Young Interfaith Adults, In Real Life

IFFP Silkscreen Logo, Jose Dominguez, Pyramid Atlantic

What happens when you grow up with interfaith education in an interfaith families community, and then go out into the real world? Recently, a panel of young adults who grew up celebrating both family religions returned to the Interfaith Families Project of Washington DC (IFFP), to speak about their experiences.  I served as the facilitator, and below, I bring you some of the highlights of our conversation. –Susan Katz Miller

 

SKM: What was it like leaving the bubble of an interfaith families community, and going off to college?

Jonah Gold (age 28): I remember very early on going to Hillel (at a private college in the northeast) and meeting the rabbi there. At the time, I thought Hillel was a little more conservative than I wanted to be, in terms of their political beliefs and affiliations. So I guess I wasn’t fully comfortable joining the on-campus Jewish community. I didn’t want to define myself as only Jewish because at the time I didn’t feel that accurately reflected myself, and at the time Hillel wasn’t trying to bring in or talk about other faiths at all. So going to college, I felt like I had to push back to continue to define myself as interfaith. But also, over time, I felt pressure to start identifying myself as Jewish. It made it easier to put myself in a box, to say “oh yeah I’m Jewish,” and go through college that way, especially going to a school that had a lot of Jewish kids.

Grace Lerner (age 26): I went to a public school in the Midwest–it felt much more conservative than my upbringing. So I felt like there was this label of otherness. When I tried to explain the interfaith aspects it was a concept that went completely over people’s heads. People on campus were pretty critical of the interfaith idea. I really struggled with that, freshman and sophomore years. So I sort of gave up. I ended up actually going to Hillel my junior year and finding a community there because the rabbi was so great. She led the best services, and they were in the chapel, so it still felt interfaith to me on some level. She talked about her own growth into Judaism, and that was something I identified with. It’s probably a lot easier in the adult world to present yourself as interfaith, which is something I have always kind of more identified with. But in terms of the ease of explaining it to other young people, it was just a lot easier to say “I’m Jewish.” And also, with my last name, my Jewish friends immediately said, “Oh you’re Jewish.”

Katie Colarulli (age 20): I’ve been coming to IFFP since I was three, so I can’t really remember a time without IFFP. Every time I come back from college, I feel like it’s my home. I still identify as interfaith, I haven’t really picked one or the other. The first time I had trouble explaining interfaith was in seventh grade. I went to an Episcopal high school. I had my interfaith Coming of Age ceremony and all my friends just rolled with it. But my English teacher was like “You can’t be both.” So I tried to explain to her that I learned both traditions, I’m comfortable in a church and a synagogue. She just couldn’t understand it. It’s something I’m so used to: for my entire life I’ve been interfaith. I’ve been raised as both. But I guess to other people it’s a concept they just can’t wrap their mind around. I feel really blessed that I’ve had this opportunity, and I’ve learned both, and I feel comfortable in both religions. And I don’t feel pressure at all to choose.

 

SKM: How has learning two religions influenced your outlook on the world in general?

JG: The biggest way that IFFP influenced me was making me more open to other faiths but also open to thinking about religion critically, but with an open heart. I got interested in studying the Middle East and learning Arabic in college, and studied abroad in Egypt. Then the first thing I did after college was go to work for a place called Search for Common Ground, and they did interfaith journalism, trying to promote intercultural and interreligious understanding in the Middle East. Then I went to live and work in Morocco for a few years.

All of that came out of wanting to explore my faith, being open to otherness, and knowing that by understanding somebody else and where someone else is coming from, you can’t go to war with them. That’s how we’re going to build a better world is by building connections between people. And I think being interfaith was the beginning of that belief.

GL: In terms of what IFFP has given me, and my outlook on the world, it’s certainly been a much more open-minded view on things. Because I grew up interfaith, and having both these lenses and perspectives, and feeling labeled “other” by both Christian and Jewish communities–by the Jewish community especially because my mom’s not Jewish, I’m “not a real Jew” according to a lot of Jewish communities–so there’s a rejection from both of these formal systems. And so I feel like my perspective on things is, however you want to practice your religion is your prerogative. The one challenge I had is that because my mom’s Protestant, I wasn’t exposed to formal Catholicism. My husband grew up very Catholic. To me it was a big shock, but because I had the interfaith background it was much easier for me to understand where they were coming from, and even see the similarities between Catholicism and Judaism in terms of ritual. So having an interfaith education has been very helpful in terms of my own interfaith relationship, moving forward as an adult.

 

SKM: What would you say to clergy who still resist the idea of interfaith education for interfaith children?

