On This Pandemic Solstice (and Yalda Night)

Author Susan Katz Miller, circa 1969.

And so we reach the darkest and shortest day of the year, at the close of a very long, dark year.

In this moment, how do we carry on? As winter descends, our traditions point us to flames, lanterns, sparkles, candles, moonlight, stars. We crave light; we create light. We gather like the first wolves that dared to approach the edge of a prehistoric campfire. Did those wolves stop to ponder why humans build fires? Did they struggle over whether or not to approve our campfire liturgies–the stories or songs we sing? Of course not. Just so, we humans can share wonder and a sense of peace when transfixed by the light of a menorah, of flames reflecting off tinsel, of an electric star perched on a cliff over a little town, of a blazing Yule log in a hearth–whether or not we claim these rituals as our own. Allowing ourselves to feel calm or delight or awe does not require a common language or theology.

The winter solstice is a moment we experience together as denizens of the northern hemisphere. You may see the solstice as a simple scientific fact–without need for supernatural belief of any kind. Or you may embrace the solstice as the inspiration for rituals that date back to the earliest gatherings of humankind. Whether our celebrations are indigenous, Pagan, Abrahamic, Dharmic, or purely astronomical, we gather in the darkness to reassure ourselves that we have each other, and that the light will return.

When my children were in preschool, the very wise teachers left religious celebrations to the families to explain or celebrate at home. They understood that school or government-sponsored Santas would exclude some children. Instead, they created gorgeous paper lanterns with the children in December, and then led a solemn winter solstice parade through town, culminating in hot cocoa. The celebration was secular, and yet profoundly moving. The children learned something of the science of the earth and sun, rotation and axis, but also, the universal human impulse to create warmth and light (and taste sweetness) in darkness.

Just days ago, on Hanukkah, I found myself wrapped in a blanket, gathered around a firepit, in the backyard of a friend who recently welcomed two Afghan refugees into her home. Our guests had never experienced Hanukkah before. We lit the candles, said a blessing, and sang the song about “kindling new the holy lamps,” culminating in these lyrics:

Yours the message cheering, that the time is nearing, which will see, all set free, tyrants disappearing.

For people who had just fled the Taliban, the theme of freedom clearly resonated. But Hanukkah has several intertwined themes, and so I mentioned how the timing of this holiday reenforced the theme of light in the darkness for those in the northern hemisphere, connecting Hanukkah with Diwali, Christmas, Yule.

Hanukkah 2021, photo Susan Katz Miller

One of our new Afghan friends immediately saw and explained the connection to the solstice celebration of Yalda Night (also known as Chelle Night) in Persian communities–including in Iran, Afghanistan, the Iranian diaspora in southern California, and now, of course, Afghan refugee communities in a new diaspora. Yalda Night predates Islam, and is tied to the birth of the Zoroastrian sun god, Mithra.

In Persian cultures today, people of all religions celebrate Yalda Night with traditions including staying up all night, reading the Persian poetry of Hafez, and eating pomegranates, watermelon, and charming cakes shaped like watermelon. The red color is thought to represent life blood and the red of dawn. Tonight, our new friends will celebrate their first American Yalda Night around a firepit in Maryland, in a household of Muslims, Jews, Christians, and atheists.

I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness the astonishing light of your own being. –14th-century Persian poet Hafez

We wait for the light, for spring, for relief from this tenacious virus, for the ability to travel and gather without fear, for tyrants to disappear. As we wait, we reach for poetry, song, sweets, and fire, to sustain us. And we reach for each other, even if it must be in masks, even if it must be at a safe distance, like wolves wary and skittish at the outer edge of the campfire.

Tonight is the solstice. Feel the warmth of the fire. The sun will return.

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.

Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and the Flood of 1942

Vintage postcard depicting our temple

On the first night of Hanukkah, I returned from my ancestral homeland, Honesdale, PA. This town, where my great-great grandparents are buried, lies in a deep valley in the foothills of the Poconos, at the confluence of the Lackawaxen River and Dyberry Creek. In Honesdale, we gather together from across the country every Thanksgiving. And on the night after Thanksgiving this year, we arrived at our teeny tiny ancestral temple for Shabbat prayers with my extended family, a mixed multitude of Jews and Christians and blood relatives and relatives-by-choice. This year, my young cousin Elizabeth led the prayers in the sanctuary where my father became a Bar Mitzvah.

Throughout our history, since my great-grandfather helped found Beth Israel congregation in 1849, we have often led services ourselves. Some weeks, in some years, rabbis drive over from New York City to lead Shabbat for us, but my family has been leading prayers on Fridays at our temple through four generations now. This week my cousin Liza, the current president of the congregation, arrived early and lit the electric yahrzeit (memorial) lights next to the names of all our family members–including my father and my (Episcopalian) mother–lighting up half the yarhrzeit plaques in the room. Once, this temple was thought to be the smallest in the world. We are small but historic, proud and persistent–the second-oldest synagogue in the country still occupied by the original congregation.

