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.
I have come to realize that one of the most important Hanukkah traditions in my multi-generational interfaith family is, box latkes. Yes, the latkes made from the mix in the little box from Manischewitz. For me, checking the date on a box lost in the back of the cupboard, tearing open the packets, breathing in the cloud of onion powder that rises up when you dump the packets in the bowl, feeling the little potato starch granules thicken as you stir, these are all Proustian moments.
How did this come to be our way? Here we must pause to imagine my Episcopalian mother, raising four Jewish kids in the 1960s. This was before food processors. Her Jewish mother-in-law lived many states away. So there was really no one around to insist that my mother do things the hard way, with grated knuckles bleeding into the potatoes.
My mother was a great cook. But, often left on her own with four kids and a dog while my father traveled the world on business, she was eager to try the highly-processed products of that era. We ate Manwich Sloppy Joes, and Hamburger Helper, and utterly egregious Libbyland TV dinners with purple “pirate powder” to stir into your milk.
And then, there’s the matter of the matzoh ball analogy. I imagine my mother thinking, “Everyone makes matzoh balls from those little boxes, and that’s considered kosher, so why can’t I make latkes that way too?” A novice mistake, but she stuck with it, even when Cuisinart came on the scene. Because, to be honest, my brothers and sister and I clamored for those box latkes!
My mother died last year. Now, thinking about the love that inspired her to even attempt to make latkes for a family of six makes me ache for her. Who would begrudge my mother this shortcut, when she was putting her own religion aside and devoting herself to raising four, count them four, Jewish children. I give her credit for making latkes at all, because the truth is, even when you use the mix, the endless frying in small batches is a pain in the tuchus. A single hungry child can eat every single latke you make as soon as they come out of the pan, until the batter is gone.
The first time I attempted to wean myself off making box latkes, the heap of grated potatoes turned alarming colors, because it took me so long to grate them that they oxidized. Those rainbow latkes were exceedingly ugly–my family was afraid to eat them. I also discovered that making sure the potato strings are no longer raw, without burning the latke to a crisp, is an art that takes practice.
I think a few years went by before I dared to get back on the grater to try again. But eventually, I got the hang of it. These days, I usually grate potatoes for latkes at least once during Hanukkah. I have even mastered hip contemporary variations, such as Sweet Potato Ginger Latkes. Everyone in my family–Jews and Christians and Buddhists and those who claim both religions or none–loves a latke made from scratch with the lacy golden brown edges.
But the truth is, in my family, we also stand by those fluffy box latkes, and crave this taste of home. Last year at Hanukkah, just after my mother died, with winter closing in around my raw grief and the brightness of the holidays refracted through the pain of loss, I’m not sure I made latkes at all. But this year, I stocked up on those little boxes. I will tear the packets, stir the mix, and eat the latkes, in her memory.
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.
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.
The topic: “Is Intermarriage a Problem or an Opportunity?”
Where to start? Let’s start with the sample.The Forward published answers from 22 rabbis, and half of them are Orthodox. Only two are Reform. According to Pew Research (2013), 10% of American Jews claim Orthodox affiliation, and 35% Reform (by far the largest denomination). As I read through the first five rabbinic responses, all of them Orthodox or Conservative, my mind was blown as I noted each rabbinic affiliation. Why would The Forward skew the sample so radically away from the reality of the American Jewish landscape?
Next, there’s that word, intermarriage. This is not a word used by most people in interfaith families to describe themselves. Among the 72% of American Jews who are neither Orthodox nor Conservative, you are rarely going to hear anyone call themselves “intermarried.” Less than a year ago, The Forward published my piece, “Four Reasons We Should Stop Calling People Intermarried.” I hope more of the rabbis in this Roundtable will read it, and talk with real life interfaith families about how they feel about this term.
Also problematic: giving the rabbis a stark choice of “problem, or opportunity.” I don’t experience my family as a problem, or as an opportunity for the Jewish community (or any other community). Interfaith family members are taking leadership roles in religious communities across the spectrum, and we may be your best hope for understanding and engaging with the unaffiliated. But we don’t experience our families from the perspective of Jewish market share. We see our interfaith families as embodying and celebrating boundary-busting ritual and liturgical creativity, and spiritual inspiration, and interfaith bridge-building, and cross-cultural peacemaking.
And finally, I must speak to the corrosive content of many of the rabbinic responses. In today’s Roundtable, rabbis call interfaith marriage “a sin,” “tragic,” a way “for Jews who are not interested in Judaism to leave,” something we “must work harder to combat,” and the “high price for acceptance” that is leading to Judaism being “hugged and kissed to death.” Of course, many of these rabbis, even some of the Conservative and Orthodox ones, also spoke to the importance of trying to be more welcoming and inclusive. Unfortunately, the extreme bias in the survey sample in this case means that interfaith families will feel neither welcome nor included after browsing through these Roundtable opinions. Today’s piece in The Forward badly misrepresents the experiences of interfaith families, and minimizes the important reality of shifting rabbinic opinions on our existence.
September means back to school. The last of the tomatoes, and the first pumpkins. Cooler nights. The angle of the autumn light. And for many families celebrating Judaism, a scramble to figure out how to celebrate the High Holy Days.
