Jews of Color. A New Study.

Depiction of complex identities, created for the new Jews of Color Initiative study

Yesterday, the Jews of Color Initiative released an important new study: “Beyond the Count: Perspectives and Lived Experiences of Jews of Color.” Most media coverage of the report is focusing on how the study documents the discrimination experienced by Jews of Color in Jewish settings. I fully support the recommendations made in the report, intended to galvanize American Jewish communities.

Inevitably, I read this new report from my perspective as a white person who grew up in an interfaith family, and as someone who works to make space for people who honor multiple religious heritages. For twenty years, I have been researching, writing about, and publishing the voices of people from interfaith families, many of whom are also from intercultural and interracial families. And from that perspective, I make some recommendations here for further research.

The study is based on a survey of 1,118 Jews of Color, plus 61 in-depth interviews, and is filled with important quantitative and qualitative data. The study was conducted by a notably diverse set of researchers–the labels they claim include Black, Chicano, Asian, Sephardic, neurodivergent, trans, queer, atheist, and millennial. As such, and as a study that asked Jews of Color to speak to their own experiences, this study documents with unprecedented depth and sensitivity the experiences of Jews of Color (a contested term, as described by both the researchers and respondents).

The study also documents, and yet mentions only briefly and obliquely, and even erases, the interfaithness of the experience of some Jews of Color growing up in interfaith families, and the importance of other religions and forms of spirituality in their lives. Since the study itself provides little commentary on these findings, I wanted to highlight those findings here and ask some questions important for further exploration.

  • 42% of the respondents have only one Jewish parent. What was the religion of the other parent? What importance did that religion have to the respondent in childhood, and today?
  • 16% of the respondents said they were raised “Jewish and something else.” What religion was the “something else”? What did this interfaith childhood look like? Did they attend church or mosque and synagogue? Attend two religious education programs? Celebrate two sets of holidays in the home?
  • 21% said they identify as Jewish and “one or more other religions.” Which religions? How many of those people were raised with both parental religions, and still identify with both? How many began to identify with the other religion in their heritage only in adulthood, and why? How many added a new religion or religions, different from those in their ancestry, to their Judaism in adulthood?
  • 6% of the mothers of respondents, and 7% of their fathers, were raised “Jewish and something else.” How many of these respondents with parents raised both, were raised both themselves? What does this say about the reality of multigenerational interfaith families? What does it say about the persistence of the idea of educating interfaith children about both family religions?

The report is strengthened by dozens of quotes from those who were surveyed or interviewed. The quotes mention a Bollywood-themed Shabbat, Japanese foods used in a Havdalah ritual, Senegalese-based practices, and having multiple racial and cultural identities. But nowhere do the 42% of respondents with a parent of another religion, or the 21% who identify today with more than one religion, actually name or explain the importance of those other religions (with the exception of one mention of earth-based indigenous practice). It is striking that nowhere is Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, or Islam even named.

I understand that work funded by Jewish philanthopists, and often motivated by engaging more people in Judaism, inevitably centers the Jewish perspective. This study demonstrates how important that work is to help Jewish institutions understand how to affirm and engage with the diversity of Jews today. And I do understand why Jewish networks had to be used to find the respondents and those who were interviewed, even though this means the study does not represent all people of color with Jewish heritage.

But to fully understand the intersectional experience of people with interfaith heritage (including many Jews of Color) will require going further. Researchers need to ask for and listen to the stories of how the spirituality and culture of Buddhist, Quaker, Latino Catholic, Black Protestant, Greek Orthodox, Pagan, African diasporic, Unitarian-Universalist or Native American parents and ancestors have also been formative in the lives of Jews of Color, and more generally, Jews from interfaith families. We need to make space for the stories of how these family members and ancestors of other religions may have been important, even in the lives of those who now identify “exclusively” as Jewish.

Understanding the full complexity of the religious identities of Jews of Color also requires a willingness to name the other religions practiced by those who are current multiple religious practitioners. The reluctance to mention any religion other than Judaism will not erase these religions from these families, or from intersectional identities. And finally, coming to a better understanding of people of color with Jewish heritage will require reaching those who no longer identify with Judaism and were not asked to, or would not, fill out this survey. That task may seem difficult, but neither are we are free to avoid it.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families consultant and the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2013), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019).

