Muslim and Jewish: Interfaith on “Shahs of Sunset”

I don’t usually watch reality TV. But recently, I found myself gorging on the entire first season of Bravo’s Shahs of Sunset, which concluded earlier this month. The show depicts Iranian-American (Persian) singles partying and shopping their way through LA and Las Vegas in the highest of styles. Critics have focused on ravaging the shallow stereotypes of the Persian community, and decrying the predictable glitz and hyped-up drama of reality shows.

What drew me to Shahs was the unusual depiction of a close circle of Jewish and Muslim friends. Bound by their common experience as Persians from refugee immigrant families, their loyalty and affection transcends religious difference. I am struggling to come up with another such microcosm of intense Jewish and Muslim friendship on television, or in any other medium. If you can think of one, please post it in the comment section!

I find it interesting to note that the women featured on the show (MJ, GG, Asa) all come from Muslim families, though they also drink champagne with abandon and none of them is depicted as partaking in any sort of religious practice (with the possible exception of Asa, who considers herself a mystical “intergalactic Persian princess”).

The three Persian men in the circle all have Jewish ancestry. Mike’s family Shabbat was featured on the first episode. Mike worships his Jewish mom, who urges him to marry a nice, Jewish Persian girl. The characters discuss the fact that the chemistry between GG (Muslim) and Mike (Jewish), may be doomed because of religious difference, though Mike is currently dating a Latina (presumably a Christian).

But the most fascinating story line for me as a “patrilinial half-Jew” is that of Reza, born to a Muslim mother and a father who converted from Judaism to Islam in order to marry. Reza’s Jewish grandmother attended the wedding dressed in black. Reza lays the blame for the divorce of his parents squarely on the reaction of extended family to their religious difference, saying their marriage “never had a fair shot.” After the divorce, Reza’s father moved east, and essentially abandoned his son.

Despite being raised by his Muslim mother, with a Muslim first name, Reza explains that he has been to many family Bar Mitvahs, never been in a mosque, and “feels more Jewish than Muslim.” One could attribute this to greater exposure to Jewish religious practice. But I find it interesting that it fits into the pattern I see in Jewish/Christian interfaith children of Judaism exerting an outsized effect, even when it’s the father who is Jewish.

In the harrowing penultimate episode of the season, Reza travels to Great Neck, Long Island, for a reunion Shabbat with his extended Persian Jewish family. As the family gathers, Reza’s Jewish grandmother gives Reza what can only be described as the evil eye. When Reza confronts his father, the father admits that Reza’s grandmother considers Reza a “goyim” (non-Jew), and that she has been pressuring her son to ignore Reza.

In a series strewn with expensive baubles, drunken sprees and artificial catfights, the very real and poignant tears of an interfaith child excluded by his own family, and of a father who feels torn between religious loyalty and his own son, shocked and moved me. Reza embodies the “tragic interfaith child,” a character akin to the “tragic mulatto.” And yet, hope lies in the boundary-transcending friendships of Reza’s generation. Despite the caviar and fast cars, the real estate deals and the mean girls, I do not think I will be able to stop myself from tuning in for the next season of Shahs of Sunset this summer, to follow the interfaith story lines.

 

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

 

“Half Jewish” Conference: Rare Focus on Heirs of Intermarriage

Interfaith marriage receives a fair amount of attention from researchers, foundations and religious institutions. The children of intermarriage, not so much. This, in spite of the fact that the children of intermarriage are now the majority of children with Jewish ancestry.

Thus, I celebrate the upcoming colloquium entitled  “Half Jewish?” The Heirs of Intermarriage, in Chicago from April 20-22, organized by The International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism in cooperation with the Hillels at the University of Chicago and Northwestern University. The term “heir” sounds positive to me, like an acknowledgement that I am enriched by my interfaith ancestry.

It is particularly encouraging that the organizers have invited a graduate of Chicago’s Interfaith Family School, a program that teaches Judaism and Catholicism to families raising their children in both traditions, to sit on a panel entitled One, Both or Neither: ‘Half Jewish’ Experiences.” I appreciate the recognition that a growing number of families choose both religions, and the opportunity for a graduate of one of these programs to explain the benefits of interfaith education for interfaith children. And I appreciate the distinction between “Both” and “Neither.” All too often in the past, these pathways have been conflated. As a parent who has worked hard to give my children a deep experience of both, I do not appreciate being told that my children are nothing.

