a stem cell transplant, Ralph confided in me for the first time that he wanted to convert to Judaism. I don’t know if he shared this with his family. At the hospital he listed himself as Jewish and became great friends with the Jewish chaplain, but as he got sicker he returned to the faith of his childhood. His funeral and burial were in his hometown. The first time I visited Ralph’s grave, I brought a stone from our backyard garden, and explained this Jewish custom to his sisters who went with me. His family now puts stones on his grave when they visit.  We had a memorial service at the synagogue a few weeks later. I said Kaddish for him and observe Yahrzeit.
I think death is the greatest spiritual challenge and one that is rarely addressed when discussing interfaith marriage. For a long time, I felt abandoned by his return to Christianity, probably not logically.  I came to terms with it and realized he needed the comfort of Christianity as he faced death.
How do you feel when you read that the challenges of interfaith marriage are going to be too great for many couples to overcome?
My experience with interfaith marriage was a joyful one. I think the strength of our marriage came from commitment to one another and understanding and acceptance of each other’s backgrounds.

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.

“Being Both” as a Political Liability: Nikki Haley’s Religions

I find myself in the very odd position today of empathizing with a Republican gubernatorial candidate from South Carolina. Yes, I speak of Nikki Haley, who hopes to win  her state’s primary tomorrow. Haley was born Nimrata Nikki Randhawa and raised in a Sikh family from India, but converted to Christianity at age 24 and was baptized as a Methodist. What’s interesting to me is the degree to which her perceived religious “bothness” is being used against her by political opponents.

Haley “admits” that she and her husband went through two wedding ceremonies—one Christian, one Sikh. And she has the chutzpah to continue to celebrate Sikh holidays with her extended family. Sounds familiar to many of us in interfaith America. One Pastor Ray Popham of something called the Oasis Church International told CNN: “I think she needs to be straight up with people, if she is both. If she believes that you can be both, then she should say that up front.”

It comes as no surprise that there are still regions of America where proving your Christianity is important in the political arena. President Obama certainly learned that lesson early on. I can only imagine what folks like Pastor Popham think of the idea that one could somehow be both Christian and Sikh. What really interests me in this story is the growing acknowledgement that there is even a possibility of identifying with more than one religion, of believing in both (even if the acknowledgement is tinged with the implication that dual-identity is wrong-headed).

I am exhilarated by the inevitable conclusion that the demographic reality of bothness is lapping at the feet of even the most conservative and Christian Americans.  I realize that Nikki Haley probably needs to deny her “bothness” right now and assert that she is 100% Christian through and through, if she wants to get elected.  And I probably hate Haley’s positions on all sorts of issues–afterall, she has been endorsed by Sarah Palin. But I can’t resist the urge here to send out a message of support to her as an interfaith person.

Nikki, you are not alone. Like more and more of Americans, you are both, by virtue of family history and personal experience, whether the Pastor Pophams of this world like it or not, in fact, whether you like it or not. Interfaith families are everywhere now, not just in New York and Washington and Boston, but in Utah and Iowa and South Carolina. We welcome you, and encourage you to claim your right to being both.

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.

Conflicted at Christmas? Embracing the Interfaith Pathway

In today’s New York Times, an article described the sadness and longing that Jewish converts feel at Christmas. In many cases, the Jews-by-choice are spouses in interfaith marriages hoping to fix the religious asymmetry in their families through conversion.

Although Judaism generally eschews proselytizing, Jewish institutions apply considerable pressure on interfaith spouses to convert. The argument goes that conversion is better for the children, who will otherwise be confused. And yet, it can be confusing for children to grow up with parents prone to blues during “the holidays,” parents who feel disconnected from their own parents and siblings, parents who may resent or regret the sacrifices they have made for the sake of an effort to achieve religious coherence or unity in the family.

I fully acknowledge that conversion is right for some individuals, and that choosing one religion is right for some interfaith families. All I want (for Christmas) is acknowledgment that there are benefits and drawbacks to choosing one religion for an interfaith family, just as there are benefits and drawbacks to celebrating two religions. And there is virtually no objective, scientific research that weighs the benefits and drawbacks. Each interfaith family must make this decision, and every decision has its costs and rewards.

In our interfaith family, we celebrated Christmas this year with abandon, and without regrets. We drank champagne, sang carols, ate a standing rib roast, exchanged presents and cookies with family and friends. Many years we have gone to church on Christmas eve. One year, my son even played the Virgin Mary in the Christmas pageant at our interfaith Sunday School.

My husband hangs glowing stars on our porch–an external marker of the Christmas spirit inside our home. I know that Christmas lights are hard for some Jewish spouses in interfaith marriages–we never had them on our house when I was growing up Jewish. How do we weigh the sadness of a Christian spouse who longs for lights, against the sadness of a Jewish spouse who is not entirely comfortable with those same lights?

My mother, born Christian, now considers herself a “common law Jew.” But I know that Christmas–the heirloom ornaments, the bulging stockings, the communal meal, the descendants gathered from near and far–sustains my mother throughout the year, and sustains every member of our multi-generational and multi-religious family. For me, embracing Christmas seems ideologically consistent with our desire to fully educate our children about both religions. And for us, though not for everyone, celebrating Christmas also works to minimize sadness.


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

Will Chelsea Clinton Convert? Why Do You Ask?

My editor suggested I write a response to all the Jewish media interest in whether or not Chelsea Clinton is going to convert to Judaism. See my letter to Chelsea here. My heart goes out to Chelsea: she has to go through the entire interfaith journey in a very public way. You have to wonder if it made her hesitate about marriage. So many busybodies are going to have an opinion on how she should go about getting married, raising children, and having a fulfilling spiritual life. So I’m trying to avoid being one more busybody, and give some calm advice on staying strong and tuning out some of the extraneous voices. I’m hoping she will take time to walk labyrinths and meditate and listen to music and otherwise call on her own wise inner voice.

But my best advice is to have a really, really short engagement. That’s the way my interfaith parents did it. That’s the way my husband and I did it. Like me, like my parents, Chelsea and Mark  spent many, many years in courtship. Once you’ve made the decision, just go for it. Don’t give the buttinskys time to tell you how to do it or why it won’t work. Can I suggest February 13th? It’s my parents’ anniversary (yes, we started celebrating it three months early this year), and works nicely as a prelude to Valentine’s Day…

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