We Count. We Just Weren’t Counted.

More on Pew’s Jewish Americans in 2020

For generations, interfaith families who felt excluded, misunderstood, or disrespected by Jewish clergy or institutions, have found other homes. Some gravitated to Unitarian-Universalism, which draws on many religions. Some added Buddhism, or Sufism, or Paganism, to their spiritual practice. And for more than a quarter of a century now, interfaith families have been building their own dual-practice communities in which to honor both Judaism and Christianity.

But very few of these people with complex religious practices (and I have studied hundreds of them) stopped practicing Judaism altogether, or stopped calling themselves Jews.

The irony is that Jews who did stop practicing Judaism altogether are considered Jewish in the new Pew study of Jewish Americans in 2020, as long as they don’t claim a second religion. But if you claim two religions, you forfeit your right to have Pew consider you part of the Jewish community. They excluded 200,000 adults who filled out the survey but claim Judaism and another religion.

This approach is not going to help draw interfaith families closer to Jewish institutions or communities. The Pew study betrays a failure to understand the fluid and non-binary religious complexity of Jews today—of our families, our practices, our identities, our affiliations. And that failure contributes to a misunderstanding of the overall size and diversity of the Jewish community.

A lot has been written about interfaith families in this Pew study already, including by me. But in the weeks since the study was released, I have continued mulling it over, or stewing really, trying to figure out why I feel the study does not capture the American Judaism I know and love. And I have come to the realization that those 200,000 Jews who were actually tallied and then excluded by Pew are only a small fraction of those who were excluded. And that is because many of us never would have finished the survey.

Let me explain.

Imagine you are Jewish and Buddhist, or Jewish and Wiccan, or Jewish and married to a Quaker and giving your children an interfaith education. In short, imagine you are a Jew who is a multiple religious practitioner, or raising multiple religious practitioners. (There is an entire academic literature on multiple religious belonging. I have been the keynote speaker at an international conference on the topic).

Now, imagine sitting down to fill out the Pew survey online, and being faced by a barrage of questions about how you feel about Israel, a country that does not allow interfaith marriage, or allow interfaith couples to be buried together, or accept patrinileal Jews as Jews, or accept Reform conversions. Or, imagine your answer to the religious identity question is, “It’s complicated,” for any number of reasons. In section A on the survey, one third of the questions are about Israel. In section B, half of the questions (or eight questions) mention Israel. Oh, and then in section G, there are “a few questions” on Israel.

Personally, I would have clicked away long before section G. I would not have completed the survey. And neither would a lot of the Jews I know who are raising interfaith kids. And neither would many of the young Jewish activists for Palestinian rights. (Of the people who did complete the Pew survey and qualified to count as Jews, less than half said they feel attached to Israel). The Jewishness we are creating together does not depend on Israel as an identity marker.

Any institution that is trying to understand my Jewishness, while putting that amount of emphasis on a country that doesn’t accept me as a Jew, and while excluding Jews who practice Buddhism or Wicca, is not ready to understand my Jewishness. And, any such institution is not ready to understand the Jewishness of a significant percentage of young progressive Jews in America. They are not ready to understand that virtually all of us in the non-Orthodox Jewish world in America now have extended interfaith families, filled with a kaleidoscope of Jewish practices, identities, and affiliations. And whether or not you choose to count us, we are taking the demographic lead.

How can we fix this?

Honestly, to get better data, data that describes the realities of young progressive Jews in America, and their almost universally interfaith families, we have to wait for new funders to fund new studies. We need studies without the patriarchal “continuity” narrative, and without loyalty to Israel dominating the questions. To fund these new studies, we have to wait for generational or self-made wealth from progressive adult interfaith kids, and from those who are themselves Jewish and Buddhist, or Jewish and Unitarian, or Jewish and Quaker. Or just Jewish, and just insistent on human rights for Palestinians. We are waiting for investment in this inspirational future–a future with all of us who claim Judaism, together creating a path forward for our complex selves, and for our complex families, and for this beautiful and ancient religion.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families consultant and the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2013), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019).