The colloquium will also feature Maya Escobar, an edgy Latina-Jewish performance artist who explores hybridity and the social and cultural construction of identity. If you live anywhere near Chicago, it would be worth registering to go see Escobar.

Secular Humanistic Judaism, as well as Ethical Culture (founded in part by Felix Adler, son of a prominent rabbi), have long provided shelter and community for families formed through Jewish and Christian intermarriage. Secular groups accepted intermarried families in an era when they would not have felt welcome in many synagogues or churches. Because secular communities emphasize moral social action, rather than theology, they refer to intermarried families as intercultural, rather than interfaith. The term “intercultural” acknowledges that even if a couple agrees in their atheism or humanism, they still bring different cultural experiences, their Jewish and Christian ancestry, to the marriage.

The term “half Jewish” elicits strong reactions. From a Jewish institutional perspective, either you are a Jew, or you’re not. From my perspective, I resent being fractionated. I am a whole Jew, by my own definition. But equally important, to me, is that I contain an interfaith multitude.  As a child of intermarriage, I avoid identifying myself as “half Jewish” because I resent the idea that this identity label makes reference only to my Jewish parent, as if my Christian parent did not count or exist. For me, the “half-Jew” label signals a discourse dominated by the panic over Jewish continuity and authenticity. Defining me solely by the extent of my Jewishness ignores my lived and deeply felt experience as the child of two parents, two cultures, two extended families.

The line-up of speakers and panelists at the conference clearly reflects a Jewish perspective. Rabbis and Jewish outreach officials will speak–not, for instance, the Catholic priests who have been working with rabbis to support interfaith families for decades in Chicago. I await the day when we will have a conference led by the voices of the heirs of intermarriage, with supportive clergy representing all of our many halves. Nevertheless, including the “both” viewpoint at this conference represents a very welcome, and I believe inevitable, shift towards accepting the vibrant complexity of the interfaith world in formation.

Black and Jewish, Interfaith and Interracial, Hilarious and Offensive

I have two teenagers, and rapper Wiz Khalifa’s “Black and Yellow,” a tribute to his hometown of Pittsburgh, got plenty of play in our house this year. So when I watched the new parody video hit “Black and Jewish,” I got the joke on several levels. I also knew it was going to make a lot of people uncomfortable. After mulling it over, I wanted to weigh in with my perspective as an adult interfaith child.

First off, I realize that not all black and Jewish people are interfaith children. Some are Jews by choice, i.e. converts (most famously, Sammy Davis Jr.). And some African-American families have been Jewish for generations, including the family of brilliant blogger MaNishtana. The point is, being black and Jewish is not necessarily an interfaith issue: black is a race, Jewish is a religion, no necessary conflict or mixing involved.

Nevertheless, most “black and Jewish” people are a subset of interfaith children, including stars referenced in the video such as Lenny Kravitz (who identifies himself as Christian), Drake, and Rashida Jones. The lead actors in the video, Kali Hawk (“Bridesmaids”) and Kat Graham (“Vampire Diaries), each have one black and one (white) Jewish parent. In the video, they depict themselves as both 100% black, and 100% Jewish. I believe that all interfaith children have a right to choose their own identities. And there are historical and political and sociological reasons for biracial children to choose to be black, just as there are parallel reasons for interfaith children to choose to be Jewish.

The problem is that “Black and Jewish” trades on the broadest and basest stereotypes about both blacks and Ashkenazi Jews (“my nose and ass, they’re both big”). It’s a little bit Lenny Bruce, a little bit Dave Chappelle. The video is hilarious to insiders, but it also might be a bad idea for people in China who don’t actually know any blacks or Jews to view it (or people in Nebraska, for that matter).

Nevertheless, as an interfaith child, I cannot help responding to the optimism inherent in this video: all ages, colors, and religions dance joyously together at the climax. The fictional black father and Jewish mother appear to be a warm and loving couple, and the progeny appear to be anything but confused. These young women project defiance and confidence, claiming and celebrating both sides of their heritage. Unlike the cautionary tales of black and Jewish relationships from a generation ago (see James McBride’s The Color of Water, or Rebecca Walker’s Black, White and Jewish), this video hints at some of the benefits of interfaith and interracial marriage embraced by a new generation of interfaith children, and could help to offset some of the antiquated fear-mongering and tribalism of religious institutions and the press when writing about interfaith and interracial families.

 

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

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! 