GL: It makes me a little bit angry, to be honest. It feels pretty close-minded, and it feels like they’re rejecting a lot of potential people who are seeking out community, and seeking out their communities in particular, who want to be practicing these elements of their faith. It’s a large contributor as to why young people or millennials are rejecting formal institutions of religion, because it feels so institutionalized and so rigid. You don’t have the freedom to develop the curriculum that you want, or is best for your family. It’s something that I’m so eternally grateful for IFFP for. My family helped shape the curriculum for my religious education. And for myself as a teenager, I was able to help lead the High Holy Day services and create that service with the teen group and help dictate what my religious expression would look like. Having a community that supported that, having the support of a minister and a rabbi fostering that kind of environment, was something you don’t find other places.

JG: At this wedding I was just at, I went up to talk to the rabbi, who was my college Hillel rabbi. And he was talking about the need for programming for students from interfaith families. And then he said he still doesn’t do interfaith marriages. I was offended. It’s like you’re extending one hand, but saying I don’t really want to be your friend. When you look at someone like him–he’s in his late 60s–how do you get someone who’s entrenched in something their whole lives to say they’re going to change now, when they’ve been doing something one way. I think it will be up to the next generation of clergy now to be the ones that will help lead any movement for inclusivity, in churches or synagogues.

 

SKM: How do you imagine raising your own kids someday, in terms of religion?

GL: I would seek out a community like IFFP, or one where people feel like they have the liberty to create the curriculum. The most important thing to me is having a community that is not rejecting my children for having this interfaith background. I want them to be able to learn both sides. It gets even trickier: my religious upbringing is Protestant and Jewish, but my husband was raised Catholic. So it adds a tri-level to it, almost like three different things. It’s something that I’m certainly going to be very intentional about, and I want to make sure they understand where all of these traditions come from, whether it’s mom’s family, dad’s family, grandma’s family. I think a lot of that revolves around community and how you choose to celebrate and who you choose to celebrate with. And that all family members are included in understanding how we’re going to do this. I feel confident enough in my understanding of my own religious background and identity, because of IFFP, to understand that I want to expose them to everything, but also to understand that my future children’s religious identity is theirs. It belongs to them, and it does not belong to me. So I can teach them what I want, my husband can teach them what he wants, but ultimately it’s in their hands to choose, if they want to choose, that’s fine, if they don’t, that’s also great. It’s a personal choice. All I can really do is equip them with the tools to feel like they’re empowered in their own decision-making.

JG: I think it will really depend on who the partner is and what their family’s like. If I were to marry another Jewish person, I could totally see raising my kids Jewish. If I were to marry a Christian, I would then certainly promote something that was interfaith, and then would have to try to not just be the Jewish person in the family, but also be someone who is interfaith.

KC: The most important part of IFFP beyond learning both religions, is having a community. That’s something I want my children to have. It’s a community that I feel super comfortable in, that supports me. I feel like that’s something that every child needs–religious leaders to look up to and a community backing them. So whomever I marry and whatever happens, I definitely think they need a very accepting community.

JG: But that’s what’s so hard, is that you have to find that community. When you’re just a family wandering in the world, let’s say you’re not in DC and you have to strike out on your own and figure out how you’re going to do this. I think it would be really hard to be interfaith by yourself, if there wasn’t a community. So those families either try something in their own home, and they still just go to synagogue and they go to church. I think it would be hard to build a new community. I think we got really lucky that we had the six moms (founders of IFFP).

 

Question from the audience: Why do you think it is so common for interfaith kids to seek out Hillel, but not necessarily Christian community, at college?

GL: A lot of it was being identified as a Jew by other non-Jews and Jews, and also because it felt like a minority group on campus. So the Christian part of my upbringing was just there, everyone was bringing little Christmas trees into their dorm rooms. Also, in terms of the Christian groups on campus, it was like Campus Crusade for Christ, which was not something I was down with politically, and they weren’t the most welcoming people.

Eventually I went to Hillel because I missed the family traditions—matzoh ball soup on Passover, or apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah, whereas I didn’t feel like the Christian traditions were being neglected. I went to Hillel for High Holy Days and Passover, but I didn’t go every week, even though they had free food. It wasn’t my scene: they were a lot more Jewish than I felt like I was, and I wanted to celebrate other things. But one of my best friends in college was Jewish, and we made a point of having a Passover seder at my house, and a Hanukkah party, and inviting all of our friends, not just Jewish people. We explained how it works, we lit the menorah, we read limited sections of the Haggadah. It was something I felt equipped to create on my own. When you’re comfortable with your friends and your community, then you’re going to be comfortable sharing these experiences. Who doesn’t want to eat latkes?

