Raising Children With Two Religions: At Hanukkah

This time of year, interfaith families scour the internet for advice on celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas. For those who celebrate both December holidays, I thought I would post a roundup of the many pieces I have written on how we celebrate Hanukkah in our “raising them both” family.

My interfaith kids have always loved Hanukkah, even though we also celebrate Christmas. And my mother and husband, both Christian, love harmonizing as we sing around the candles. One of my most popular Hanukkah posts was the five reasons you do not have to fear that Hanukkah will be overshadowed by Christmas.

By the time our kids were teens, we put most of the Hanukkah gift emphasis on the importance of giving to others. Although we also treated them to a Matisyahu concert one year. I later admitted that going to a rock club on a weeknight did contribute to interfaith holiday burnout that year.

Last year, I wrote an overview of celebrating Hanukkah, Advent, Christmas and Yule in our family, along with my photo of a Hanukkah cookie. It may have been the enticing cookie that lured WordPress into selecting the post to be featured on Freshly Pressed. (I am proud to use my own photos on most of my posts).

I also wrote a piece for Huffington Post last year on celebrating both holidays in our family. In response, a blogger for the Forward wrote an outraged post in the form of a letter excoriating me. While her post was filled with misunderstandings (we absolutely do not celebrate Chrismukkah), I hope that our exchange helped to explain to a wider audience why many interfaith families are teaching their children both religions.

This year, I feel lucky because Hanukkah comes relatively early (December 8th to 16th), minimizing any awkward overlap for those of us who like to keep the holidays separate.

And we do keep them separate. For our family, part of the point of celebrating both is giving each religion (and each holiday) proper space and respect and meaning. So, no Hanukkah bush or star-of-David treetoppers for us. A Christmas tree is a Christmas tree. And a menorah is a menorah (or a chanukiah, as some folks prefer to call them these days), even when it is made of plexiglass and holds glow sticks instead of candles, like the menorah I am sending today to our daughter, who now lives far away in a college dorm where she cannot light candles because of the fire laws. Sigh. I know I will see my daughter at Christmas, but it is hard to realize that she will only be nearby for Hanukkah on the years of crazy holiday overlap.

Which reminds me, whichever holidays you celebrate in your family, treasure each Hanukkah, each Christmas, each Eid, each Diwali, each Solstice with your children. Too soon, they will be out and away in the great world, and you can only hope that they will be warmed by the nostalgic glow of family holiday memories. At our house, we try not to miss an opportunity to create those memories.

 

 

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.

“Partially Jewish” and Proud: Interfaith Identity

With the release of a new study of the Jewish population of New York this month, researchers officially acknowledged the growing cohort of people with complex, interfaith identities. We exist!

According to the Executive Summary of the Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011, “Rising numbers of people report unconventional identity configurations. They may consider themselves ‘partially Jewish,’ or may identify as Jews even while identifying with Christianity or another non-Jewish religion (many more do so now than who so reported in 2002). Of such people with unconventional configurations, 70% have a non-Jewish parent (or two).”

In the study, they note, “…we also see more hybridity— that is, the confluence of multiple traditions not only in households but even within individuals. Today, more and more individuals feel comfortable adopting elements from multiple religious traditions, and even identifying with several traditions at once. As one of our respondents declared, ‘I am two religions.’ In another case, our interviewer noted that the respondent derives from mixed upbringing and ‘identifies with both’.”

Not to seem ungrateful after finally being recognized, but I am not partial to the term “partially.” I do not consider myself a “partial” anything. I am a self-defined Jew, who also insists on my right to celebrate my birth into an interfaith family. I revel in my hybridity, in my fluid and yet deeply satisfying spiritual practice, and in my participation in an intentional and independent interfaith families community. I invite demographers to explore what I call “the joy of being both” on my blog, onbeingboth.com. Next year, my book on how and why parents are choosing to educate interfaith children in more than one religion, and how those children feel about it when they grow up, will be published by Beacon Press.

The authors of the study asked themselves, “Should ‘Jewish and something else’ be seen as a somewhat qualified form of Jewish upbringing, or a functional equivalent of non-Jewish socialization, or an intermediate category?” They go on to infer that “the ‘Jewish and something else’ response signifies very weak levels of Jewish socialization.”

Let me describe our family’s Jewish engagement, which strikes me as anything but “weak.” We always host a Passover Seder, light Hanukkah candles, go to High Holy Day services. We also light Shabbat candles, celebrate Purim and Sukkot and Tu Bishvat. My children learned Hebrew, recited the blessings over the Torah when they turned 13. My children have a warm and personal relationship with more than one rabbi. They are quick to identify themselves as Jewish when they encounter anti-Semitism. Oh, and we have shlepped our children to Jewish Museums on more than one continent (visiting Jewish museums is one of the forms of Jewish engagement measured in the New York study).

But we also embrace our entire family tree. We celebrate Christian holidays, go to church with extended family. And we put our children through nine years of study about both Judaism and Christianity–about the common ground and the essential differences and the points of historical connection–in an interfaith education program for interfaith children.

It is true that my family feels alienated from the state of Israel, since none of us would be legally accepted as Jews there, and there is a troubling correlation between religious identity and civil rights in Israel. And Birthright will not take my children on a free trip to Israel unless they sign away their right to interfaith identity.

It is true that our family scores low on connections to institutional Judaism. My children aren’t accepted as Jews by many of those institutions, and that, frankly, decreases our desire to belong to them. Our insistence that our children be educated about Christianity, our openness to the possibility that our children will choose to get spiritual sustenance from Christian traditions, and that they have the right to choose a Christian (or for that matter Buddhist or Hindu) identity someday, is wholly unacceptable to most Jewish institutions. Interfaith families that seek to educate their children in more than one religion are expressly barred, by policy, from most synagogue classrooms.