Jewish Americans (and Interfaith Families) in 2020

Trying to survey the Jewish community is an important, and thankless, task.

Today, Pew Research released their first national study of the Jewish American landscape since 2013. Every assumption, every question, every result, will be scrutinized and debated for years to come.

For interfaith families, there is not really a whole lot that is new to report. In fact, more intriguing and detailed data and analysis has been released elsewhere recently. But I’ll get to that in a moment.

From the point of view of interfaith families, it is important to remember that virtually all studies of interfaith families and the Jewish community, including this Pew report, are funded by Jewish foundations or institutions. So the framework is built on the concerns and questions of institutional Judaism in America. As a result, there are a lot of questions that will feel archaic or beside-the-point to a lot of young American Jews, and to a lot of interfaith families. There’s a lot about relationships to Israel. There’s a lot about participating in traditional Jewish ritual and membership. There are gendered analyses about the role of the mother and the father.

Some two dozen rabbis are thanked in the Pew report acknowledgements, including those notorious for opposing interfaith marriage. It all feels fraught, and weighed down, with traditional Jewish continuity narratives, given how mixed a multitude we are now.

What does this mean for interfaith families? Many of us were excluded from the study. Pew classified people as Jewish, Jewish background, or Jewish affinity, with the bulk of the study focused only on those deemed “Jewish.” Pew created a complex set of rules based on parentage, upbringing, and current identity, for deciding which category to put each person.

  • Regardless of their Jewish parentage or Jewish upbringing, anyone who claimed to be both Jewish and Buddhist, or Jewish and Unitarian-Universalist, or Jewish and Pagan, or Jewish and any other religion, was excluded from counting as Jewish, and from the body of this study.
  • Someone who claims Jewish cultural identity but no religious identity, and has only one Jewish grandparent, was counted as Jewish if they were raised Jewish.
  • Someone who claims Jewish cultural identity but no religious identity, and has only one Jewish grandparent, but was not raised Jewish, was counted only as having Jewish affinity.

Pew did include in their overall Jewish population what they estimate are 200,000 children being raised in Judaism and another religion. However, they excluded an estimated 200,000 adults who identify as Jewish and another religion. Pew’s explanation: “This accounts for the uncertainty inherent in projecting how children will identify when they grow up; some children who are raised as Jewish and another religion go on to identify, in adulthood, solely as Jewish.”

Pew cautions us not to compare this year’s study directly with their last study of Jews in America in 2013. In part this is because they have shifted their sampling from phone calls, to written and online responses. It is not immediately clear to me why the percentage of interfaith couples raising children with more than one religion would have gone down from 25% in 2013 to 12% in 2020. I suspect this has something to do with the increasing number of multi-generational interfaith families being excluded from the “Jewish” category.

What I do know is that the 12% figure does not align with my experience as someone who works full-time supporting interfaith families, nor does it align with recent individual community studies. Anecdotally, one group of Reform rabbis told me that about 50% of the interfaith couples they are now marrying want to “do both.” And recently, I was contacted by two Reform rabbis to speak to a group of interfaith couples, after the rabbis discovered that all of the couples in their group were intending to “do both.”

Even though they are funded by Jewish communities, some recent studies of specific regions align more closely than today’s Pew study with my experience of the growing awareness that you can, indeed, give interfaith children an interfaith education.

In Toronto, 44% of interfaith couples with one Jewish parent are raising kids “with two religious heritages” (as opposed to 39% raising kids exclusively Jewish), according to a 2020 report. This detailed report on interfaith families in Toronto appears to have drawn heavily on my work, revealing texture and nuance, and I will return to it in another post.

Another survey done last year in the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts (including Amherst and Northampton), found 46% of interfaith couples with one Jewish parent are raising kids “Jewish and another religion,” (as opposed to 33% raising them exclusively Jewish by religion).  And in Minnesota’s Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St Paul), a 2019 study found 34% of interfaith couples with one Jewish parent raising children with two religions, while 16% were raising them exclusively Jewish by religion. Not surprisingly, studies (many older) of the big cities in the East with many deep-rooted Jewish institutions found smaller percentages (many of them 11-18%) of interfaith families “doing both.”