Being a Quarter-Jew: One Interfaith Family, One Quirky Film

I went to see the charming independent film “Beginners” this week with my teenage daughter (three-quarters Episcopalian, one-quarter Jewish). We usually identify ourselves as members of an interfaith family, rather than by religious fractions. But I was interested to discover that half-Jewish and quarter-Jewish identity play a role in this film. Director Mike Mills is an interfaith child, and this unabashedly autobiographical story struck me at times as funny, at times as moving, at times as oppressive in its sadness. While being half-Jewish has become common in film and fiction, I think this was the first time I have noticed a character portrayed specifically as one-quarter Jewish.

The film’s protagonist, Oliver (played by Ewan McGregor), discovers after the death of his mother that his father (the marvelous Christopher Plummer) is gay. In flashbacks, the mother (who identifies herself as half-Jewish) informs her only child (the narrator and stand-in for the filmmaker) that he is a quarter-Jew, and that their superior ability to emote comes from their Jewish blood. And yet, the mother is cold and emotionally abusive to her son, presumably because she is twisted by decades of living in a sort of closet with a gay husband. She is also clearly ambivalent about her Jewish background. In the film, the narrator mentions that she was kicked off a swim-team in 1938 for being half-Jewish, and that she abandoned Judaism when she married her WASP husband. Mills has said that this happened to his mother in real life.

In the film, Oliver seeks redemption from repression through his passion for Anna, an equally sad and depressed young woman who is wholly Jewish, played by French (and Jewish) actress Melanie Laurent. While the scenes between Oliver and his father were touching and delightful, the relationship between Oliver and Anna seemed to meander at times.

Anyway, in a flashback, Oliver’s mother tries to impress on her son that being one-quarter Jewish is somehow important or defining. Her theory underscores the “red sock effect” described in the book Between Two Worlds: that like a red sock in a load of white laundry, even a single Jewish forbear seems to exert an outsize effect, coloring all the clothes pink.

The autobiographical films of Woody Allen have clearly influenced Mills, and reviewers have compared “Beginners” to a reverse “Annie Hall,” with Oliver as a WASP and Anna as a Jew (in lieu of the very Jewish Allen and the WASP Diane Keaton). But Oliver’s ruminations on the anti-Semitism faced by his mother, his mother’s declarations about the importance of her own half-Jewish identity, and her awkward attempts to communicate some sense of the importance of even the quarter-Jewish identity of her son, make the “Annie Hall” analogy imperfect. Everyone in this film shares some degree of repression, everyone shares some degree of neuroticism, and, as is common in our increasingly interfaith world, everyone crosses boundaries and confounds labels.

Israel and Interfaith Families: How Big is the Tent?

Many of us in interfaith families are squeamish, ambivalent, conflicted about Israel. Usually, I try to stay clear of the topic altogether. But I was scanning the program for the J Street Conference, and saw that there was going to be a sneak preview of a film, “Between Two Worlds,” touching on interfaith families. The title caught my eye, because, strangely, it is also the title of the first book written by and for adult interfaith children. And then I noticed that there was also going to be a breakout session on how to engage young Jews on the subject of Israel. Surely, the question of intermarriage would arise in that discussion as well. So I found myself with some 2000 other people this week, at the Washington Convention Center.

It was hard to resist the progressive spirit, the ebullient mix of older hippie activist rabbis and energetic millenial students, the embrace of the Palestinian “other,” the ardent longing for peace. I got to chat with Medea Benjamin, founder of the brilliant and rambunctious anti-war Code Pink movement. I was moved by Alan Stopper, a sort of Johnny Appleseed figure, personally handing out cards for his start-up “Fruit of Peace” project to plant olive tree saplings in Palestine. I ran into a friend who works for the New Israel Fund, a major sponsor of the conference, which advocates for religious pluralism and civil rights in Israel. And I ran into the rabbi who is tutoring my son for his Bar Mitzvah. Despite my ambivalence about Israel, about so many things, despite my own “way out of the box” journey, I felt like there was room for me in this huge and colorful tent.

“Between Two Worlds” addressed the very relevant question, “Who is entitled to speak for the tribe?” Filmmakers Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman point out that there is “no Jewish pope,” no official Jewish opinion on anything. While the film centered on how the Jewish community has been divided over Israel, the tale of Kaufman’s interfaith family (her sister converted to Islam) is woven through the story. The intent of the film is to “provoke a new kind of conversation” because “we all face censorship and exclusion.” Interfaith families will certainly find resonance in that statement.

