Holidays in Honesdale: Jewish Continuity and Interfaith Inclusivity

Photo credit Elizabeth Lucy
Photo credit Elizabeth Lucy

On Saturday, I attended Shabbat services in Honesdale PA, in the foothills of the Pocono mountains, in the same temple where my father became a Bar Mitzvah in 1937. The Delaware and Hudson Canal Company built this white clapboard synagogue with a steeple on the banks of the Lackawaxen River in 1856, in order to serve local Jewish merchants. Each year, more than 50 family members and friends return from across the country for a massive Thanksgiving meal, and to celebrate important rites of passage together at Congregation Beth Israel.

And so this year, as the convergence of Hanukkah and Thankgiving approached, we traveled from at least six different states, through snowy mountain passes, to witness my cousin Nora become a Bat Mitzvah. Nora lives outside Boston, but she is part of the sixth generation of our family to worship in what was once the tiniest temple in America. Throughout Shabbat, throughout a long weekend together that included celebrations of Hanukkah, Thanksgiving, the Bat Mitzvah, and my sister’s wedding, two themes recurred: Jewish continuity, and the inclusion in our family and our Jewish practice of people from across the world, and from across the spectrum of religions.

As always, as we entered the sanctuary, I searched the memorial yahrzeit plaques on the back wall, to find the names of my grandparents. In earlier generations, my family tree included cousins who married each other for lack of Jewish partners, as well as great-aunts and great-uncles who never married, never had children, for the same reason. Going through a box of photos from the last century in my grandmother’s house this week, I came across a photo with this scrawled on the back: “Leon’s Catholic girlfriend”. I adored my great-uncle Leon. He played fiddle, and worked in the family department store in Honesdale, and drew pictures of cats for us when we visited him at Katz Bros. The fact that he remained a bachelor uncle because he could not marry his Catholic sweetheart is poignant.

In the next two generations of my family, there have been a dozen happy interfaith marriages, starting with the wedding of my parents in 1960. Nora’s parents, my cousins Sig and Ruthie, are, like my own parents, Jewish and Episcopalian. I sat with my father and mother, now 89 and 82 and well past their 50th year of marriage, in the temple on Saturday morning. My teenage children sat up in the choir loft, singing with their first and second and third cousins.

Before Nora read from the Torah, we unrolled the scroll and wrapped it around the tiny sanctuary, circumscribing our radically inclusive community. My mother, who shepherded four Jewish children through the Bar and Bat Mitzvah process in the 1970s and 80s, was thrilled to be allowed to touch the parchment for the first time. Then Nora’s 91-year-old grandfather, my very erudite cousin Bill, who has spent most of his lifetime in this little town, devoting himself to Beth Israel, said the priestly blessing over the Bat Mitzvah girl from his wheelchair. There may have been one or two dry eyes in the house, but I couldn’t see them through the mist of my own tears.

In his words to Nora after her Torah reading, my cousin Sig referred to our synagogue as tiny but “huge if judged by the size of its metaphorical tent.” As a family now encompassing Jews and Catholics and Quakers and Episcopalians and Buddhists and humanists, those related by blood and those related by choice, we crammed into the familiar pews. We represent roots reaching from China to Italy, from Japan to Ireland, from Armenia to Colombia. And on Saturday, people with African, Russian, Danish, Polish and Dutch ancestors recited blessings over the Torah.

As a family, we cling to our quirky Classical Reform ways, eschewing yarmulkes and persisting in our love for familiar German tunes played on the organ, as well as incorporating Bach and Paul Simon and anyone else we please into our services. And yet somehow, we have not assimilated out of Jewish existence, through six generations at Beth Israel, and through three generations of being an interfaith family. My siblings and I have each made different decisions about the religious labels of our children, but all of us return to Honesdale, all of us return to Beth Israel, all of us are passing on love for Judaism.

On the night before Nora’s Bat Mitzvah, on the only night of the year that is Hanukkah Shabbat, my parents watched their seven grandchildren (some Jewish, some Catholic, some interfaith) light candles, say blessings, and sing Rock of Ages together. Recently, my Catholic nephew has been asking to learn Hebrew. So my daughter Aimee, who was raised in an interfaith community, with education in both Judaism and Christianity, taught her youngest Jewish and Catholic cousins to play dreidel. And thus she taught my nephew his first four Hebrew letters: nun, gimmel, hay, shin.

My father left Honesdale PA at age 17, but more than 70 years later, he still pays membership dues to Beth Israel. By the end of last week, my brother, the one raising three Catholic kids on the West Coast, had agreed to join the congregation as well. This is kind of crazy given the reality of geography, but also kind of gorgeous, and it makes sense within the context of our family. Our cousin Liza has agreed to be the next president of Beth Israel, and I trust that her creativity and open heart, her love of history and her embrace of all, will keep the congregation vibrant. Even if the Jewish ancestry in our family is but a single drop of holy oil, that drop will burn brightly for all to see, miraculous.

Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, from Beacon Press. She works as an interfaith families consultant, speaker, and coach. Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Interfaith Marriage: A Love Story

I have two very tangible reasons to believe that interfaith marriage can be an unqualified success:  my mother and father. My parents met in 1953, when they shared the last cab from Logan Airport on a rainy Boston night. For seven years, they courted on and off, cautious in part because of their religious differences. My father is a rabbi’s grandson from an isolated community of Jews who sometimes resorted to marrying cousins rather than marrying out. My blond-haired, blue-eyed Episcopalian mother had contemplated applying to a Protestant seminary after college. So at first, the idea of marriage seemed like a true leap of faith.

But leap they did, and went on to raise four children. This weekend, my parents hosted a family dinner and dance to kick off a season of celebrating 50 years of the strongest and happiest marriage I have ever had the privilege to encounter. When I called my mother and told her I was going to write about the anniversary celebration, she said, “Why would anyone want to read about that?” I guess she was thinking of Leo Tolstoy’s insistence that happy families are all alike.  But the media rarely depicts happy interfaith families: those stories tend to focus on conflicts and dilemmas, especially as the “holiday season” approaches.

Tolstoy also wrote, “What counts in making a happy marriage is not so much how compatible you are, but how you deal with incompatibility.” My parents dealt with their religious differences by deciding to raise us as Reform Jews. But the “interfaithness” of my extended family was obvious this weekend at the exuberant anniversary celebration. My mother’s family (Episcopalian and Catholic backgrounds) flew up from Florida to my father’s hometown in Pennsylvania, joining about 40 of my father’s extended Jewish family who gather there each year for Thanksgiving. The vast majority of the Jewish cousins in my generation are in interfaith marriages. But the Rabbi from the temple where my father had his own Bar Mitzvah was one of a handful of guests from outside the family.

One brother, who is raising his children Catholic, began the celebration with an adoring toast. My sister, who is raising her children Jewish, read a rhyming verse she’d written about that fateful taxi ride. I’m the one raising my children as both: I read a schmaltzy poem of thanksgiving. As a highlight, my youngest bachelor brother performed my parents’ official love song, “My Romance.”

With a live band and a packed dance floor, the boomer generation then shouted the words to “We are Family” by Sister Sledge. Later, I spotted my Episcopalian husband with his arms around the shoulders of my Jewish cousins, dancing in a tight circle of men during an extended klezmer sequence. I had to wave off cousins who wanted to lift my parents on their chairs  at the center of a whirling hora circle—they are 87 and 79 years old, after all. But mostly, my parents did not sit, they danced together. Though my mother can’t stand without support for long, my father held her as they “swayed” to Glenn Miller and Duke Ellington tunes from their heyday.

The adoration between my parents is constant, powerful, a high standard for the rest of us to live up to. When my mother was in the hospital a couple of years ago, my father serenaded her on a piano in the nurses’s lounge, playing “My Romance” each day until she recovered. The nurses all fell in love with their love story. Who wouldn’t?

So if I’m sometimes a starry-eyed optimist, if I insist that interfaith marriage can work, that interfaith families can be close and vibrant, that interfaith children can be happy, that it’s all good–I have my reasons. Happy anniversary, Mom and Dad.

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.

Nourishing the Roots

Temple Beth Elohim

Tomorrow I am taking my children to our ancestral Jewish homeland—Wayne County, Pennsylvania, where there’s more cows than people. Or at least that’s the tagline we always give it in my family. It seems like an unlikely source of Jewish culture, but my roots on my Jewish side, my father’s side, go very deep there.

My great-grandfather emigrated from Germany to Honesdale, the seat of Wayne County, in 1864. There, he lived peaceably beside German Catholic and Lutheran neighbors. William Jonas Katz and his brothers started peddling from a horse and cart and built this into the Katz Brothers department store, the anchor store on Main Street. As a child, I delighted in “working” at the store on vacations, making ribbons for Christmas packages, or helping my beloved Cousin Nathan put change into the little canisters that went whooshing along the ceiling in vacuum tubes.

Katz Brothers closed after the arrival of big box stores in the strip mall outside town. But for my children, Honesdale still holds the magic of family history. At my grandmother’s house, where we gather as a family even though she’s been gone for 15 years, they love the laundry chute and the slate sidewalks. And they know that the little white building with the steeple downtown, on the bank of the Lackawaxen River, is actually Temple Beth Israel, where my father became a Bar Mitzvah.

My family returns to the temple when we are in Honesdale for Shabbat or lifecycle ceremonies. The memorial yahrtzeit plaques on the back wall bear the names of my grandparents and great-grandparents. We visit the town cemetery at least once a year, and say the mourner’s Kaddish with my father, and place pebbles on the graves. My children listen to their only Jewish grandparent tell stories of their ancestors. And my daughter, who is “only a patrilineal quarter-Jew,” wants to learn the Kaddish so that she can recite it in the cemetery and the temple.

And how could this not be a wondrous thing, and even “good for the Jews”? Who would maintain that she has no right to this knowledge, this gut-level connection to her family history? Who dares to tell her that she somehow does not count in the graveside minyan? I cannot think of anyone who could possibly count more.