Later this week, the new Pew report will be analyzed by Jewish interfaith family professionals in an online briefing. I intend to listen to that session, and hope to report back here on anything new or noteworthy. Stay tuned.

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.

Marking One Year in the Pandemic

Hope Springs, 2021. Photo, Susan Katz Miller

In the last moment I remember from the beforetimes, I was sitting in our beautiful local art deco movie palace, one year ago this week. I was attending a fundraiser for the radio station that hosts a show I helped to create, Interfaith-Ish. The event featured a screening of a film about Fela, the iconic Nigerian musician, followed by cocktails and a DJ playing African music. I was anxious in the crowd, scanning my phone for covid-19 news updates. I knew this was a liminal moment. Everyone was on edge, whispering. No one was dancing, despite the great music.

I went home, and considered the emerging virus from the point of view of my understanding based on years as a science reporter for Newsweek and New Scientist. In those years, I interviewed Dr. Tony Fauci on a regular basis on the search for an HIV/AIDS vaccine, before he was a household name. In the intervening decades, I had often given a comic spin to the story of Dr. Fauci returning my call one night, after work hours, and how I had to interview him while simultaneously breastfeeding a fussy baby.

So exactly one year ago today, drawing on that background knowledge, I created a protocol for my household that included no visitors in my house, no restaurant meals, no eating or drinking in groups, no movies or concerts or weddings or funerals. Friends mocked me at first, but then, in time, most of them followed suit. The world closed in on us that week, and we have not yet emerged. My protocol remains in place.

Interfaith family communities, of course, like all communities in the US, have suffered this year. We have suffered deaths from covid, deaths without proper ritual and the ability to grieve together, disability from long-haul covid, widespread and deepening depression, the suicides of young people, the brutal isolation of the elderly, job loss, hunger, the collapse of businesses, and the exacerbation of systemic inequality in a time of resource shortage.

I have felt privileged this year, relatively safe in my lockdown, since I can write from home. The truth is that my most persistent suffering has been from boredom and frustration. But isolation takes a toll on everyone. For the first time in my life, I went through a year without seeing any of my three siblings. There was no Thanksgiving, Christmas, Passover, or Easter with any of my nieces or nephews. I did not get to attend my uncle’s funeral. I’m approaching my second covid birthday, a big one, and it will be restrained and constrained.

Yes, there have been silver linings, very pale silver linings, without much sparkle or shine. Interfaith families have found each other online, have been able to visit each other’s communities for the first time, sparking new ideas and new online groups. We have all learned some new skills for entertaining ourselves in isolation, new strategies for soothing anxiety, new appreciation for all the things we long to do, the people we long to see, when we finally reach the aftertimes.

All three of my younger siblings and both my young adult children have now been vaccinated, but not me. As a writer, I have been deemed the least essential member of my family. As the alpha, I find this comic, and I laugh a dark little laugh. Another humbling experience in this pandemic year. While I wait, I have gained weight. My greying hair curls long for the first time in decades. My pandemic puppy has grown up wild as a wolf, barely groomed, barely trained, suspicious of anyone who approaches. I am trying to stay still, stay safe, stay patient, and stay grounded enough to keep writing. I have no profound lessons to report. I am still here. Apparently, so are you. That is all.

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 Zoom Life in Pandemic Times

I have always loved February. My parents had their interfaith wedding in a blizzard on February 13th. So I love the deep February snow when it comes. And I love the chocolate hearts, since the first day for my parents as a married interfaith couple was Valentine’s Day, a day devoted to love. During the six years of my life when I lived on the equator in Senegal and Brazil, I missed the snow (and Valentine’s Day). But in the Brazil years, the joy of Carnaval in February was the highlight of the cultural calendar, and a peak life experience for me, creating a new layer of love for February.

