An Interfaith Child Claims Cathedrals

Cathedral ceiling

The many Jewish holidays of autumn have concluded with Hanukkah, and winter now provides a time for interfaith families to connect to Christian relatives and traditions. Even if raised Jewish, or as atheists or humanists, many interfaith children will celebrate the secular, or Pagan, aspects of Christmas: the sparks of light and gold in the darkest season, the sweetness of gingerbread, the bright warmth of holly and peppermint, the scent and promise of evergreens.

In interfaith families like ours, raising children with both religions, this is a season for educating our children about the religious meaning of Advent and Christmas while celebrating our family’s Christian heritage. This year, the season began with a momentous occasion: my husband’s brother was ordained as an Episcopal priest. My husband is the great-grandson of an Episcopal Bishop of Newark; his uncle is also an Episcopal priest. My mother, too, was raised as an Episcopalian. While Jews think of religion as a birthright, Christians are more likely to believe that religion requires adherence to a creed. And yet, clearly, the existence of Christian family history and culture, and attendance at family weddings and funerals in churches, has a formative effect on interfaith children, whatever religious beliefs they discover in themselves, whichever religions they decide to practice or not to practice in adulthood.

And so it was that I found myself part of an extended family in a glorious 19th-century Gothic cathedral recently, celebrating this ordination. As an interfaith child, I claim cathedrals. Though raised Jewish, I had an early epiphany about the power of cathedrals at Chartres, and another at a concert at Saint John the Divine in New York, and yet another at the otherworldly modern Sagrada Familia cathedral designed by Gaudi in Barcelona. I find inspiration in the soaring symmetries, the secret nooks, the historical and theological symbolism, and the superb music.

Sagrada Familia, Gaudi, Barcelona

As the ordination service began, the organist played the “Wachet auf!” (Sleepers Awake!) theme from a Bach cantata, and I felt deep pleasure. Is this because my (Jewish) father still plays Bach at age 89? Or because I grew up listening to the lowbrow but irresistible pop jazz version by the Swingle Singers of “Wachet auf!” in the 1960s? And resonating too, is the fact that at a family Bat Mitzvah just the week before, my cousin the violinist played another Bach cantata, commonly referred to as Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring. Is it even possible to completely disentangle Jewish and Christian culture, in my life, in my family, in general?

As an interfaith child who was raised in and still claims Judaism as my religion, I do not take communion in the Episcopal Church. But nevertheless, I felt awe and joy at this ordination. I felt enveloped by the superb choir, I harmonized with family on the hymns, I pondered the mysterious verses from Isaiah about a six-winged seraph. Through art and music and poetry in this setting, I felt connected to both my Middle Eastern and European ancestors: to ancient Judaism and to early Christianity, to the darkness of the Middle Ages, and the glory of the Renaissance.

At the heart of the ordination came swinging incense, the Bishop with his ornate crosier, the vestment, anointment, and the ancient ritual of laying on of hands: all to mark a sacred moment. For me, the moment is indeed sacred: a celebration of the decision of the ordinands to devote their lives to the spiritual care and comfort of those in need and and to creating more sacred spaces, sacred moments, in which I hope to share. The way I see it, believing that this moment is sacred does not require me to have any particular belief about the divinity of Jesus, or divinity in general. I claim this moment as part of my inheritance as an interfaith child, and as a human being who responds to the transcendence of cathedrals.

 

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

Twelve Hours in New York with Books and Interfaith Reflections

Book bubble free library, West 4th Street, NYC

This week, I found myself in Greenwich Village, in the soaring spaces of Hebrew Union College, explaining my book, Being Both, to a Jewish audience. On entering the doors of the Reform Jewish seminary, I thought of my great-grandfather, an early Reform rabbi who plied his trade up and down the Mississippi River.  And I thought of my great-uncle, Rabbi Joseph Rauch, a pioneering Reform rabbi who dedicated much of his life to interfaith dialogue and community service. He was ordained at Hebrew Union, got a doctorate at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and was a founding member of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. In their memory, and because of my love for this religion, the religion my interfaith parents chose for me, I educated my children in Judaism.

Mingling with hundreds of other Jewish authors and book-lovers at Hebrew Union, I was struck, once again, by the support of the Jewish community for literature. At a moment when print media and books on paper seem to be receding and evaporating into a shrinking sea of concentrated nostalgia, I found lower Manhattan still standing in a deep and refreshing literary culture.

Strolling back up to Penn Station to catch my train home, the city kept tempting me with books. I passed Shakespeare and Co., the Strand, and freelance second-hand booksellers arranging classic hardbacks on sidewalk folding tables. Magically, a “free library” of whimsical clear plastic bubbles filled with books-for-the-taking sprouted on a public terrace.

As I approached East 10th Street and Broadway, the Gothic revival masterpiece that is Grace Church, a landmark Episcopal church dedicated in 1846, rose up from an oasis of green gardens. It was as if my wandering through the city had led me straight from my Jewish yin to my Episcopalian yang.

 Grace Church, Episcopal, 1847

My children have a great-great-grandfather who was an Episcopal bishop of Newark. They have a great-uncle who is an Episcopal priest, and an uncle in the process of ordination. This branch of the family has included journalists, authors, and an English professor. They, too, are people of the book. To ensure that my children would understand the significance of this family history, and the practices and beliefs they represent, I chose to educate my children in Christianity, as well as Judaism. How does that work? In short, I wrote my book to answer that question.

Recently, John Shelby Spong, a former Episcopal bishop and the author of many groundbreaking books (including the forthcoming The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic), wrote about Being Both: “A moving, personal story that opens new dimensions of life in general and religious life in particular that rise out of an interfaith family…Its insights moved me deeply.” I am so grateful for these words.

Arriving home in Washington this week, disembarking from the train at Union Station, I averted my eyes from a temporary wall covered with ads for an international clothing store chain, coming soon. The wall sealed off a dead space that had housed a bookstore, only a few weeks before. At least this time, I refused to let the loss of another bookstore bring me down. I was still floating in my swirling, iridescent bubble of books. And I plan to stay there.

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