Earlier that day, I sat in the living room of the house my grandfather built for my grandmother in 1922, and listened as my son recorded his grandfather’s sister–still sharp and witty at 94–on his iPhone. Aunt Corinne told the story of the flood of 1942, when she was 14. It was a Friday night, and she went to temple with my grandparents and her little sister for the informal lay-led Shabbat prayers. Keep in mind that the temple is perched directly on the riverbank, just blocks downstream from the point where the Dyberry flows into the Lackawaxen.

No photo description available.
1941, The Swing Seven, Bill Katz (age 16) at the piano

Typically, in the 1930s and 40s, in winter, after 20 minutes of Shabbat prayers the whole congregation would go over to Honesdale High School for the weekly basketball game. My father’s band, The Swing Seven, would play for the dance after the game. But by 1942, my father had graduated and gone off to MIT. And it was May, not basketball season, and the waters were rising, so they all hurried home after the prayers, to the house ten blocks upstream, on Dyberry Creek.

At that point my grandfather, as he had before in past floods, somehow hoisted the Steinway grand piano up onto stacks of books, hoping to keep it above the water rising from the floorboards. My grandmother and aunts retreated to the second floor. But then, my grandmother realized her children might get hungry, and went back down to the kitchen to get them some bread from the pantry. As she entered the pantry, the waters whooshed the door closed behind her, and almost trapped her. But she was a very small person (we are a family of small people) and she was able to squeeze out and slosh her way back upstairs. Late that night, the floodwaters on the Lackawaxen peaked at 50,000 cubic feet per second, killing 26 people and destroying 75 homes in Honesdale. The flood washed out every bridge in town, as well as the prized 1933 stained glass windows in the temple.

At the house of my grandparents, my aunt watched from the landing of the stairs as the grand piano rose up and turtled, floating upside down in six feet of water in the living room. The next day, from the safety of the roof, she saw a rowboat glide down her street, with a neighbor distributing bread to those trapped on rooftops. And she saw planes buzzing overhead, photographing the flood from the air.

The phone lines were out, and no one could reach my father with news they were safe. Several states away, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, an MIT classmate asked him, “Hey Katz! What’s the name again of your little town in Pennsylvania again?” My father replied, “Honesdale!” And his classmate said, “Well it’s flooded and it’s on the front page of the paper. Look at this photo!”

When the waters subsided, and the phones finally got reconnected, my grandfather called Steinway to report four grand pianos owned by different family members in town, all submerged in the Honesdale flood. Steinway declared them beyond repair, and my grandparents began a search for a new piano. As my aunt recounted this story, sitting in the living room of her childhood home, we all looked over at the replacement Steinway. The temple made the practical decision to replace the destroyed stained glass windows with plain glass. My aunts got sent away to a relative in the countryside for weeks while my grandparents cleaned and repaired the house. And eventually two dams were built–on the Lackawaxen and the Dyberry–to prevent another deadly flood.

I realized this week, in that temple sanctuary, and in the living room of the house of my grandparents, and at the Thanksgiving meal where we entertained ourselves with a fashion parade of Katz pajamas, that we were taking risks this year. Last year, we did not gather at all. This year, we made a fraught decision to gather in spite of the pandemic, fully vaccinated and with testing and masks, because one can only go so long without family. Each year is precious, because each year we remember together the new marriages and deaths, and listen to stories from our elders, stories that may be lost.

This year, because of the alignment of the sun and moon and the secular calendar, we just missed celebrating Hanukkah together. By the time Hanukkah arrived on Sunday night, we had all gone home–to San Francisco, New York, Boston, and Washington DC. As I lit the first candle in our window, alone with my husband and our pandemic puppy, I thought about miracles.

I thought about the connections between the Hanukkah miracle of light in the darkness, of the miracle of tenacity in hostile environments, of escape from narrow places, of self-sufficiency, of adversity as the mother of innovation, of physical and emotional repair. I thought about the miracle of diversity that enriches our given and chosen interfaith families. And I thought about how objects become imbued with history, with spiritual resonance. Sometimes a Steinway is lost, and we feel desperate to replace it. Sometimes stained glass windows are lost, and plain glass just makes more sense. Sometimes a temple is ransacked, and all it takes is a little oil to persist with rituals that heal and bind.

I have trouble letting go of the stories from each generation, the objects left behind. And that is how I found myself yesterday driving away from Honesdale, over the mountains, in a car filled with a rotary telephone, a hatbox, vintage Pyrex, embroidered linens, and photographs, desperate to preserve family history from the floodwaters of time. Inevitably I know that some precious objects, and some stories, will be lost, and some will be passed down. And I feel a sense of gratitude that my son wanted both my aunt’s words recorded on his iPhone, and that rusted enamel colander with the missing handle.

This year’s first night of Hanukkah, photo Susan Katz Miller

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.

Yes, We Celebrate Both (Hanukkah and Christmas)

Photo by Susan Katz Miller

And so we reach that most reductive time of the year, when the choices of Jewish and Christian interfaith families are judged by whether they celebrate Hanukkah, or Christmas, or both, or neither.