This year, February feels grey and icy cold indeed, as our isolation from each other goes on, and on. We are marking our first pandemic February, closing in on a full year living with masks, and distancing, and the loss of almost 2.5 million lives to COVID-19 worldwide (and almost half a million lives in the US). All of us are mourning. All of us are traumatized. And I wonder at times whether it is relevant, or appropriate, to carry on with my work making space for interfaith families and interfaith identities, or any other kind of “non-essential” work.

But the light is returning, more people are getting vaccinated, and we have hope that we will emerge eventually into a new normal. The story of my parents teaches me that love, combined with persistence and empathy, is essential. And so, I still get joy from supporting interfaith couples and families. So here is an update on what I’ve been up to during these pandemic times.

My work with interfaith families now takes place entirely on zoom, podcasts, telephone, and the internet, which has created the ability to support people anywhere, in any time zone. I have acted as a resource this year for undergraduate students, graduate students, and divinity students, all studying interfaith families, on several countries. This gives me great hope that there will be more academic literature soon, telling the diverse stories of interfaith families, across the globe.

I can zoom into religious studies classrooms anywhere now, without the travel expense. I am honored to be the guest this week, talking about interfaith families and interfaith identities, on Array of Faith. I am interviewed on this podcast by J. Dana Trent, who wrote The Saffron Cross, a book describing her own Christian and Hindu interfaith marriage. Now she has taken pandemic classroom guests to the next level. For the students in her Introduction to World Religions course, she and her husband created the Array of Faith podcast to host speakers with various religious identities.

And in honor of Valentine’s Day this week, I was invited back to State of Belief, the long-running radio show hosted by Rev. Welton Gaddy and the Interfaith Alliance. You can hear me there this week, chatting about interfaith love, interfaith families, and what has changed since I last appeared on the show eight years ago. Welton hosts the show from Monroe, Louisiana, which is one of the towns my rabbi great-grandfather served as he made his way up and down the Mississippi in the 19th century.

Another highlight of my professional year in the pandemic was a zoom keynote at The Guibord Center in LA, in conjunction with an expert on mixed race families, in which we addressed the intersection of these two rich and complex worlds. There is a significant overlap of interfaith families, interracial families, and LGBTQ+ families, and I hope to engage more with these synergies, going forward.

Meanwhile, the support networks I created online have become a refuge, where we can engage with each other without masks or fear of contagion. For interfaith families practicing two religions (any two or more religions or secular identities), join the private Network of Interfaith Family Groups (NIFG) on facebook. And for adult interfaith kids, I recently started up the People of Interfaith Family Heritage private group on facebook. More on that project soon!

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.

Happy Birthday, Interfaith Family Journal

We are living through strange, dark times. To keep anxiety and depression at bay, we need to remember what is good in the world, and to celebrate what we can, while we can, with those we love most. We also need to feel we can help others.

Today is the first birthday of The Interfaith Family Journal . I like to think that this little book is still in its infancy–that it is just starting to make its mark on the world. The Journal is just beginning to help couples, families, clergy and therapists across the county and the globe. I hope that every minister and rabbi and imam, every friend asked to officiate a wedding, every family and couples therapist, every worried parent and in-law, will discover the power of the Journal to help people figure out their own unique way to honor family traditions.

In the fall, if the world returns to some semblance of normalcy, I have an exciting line-up of speaking events. I’ll be keynoting at a Multiple Religious Belonging Conference in England, sponsored by the University of Birmingham and the Woodbrooke Quaker Study Center. I’ll be keynoting at a conference in Pasadena CA. And I will continue speaking at synagogues and churches, and for interfaith dialogue groups, including in Massachusetts, and Maryland.

In the meantime, if you are staying away from large gatherings at the moment, consider inviting a group to get on Skype or Zoom (clergy friends, therapist friends, book club, parents with adult children getting married, or young partners or parents). I would be glad to appear by the miracle of the internet and do a Q&A with people whether or not they are quarantined! For a group appearance, I ask only for a receipt for sale of ten books.

If you need to engage with your hands and try to turn off your worrying mind, download the free interfaith coloring pages I commissioned for my website in conjunction with the launch of the Journal. If you have children who will be home with you for weeks, they might enjoy coloring with you, or on their own. And the designs (by artist friend Emily Ettlinger) are crafted to spark conversations about religious, spiritual, and secular symbols and ways of thinking about the world.

