My interfaith family had a hybrid seder this year. We had screens connecting us across five states. My adult children, in masks, sat distanced from us at a long table on our front porch. My audio jack failed. Everyone was zooming in and out trying to read the text in screenshare. People kibbitzed about what I cut from the powerpoint Haggadah. It was imperfect in almost every way.
But also satisfying, and beautiful.
And I fervently hope we never have to do it this way again.
Dayenu cultivates gratitude, reminding us of all we have to be thankful for, even after ten plagues, or a pandemic. So here we are, a year later, after so much loss, grief, illness, isolation, depression, stress, and anxiety. And yet, we are thankful. So, to mark this second pandemic Passover, I updated my personal Dayenu, my song of gratitude in this season:
And I have to admit, this little interactive book has brought me nothing but joy. It brings me joy to help interfaith couples find their best pathways. But also, with this second book, I feel lighter. I do not stress as much as I did about the people, and institutions, opposing interfaith marriage. My focus is entirely on the people I am supporting and inspiring, helping them to see how you can claim joy in your interfaith family.
So, I was determined to have fun with this book. And that started with making my own book trailer, with a rock and roll soundtrack from my kid’s band:
And then when the pandemic hit, I decided to make a video featuring the coloring pages I commissioned for my website, in conjunction with the release of the book. (Again, I was lucky to have a musician kid to create an original soundtrack for me).
Just in the last few months, I’ve had joyous new experiences, including giving a keynote at an academic conference on multiple religious belonging in England (on zoom), sharing a keynote slot with an expert on multiracial families (on zoom), and giving a dvar (a reflection on a Torah reading) at a zoom Shabbat with the Wandering Jews of Astoria. And tomorrow, I will speak on a panel at an event in England with Jewish and Muslim women telling their interfaith family stories.
This has been a terrible year for humanity.
But the very idea of interfaith families continues to bring me joy.
And it brings me joy that this little book continues to bring joy to more of those families.
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.
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.
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!
Does anyone else feel like these final days of 2020 are moving in slow motion?
We’re “on vacation” with nowhere to go, no one to see. The psychopathic demagogue in the White House is using every final moment of 2020 to wreak more havoc. The pandemic continues to roar through like a tidal wave, and lifeboat vaccines seem to sweep out of reach. Honestly, it is hard to focus on interfaith families (or anything). Though of course family, any family, every family, remains crucial in this time of unbearable stress and trauma.
So this was not a year for big accomplishments, unless you work in medicine or public health, or you are a teacher who managed to transition successfully to working online, or entirely outdoors. Myself, well, I sure did a lot of jigsaw puzzles–a “mindless pleasure” my family likes to indulge on vacation together, but something I had never let myself do alone at home before. Finding a missing piece, fitting the pieces together, is a balm now, and a meditative practice, and I see no reason to deny myself the hours of “unproductive” puzzling.
But I also feel I owe it to my readers to look back on this year as it ends, and think about how interfaith families are weathering this moment in history, a topic I wrote about here, and then here and here and here. What else? I gave some keynotesand talks that were supposed to be in person, on zoom instead–others got postponed.
Especially, to be perfectly honest, the jigsaw puzzles!
After blogging for more than a decade, I took some months off, but then found a lot of energy for writing short reports and essays in the final weeks of the year. Since it launched in 2009, this blog has been visited by over 195,000 people, with over 366,000 views, and 382 essays on interfaith families.
My top posts in 2020 had nothing to do with the pandemic, and may surprise you:
The Interfaith Family of Kamala Harris. This was the feel-good story we all needed in 2020. An interfaith kid raised with both Christian and Hindu traditions grows up and marries a Jewish man, and goes to the White House! Surely this example of what I call an interfaith trifecta family will help to normalize the beauty of our complex, rich, multireligious heritages and extended families, going forward. While many in the Jewish (and South Asian) press wrote about Harris’s interfaith family from monofaith perspectives, this post got a lot of hits because I pointed out that we–those of us who grew up in interfaith families–are a demographic force to be reckoned with, and we are showing up in leadership positions, even at the very top now.
Ten Reasons to Teach Interfaith Children Both Religions. This is exactly what Kamala Harris’s mother did! I love that this little essay, written ten years ago now in 2010, continued to hold down the #2 spot for popularity on my blog ten years later in 2020. It lays out the argument in my first book for giving interfaith kids an interfaith education, in a condensed list of ten points. As a growing segment of the population is celebrating more than one religion, this post is only becoming more relevant.
Interfaith Marriage and the Rise of the Religious “Nones.” This is another older post (from 2012) that is only becoming more and more relevant with time. The religious “nones” (atheists, agnostics, the spiritual but not religious or SBNRs, anyone who doesn’t affiliate with a single religious identity anymore) continue to grow. Families spanning Christians and “nones” are the largest segment of interfaith families in the US, and the fastest-growing. Recently, I reviewed a new memoir, Blessed Are the Nones, that is a dispatch from this world. This is a topic I will return to in 2021, and beyond. So, onward through the unknown.