In my opinion, this is a poor method for understanding the textured and nuanced lives of interfaith families. To take just one example of our complexity, many “we are Jewish, period” families celebrate Christmas as a sort of cultural exception (in a secular way, or, say, with Christian grandparents). So, the choices an interfaith family makes around “winter holidays” provide only very limited insight into the spirituality, beliefs, practices, and identities of the various family members.

This year (as in every year), a number of families with one Jewish parent and one parent raised Christian are making emphatic statements about why they do not celebrate Christmas. What troubles me about these statements is not the choice these interfaith families made–it’s a choice that works for some families. What troubles me is the erasure of the spouse who is not Jewish, whose journey and feelings are rarely acknowledged by Jewish writers in the Jewish press.

One such essay this season is entitled “No, We Don’t Celebrate Both.” I take this headline as a sort of tribute, in that “doing both” is becoming a more familiar concept in our culture. In this essay, a Jewish mother rejects the label “interfaith family” (and also the label “interracial family”), detailing why she and her husband (who is Black) consider themselves only a Jewish family, and do not celebrate Christmas. She uses the familiar “we are celebrating someone else’s birthday” metaphor to explain to her children why, in spite of this decision, they bring Christmas presents to her husband’s Christian family. But she does not mention how or why she and her husband negotiated this choice, or the current religious or secular identity of her husband, who grew up Christian, and who seems to have no presence or voice in the essay.

And in the new animated short film “Blewish,” the protagonist is a boy with a Jewish mother and a Black father (a father who presumably was not raised Jewish, although we have no idea how he was raised, and of course multigenerational Black Jewish families exist). The boy faces a teacher and classmates who assume he celebrates Christmas, and white Jewish children who do not accept him as Jewish because he is Black, initiating a brief identity crisis. The six-minute film’s creator is himself the child of a Jewish mother and a Black father, and grew up in Conservative Judaism.

I love that adult interfaith children are using their voices and creating art and commentary. “Blewish” begins to fill a significant gap, in depicting the experiences of Black and Jewish children from their own perspective rather than from the parents’ perspective. But once again, the Black father’s religious identity (or even cultural identity) is not represented in the film. Is he an atheist? A convert to Judaism? A practicing Protestant? In Jewish media, and art, the parent of another religious heritage too often remains silent. (Ironically, this is a silent animated film, so everyone remains silent). But my point is that the perspective in this film, like so much written for interfaith kids, is very firmly that of a Jewish family member, minimizing the input or representation of any immediate or extended family members who practice another religion.

One must note how often these stories come to us from families with a Jewish mother–families who feel secure claiming Judaism for children who are “matrilineal” in their Jewishness. The authors of these stories may not be able to fully empathize with the more complex issues facing “patrilineal” Jewish families. All of us with interfaith heritage face the exhausting push and pull of two kinds of statements from society: “You’re Not Jewish Enough,” and “You’re Not Really Jewish.” But the calculus of what to do with this unsolicited advice, with these aggressions from inside and outside the Jewish world, plays out differently for matrilineal and patrilineal interfaith Jewish children.

For two decades now, I have been working to increase awareness of the diversity of interfaith families, and of the right for families to choose the practices and identities that work best for them. My second book, The Interfaith Families Journal, is devoted to helping families through this process, whether that means no Christmas, a secular Christmas, or heralding the Christmas angels.

Of these pathways, doing both Hanukkah and Christmas, and being both Jewish and Christian, is a demographically significant choice. A recent study of Jewish Chicago found 21% of interfaith families with one Jewish parent raising children in two religions. In my opinion, this is an underestimate, given that the sampling drew heavily from mailing lists connected to Jewish institutions. (Other studies have found the percentage of interfaith families with one Jewish parent raising kids with both religions to be 44% in Toronto,  46% in western Massachusetts, and 34% in Minnesota’s Twin Cities).

Nevertheless, the annual Hanukkah/Christmas skirmish triggers a defensive backlash from people who don’t approve of interfaith marriage, or don’t approve of choosing both. The wildest year involved a Jewish writer comparing me to a Barbie doll dressed as a “fancy-hot-pants prostitute.” Go figure.

We are facing another long, dark winter of trying pandemic times. Let us all strive to be gentle with one another, and find ways to bring light, whether that is the light of Diwali, Hanukkah, Christmas, Yule, or all of them. And let us all work to channel empathy for other interfaith families, and the choices they make.

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.

Interfaith Families in the Pandemic, at Christmas

No one was dreaming of this Christmas.

A Christmas without family, friends, or going to church. A Christmas without choirs, or caroling. Even in that fictional scenario without packages, boxes, and bags, when the Grinch tried to stop Christmas, people imagined they would always be able to stand in a circle and clasp hands. But not this year.