Drawing by Emily Ettlinger

And if the Journal, has been helpful to you, and you have a moment right now, please help spread the word by posting a review on Amazon or Goodreads. And request that your local bookstore stock the Journal . This is tremendously helpful in reaching the people who would most benefit from this book.

Finally, even when the world seems frightening, we can still get pleasure, and spread peace and understanding, by speaking to each other about our traditions and beliefs, and listening to each other as we share the wisdom of our families, our histories, our cultures. Now is the time to make a quiet space to untangle thorny interactions with your partner. Now is the time to call a great-aunt or mother-in-law and ask them to tell you family stories about their heritage or culture.

I wrote The Interfaith Family Journal  to help us all to move in this direction, to see and hear each other more deeply, as we move through uncertain times.

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.

Book Review: Darius the Great is Not Okay

We need to listen to the voices of kids from all sorts of interfaith families, not just Jewish and Christian families. Darius the Great is Not Okay, by Adib Khorram, is a poignant, lyrical, hilarious novel, with an unforgettable protagonist from a complex interfaith family. This award-winning 2018 Young Adult (YA) novel stars Darius Kellner, an American teenager who happens to have a Persian-American Zoroastrian mother, and a European-American secular humanist father. The novel centers on a summer when Darius goes for an extended visit with his grandparents in Iran. While there, he meets a boy who happens to be Baha’i.

Darius may seem, on some levels, like a universal YA protagonist: awkward, insecure, and struggling with the feeling that he is disappointing his parents. He’s a nerd who loves Star Trek and Tolkien, and hates gym class. As the plot progresses, he faces some of his demons and bullies, comes to understand his flawed parents better, and grows into a more confident young man.

But this coming-of-age narrative stands out for multiple reasons. The author, who himself experienced clinical depression as a teen, creates a nuanced portrait of a teen with inherited depression who benefits from anti-depressants. His depiction of Darius as he begins to realize he is attracted to another young man is subtle and poetic. And the exploration of Iranian religions and culture is compelling, especially to those of us who are religious history nerds.

Most relevant here, Darius will fascinate anyone who is an interfaith kid. The novel, while absolutely unique, echoes some of the themes of previous YA books with protagonists from interfaith families, going all the way back to Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret (1970), up through the more recent books My Basmati Bar Mitzvah, and Mira in the Present Tense and including the brand new All American Muslim Girl. But the closest parallel may be found in prize-winning poet Naomi Shihab Nye’s Habibi. As in Darius, the protagonist of Habibi is a US-born teen with one European-American parent and one immigrant parent, who goes abroad to stay with grandparents, explores cultural and religious heritage, and makes a close friend of another religion. (In the case of Habibi, a teenage girl goes to stay with her Palestinian Muslim grandmother, and meets a nice Jewish boy).

Whether we grow up in Jewish/Christian, Muslim/Christian, or Zoroastrian/atheist families, interfaith kids share some common experiences. Darius describes himself as a “Fractional Persian.” He worries about whether he is Persian enough. He wonders whether he has the right to claim a Persian identity in Iran while feeling marked by his Persian identity back in the U.S. And he feels cut off from claiming Zoroastrianism because it is patrilinial (a barrier familiar to interfaith kids from other religions with gender-based inheritance traditions, including Judaism and Islam).

Darius also expresses a longing for unity across religious boundaries, and an attraction to learning about religious history, qualities many interfaith kids in my research share. He fondly notes the social solidarity of Persians in exile, who “celebrated Nowruz and Chaharshanbeh Suri together in big parties, Baha’is and Muslims and Jews and Christians and Zoroastrians…” And while in Iran, he speaks to the beauty of the muezzin’s call to prayer, the wonder of the Assyrian statues in Persepolis, and the power of the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence. Darius may identify with his father’s secular humanism, but he is also deeply engaged with his own complex religious heritage, and the religious landscape around him.

