Book Review: Dessert First

We need people from interfaith families to write a whole list of books–on love, birth, coming of age, aging together–written from diverse religious, spiritual and secular perspectives. So I am thrilled that J. Dana Trent is on her way to producing an entire canon from her perspective as a Baptist minister married to a Hindu. Her first book, Saffron Cross: The Unlikely Story of How a Christian Minister Married a Hindu Monk, described her interfaith courtship and marriage with humor and humility. Her latest book, Dessert First: Preparing for Death While Savoring Life, brings those same attractive qualities to writing about the idea that we are “all terminal.”

Trent has abundant experience with death. She spent a formative year as a hospital “death chaplain,” sitting with dying patients, and with grieving families. She has been, at a relatively early age, through the deaths of her father, her mother, and her father-in-law. And she has experienced both the death of a parent with whom she had a distant and troubled relationship, and the death of a parent with whom she had an extraordinarily close relationship.

There are many self-help books out there about grief. Trent’s book stands out, not only because of the interfaith family angle, but because her irrepressible wit leavens the inevitable pain and turmoil surrounding death. For instance, she describes trying to fill out the necessary paperwork and plan a funeral in the first days after a death as ” like assembling IKEA furniture in a wind tunnel.” Having recently been through the death of both my parents, I found this to be a very apt, and funny, metaphor.

Dessert First was clearly written by a Christian living in the Bible belt. So, Trent spends significant time thinking about–and writing about–the afterlife, heaven, and the way that Christians do, or do not, navigate these ideas as death approaches. More interesting, for me, were the brief moments describing the interfaithness of her family, and the way this interfaithness has expanded to include the parental generation. So, for instance, we see her Hindu husband chanting into his father’s ear as he lies dying. And we see her mother’s body, after death, with glass Protestant prayer beads in one hand, and wooden Hindu beads wrapped in the other hand. Trent shows, in these glimpses, how her interfaith family is starting to figure out their own way to honor the religion of the deceased, while also honoring the religious rituals of those left behind.

The interfaithness of the book is also reflected in the inspirational quotes at the head of each chapter, including not only Christian texts and theologians but Rabbi Harold Kushner and the Bhagavad Gita. And Trent, who is a professor of world religions, provides a brief synopsis of ideas about the afterlife in Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism. Dessert First also includes guidance on leaving instructions for your own death and funeral or memorial, in a section that complements the material on these topics in The Interfaith Family Journal.

My only significant qualm about this book is that the author expresses a strong preference for hospital deaths, versus home deaths. Trent is from a family of health practitioners (her brother is a doctor, her mother was a nurse) and her own experiences, both as a chaplain, and with her mother, were of hospital deaths. I’m not sure what informed her idea of “the trauma of dying at home.” Both my parents died in home hospice. I found these experiences peaceful and profound, and my only regret is that we did not bring my mother home from the hospital sooner. But inevitably, we each write from our own experiences.

Whether or not you are from an interfaith family, Dessert First makes a cogent case for discussing death early and often, for leaving explicit instructions, and for approaching this essential topic with curiosity and compassion, rather than fear and trembling. This is a slim and attractive book (with sprinkles on the cover!), filled with Trent’s stories and with her bravery in writing about this topic. Dessert First should provide succor, metaphorical balm, and even laughter, to all who read it.

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).

A Death in My Interfaith Family

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Mom, Me, 1961

My mother, Martha Legg Katz, died last month. I have been uncharacteristically quiet here, in public, since she fell ill in the heat of August. When she died in September at home–my childhood home–I stood in the driveway watching the full moon rise behind a scrim of tall New England pines. Now it is October and the full moon has come and gone again. And so it feels like it is time to return to all of you.

In Judaism, there are special rules for shiva, the first seven days after the burial, and for  shloshim, the first thirty days. These rules help to insulate the mourner from the banality and hectic nature of the casual world, and help us figure out how to eventually emerge from the fog of grief and go on with life. Some of these rules–let your hair grow wild, wear old clothes–make sense to me in a primal way, and seem comforting. Others–no music, no luxurious baths–seem harsh and frankly counter-intuitive.

I do not feel bound by any of these rules, although I find them fascinating and in some cases helpful. Of course, my mother was not Jewish. She married a Jewish man, stopped going to church, raised Jewish children. Often alone on this journey in the 1960s and 70s, inventing as she went along, she created a role for herself as a pioneering interfaith spouse and parent.

My book, Being Both, opens with my mother baptizing me in the kitchen sink. The story of her successful interfaith marriage inspired my work, threads through my book, and comes up in every talk or workshop I give on interfaith families. The epic love between my parents has resonated with people around the country and the world who never met my mother in person. And so, although I have no great desire to mourn in public, I feel I have to acknowledge this immense transition in my life with public words, before I can really go on with writing about anything else.

