Year of the Beet: A New (Vegan) Passover Chapter

This week is all about making plans to honor the Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, Buddhist, and atheist connections in my extended three-generation interfaith family, during Passover and Easter week.

For me, that’s nothing new. What’s new this year is making sure there are vegan options for the Passover seder and Easter dinner, for my daughter and her boyfriend. She converted him (to veganism) during Veganuary this year. (And I learned the hard way to say Veganuary with a hard “g”). The vegan shift this year is a reminder that families are complex, identities and practices change over time, and love continues to leap across boundaries.

First, the good news. Charoset is vegan! Horseradish is vegan! Parsley is vegan! Matzah is vegan! And there are multiple recipes out there for vegan versions of the other dishes that feel most important to our family at the seder: matzah ball soup, and chocolate toffee matzah for dessert. Also, shifting in this direction aligns with something I have felt for years, which is that serving meat and potatoes after all the traditional appetizers is, well, just too much food. I’d rather feast on the foods unique to Passover—as much charoset as I want, as many matzah balls as I want–and then skip straight to the chocolate toffee matzoh. So that’s what we’re doing, people.

Because in this, the first year without my father, our Jewish patriarch, I am leading a seder in my own home. I would rather travel hundreds of miles to have my father at the head of the table, as he was last year when he was 93. But instead, here I am, bereft, an orphan. Now I am the oldest sibling in the oldest generation of our family.

It’s not my first seder as a leader. My husband and I spent six years in Senegal and Brazil, far from family, and had to lead our own seders–except for one delightful year when the U.S. Ambassador to Senegal and his Jewish wife hosted, and we got invited to an embassy seder of Jews and Christians celebrating in a predominantly Muslim country. I am grateful for the richness and complexity of our lives so far, and for the long generations in my family, and for all of the traditions we are passing down to our young adult children, and for all the new ideas they are passing back up to us.

And so we will celebrate this week, with nostalgia and con brio, with poetry and social justice, with family and friends, with old rituals and new. This year, I feel emboldened to create and innovate and expand the welcome, by honoring the vegans, and using a roasted beet instead of a shank bone on the seder plate, even though my father (who was resistant to change) would not have approved. Because religious practice is inherently metaphorical, and those metaphors shift over time in response to the community context and deeper understanding of all the beings who share our globe. And because, after a lifetime as a daughter, I am now the senior Jewish person in charge. And so, for Passover 2019, we embrace the beet.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of The Interfaith Family Journal (2019), and Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2013). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Being Both: 5th Birthday!

Being Both box of books

 

Five years ago today, Beacon Press published Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family. For me, that publication day was the culmination of three generations of experience in my interfaith family. And it was the moment when I took a stand, after a lifetime of hearing that interfaith families are problematic, for a more objective journalistic and academic treatment of the benefits and challenges of being an interfaith family. I also hoped to shift the interfaith family narrative away from straight white Jewish/Christian couples choosing one religion, to encompass the kaleidoscopic interfaith family reality of many religions, many family configurations, and many interfaith family choices.

Today Show, Sue Hoda Ben Kathie
With Kathie Lee, Hoda, and my teenage son.

These five years have been exhilarating, and at times magical. Being Both made it to The Today Show, The New York Times, NPR, CBS, Time, Salon, and over 100 other media outlets including newspapers, blogs, and podcasts. I was invited to speak about my work at the venerable American Academy of Religion, the Parliament of the World’s Religions, as a keynote speaker at the Unitarian-Universalist General Assembly, at colleges and universities, to groups of rabbis, and at seminaries.

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I am so grateful to all of you who continue to buy the book, talk about it with friends and family, write online reviews, and invite me to speak and give workshops. As a result of your support, I believe that Being Both has made a difference in how religious institutions and clergy view interfaith families, and in how we as interfaith families think about ourselves.