Last month, news broke that Darius the Great is Not Okay will become a film. And fans are eagerly awaiting a sequel novel due out in the fall: Darius the Great Deserves Better. A lot of the excitement around the sequel has focused on Darius’s coming out journey (Korram tweeted that one of the titles they considered for the sequel was Darius the Great is Not Straight). But I hope the film, and the sequel, also make space for Darius to contemplate his complex spiritual and cultural identity, as part of an extended interfaith family.

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.

Halloween in an Interfaith Families Community

Halloween is the quintessential interfaith holiday, with both pagan and Christian roots, and an enthusiastic following among Jews. When I was growing up, no one questioned that American Jews (or people of any other religion) should celebrate Halloween. But then again, it was an era when many Jews celebrated secular Christmas.

More recently, fear of assimilation and a shift among some progressive Jews to more traditional practice triggered a lively debate on whether or not Jews should celebrate Halloween at all. In my interfaith family, and and in our interfaith families community, our thirst for full educational disclosure drives us to explore the religious origins and meaning of the holiday, rather than staying on the secularized, commercial surface. And thinking about the history of this interfaith holiday, and even developing a specifically Jewish perspective on Halloween, enlivens and enriches the holiday, and imbues it with special resonance for me, as part of an interfaith family.If you’re wondering how this works, here is a description of our interfaith family community’s celebration back in 2009, the year I created this blog. The Spiritual Leader of the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington, Reverend Julia Jarvis, stood in front of the hundreds of members of our community on Sunday morning and explained the pagan origins of Halloween, and how a Roman Pope encouraged the incorporation of this pre-Christian festival into the Catholic calendar, and the distinctions between All Saints and All Souls Days. A Catholic member of our group, married to a Jew, recounted with wise humor how praying to Saint Gerard, patron saint of motherhood, gave her comfort and strength when she was facing infertility.

Next, our Spiritual Advisor, Rabbi Harold White, stepped up to give a Jewish perspective on All Souls and All Saints. He made the distinction between the Christian veneration of dead saints, and the mystical Jewish tradition of the 36 righteous people (Lamed Vav Tzadikim), akin to living Jewish saints, who walk the earth in each era. He also compared the restless souls of Halloween to the dybukkim of Jewish folklore: I imagine the Christian and Jewish spirits roaming together among the living, neither of them able to settle into their graves.

Then our folk band lead us in singing  Mi Sheberach, a prayer of healing, while community members placed rocks into a bowl in remembrance of their personal saints, or loved ones who struggle or are gone from us. This is a ritual our community adapted from Unitarian congregations, but by singing a traditional Hebrew prayer, we both comfort our Jewish members with a familiar song and help to create a connection in our children to Jewish practice.

So what did our interfaith community take away from our All Saints and All Souls gathering? The sizable contingent of adult atheists and secularists in our community enjoyed the cerebral and historical perspective. The practicing Catholics appreciated recognition of the spiritual side of these holidays, so often overshadowed by pumpkins and chocolate. Children heard an affectionate reflection on saints from a Catholic parent. They learned from our rabbi that this is a Christian holiday, but that Jews can have a respectful and appreciative perspective on it. And they learned about the Jewish tradition of the 36 righteous, and about dybbukim.

We mourned and provided comfort to each other as a community. And then, to emphasize the continuity of life even in the face of death, the band struck up a rowdy rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Community members leapt into the aisle and joined hands to dance in a line that wove around the room: it was a joyful interfaith hora, New Orleans style. My 12-year-old son darted from his place in the band and joined the dancers, playing a djembe strapped to his chest. I am betting that he will remember that there is more to Halloween than candy, and that he will feel in his bones that belonging to an interfaith community can be both a cerebral and ecstatic experience.

This essay is adapted from an essay on this blog from November 3, 2009.

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).

Interfaith Families, Beyond Chrismukkah

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Just before my son’s interfaith Coming of Age and Bar Mitzvah, I got a request from a graduate student who wanted to attend the ceremony as part of her ethnographic field work. My first reaction was, “no way.” As a journalist and a control freak, I am wary of being the subject. And I wanted to stay focused on this intimate family celebration, and not have to worry about being misunderstood. But in the end, I relented. The desire to educate won out over the desire to control my family’s narrative. And so, eight years later, Samira Mehta describes that ceremony in her new book, Beyond Chrismukkah: The Christian-Jewish Interfaith Family in the United States.