SKM: In my book I point out a logistical reason for interfaith kids seeking out Jewish community on campus, which is that you arrive on campus your first year, and right away, it’s the High Holidays. So you’re without your family, and you have to find Jewish community if you want to mark those days. Whereas Christmas happens during school vacation.

JG: And that’s exactly what happened with me. I was at Hillel within weeks of going to school.

 

Question from the audience: We’ve been talking about holidays, education, identity. Does spirituality, or God, play a role in all this?

GL: I feel the spiritual aspect of religion is something I’m much more in tune with than the formal part of it, the dogma. I don’t know if God exists. Everything is God’s creation, so I don’t want to label what is God. I get upset when people try to put me in a box or put other people in a box about religion. It’s incredibly personal, and I think it will continue to evolve throughout my life. That’s why having an incredibly inclusive and warm and open-hearted community that allows that kind of growth over time, for an individual or between a couple or within a family, is what is the most important part to me.

 

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 @beingboth.

 

Three New Year’s Resolutions: Interfaith Mom

Entering the New Year, wearing the glittering, particoloured hat of an interfaith mom, I have three main goals for 2012:

1) Gracefully release my first child into the world. My daughter’s about to turn 18; she will leave for college this year. I have spent much of the past few months interviewing college students and young adults who graduated from interfaith education programs like ours, as part of the research for my book. I am examining the role religion plays in their lives once they are outside the protective bubble of an independent interfaith community. As she leaves our family, and, effectively, leaves the Interfaith Families Project in which she has been raised, I give my daughter this advice: continue to study and explore religion, deepening your knowledge, seeking the forms of spirituality that work best for you. Take advantage of the opportunities provided on campus to connect with both sides of your religious heritage. But also, feel empowered to create an independent space on campus for interfaith children to come together and support each other: to replicate in miniature the interfaith community that nurtured you. And also, feel empowered to explain the particular skills and experience you bring, as someone raised in an interfaith community, to interfaith dialogue and interfaith activism efforts such as the campus-based Interfaith Youth Core.

2) Figure out what an interfaith community will mean to me in my “post-mom” phase. I still have a son just starting high school, but he has finished his formal Sunday School training in our interfaith community. So far, I find that even without children in the program, I continue to be drawn to our community on Sunday mornings–to the songs and reflections, to the chance to celebrate joys and mourn losses together, to the deep friendships I have made in our thriving community, to the lively adult discussion group, and to the tempting yoga class our community provides.

3) Finish the book! This fall, I recorded dozens of final interviews with interfaith parents, interfaith children, and clergy working with interfaith families. Over the next six months, I will wrestle this new material, and my hundreds of survey responses from interfaith parents and children, into a book with the working title, The Joy of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Family. I cannot wait to bring you these new voices and stories from the emerging movement of interfaith families raising children with two religions. Next year, inshallah, the book will reach your bookstore and your e-reader, thanks to Beacon Press.

Want to help? I am still seeking to interview more families raising children in two religions other than the Jewish/Christian combination (i.e. Muslim/Protestant, Buddhist/Jewish, Pagan/UU, Hindu/humanist, etc.). Please contact me at susan@onbeingboth.com.

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.

Are Interfaith Children the Key to Interfaith Dialogue?

 

I would never have had the chutzpah (a word famously mispronounced by Michele Bachmann this week) to posit that interfaith children are actually THE key to interfaith dialogue. This week, I wrote an essay for Huffington Post and gave it the more modest title  “Why Include Interfaith Children in Interfaith Dialogue.” I made the case that interfaith families, and in particular, adult interfaith children, are “natural experts” in bridging cultures and religions, and that it would benefit the interfaith dialogue movement to reach out to interfaith families, rather than avoiding them. Huffington Post then tweeted a link to my essay, asking if interfaith children are the key to interfaith dialogue. Who knows? We won’t know into they are invited to participate. It’s certainly a grand vision. But my more modest point was to urge the organizers of interfaith conferences and programs to at least begin to include, rather than fear, interfaith families and children.

I have written before about the awkward semantic overlap of “interfaith families” and “interfaith dialogue,” and the way the word “interfaith” describes two independent concepts. But are they so different, really? On Huffington this week, I gave in to the classic bridge-building urge of many interfaith children, and attempted to span the gap between the interfaith families movement and the interfaith dialogue movement.

After posting to Huffington, I had an email conversation with religion (emeritus) professor Ned Rosenbaum, co-author (with wife Mary Helene Rosenbaum) of the seminal Celebrating Our Differences: Living Two Faiths in One Marriage. He has also noticed the uneasy relationship between interfaith dialogue and interfaith families. He describes the speakers at many interfaith dialogue conferences as like “parallel lines in Euclidean geometry, never meeting.” And adds,  “If they ever wanted to see what happens when interfaith paths cross like strands of DNA” he and Mary are available. And so are the adult interfaith children who embody those intertwined strands.