Early in the pandemic, I wrote about a silver lining, of being able to gather on zoom with people from across the country and the globe. I wrote of being able to zoom into accessible services anywhere, of trying out different religious communities through the miracle of technology. If you are looking for a Christmas Eve service designed by and for interfaith families, you are welcome to zoom in to the Interfaith Families Project in DC this year.

But, here we are, ten months in, and the silver linings are all wearing thin. We try to appreciate the calm, the stillness, the intimacy, perhaps the shift away from commercialism, of holidays this year. Or perhaps we appreciate the ability to more easily control holiday menus (in our house, this means more vegan options!).

But the pandemic is surging. Our relationships with those we live with full-time may be fraying. And depression, major and minor, is now pandemic too. The Christmas music that feels the most on point this year may be Judy Garland singing the mournful “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” or the wistful Charlie Brown special classic “Christmastime is Here.”

In the past, I have written and spoken about the importance in interfaith families of feeling empathy for each other, of being gentle with our partners and children in this season of long nights and short, cold days. And that has never been more true than this year, on this solstice, at this pandemic apex.

I had not dreamed of some of the challenges facing interfaith families this year. Most interfaith families in the US, Canada, and Europe have one Christian partner. For many who are atheist, agnostic, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, or Pagan, having a Christian partner has meant, in the past, celebrating Christmas with our partner’s extended family. Some of these interfaith families have preferred not to have a Christmas tree, or lights on the house, or prepare a Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes, or hang stockings, but have been glad to experience these Christmas traditions every year at the homes of a partner’s parents or extended family.

This year, it is not possible, not safe, to celebrate at Grandma’s house. (And some of us have lost grandparents, and parents, in the epidemic). Instead, isolated at home, many interfaith families have had to make decisions about whether to have a first Christmas tree, a first visit from Santa, hang lights for the first time outdoors. In some families, a partner who did not grow up with these traditions may now feel new pressure to host them, adding to holiday sadness. In some families, a partner who grew up celebrating these traditions with extended family may feel the additional sadness of celebrating in isolation with a partner who did not grow up with those traditions. And, some interfaith families have already been through the parallel sadness of negotiating these same intersections of interfaithness and pandemic isolation over Diwali, or Hanukkah. For Pagans, the same may be true for the winter solstice, and Yule.

There are no right or wrong answers to the question of how to navigate this very hard season, in this very hard year. For some families, it may feel right to “haul out the holly” and “turn on the brightest string of lights.” For others, it may feel right to just try to let it go, and hibernate through the winter, until spring is here at last. As in all years, as in all families, the right way for your family to be an interfaith family can only be discerned through intimate conversations. But in every case, and especially this year, we are called on to be as empathetic as we can possibly be, and to be extra gentle with each other, as we await the return of the light, and our turn for the vaccine.

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.

Menorah Conclusion: Interfaith Family, Year 60

Photo Susan Katz Miller

My kids only had one Jewish grandparent, my father, may his memory be a blessing. When he died two years ago, I promised to chronicle what happens in an interfaith family when all the remaining generations have interfaith heritage.

So here, I’m reporting in.

According to Jewish pessimists, my children should be thoroughly assimilated into the (increasingly mythical) Christian majority by now. They are 26 and 23 years old, and just recently launched into the (perilous) world.

And in the last 24 hours, they each, independently, casually asked if I had a menorah to spare.

Oh, you know I do! I have a whole collection of them. (And yes, I call them menorahs, not chanukiahs, because that’s what my father the rabbi’s grandson called them).

So, I packed up one menorah, and it’s headed to Brooklyn in the mail. It’s the one with the star of David, and the wobble where the screw threads are worn out. Friends are incredulous. My son can’t get his own menorah, in Brooklyn of all places? He can’t just make a menorah out of ziti or something? Of course he can. But it’s Hanukkah, and what else am I gonna give this grown-ass kid? He does not crave stuff. And he asked for this…one…thing.

Then my daughter came by to peruse my small menorah collection, and picked the teeny-tiny menorah that takes birthday candles. It will serve double-purpose as an instructional artifact in the Montessori forest school where she is teaching.

Coincidentally (or not, since Hanukkah starts this Thursday night), the New York Times just published a mournful piece by a woman with a Jewish father and Christian mother, about why she is not going to celebrate Hanukkah with her toddler. On twitter, reactions are split. I see exclusivist Jewish thinking (“you’re not Jewish anyway so why would you celebrate Hanukkah”), the same thinking that has pushed so hard against the very existence of interfaith families in the name of “Jewish continuity.” And then I see those who empathize, and diagnose her alienation as a direct result of those exclusivist policies. That toddler, like my children, has one Jewish grandparent. And while every interfaith family has the right to choose how they will identify, and which rituals they will celebrate, it set me to thinking about why my children do feel connected to Judaism, in the third generation of our interfaith family.

How do I explain why both my children now feel called to be interfaith ambassadors and bridge-builders? Why do they intend this year to share ancient Jewish ritual with their households of friends, with young pupils, with their communities? Here I want to name just two of what I see as the many interconnected reasons for the persistence of Jewish ritual in the third generation of my interfaith family.