It is satisfying to feel seen and heard, as academics begin to acknowledge the rich complexity of interfaith families inside and outside of traditional religious communities. Mehta, now an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Albright College, provides an important historical framework for analyzing the choices made by interfaith families, from the 1960s to the present. (It’s a great complement to Erika Seamon’s Interfaith Marriage in America: The Transformation of Religion and Christianity). And she creates the most thorough and insightful academic analysis, so far, of those of us choosing to celebrate more than one family religion and culture. This is a book that all interfaith families, and those who love us, and those who study us, will need to read.

Samira Mehta and I have been in an extended professional conversation on these topics ever since that Bar Mitzvah, eight years ago. So this is not a standard book review, but rather an essay in response to Beyond Chrismukkah. Perhaps more objectively, Publishers Weekly called Mehta’s analysis “thorough and impressive.” They did quibble about a dearth of stories from actual interfaith couples. But here, I want to quibble with that quibble. Plenty of books (including my own) have told stories of interfaith couples. This book is valuable primarily for providing historical context and academic analysis, shedding new light on the family stories told in previous books.

The opening chapter of the book traces Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic institutional responses to interfaith marriage from the 1960s through the 1980s, decades when those institutions often worked to try to prevent interfaith marriage. (Both the rabbi who refused to marry my parents, and the rabbi who did marry them, are mentioned as playing key roles in this history). Also, Mehta’s close analysis of interfaith families in popular culture through the 20th century—in television, theater, films and children’s literature—illuminates when and why and how these families struggled for acceptance in our culture.

Beyond Chrismukkah does include several detailed stories of individual interfaith families. So, in a chapter on how race and ethnicity intersect with religion in interfaith families raising Jewish children, Mehta portrays two interfaith families—one with a black parent, one with a Latino parent. And then she makes the keen observation that the Jewish community more readily accepts incorporation of Christian elements in interfaith family practice when the Christian partner is a person of color (and thus seen as having an important minority culture of their own), as opposed to a Christian partner seen as a member of the dominant white culture.

Four additional detailed family stories illustrate four different ways that interfaith families are resisting the expectation to choose one religious affiliation, and raising children “partially Jewish,” (this is the Jewish survey terminology, not mine or Mehta’s). Mehta did extensive interviews with a family that is unaffiliated but incorporates home-based Jewish and Christian traditions, a family affiliated as Unitarian-Universalist but incorporates Judaism in that practice, a family that has separate dual affiliations in both a Jewish and in a Mormon community, and a family (my family!) that affiliates with an intentional interfaith community providing Jewish and Christian education to interfaith children. “Rather than finding such families unmoored from religious practice and moral formation,” writes Mehta, she found they “often developed a cohesive family narrative or sense of why they were together as a family beyond denominational constraints.”

As Mehta points out, (and as I have pointed out), much of the research on interfaith families has been funded by Jewish institutions, and thus has not been objective. In contrast, Mehta, as a scholar, “starts from an assumption that the religious lives and realities of the interfaith families themselves are as important as the official policies of their religious organizations toward such families.” This is indeed refreshing. And yet, this book still skews Jewish. Mehta includes two full chapters devoted to interfaith families raising children “only” Jewish, and hardly mentions interfaith families raising children Christian. At least in North America, Jewish institutional fears have largely driven the interfaith families narrative, and Mehta’s work still reflects that reality.

Nevertheless, the arrival of Beyond Chrismukkah signals that more objective academic exploration of interfaith families and complex religious identities has finally begun. Alongside a handful of new books studying “multiple religious practice,” (including Duane Bidwell’s upcoming book), Mehta’s work marks a new willingness to listen to the voices of those with complex religious lives. For, as she concludes, without grappling with “the many ways that those families live out their lives and with the hybrid identities that they create, it is no longer possible to understand religion in American.”

 

Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family.

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).