Another goal, in writing Being Both, was to help spur a whole new interfaith family literature, making space for the voices of people from Muslim/Christian and Hindu/Sikh and Pagan/atheist families. Together, we are doing that. And Being Both is now cited in academic literature, and taught in universities and seminaries, helping to build a field of serious scholarship around the topics of interfaith families, multiple religious practice, and complex religious identities.

Meanwhile, a steady stream of interfaith couples and families began seeking me out as a consultant or coach. So, I founded the Network of Interfaith Family Groups (NIFG) on facebook, to help families celebrating more than one religion to find each other in regions across the country, and to meet up, or even form new interfaith family communities. And I helped to inspire a lively and growing Muslim/Christian interfaith family facebook group.

IFJ CoverEventually, I realized that I could not personally meet with every interfaith family, and that in order to help more interfaith couples and families, I needed to write another book. The Interfaith Family Journal (coming this March from Skinner House) is for any interfaith couple or family, living anywhere, with any two or more religions in the family tree. This workbook, filled with interactive exercises and creative activities, takes couples or families through a five-week process to help them figure out how to amplify the joys of being an interfaith family, and surf through the challenges with confidence.

I read once that five years is the perfect spacing between siblings, because each child gets the full attention of the parents. And we know that each child has unique needs and gifts. I think of Being Both as a lively and challenging child, filled with what my Jewish father would call chutzpah, and what my Protestant mother would have called “animal high spirits.” It’s a book that is hard to ignore, full of ideas and stories, daring to claim space in academia and in religious institutions for families celebrating more than one religion.

In contrast, I think of The Interfaith Family Journal as a highly sensitive and introverted child: observing, asking gentle but profound questions, reflecting back. Rather than staking out academic territory, the Journal is entirely devoted to meeting the needs of interfaith families who are desperately seeking an objective framework for moving forward, a practical resource based on my decades of experience.

And while this newborn Journal will be, in some sense, a younger sibling, it has a broader and more universal goal. It will serve the whole wide world of interfaith families, including any and all religions, single parents, adoptive parents, LGBTQ people in interfaith families, intercultural/interracial interfaith families, those who want to choose one religion, those who want to teach their children many religions, and religious nones.

Often, folks ask me, “What’s your next book about?”

This book, and the next, and the next, will be about interfaith families. I have an entire library of interfaith family books in my head, clamoring to be written. The interfaith family is my life’s work–the work I was born to do–and I intend to bring you as many of those books as I possibly can.

 

Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of The Interfaith Family Journal, and Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family.

Coming Soon: A New Book for Interfaith Families

Frozen Pine Needles
Photo by Susan Katz Miller

 

It has been a freezing winter, with everything cased in ice, still waiting for a thaw. Meanwhile, my longtime followers may have noticed that my blog has been in hibernation. After almost a decade of posting, and more than 300 essays on the topic of interfaith families, I have been sluggish in writing new material here. Instead, I curled up in my den, trying to keep warm through seasons of family grief, and dark times for the country, and the planet.

But now spring is on the way. And, while hibernating, I have been gestating a new book for interfaith families. Now that I have submitted the manuscript, and the sun is returning, and grief is receding, I will return to posting more often here. In the meantime, you can always find my curated links for interfaith families on my facebook author page, and on twitter.

The percentage of interfaith families continues to grow, and there is still a serious lack of informed and impartial books and resources by, for, and about us. Before 2018 ends, if all goes according to plan, my new book will reach you, providing support and inspiration for all interfaith families, whether Protestant and atheist, Muslim and Jewish, Hindu and Unitarian-Universalist, Pagan and Catholic. And I am already booking a new round of speaking engagements and workshops for next fall and winter, so that we can continue these conversations in person. So, stay in touch here for more details, as we awake, stretch, and stumble out into the spring light together.

 

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is a speaker and consultant on interfaith families, interfaith education, and interfaith peacemaking. Her book Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available from Beacon Press.