One reason was the charisma and determination of my beloved Jewish father, who was the last living grandparent for my children. At Hanukkah, we would gather around his piano to sing “Rock of Ages” each night while he played for us by the light of the menorah, with my Episcopalian mother and husband harmonizing. He gave us affection for these rituals, and he gave us a model of a harmonious interfaith family that persisted in celebrating both heritages despite all manner of official resistance from religious institutions.

The second reason is the work that my husband and I, and our interfaith families community, and our rabbis and ministers, put into raising our children to feel they have a right to claim both family religions. We made sure they had basic Jewish literacy, we made sure they felt connected to Judaism, we made sure they felt called to stand up against anti-semitism.

In light of the menorah requests this week, I now feel moved to declare that this is the moment, sixty years into our three-generation experience with interfaith family living, that I am ready to draw a definitive conclusion. Interfaith kids in the third generation, including those raised with both family religions, can feel deeply connected to Judaism (or any other religion in which they are educated). So, to all those who predicted our inevitable assimilation into the Christian majority, I conclude based on personal experience that you were wrong.

But if Jewish institutions want to ensure that menorahs do not all end up sitting unused in boxes in closets, they must ensure that we do not continue to alienate interfaith families who want to engage in Judaism. Here are the five urgent (overdue) strategies for doing that:

And if you need further advice on the hows or whys of all this, I am available to consult.

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.

8 Ways to a Peaceful December in Interfaith Families

My little sister and I, in our interfaith family in 1964.

We have reached (finally!) the last month of the longest year I can remember, 2020. And December means that many interfaith families are about to join in the dance of Hanukkah and Christmas, whether or not they feel like dancing. This year, the eight nights of Hanukkah start on December 10th, midway between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Personally, I prefer these years when Hanukkah begins and ends before Christmas, so that each holiday gets separate celebration, and there’s even a moment to pause between them.

Whether you celebrate one of those holidays, or both, or neither, all of us need to cultivate empathy for our partners and family members in December, while honoring our own needs, and being mindful of how this season can trigger both joy and sadness, especially in a year of pandemic. We are also becoming more aware that “interfaith family” doesn’t always mean Jewish and Christian. The fastest-growing “interfaith” demographic, according to Pew Research, is Christian and “religious none” (a catch-all for atheists, secular humanists, agnostics, the spiritual-but-not-religious, and others who couldn’t find a better box to check). And an increasing number of interfaith families include members who are Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Pagan, celebrate indigenous religions, or reclaim African diasporic traditions including vodun, Santeria, or candomblé. Our interfaith families are becoming more richly complex.

Last year, I created a new resource, The Interfaith Family Journal, to help any and every family figure out how to honor diverse religious or spiritual or cultural roots, and formative childhood experiences, while claiming and creating a plan for December (and every other month) that works for your family. The Journal traces a five-week process of writing prompts, discussion topics, and creative activities. The result is a unique resource for therapists, clergy, and families. Here, I distill from the Journal eight ways to plan for a deeper, more mindful, and peaceful season:

1. REFLECT

Ask yourself about how you experienced December as a child. What did you celebrate? How did you feel about Christmas music, decorations, movies, in American popular culture? Were you aware of being part of the religious majority or minority? How have those feelings changed over time?

2. DISCERN

Ask yourself which of your childhood winter holiday rituals you want to continue in adulthood, or take on in the future? What traditions do you want to transmit to your children? Is this because they have religious meaning, spiritual meaning, and/or cultural meaning for you?

3. INQUIRE

Ask your partner(s) or other intimate family members or co-parents how they felt during December as children. Do you understand how your childhood experiences overlap, or diverge? What are the differences? What are the synergies?

4. EMPATHIZE

Ask your partner which public expressions of the season–in public town displays, on the radio, on TV–might make them feel joyful, nostalgic, sad, or alienated, this year. Do you understand why? How has this changed for them, over time? Note that secular or cultural does not necessarily mean less important than religious or spiritual!

5. SENSE

No matter what religious (or non-religious) affiliation(s) or identity you have chosen for your family or children, are there multi-sensory December experiences that you would like to retrieve, or pass down, or take on? Music? Recipes? Crafts? Is your partner okay with tasting, smelling, hearing these with you?

6. PLAN

The number of celebrations can feel overwhelming in December, especially for interfaith families. Make a plan! Which holidays this month will you spend with which extended family members (and when)? Which will you spend with friends? And which will you spend with just your partner(s) and/or kids? With the pandemic surging, balance celebrations you can do at home with zoom call celebrations with extended family. This is a good year to really focus on home-based traditions with your partner(s) and/or children! Make sure that your partner feels comfortable with the plan.

7. GIVE

Whether or not you celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah as a family, December can be an inspiring time to think about helping your community and to prepare for New Year’s resolutions. Especially after the horrific 2020 we have all just experienced, community service can help to keep the midwinter blues at bay. Talk to your family members about starting a tradition of December giving, or December action, to help to heal your community or the world.

