Sukkoth in an Interfaith Families Community

Sukkah

(This essay is adapted from a post from 2013).

The three great agricultural festivals in Judaism–Sukkoth, Passover, and Shavuot–tie us to our ancient origins, when we lived in intimate relation to nature. During the week of Sukkoth, we build temporary outdoor huts (or tabernacles), cover them with branches, and festoon them with harvest fruits. We are commanded to eat and sleep in the Sukkah–to look up through the branches at the stars, and sense our own fragility, and the infinity of the universe. Sukkoth appeals in part because it draws on every child’s fantasy of living in a treehouse– of living off the land in the primal way depicted in My Side of the Mountain.

This week, I will celebrate with traditional prayers and rituals in a Sukkah with my interfaith families community. One of our goals in interfaith education is to go beyond the most obvious Hanukkah/Christmas/Passover/Easter rotation of holidays–to go deeper into both religions. The elemental, natural, pagan elements preserved in Sukkoth please my interfaith soul.

I see every religion as fundamentally syncretic (and that’s a good thing)–as a historical accumulation of evolving influences rather than as something static and pure and singular. On Sukkoth, we stand in the Sukkah and shake a fruit called a citron or etrog, and a bound bundle of palm and myrtle and willow branches (the lulav) in six directions (north, south, east, west, to the skies, and to the ground). The parallel between this ritual and Native American rituals involving the cardinal directions has not gone unnoticed (and feels especially resonant in a year when Sukkoth starts on Indigenous Peoples’ Day). The etrog and lulav are thought to originate in harvest fertility rituals that predate Judaism, with the etrog representing the feminine, and the lulav clearly phallic. When we shake the lulav, we hear the sound of the wind, and invoke rain at the start of the ancient rainy season in the Middle East.

As urban-dwellers, and people of the scroll, we need to get outside more often–close our books and turn off our electronic phones and tablets, contemplate the sun and the stars, and get in touch with the elemental. Sukkoth provides that opportunity.

In autumn, our interfaith families community tends to feel very Jewish. On the heels of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and Sukkoth, we will celebrate Simchat Torah. We want our children to experience all these holidays, and feel connected to Judaism through them. But we also keep in mind that the Christian members of our families are celebrating with us. We provide context for every prayer and ritual, and give them ways to not only participate, but to lead. And we weave in St Francis, and All Saints and All Souls, and see the parallels as well as the differences.

One year, our musical director Marci Shegogue led us in the Sukkoth prayers. And then her husband Rich, who was raised Catholic, stood under the Sukkah, and led us in singing an 18th-century Christian hymn, perfectly suited to a Jewish agricultural festival, adapted and set to music by a nice Jewish boy from Long Island, Stephen Schwartz:

     We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land,

     But it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand...

Schwartz took the words for “All Good Gifts,” along with most of the other Godspell lyrics, straight out of an Episcopal hymnal. As the daughter of a Jewish father and an Episcopalian mother, I find this fact resonant, and gratifying. The Hebrew prophet Zechariah predicted that in the end of days, all nations would celebrate “the feast of tabernacles” (Sukkoth) together. You could say that interfaith families gathered for Sukkoth are simply working on fulfilling this prophecy.

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).

Easter as Metaphor: The Rabbi Explains

Spring daffodils by Susan Katz Miller

Every year, I find myself trying to explain how a nice Jewish girl can relate to Easter. Today, the spring sunshine is illuminating the daffodils, as you can see in this photo from my garden. I had an entirely crazy week, including an appearance on the Today Show, gathering in Boston with my Jewish and Catholic and Protestant family at the start of Passover, and then arriving back home just in time for our interfaith families community Easter service. But I had such a lovely Easter, I feel I need to describe once again how being in a room filled with hundreds of interfaith families, in a service led by a minister and a rabbi working closely together, can be a transcendent experience.

Years ago, before the Interfaith Families Project began holding Easter services, my husband and I went to various churches during Holy Week. He was glad to hear familiar hymns. I was vaguely uncomfortable with gospel readings that did not acknowledge the Jewishness of Jesus or put the role of “the Jews” in this traumatic story into any kind of historical perspective. In general, this can be the hardest week for Jews to accompany their Christian spouses or other family members to church.

Instead, this morning, we entered a space filled with couples holding hands, and babies, and toddlers in Easter finery, and visiting grandparents: all families raising interfaith children with interfaith education. As it turned out, every song we sang had interfaith connections, whether or not the community was aware of it. We sang “Morning Has Broken” (a hymn adapted by Cat Stevens, who later became a Muslim) and “Prepare Ye” from Godspell (a show with lyrics adapted by the Jewish Stephen Schwartz, from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer), and “Let My People Go” (an Exodus text beloved by Jews and adapted by African-American Christians). We told the story of Holy Week in part through singing verses of “Lord of the Dance,” a Shaker tune adapted by British poet Sydney Carter to tell the story of Jesus: “They buried my body and they thought I was gone, But I am the dance and I still go on.” Carter admitted that his lyrics were inspired in part by a statue of Shiva, the dancing Hindu god, he kept on his desk. And in Carter’s obituary, the Telegraph noted that the hymn contains “a hint of paganism which, mixed with Christianity, makes it attractive to those of ambiguous religious beliefs or none at all.” Well, so, yes, that is me, and many of the people in my interfaith families community. But I would also note that the hymn is used widely in Christian churches and communities (many of them filled, to be honest, with people with ambiguous religious beliefs themselves).