Children’s Books, Interfaith Education

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Photo, Susan Katz Miller

 

How do we educate interfaith children about the various religions in the family tree? These days, a child may have a Jewish father, Hindu mother, Buddhist uncle, and Christian step-grandparent. Such children benefit deeply from understanding the religions they encounter at home and at family gatherings. And many interfaith parents are on the lookout for supportive tools for interfaith education.

PJ Library, a program providing free Jewish children’s books, turns out to be a great educational resource for any family with Jewish heritage. Created by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation in 2005, PJ Library has now delivered more than 10 million free Jewish children’s books to homes in the US and Canada, with 88 new book titles each year. And a survey of PJ Library subscribers, released in May of this year, found that 42% of the families in the program had a family member who did not grow up Jewish. “I think it’s a very welcoming program,” explains Foundation president Winnie Sandler Grinspoon. “The books we select and the reading guides that are part of the book flap are accessible to any family.”

The PJ Library survey sought to measure, among other things, the Jewish engagement of subscribers. The first marker of engagement was whether a family is raising children as either “Jewish or Jewish and something else.” The second marker was whether parents “believe it is very important that their children identify as all or partially Jewish.”

It is encouraging that a major Jewish funder such as PJ Library understands that families providing interfaith education to interfaith children are engaged with Judaism. The program does not screen out families based on how they should engage with Judaism, or whether or not they are exclusively or “authentically” Jewish. PJ Library’s approach is inclusive, and I hope that other Jewish funders and institutions will begin to appreciate that many of the families providing interfaith education to interfaith children are serious about engaging with Judaism, even if this engagement is not exclusive.

 

But I was also curious about how many interfaith family subscribers identify as Jewish only, and how many identify as “Jewish and…” So I asked, and PJ Library went back to their survey data and provided me with this rather stunning breakdown: 50 percent of interfaith families in the survey were raising children “Jewish and something else,” while 45 percent were raising children Jewish only.

 

So, fully half of the interfaith families surveyed were raising kids “doing both.” This is important for a number of reasons. For one, Pew Research in 2013 found 25% raising kids “Jewish and…” So the question is why, just four years later, PJ Library found double that percentage. One reason could be a large increase in interfaith families choosing interfaith education. Another reason could be that families choosing interfaith education are finding their way in large numbers to the very welcoming PJ Library program in order to access Jewish content for their children. And this, in turn, may be related to the fact that some other Jewish institutions (notably, many synagogues) exclude children who are “doing both.” I suspect all of these factors may be contributing to the large number of “Jewish and” families subscribing to PJ Library.

 

In order to better understanding how and why the program works for families raising kids “Jewish and something else,” I spoke to two locals mothers who subscribe to PJ Library. Lis Maring is Jewish, and her husband was raised Lutheran. They are educating their boys, ages 8 and 13, in both religions as members of the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington DC. The Maring family has spent time in India, and their shelves include books on Christmas and Easter, but also on Hindu deities.

Lis Maring signed up for PJ Library several years ago, and says she “highly recommends” the program. Both the Jewish and the Christian grandparents have enjoyed reading the books to the boys. Says Lis, “The books call attention to Jewish holidays I might not be paying attention to, and that helps me. They’re always fun and engaging stories. And they often have a social justice theme to them.”

Lindsay Bartley was raised Episcopalian, and her husband is Jewish. They have two boys, ages three and one, and are also raising them with both religions. They have been PJ Library subscribers for nine months now. “What I like is that when you go to stores, it’s easy to find Christian holiday books. It’s mainstream. But Jewish books are harder to find,” says Lindsay. “If we didn’t get the PJ Library books, we would definitely have more Christian books.”

A handful of PJ Library books have featured interfaith families. But both Lis and Lindsay note that they are seeking Jewish content from the program, not affirmation of their family choices. They are not concerned with seeing more interfaith families represented in the books, as long as the spirit of the program is inclusive. “I have generally been impressed that the books are not judging or telling you that there’s only one way,” says Lindsay.