8. SNUGGLE

No matter which traditions you celebrate, the scientific reality is that this is the darkest and coldest time of year in the northern hemisphere. It is probably not a coincidence that near the midwinter solstice, we try to brighten our world with the Yule hearth, Christmas lights, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa candles, or firecrackers for the Chinese Lunar New Year. So be gentle with yourself, and with your family members, as we move through the darkest days of this most difficult of years, until we tilt again towards the sun.

Note: I wrote an earlier version of this piece last year for Psych Bytes, a publication that subsequently folded in the pandemic.

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.

In December: Children’s Books, Interfaith Literacy

Photo Susan Katz Miller

Many families that celebrate Hanukkah (including interfaith families) like to focus on Hanukkah gifts other than toys, at least on some of the eight nights. The idea is to differentiate Hanukkah from Christmas, and acknowledge that lavish gifts were not originally part of modest little Hanukkah. So, we have the traditional night-of-giving-socks. Or, games-instead-of-gifts night. Or, giving-to-others night. And, the favorite of authors and readers: the night of giving books!

Whether you celebrate Hanukkah, Christmas, both, neither, Yule, or holidays of any of the other religions of the world, wise parents are seeking out books this time of year to help children understand these December celebrations, and understand the many beliefs and practices of classmates and extended family members.

Several years ago, I wrote a round-up of books specifically for interfaith kids focused on Hanukkah and Christmas, with explanatory notes on each book. (It was widely reposted). More recently, I wrote a column on how to access a steady stream of Jewish and other children’s books to support interfaith literacy.

This year, with the publication of The Interfaith Family Journal, I am thinking about the full and glorious diversity of interfaith families, whether Catholic and Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist, Hindu and Humanist, or completely secular. In this spirit, I posted a new resource list on my author website with suggested children’s books on interfaith families, Buddhism, Christianity, God, Hinduism, Humanism, Islam, Judaism, and Paganism. Take a look!

All children, all of us, benefit from increasing our interfaith literacy, understanding, and empathy, especially this time of year when nerves may fray. I am adding to this list of children’s books all the time, and welcome your suggestions for books to help children learn about topics in any of these categories. I especially welcome suggestions for books on underrepresented religions or beliefs or practices including African diasporic and indigenous practices.

If you are stressed about making December work for your interfaith family, sitting down and reading books with kids often has a calming effect, for both kids and adults. Or, take a look at my new advice column posted over on PsychBytes: “8 Ways to a Peaceful December for Interfaith Families (And All of Us).” In this piece, I advocate for the benefits of snuggling in the cold and dark of December. It works, with or without a pile of books. Enjoy!

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). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Five Reasons for Interfaith Empathy at Christmas

Gingerbread Village. Photo, Susan Katz Miller

From the archives. I wrote this essay back in 2010. It feels all the more relevant today! 

In my doctor’s office I heard Christmas music-–three full days before Thanksgiving. The ever-expanding Christmas season is upon us. Why do I call it the Christmas season, not the holiday season? I love Hanukkah, my kids love Hanukkah. But honestly, no one calls it the “Hanukkah season.” Hanukkah is just not that big a deal.

Christmas is a big deal. Every year, our interfaith families group discusses how to integrate two sets of “seasonal” expectations, and how to empathize with each other as we do this. The Jewish partners work on understanding which Christmas rituals feed the souls of their Christian partners. The Christian partners work on understanding the Jewish mix of underdog pride and alienation. Each interfaith couple must come up with their own balance of accommodations, but also, their own ways of pouring new life and creativity into old forms.

This year, I distilled the elements of this perennial interfaith Christmas discussion into five topics:

1. The Music. For many Christians, the music that permeates malls and airwaves starting this week provides essential nostalgia and anticipation. One woman raised Catholic spoke of tracking down the Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley holiday songs that her father brought home from Viet Nam on a reel-to-reel tape. What could be more heart-warming? But then, a man raised Jewish spoke up about experiencing his Jewish home as a refuge from the onslaught of “Christmas bling” and holiday music in malls, radio, school concerts. While some Jews enjoy the Christmas spirit, others hear carols and feel wistful and excluded.

So, some Jewish partners develop a taste for instrumental Christmas jazz but continue to reject the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Other interfaith families, despairing of lame traditional Hanukkah songs, are exploring the hipster Klezmer revival. Still other families negotiate a deal where traditional Christmas music is reserved for Christmas day.

2. The Lights. What could be bad about a “secular” display of sparkling cheer to dispel the darkest nights? But for many interfaith families, the line gets drawn here. My parents have been intermarried more than fifty years, and have a gargantuan tree and oyster stew and roast goose, but never lights outside. For some Jews, blinking lights signal “this house is Christian” to the neighbors. As one intermarried Jewish woman declared, “If we’re celebrating both, I’m okay with announcing that to the world with lights.”