Half-Jewish, Half-Christian, Raised Both: Baseball’s Sam Fuld

In the current issue of The New Yorker, eloquent sportswriter Ben McGrath profiles Tampa Bay’s superstar outfielder Sam Fuld, an acrobatic mensch with an unusual background. A Stanford grad raised by a state senator and an academic, a role model for kids with diabetes, and a statistics geek, Fuld has been described in multiple media outlets as Jewish. Bloggers gleefully claim him for fantasy “Jewish baseball” rosters, just as they have claimed many interfaith ballplayers in the past, including Ryan Braun, Mike Lieberthal, Ian Kinsler and Lou Boudreau (who was raised Christian, for Pete’s sake). The preponderance of Jewish(ish) ballplayers who are interfaith children probably reflects the simple demographic reality of increasing interfaith marriage (though it is tempting to theorize about hybrid vigor). Meanwhile, try to imagine if Christians had the chutzpah to “root for their team” in this context and claim these players for Christianity: it would be unseemly, even shocking. Judaism, as the spunky underdog, has the fan advantage.

Nevertheless, I wish high-profile interfaith children actually raised with both religions would dare to be more “out” and proud, that they would stand up and be counted, and help explain to the world the benefits of growing up interfaith. Instead, interfaith athletes and celebrities are often given special dispensation, and counted as Jews in situations in which interfaith children would be excluded.

For those of us who are “patrilinial half-Jews,” the irony of celebrity interfaith children lauded as Jews, no matter which parent was Jewish, no matter how they were raised, feels surreal. It reminds me of the hilariously transgressive “Racial Draft” skit by comedian Dave Chappelle, a must-see for anyone (over 18) interested in identity politics. I do understand and appreciate the effort to be more inclusive, to welcome any and all interfaith children who choose to identify as Jews. But the double-standard, when so much of the Jewish world denies the Judaism of non-celebrity interfaith children, is clear. Milwaukee outfielder Ryan Braun’s non-Jewish mother called this out, saying, “Ryan is proud that people want to claim him now, but where were they before?” She added, “You know how that stuff works.” Yes, I do.

In our increasingly diverse world, we must allow people to define their own identities. Here’s what Sam Fuld told The New Yorker about his religious upbringing: “I feel like I’m almost letting some people down when I tell them, ‘Well, my mom’s Catholic, and I was kind of raised celebrating both.'” He may be letting down those who want to claim him for the Jewish team. But as a fellow interfaith child, here is what I would like to say to Sam Fuld:

You aren’t letting down your fellow interfaith children, you are making us proud.

You aren’t alone. A growing cohort of interfaith children are being raised with both religions. Your parents chose a valid path for interfaith families: each pathway has specific benefits and challenges.

Don’t let others define you. You are not defined only by your Jewish fraction. Define yourself as interfaith if that’s who you are, and be proud of that identity.

Your mom and dad are equally important. You can claim both sides of your heritage.

If you want to explore your interfaith identity, in a neutral space, I invite you to guest blog at “On Being Both.” Speak out! Join us! 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Passover, Easter, Oy! Interfaith debate on HuffPost…

Yesterday, my debut column went up on Huffington Post.  The debate in the comment section has been lively, to say the least, with disgruntled atheists, disgruntled Christians, disgruntled Jews, and disgruntled Pagans all weighing in. It is hard to encompass, in a single post, the entire philosophy of interfaith families communities. At Huffington Post, I will continue over time to present my perspective as a member of an interfaith community, as an interfaith child, and as an interfaith parent who has chosen to educate my children about two religions. Please join the conversation there! At the same time, no worries, I will continue to post at On Being Both.

The most urgent need is explaining to the world, again and again, that we are not attempting to mix two religions together, but to recognize and celebrate the differences. I think the terms “Interfaith Passover” and “Interfaith Easter” cue assumptions that we are creating mash-up celebrations, even though I stated otherwise. I explained this most recently, here, in my “Interfaith Purim” post. Purim is Purim. Passover is Passover. Easter is Easter. We celebrate these holidays together as an interfaith community, because we are a community, and because the experience of celebrating together as interfaith families is powerful. But the liturgy, the traditions, the contents of the celebrations may well be more traditional than you would find in some “monofaith” communities.

Please read my Passover and Easter post at HuffPost, and join me in explaining why we do what we do: become my HuffPost “fan,” click “like” on the article, and most importantly, post a comment and join the discussion there. To engender greater acceptance, we need to stick our necks out of the happy interfaith bubble we have created, and engage with the world at large.

 

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