PJ Library’s Sandler Grinspoon makes clear that they are happy to send books to “being both” families. “This entire program is for interfaith families, and non-interfaith families, whether it’s the exclusive religion in the home or not” she says. “If your family is looking for tools, and you’re going to present Judaism to your children, whether it’s the only thing you teach them or part of what you teach them, then this is a very easy tool.”

Meanwhile, interfaith parents teaching religions beyond Judaism and Christianity will need to consult librarians or booksellers, and check out #WeNeedDiverseBooks on twitter or Pinterest. Bharat Babies, a children’s book subscription service on Indian culture including both Hindu and Muslim topics, was inspired in part by PJ Library. And Noor Kids creates books on Islam for subscribers. Such programs may well thrive and proliferate as millennial parents, many of them unaffiliated with traditional religious institutions, continue to seek out tools for interfaith education.

 

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is a speaker and consultant on interfaith education for interfaith families. Her book Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available from Beacon Press.

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Being Both: Catch the Interfaith Tour in PA, CT, CA, VA, DC

Susan Katz Miller at Politics & Prose, StephanieWilliamsImages
Susan Katz Miller at Politics & Prose, StephanieWilliamsImages

The Being Both book tour is ramping up again, just in time for Passover and Easter. You can help by forwarding this post to friends and family near Easton PA, Greenwich CT, Silicon Valley, San Francisco, Charlottesville VA and Washington DC.

First up will be Lafayette College in Easton, PA on March 6th. I’ll be giving a new talk tailored for college campuses, drawing on interviews with college students from interfaith families, and emphasizing the extraordinary religious complexity, fluidity and flexibility in this generation. I will also advocate for young people from interfaith families to take leadership roles in interfaith dialogue and activism on campus. Facebook event page here. I’m currently booking college campus speaking engagements (as well as church, synagogue, and library talks) for next fall, when the paperback of Being Both should come out, so contact me now if you are interested.

Next, I am excited to be speaking at the historic Bush-Holley House in Cos Cob, CT on March 13th, for an Interfaith Conversation with a wine and cheese reception, sponsored by the Greenwich JCC, Jewish Family Services of Greenwich, and the Jewish Book Council. Required reservation and RSVP here.

Then, California here I come. First stop will be at the Silicon Valley JCC on March 19th, for an event titled, “Two Religions, One Family, a Million Questions.” I’ll be appearing with authors Rabbi Michal Woll and Jon Sweeney (a Jewish and Catholic couple). Please purchase tickets here. This event, and the Greenwich event, are part of my year as a Jewish Book Council Network Author.

The next night, join me at the “Bay Area’s Liveliest Bookstore,” the marvelous Book Passage in Marin County, at March 20th at 7pm, followed by wine and cheese. Facebook event page here. This is my only appearance on this trip in the Bay Area, but I hope to return next year. Contact me if you want to schedule an event for the next California trip!

After northern California, I will nip down to LA to visit a certain beloved college student, and also to visit classes at Claremont School of Theology. (Contact me if you want to sponsor another event in LA between March 22nd and March 26th.)

Later in the spring, I’m planning events at the Berkeley Center at Georgetown University on April 3rd, at the University of Virginia on April 9th, and at the MLK branch of the DC Public Library on May 7th. Stay tuned for more…

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

“Partly Jewish”: The Study, and the Book

A box full of Being Both books arrives on my porch.
A box full of Being Both books arrives on my porch.

You may be wondering what I thought of the new national study from Pew, entitled “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” which found 25% of intermarried Jewish parents raising children “partly Jewish and partly in another religion.” In short, I was not surprised. In researching Being Both, I found data on many individual cities (including Chicago, San Diego and Philadelphia) where 25% or more of such parents are raising kids with two religions. The Pew study confirms that our grassroots movement is important on a national scale. And now, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family will provide the first glimpse of the first generation of teens and young adults to grow up in dual-faith education programs.