The point here is not that we do or do not subscribe to a particular Christian creed or dogma. The point is that many of us are spiritually inspired, and often deeply moved, by the religious interconnections that led to the creation of these songs, and to the opportunity to sing them together with other interfaith families in a room filled with people from many races, cultures, religions, and worldviews.

Meanwhile, I sit facing my beloved rabbi, Harold White, on the eve of his retirement. And I see him, arm and arm with Reverend Julia Jarvis, his partner as spiritual leaders of our community. He is singing along with gusto, celebrating both the Kumbaya songs (for really, must we always mock the lovely spiritual that is Kumbaya?) and the more specific Christology of the iconic Protestant hymn, “Christ The Lord is Risen Today.” Sitting next to me, my husband gets the chance to boom out the harmonies in his rich baritone, harmonies learned in his youth as an acolyte.

But the rabbi? How can a rabbi sing “Death in vain forbids Christ rise”? So, here is how our rabbi helped us, a community of Jews and Christians and atheists and Buddhists, to understand the symbolism of Easter, this year. He told a parable of a King who sends his son, a Prince, to live with peasants to understand the reality of suffering in the world. When he calls the Prince back to the palace, the peasants are sad and do not want to let him go. Obviously this sounds like God sending Jesus to earth, and then calling him back. But the rabbi’s point was that the Prince represents the soul, and that every soul must be embodied in order to experience the reality of life. But ultimately this life is a temporary condition, and at death the soul rises, or if you will, from a more secular perspective, the energy of life is transformed and merges back into the energy of the rest of the universe. Every religion has some way of explaining this transformation from life into death, and the idea that the soul or energy is somehow conserved or cyclical in nature. The story of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus is one version of this universal story.

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.

Sukkoth in a Community of Interfaith Families

Sukkah

The three great agricultural festivals in Judaism–Sukkoth, Passover, and Shavuot–tie us to our ancient origins, when we lived in intimate relation to nature. During the week of Sukkoth, we build temporary outdoor huts (or tabernacles), cover them with branches, and festoon them with harvest fruits. We are commanded to eat and sleep in the Sukkah–to look up through the branches at the stars, and sense our own fragility, and the infinity of the universe. Sukkoth appeals in part because it draws on every child’s fantasy of living in a treehouse– of living off the land in the primal way depicted in My Side of the Mountain.

This week, I celebrated with traditional prayers and rituals in a Sukkah with my interfaith families community. One of our goals in interfaith education is to go beyond the most obvious Hanukkah/Christmas/Passover/Easter rotation of holidays–to go deeper into both religions. The elemental, natural, pagan elements preserved in Sukkoth please my interfaith soul.

I see every religion as fundamentally syncretic–as a historical accumulation of evolving influences rather than as something static and pure and singular. On Sukkoth, we stand in the Sukkah and shake a fruit called a citron or etrog, and a bound bundle of palm and myrtle and willow branches (the lulav) in six directions (north, south, east, west, to the skies, and to the ground). The parallel between this ritual and Native American rituals involving the cardinal directions has not gone unnoticed. The etrog and lulav are thought to originate in harvest fertility rituals, with the etrog representing the feminine, and the lulav clearly phallic. When we shake the lulav, we hear the sound of the wind, and invoke rain at the start of the ancient rainy season in the Middle East.

As urban-dwellers, and people of the scroll, we need to get outside more often–close our books and turn off our electronic phones and tablets, contemplate the sun and the stars, and get in touch with the elemental. Sukkoth provides that opportunity.

In autumn, our interfaith families community tends to feel very Jewish. On the heels of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and Sukkoth, we will celebrate Simchat Torah this week. We want our children to experience all these holidays, and feel connected to Judaism through them. But we also keep in mind that the Christian members of our families are celebrating with us. We provide context for every prayer and ritual, and give them ways to not only participate, but to lead.

And so this week, our musical director Marci Shegogue led us in the Sukkoth prayers. And then her husband Rich, who was raised Catholic, stood under the Sukkah, and led us in singing an 18th-century Christian hymn, perfectly suited to a Jewish agricultural festival, adapted and set to music by a nice Jewish boy from Long Island, Stephen Schwartz:

     We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land,

     But it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand...

Schwartz took the words for “All Good Gifts,” along with most of the other Godspell lyrics, straight out of an Episcopal hymnal. As the daughter of a Jewish father and an Episcopalian mother, I find this fact resonant, and gratifying. The Hebrew prophet Zechariah predicted that in the end of days, all nations would celebrate “the feast of tabernacles” (Sukkoth) together. You could say that interfaith families gathered for Sukkoth are simply working on fulfilling this prophecy.

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).