I am cautiously optimistic that this new acknowledgement that we exist represents progress towards understanding that many interfaith children both want to stay connected to Judaism, and also want access to learning about both of their ancestral religions. I am hopeful that researchers will now seek to understand all that is positive about interfaith education for interfaith families. We engage the whole child, the whole family, and embrace our bothness. You can call us unconventional. We embrace that label, too.

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.

Interfaith Children: Born This Way

I often wonder if people who are not born into interfaith families can ever truly understand, on the gut level, the positive aspects of growing up in an interfaith family. Whether we grow up practicing one religion, two religions, or no religions, as interfaith children we are nourished by parents who model the art of communication, respect for the other, and love that transcends boundaries. And often, in December, that communication and respect and transcendence involve Christmas trees.

This week, Debra Nussbaum Cohen, a blogger for The Jewish Daily Forward, wrote a post in the form of a letter addressed to me, entitled “Interfaith Mom is Wrong About Chrismukkah.” She was responding to the recent Huffington Post piece in which I explain why my interfaith family celebrates both Hanukkah and Christmas. I respect Debra’s point of view that children being raised Jewish should not celebrate Christmas in any form. I do not believe that strategy will work for every interfaith family, not even for every interfaith family raising Jewish children, but it is a point of view that has gotten a lot of play this season.

It was interesting (and, of course, for me, heartening) to note the backlash in her post’s comment section, and on twitter, mainly from adult interfaith children, many of them with strong Jewish identities, who took great exception to the tone (and to some extent, the content) of her column.

Since Ms. Cohen has initiated a sort of virtual correspondence with me, I guess I should write back and clarify a few points:

Dear Debra Nussbaum Cohen,

I am puzzled by the headline of your story, since my family does not celebrate “Chrismukkah” or any other “mash-up” holiday. I know, as a journalist, that sometimes editors write the headlines, so maybe that wasn’t your fault. But let me respond to some of your specific concerns:

1. You write that Christianity was a radical departure from “Judaism’s basic tenets.” Many of us who have studied both religions simply don’t see it that way. I see the basic tenets of both religions as monotheism, love, and social justice. The prophet Micah, Rabbi Hillel and Jesus all seem to agree on this one. Who am I to disagree?

2. You write of the irony of “someone born Jewish” (presumably me) now “advocating” for “assimilation.” First of all, according to the Conservative and Orthodox movements, I wasn’t born Jewish (because I’m a patrilineal Jew). And I am not advocating for assimilation. I am advocating for the right of interfaith families to teach their children love for and knowledge of Judaism, even if we do not (cannot) choose Judaism as the only religion practiced in our family. Perhaps you would prefer that I just raise my children as Christians, but I am not sure why that would be good for the Jews. And I don’t happen to think it’s the best choice for my particular family, or for my children.

3. You write that interfaith families should only celebrate Christmas at the homes of their Christian relatives. But not everyone has living parents, or family close by, to host Christmas celebrations. My mother had no aunts or uncles or cousins. When my grandparents were gone, we began celebrating Christmas in our (Jewish) home with her. This was very much the right choice, for our interfaith family.

4. You write that the celebration of Hanukkah is a celebration of the fact that “to be Jewish is to be different than the American Christian mainstream.” I am troubled when Judaism is defined negatively, in opposition to Christianity. For me, Judaism is defined by ancient ritual, by the possibilities for spiritual and even mystical experience, by love of language and law and justice. Hanukkah, in our family, reminds us of the freedom we experience in America to maintain our relationship to Judaism, and the opportunity to reflect on the idea of the miraculous.

5. You write that “having a clear religious and cultural identity in the home is better for the kids.” Apparently, you are stating your opinion that interfaith parents should choose one religion. We have no robust data actually comparing children raised in different interfaith family configurations. As an interfaith child raised with only Judaism, I can testify to the benefits and drawbacks of being raised in one religion. And I can describe the benefits and drawbacks of raising my children with both. I don’t think anyone has the research to support a statement of which strategy is “better for the kids.”

6. Okay, here’s where it got kind of bizarre. In an effort to provide a little leavening to a rather weighty topic, I alluded to the well-known fact that many great Christmas songs were written by Jewish composers, and added that if Christmas was good enough for them, it’s good enough for me. Somehow, this inspired you to retort, “Dressing as a fancy-hot-pants prostitute is good enough for Barbie…is it good enough for you?” Um, I don’t know, but comparing celebrating Christmas to dressing as a prostitute is pretty offensive, even to a “half-Christian.”

You then go on to suggest that I would be a “cooler Mom” if I played the music of Matisyahu, instead of “subjecting” my children to Irving Berlin.

Wow. Irving Berlin, the son of a cantor, was one of the greatest American popular songwriters of the 20th century. (I bet you Matt Miller might even agree.) I cannot imagine what could dissuade me from subjecting my children to Irving Berlin. As for my coolness quotient, you’re picking on the wrong mom. I may not wear hot pants, but I have pronounced hipster-mom tendencies. I took my teens to see Matisyahu, live, for Hanukkah last year. We danced together under the giant electrified dreidel.

In short, I am doing everything I can to instill in my children an appreciation for Judaism (and Christianity). My kids feel “pleasure and pride” in both sides of their family, in both religious traditions. I hope you will surf around a little on this blog, getting to know my interfaith family. I know you would be happier if we could be 100% Jewish, but that’s just not how we define ourselves.

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!