Meanwhile, the publication day for Being Both is just two weeks away, and the first big box of books just arrived on my porch. As I make final preparations for the book tour, you can help spread the word by posting the Facebook event pages for the readings at Politics & Prose in Washington, and at Barnes and Noble on the Upper West Side in New York. I’ll be continuing on to Boston, Connecticut and California. Stay tuned for more book tour stops, coming soon.

Here’s how the American Library Association’s Booklist, a resource for librarians, described Being Both last week:

Beginning with the story of her family of origin, Miller surveys the burgeoning phenomenon of families who observe two religious faiths. Her Jewish father married an Episcopalian…So began a multigenerational interfaith reality, which Susan continued as another Jew married to a Christian, this time in a ceremony that honored both religions. Four years later, the couple joined the Interfaith Families Project (IFFP) of Washington, D.C., whose mission is to raise member families’ children as Jewish and Christian. From the members, clergy, and teachers of IFFP and similar organizations elsewhere, Miller gathered the stories of how these families successfully raised children who are happily interfaith and intend to raise interfaith children themselves. Miller concludes this fine resource with a look at the next wave of, this time, Christian-Muslim and Christian-Hindu interfaith families.

Being Both: Arrival and Book Tour

Being Both book

The first hardbound copy of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family just arrived at my door. I immediately unwrapped the dust jacket to peek at the lovely naked book inside: gold lettering on a burgundy cloth spine. Early reviews also celebrate the birth of the book, from Kirkus (“An insightful examination of one way that religious beliefs are shaping American families”) to Booklist. If you pre-ordered a copy, it should ship to you on the official publication date, just five weeks from now, on October 22.

My dream is that the book will inspire a national conversation around the fact that many interfaith families are choosing both religions. This year, I will travel the country to reveal my findings and to hear your interfaith family stories–at bookstores, college campuses, seminaries, churches, synagogues, community centers, and interfaith groups. I hope to meet you, my blog readers, at some of these book launch events (for event updates, go to my author website, susankatzmiller.com):

Washington DC, Sunday October 27 at 5pm, Hometown book-launch, at Politics & Prose

New York, NY, Wednesday October 30 at 7pm, Barnes & Noble (82nd & Broadway)

Kensington, MD, Sunday November 10 at 10am, Interfaith Gathering followed by book talk, Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington

Brookline MA, Wednesday November 13 at 7pm, Brookline Booksmith

Weston MA, Thursday November 14 at 7pm. Book talk with refreshments, limited to the first 100 people to RSVP, co-sponsored by the venerable Weston-Wayland Interfaith Action Group (WWIAG), Weston Library

Cambridge MA, Sunday November 17 at 1pm, in conversation with fellow Beacon Press author Chris Stedman, author of Faithiest, memoir of an atheist and interfaith activist. At the new Humanist Hub, at the Humanist Community at Harvard

Greenwich CT, Thursday March 13 at 7pm, at the Jewish Community Center without walls, JCC Greenwich

Los Gatos CA, Wednesday March 19 at 7pm, panel on “Two Religions, One Family, a Million Questions,” with the authors of Mixed-Up Love, a memoir co-written by a rabbi and a Catholic writer, raising a Jewish child. Addison-Penzak JCC, Silicon Valley ($7 for non-members)

Corte Madera CA, Thursday March 20 at 7pm, Book talk and reception, Book Passage (Marin County)

(At all of these events, books will be available for purchase and signing. Contact Travis Dagenais at TDagenais@beacon.org to set up a new event near you. Media and bloggers, contact Travis for a review copy.)

For the hundreds of families who contributed to this book, through survey responses and long interviews, this is the moment to celebrate–and to stand up and explain the joy of being both to the rest of the world. And for those who are curious (or uncomfortable or upset) about the idea of educating interfaith children in two faiths, this is the moment to engage in the conversation. Why are parents making this controversial choice? And how do children feel about it? I look forward to lively discussions on these questions, with all of you.

(For more book news, follow me on Twitter @beingboth, or Facebook).