Medieval scholar Maimonides traces shloshim, the first thirty days of mourning, to Deuteronomy 21:13. In this passage, soldiers are commanded to allow a captive woman to “bewail her father and her mother a full month” before taking her as a wife. Here, the pain of mourning is compounded by the context of war—a context found in many ancient religious texts, all written by men. As a bereaved daughter, I do find poignant the brief pause in mayhem to acknowledge the depth of grief a daughter would have for lost parents. It is also interesting to note that this passage points to the ongoing intimate relations–in war and peace–between the tribes of Israel and neighboring tribes.

But, returning to 21st century America, I have been figuring out how to bewail the loss of my mother in the context of a contemporary interfaith family. As with any life cycle event in our family, that means thinking deeply about which Jewish practices and which Christian practices hold meaning for us. We get to decide how to intertwine them, while respecting the history of each, and also celebrating the reality of our successful interfaith family.

For us, this has meant balancing a desire to meet the needs of my Jewish father, the principal mourner, with the desire to honor my Protestant mother. As always with interfaith families, the way we layer or weave together two sets of rituals will look different for each family. For my father, burying my mother in his family’s Jewish cemetery was essential, so that is what we did. We embraced the Jewish idea of a closed wooden casket without metal fittings as resonant with environmental principles important to me and to my siblings. And we chose the Jewish ritual of watching the casket lowered into the grave, in order to experience the reality of burial, rather than leaving the cemetery while the casket is still above ground, as is common at Christian burials. Our brief graveside service culminated with saying Kaddish, because most of the graveside mourners were from my large and very close Jewish family–the family that embraced my mother 56 years ago when she married my father.

At the same time, it would have been clear to any observer that day that we are an interfaith family, not simply a Jewish family. Although traditionally there is no music at a Jewish burial, we began our service with an a cappella Protestant hymn—albeit one that was included in Reform Judaism’s Union Prayer Book. The family members at the graveside included an Episcopal priest, and three Catholic grandchildren who are altar servers. And various in-laws arranged for Catholic masses to be said in memory of my mother, at The National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows in Illinois, and at Saint Peter’s in Rome. All this, both the Jewish and Christian ways of remembering her, would have pleased my mother greatly. A comparative religion major, she loved the ritual, and the mystery, of all our family traditions.

I find it encouraging that some interfaith family funerals now include Jewish and Christian clergy co-officiating. But we chose to have neither a rabbi nor a minister. Jewish tradition does not require clergy for a burial (or for a wedding, or a bar mitzvah, for that matter). Having a rabbi preside when my mother was not Jewish did not seem right. On the other hand, having a minister preside in a Jewish cemetery when my Jewish father was the principal mourner did not seem right either. And having both, and negotiating their roles, seemed like too much for our brief graveside ritual. So I led the service myself. I think this, too, would have pleased my mother. As an interfaith family, I believe we are called on to build bridges of peace in life, and even in death.

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.

New Family Traditions: Creating Rituals (Interfaith or Otherwise)

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As interfaith families raising children with two religions, we often find ourselves creating new rituals as we go through life honoring both family traditions. Starting with the design of an interfaith marriage, and moving on through welcoming an interfaith child, coming of age, and ultimately facing death, we draw from both religions and cultures, respecting the integrity of each, and yet compelled to also innovate in order to form a coherent whole that highlights the interconnections in our families. As a result, we are sometimes accused of being “inauthentic,” or watering down our religions, or creating a third religion. But those of us who live interfaith lives, through marriage or birth, escape early from the fear of change or innovation, and learn quickly the beauty and power of creating new rituals.

In The Book of New Family Traditions: How to Create Great Rituals for Holidays and Every Day, author Meg Cox encourages all of us (whether interfaith or monofaith) to create our own family-specific rituals. She goes further, advocating for the right of all families to take inspiration from rituals of other religions and cultures. In the author’s preface to the revised 2012 edition of her popular book, Cox writes, “When it comes to ritual (and loads of other things), parents should feel free to borrow from good ideas that are already circulating, no matter that another family’s tree was planted in a different country or a different type of soil.”

Cox describes the rituals that different families have created for moments large and small, including bedtime, daycare drop-off, gardening, first menstruation, leaving for college, and both pet and family deaths. The book would be equally useful to those families that are secular, spiritual but not religious, or deeply religious.

Cox does describe many religious inspirations including Quaker and Buddhist blessings for meals, weekly family nights created by Catholic and Mormon parents, and Native American, Celtic and African traditions. The strength and heart of this book dwell in the ideas for everyday rituals and rituals for “non-religious” events such as getting a driver’s license or traveling by plane. Cox does not attempt to compile a compendium of world religious holidays, though she does have sections on rituals for Hanukkah, Christmas, Solstice, Easter and Passover. (This blog is mentioned in the Passover section).

As a parent, I wish this book had existed when my children were still small. As an interfaith parent, of course I have created rituals for my family, but Cox describes many more ways in which family life can be enriched by the intentional pairing of words and actions, imparting greater meaning to our lives. Some of these rituals work not just for parents, but for couples without children, singles, and empty-nesters. I intend to embrace more of them, starting today.

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.