3. The Creche. The nativity scene is, understandably, completely beyond the pale for interfaith families raising Jewish children. Some intermarried Jews never become terribly comfortable talking about Jesus, let alone seeing him in a Playmobil manger. Others see the celebration of the birth of an important Jew as less problematic than the celebration of his resurrection at Easter. For those raising children with both religions, a creche brings the actual story of the birth of Jesus into what could otherwise be a secular or only vaguely religious holiday.

4. The Tree. Much has been written about the tree. It’s Pagan, It’s an embarrassing reminder of assimilationist Hanukkah bushes. More than one interfaith couple tiptoes into the tradition with a tiny live rosemary tree in a pot from Whole Foods. Another Jewish spouse admits he’s been enjoying a Christmas tree for decades, but has never told his parents about it. Others manage to mix the Christian and Jewish in-laws together at tree-trimming parties.

5. The Food. Our rabbi calls Christmas “the most Jewish of the Christian holidays” because it centers on an elaborate home-cooked meal. For this reason, he compares Christmas not to Hanukkah, but to Passover. So eating and talking with the family, what’s not to like? But one Jewish partner bashfully admits, “Now that I’m in an interfaith family and we celebrate Christmas, I kind of miss the Jewish tradition of going to the movies and then going out for Chinese, bonding with other Jews doing that.” A Christian partner from another couple adapted this tradition to her own purposes: “I really wasn’t interested in spending all of Christmas day cooking, like my mother always did. So in our house, we open the stockings and presents, then go out for Chinese with all the Jewish families.” For this interfaith family, it’s the best of both worlds.

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.

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4 Replies to “Five Reasons for Interfaith Empathy at Christmas”

  1. Thelma ZirkelbachNOVEMBER 23, 2010 AT 1:32 PM EDITOh, this is delightful. Negotiating same-time-of-year rituals is always interesting. I could never handle a Christmas tree, although we hung stockings on Christmas Eve. And yes, the movie and Chinese are an absolute must Christmas Day tradition for my family, one that my kids have continued since my husband’s death.Reply
  2. Mandy KatzNOVEMBER 23, 2010 AT 4:04 PM EDITSue, what a fun post! And refreshingly un-prescriptive. I doubt there’s a Jewish-Christian couple in the world that wouldn’t find something to identify with here. For me, it’s sharing your parents indoor-outdoor schizophrenia on Christmas traditions. I, too, notwithstanding the gaudy, ceiling-scratching tree inside, say, “No way, Moishe,” to lights in the windows and on the shrubs. Thanks!Reply
    1. Christine IntagliataNOVEMBER 24, 2010 AT 1:40 PM EDITAnd in our Jewish/Jew-by-choice household, there’s never a tree, but I lovingly hang blue “Chanukah lights” every year . . . inside, but where you can see them through the windows. I love to turn off the regular lights and sit in the blue glow. And I know that’s Christmas nostalgia!Reply
  3. ipondereugeniaDECEMBER 2, 2010 AT 8:43 PM EDITA very well written and detailed article and interface holidays. thank you – I will forward it to my friends living in such families.
    Warm regards
    Eugenia Budman
    shewrites.Reply

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Mama’s Box Latkes: An Interfaith Elegy

Latke Mix
Photo, Susan Katz Miller

 

I have come to realize that one of the most important Hanukkah traditions in my multi-generational interfaith family is, box latkes. Yes, the latkes made from the mix in the little box from Manischewitz. For me, checking the date on a box lost in the back of the cupboard, tearing open the packets, breathing in the cloud of onion powder that rises up when you dump the packets in the bowl, feeling the little potato starch granules thicken as you stir, these are all Proustian moments.

How did this come to be our way? Here we must pause to imagine my Episcopalian mother, raising four Jewish kids in the 1960s. This was before food processors. Her Jewish mother-in-law lived many states away. So there was really no one around to insist that my mother do things the hard way, with grated knuckles bleeding into the potatoes.

My mother was a great cook. But, often left on her own with four kids and a dog while my father traveled the world on business, she was eager to try the highly-processed products of that era. We ate Manwich Sloppy Joes, and Hamburger Helper, and utterly egregious Libbyland TV dinners with purple “pirate powder” to stir into your milk.

And then, there’s the matter of the matzoh ball analogy. I imagine my mother thinking, “Everyone makes matzoh balls from those little boxes, and that’s considered kosher, so why can’t I make latkes that way too?” A novice mistake, but she stuck with it, even when Cuisinart came on the scene. Because, to be honest, my brothers and sister and I clamored for those box latkes!

My mother died last year. Now, thinking about the love that inspired her to even attempt to make latkes for a family of six makes me ache for her. Who would begrudge my mother this shortcut, when she was putting her own religion aside and devoting herself to raising four, count them four, Jewish children. I give her credit for making latkes at all, because the truth is, even when you use the mix, the endless frying in small batches is a pain in the tuchus. A single hungry child can eat every single latke you make as soon as they come out of the pan, until the batter is gone.