The New Year of 5778 in the Hebrew calendar starts at sundown on September 20th this year. That means that the High Holy Days start with Rosh Hashanah on the evening of September 20th. And the Days of Awe always conclude ten days later with Yom Kippur, which starts this year with the Kol Nidre service on the evening of September 29th.
Fall sends many interfaith families in search of a spiritual home. For those who want to give children a (not necessarily exclusive) Jewish education and identity, at least two different options now exist in many places. Jewish communities have become more inclusive and welcoming to interfaith families. And at the same time, a growing proportion of interfaith families are seeking out communities to support them in celebrating both family religions.
What you will not find in these Jewish interfaith family programs is the support and advice of Christian clergy (with one notable exception, that I’m aware of, in NYC), or education for children about Christianity. And partly in response to these limitations, intentional, independent interfaith communities began to grow in many cities across the country in the 1980s, built by families with a desire to provide literacy in both religions for children, and spiritual support for both spouses.
The High Holy Day services these interfaith communities provide, or the Jewish services they attend as a group, are not a mixture of the two religions. They are traditional services, chosen or designed to be as welcoming and inclusive as possible, and celebrated by interfaith families together as a group sharing profound respect for both religions.
In New York, intermarried couples first designed their own High Holy Day services led by interfaith families in Manhattan in the 1980s. Today, families from the Interfaith Community chapters throughout the New York metropolitan area, including New Jersey and Long Island, gather to celebrate together, both at their own events, and with local Jewish communities.
In Chicago, Jewish and Catholic families have been teaching children both religions since 1993. Chicagoland families from the Interfaith Family School downtown, and the suburban interfaith families from the Interfaith Union, attend services together at local synagogues for the High Holy Days.
Meanwhile, families from IFFP in DC who moved to Philadelphia started their own interfaith families community, to teach both religions, years ago now. You can join them for their 9th annual Rosh Hashanah apple-picking event this year. Growing up, my Reform Jewish family always went apple-picking around Rosh Hashanah: it’s a lovely tradition!
But what if you live in Seattle, or Nashville, or anyplace that does not yet have an intentional interfaith families community? Start by reading my tips on how to get started with Rosh Hashanah at home, and with finding and creating a community of your own. Then, join the Network of Interfaith Family Groups, designed to support families celebrating any two (or more) family religions, and to help you to find other such families in your area. Already, we have a group that is coalescing in Atlanta
Each fall provides a new chance to connect with other interfaith families, to begin religious education for your children, to discover or rediscover the beauty of the Jewish holidays. As the days grow shorter, return, renew, rejoice in the many options for interfaith families.
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.
As someone who has been labeled a “first class disrupter,” I was of course immediately attracted to the chutzpah of a book entitled, simply, Jew. Published recently as part of the Rutgers University Press series “Key Words in Jewish Studies,” this slim volume by Cynthia M. Baker, a Religious Studies professor at Bates College, is dense with insight, nuance, and helpful frameworks for thinking about the complex histories and meanings of the word Jew, and more broadly, the complex histories and meanings of religion. Jew is not an easy read for the non-academic–I was grateful for my years living with semiotics majors in college, and my acquaintance with the ideas of Foucault and Derrida. But it is an essential read for anyone wrestling with contemporary Jewish ideas about identity, and that includes all of us in interfaith families with Jewish connections.
Faced as we are with an increase in public anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and racist acts in the current political climate, Baker’s elegant analysis of the word Jew (she chooses to italicize it and I will do the same) feels especially timely. Baker traces the evolution of the word through Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Aramaic. She illuminates how the term Jew was central to the “historical creation of Christian identity and worldview.” She delineates how Jew is often synonymous with “the other,” and has only recently been reclaimed as a (“fraught”) self-referential term of pride. She deconstructs the false binary of Jewish-by-religion versus Jewish-by-ethnicity, embedded in colonial and patriarchal Christian theologies. And she tackles the subtle differentiation of Jew and Jewish.
Baker writes of how the identity of Jew inhabits a space where “belonging and alienation, longing and being hover in a delicate–and sometimes indelicate–balance.” And she writes of the “dissolution of standard dichotomies–including us/them, homeland/diaspora, religious/secular, masculine/feminine, even Jew/Gentile…” This space, this balance, this dissolution, will feel profoundly familiar to those of us in interfaith families choosing interfaith education for ourselves and our children.
In her final chapter, entitled “New Jews: A View From the New World,” Baker cites Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family. I am grateful that she acknowledged the significance of the 25% of Jewish parents in interfaith marriages raising children with both family religions. However, she goes on to offset the (mainly positive) experiences documented through surveys of hundreds of parents and children in Being Both, with a single anecdote meant to convey the “often-painful challenges” of embodying multiple identities. For this counter-example, she chooses an individual who is transgender, and whose parents became Orthodox. It hardly seems fair to critique the idea of interfaith education for interfaith children while layering on the complexities of conversion, fundamentalist religious practice, and gender identity. Nevertheless, I am glad we are included in the shade of Baker’s very big tent for this book. And I hope she will return to a deeper investigation of multiple religious practice in interfaith families–of who we are, where we are going, and what it all means.