So how do the themes of Israel and intermarriage interplay? At a conference session entitled “Can Young Jews Reclaim (or Redefine) a Robust Connection to Israel?” the presenters set forth at least two theories for why so many young Jews are alienated from Israel. One theory, highlighted by Peter Beinart in a controversial piece in the New York Review of Books, posits that “leading institutions of American Jewry have refused to foster—indeed, have actively opposed—a Zionism that challenges Israel’s behavior in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and toward its own Arab citizens,” thus alienating young progressive Jews. Intermarriage was not even mentioned in Beinart’s piece.

In contrast, at the conference this week, researcher Steven M. Cohen repeated his assertion that “all of the decline” in attachment to Israel is caused by intermarriage. A lot of debate ensued, but no actual interfaith children spoke out. So I found myself at the microphone, making a statement along these lines…

As an interfaith child and parent, I am averse to strict dichotomies, to the “either/or.” It is not either intermarriage, or distress over civil rights issues in Israel, causing our alienation. The two causes are inextricably linked: a classic “both/and.” As interfaith families, we are more affected by dissonance in Israel. As people with Christian and Muslim family members, we cannot help empathizing with more than one side. And if we are “patrilineal Jews,” we live with the irony that the Jewish state does not allow us religious marriages or burials.

Nonetheless, I left the conference with a sense of hope. Hope, that the new Jewish communities and organizations being created by a millenial generation with greater tolerance for complexity will make more space for interfaith families. And more space for both peace and more democracy in Israel.

Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller, available now in hardcover and eBook from Beacon Press. Paperback release on October 21, 2014.

Being Both: Biracial, Bireligious, Multiracial, Multireligious

Today’s front-page story in the New York Times under the headline “Black? White? Asian? More Young Americans Choose All of the Above” describes how mixed-race youth are claiming their right to what I call “the joy of being both.” I often write about the parallels between biracial and interfaith children. A lot of the quotes in the article from students at the University of Maryland will resonate with those of us who are “mixed-religion” children. The President of the university’s Multiracial and Biracial Student Association, when asked how she marks her race on a form, replies, “It depends on the day, and it depends on the options.” This is exactly my response to forms that ask for my religion.

The reporter does an excellent job of explaining that these youth are not necessarily trying to transcend the categories, they are simply “asserting their freedom to identify as they choose.” And an interfaith child should have the right to choose to be a Jew or a Christian (or whatever religion they want), or to keep the interfaith label. “All society is trying to tear you apart and make you pick a side,” says another biracial Maryland student. “I want us to have a say.” And that’s what interfaith children want.

On the other hand, the realities of African-American history, of Jewish history, of the minority experience, mean that the two sides are weighted and freighted unequally. One mother of biracial black/white children told me, “I have always been crystal clear with my kids: you are black.” Many interfaith families choose Judaism for their children, for similar reasons. Be proud and stand with your people, others are going to identify you as black (Jewish) anyway, do not try to “pass.”

Nevertheless, the US census began allowing mixed-race children to check more than one box for race in 2000. A somewhat snarky line in the New York Times article attributes this change to “years of complaints and lobbying, mostly by the white mothers of biracial children.” This ignores the contributions of adult mixed-race people such as psychology researcher Maria Root, whose work was considered by the government in their decision to change the census format.

With her permission, I adapted Root’s powerful “Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage” into a parallel “Bill of Rights for Interfaith People.” Less well known is her equally compelling “50 Experiences of Mixed Race People.” The first experience on this list: “You have to choose; you can’t be both.” Familiar, indeed.

President Barack Obama, born as both a biracial and an interfaith child, writes in his first memoir of choosing to be black, and choosing to be Christian. Part of the point that mixed-race students make in today’s article is the right to this self-identification. On the other hand, some of us claiming and exploring the positive aspects of mixedness, or bothness, can be zealous in our newfound enthusiasm. We cannot help spotting and pridefully claiming fellow interfaith (or multiracial) children. The reporter describes tension between students who claim Obama as a mixed-race President, and an African-American student who pleads, “Stop taking away our black president.”

As an interfaith child, I recognize the right of any mixed child to self-identify. I respect Obama’s self-identification, just as I recognize Gabrielle Giffords as Jewish, a choice she made after being raised with a bit of “both.” I’m not trying to take away anyone’s first Jewish congressperson from Arizona. Or anyone’s black President. But as intermarriage continues, and as the population of “both” children grows, how we label ourselves, and the labels we give each other, will inevitably continue to change.