The first time I attempted to wean myself off making box latkes, the heap of grated potatoes turned alarming colors, because it took me so long to grate them that they oxidized. Those rainbow latkes were exceedingly ugly–my family was afraid to eat them. I also discovered that making sure the potato strings are no longer raw, without burning the latke to a crisp, is an art that takes practice.

I think a few years went by before I dared to get back on the grater to try again. But eventually, I got the hang of it. These days, I usually grate potatoes for latkes at least once during Hanukkah. I have even mastered hip contemporary variations, such as Sweet Potato Ginger Latkes. Everyone in my family–Jews and Christians and Buddhists and those who claim both religions or none–loves a latke made from scratch with the lacy golden brown edges.

But the truth is, in my family, we also stand by those fluffy box latkes, and crave this taste of home. Last year at Hanukkah, just after my mother died, with winter closing in around my raw grief and the brightness of the holidays refracted through the pain of loss, I’m not sure I made latkes at all. But this year, I stocked up on those little boxes. I will tear the packets, stir the mix, and eat the latkes, in her memory.

 

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).

Queen of the Hanukkah Dosas: Book Review

Queen of the Hanukkah Dosas
Photo by Susan Katz Miller

 

The world of interfaith families in America is filled now with a kaleidoscope of beliefs, practices, and identities unimaginable to our grandparents. We are not just Jewish/Christian families. We are Buddhist/Pagan/atheist families. We are Muslim/Catholic families. And we are Hindu/Jewish families (sometimes called HinJews). I call this #GenerationInterfaith.

For children, seeing themselves, and families that look like theirs, in literature and in the media, can be reassuring, affirming, empowering, and also entertaining. So I am always glad to recognize and review new children’s books that depict the increasing complexity and diversity of interfaith families.

So far, most of those books have been about families celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas. (I have reviewed many of those in the past). But this year, #GenerationInterfaith expands with Queen of the Hanukkah Dosas, a picture book by Pamela Ehrenberg, with illustrations by Anjan Sarkar. This book recognizes, I believe for the first time in a picture book, that Jews and South Asians are marrying each other in the US today. (At least a couple of earlier Young Adult books feature Jewish/Indian protagonists, including My Basmati Bat Mitzvah, and The Whole Story of Half a Girl).

The story in this new picture book is simple and sweet, as are the illustrations. The family consists of a big brother and toddler sister, with a Jewish father and an Indian mother (more on her religion later), and an Indian grandmother, Amma-Amma, who lives with them. The family prepares a Hanukkah feast of dosas, a savory South Indian pancake made of dal (lentils) and fried in oil. The little sister creates havoc, but the big brother is able to save the day by singing to his sister a mash-up song he invents: “I have a little dosa, I made it out of dal.”

This slim book packs in a lot of cultural information. The family visits the Little India Market to shop for ingredients, all of which are depicted in a charming two-page spread. And in the back, we get recipes for dosas and sambar (a dip for the dosas). In the PJ Library edition, a subscription program that sends out free Jewish children’s books, the book also has a full page for adults on the story of Hanukkah, and book flaps explaining both traditional Hanukkah customs, and multicultural suggestions for foods to fry during Hanukkah (including Italian arancini and Puerto Rican sorullitos).

To be clear, this is not a “Hanukkah and Diwali” book, parallel to the “Hanukkah and Christmas” books. The family depicted is clearly raising kids with a formal Jewish affiliation of some sort: mom picks up the kids from Hebrew School. Meanwhile, there is no mention of any Hindu traditions or beliefs. So, possibly the mom has converted to Judaism. Or, she has not converted but is raising Jewish kids (who have either been converted themselves, or they belong to a movement that accepts patrilineal Jews). It is also possible to imagine that this family is giving their children interfaith education in addition to formal Jewish education, and that they do in fact celebrate Diwali.

So, does this book depict an interfaith family? Jews are multicultural. There are Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews, black Jews, Chinese Jews, Arab Jews, and, in fact, Indian Jews going back for generations. To me, the most important character in this book is actually the grandma, Amma-Amma, who wears a sari and bindi, who directs the making of the food, and who then retires for a nap. Amma-Amma represents the South Indian cultural mentor here, and she is presumably a Hindu, or perhaps a Jain. (Some Indian Jews do wear bindis today, but it is statistically improbable that she would be from one of the small Indian Jewish communities). And while it is fairly common for a spouse to convert before or after marriage, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a mother-in-law converting.

So, for me Amma-Amma represents the idea that every family formed by people from two religious backgrounds is an extended interfaith family, even if the nuclear family becomes single-faith after a conversion. Extended family is formative and influential in the lives of children. Because Amma-Amma lives with the family, her role in passing down family traditions, and the importance of the bonds of affection across generations and religious boundaries, are clear in this book.

So, yes, I do like to imagine this family celebrating Diwali with Amma-Amma, if only to help her celebrate “her” holiday. Such a celebration would be formative for any children, no matter what religious label or formal religious education the parents choose for them. And I remain convinced that the religious literacy any such children would gain from this experience, and the familiarity and affection they would develop for another tradition, would be good for them, and good for the world.

 

 

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).

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