As pandemic fatigue sets in, keep your interfaith family safe–and that means keep everyone safe, because as I like to point out, we’re all interfaith families now. Keep your mask on outside your house. Stay inside, or outside in the wild, if you have that privilege. Me, I am trying to get beyond jigsaw puzzles, to some creative new endeavors. And that may or may not happen in 2021. And that’s okay.
A Christmas without family, friends, or going to church. A Christmas without choirs, or caroling. Even in that fictional scenario without packages, boxes, and bags, when the Grinch tried to stop Christmas, people imagined they would always be able to stand in a circle and clasp hands. But not this year.
Early in the pandemic, I wrote about a silver lining, of being able to gather on zoom with people from across the country and the globe. I wrote of being able to zoom into accessible services anywhere, of trying out different religious communities through the miracle of technology. If you are looking for a Christmas Eve service designed by and for interfaith families, you are welcome to zoom in to the Interfaith Families Project in DC this year.
But, here we are, ten months in, and the silver linings are all wearing thin. We try to appreciate the calm, the stillness, the intimacy, perhaps the shift away from commercialism, of holidays this year. Or perhaps we appreciate the ability to more easily control holiday menus (in our house, this means more vegan options!).
But the pandemic is surging. Our relationships with those we live with full-time may be fraying. And depression, major and minor, is now pandemic too. The Christmas music that feels the most on point this year may be Judy Garland singing the mournful “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” or the wistful Charlie Brown special classic “Christmastime is Here.”
In the past, I have written and spoken about the importance in interfaith families of feeling empathy for each other, of being gentle with our partners and children in this season of long nights and short, cold days. And that has never been more true than this year, on this solstice, at this pandemic apex.
I had not dreamed of some of the challenges facing interfaith families this year. Most interfaith families in the US, Canada, and Europe have one Christian partner. For many who are atheist, agnostic, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, or Pagan, having a Christian partner has meant, in the past, celebrating Christmas with our partner’s extended family. Some of these interfaith families have preferred not to have a Christmas tree, or lights on the house, or prepare a Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes, or hang stockings, but have been glad to experience these Christmas traditions every year at the homes of a partner’s parents or extended family.
This year, it is not possible, not safe, to celebrate at Grandma’s house. (And some of us have lost grandparents, and parents, in the epidemic). Instead, isolated at home, many interfaith families have had to make decisions about whether to have a first Christmas tree, a first visit from Santa, hang lights for the first time outdoors. In some families, a partner who did not grow up with these traditions may now feel new pressure to host them, adding to holiday sadness. In some families, a partner who grew up celebrating these traditions with extended family may feel the additional sadness of celebrating in isolation with a partner who did not grow up with those traditions. And, some interfaith families have already been through the parallel sadness of negotiating these same intersections of interfaithness and pandemic isolation over Diwali, or Hanukkah. For Pagans, the same may be true for the winter solstice, and Yule.
There are no right or wrong answers to the question of how to navigate this very hard season, in this very hard year. For some families, it may feel right to “haul out the holly” and “turn on the brightest string of lights.” For others, it may feel right to just try to let it go, and hibernate through the winter, until spring is here at last. As in all years, as in all families, the right way for your family to be an interfaith family can only be discerned through intimate conversations. But in every case, and especially this year, we are called on to be as empathetic as we can possibly be, and to be extra gentle with each other, as we await the return of the light, and our turn for the vaccine.
My kids only had one Jewish grandparent, my father, may his memory be a blessing. When he died two years ago, I promised to chronicle what happens in an interfaith family when all the remaining generations have interfaith heritage.
So here, I’m reporting in.
According to Jewish pessimists, my children should be thoroughly assimilated into the (increasingly mythical) Christian majority by now. They are 26 and 23 years old, and just recently launched into the (perilous) world.
And in the last 24 hours, they each, independently, casually asked if I had a menorah to spare.
Oh, you know I do! I have a whole collection of them. (And yes, I call them menorahs, not chanukiahs, because that’s what my father the rabbi’s grandson called them).
So, I packed up one menorah, and it’s headed to Brooklyn in the mail. It’s the one with the star of David, and the wobble where the screw threads are worn out. Friends are incredulous. My son can’t get his own menorah, in Brooklyn of all places? He can’t just make a menorah out of ziti or something? Of course he can. But it’s Hanukkah, and what else am I gonna give this grown-ass kid? He does not crave stuff. And he asked for this…one…thing.
Then my daughter came by to peruse my small menorah collection, and picked the teeny-tiny menorah that takes birthday candles. It will serve double-purpose as an instructional artifact in the Montessori forest school where she is teaching.
Coincidentally (or not, since Hanukkah starts this Thursday night), the New York Times just published a mournful piece by a woman with a Jewish father and Christian mother, about why she is not going to celebrate Hanukkah with her toddler. On twitter, reactions are split. I see exclusivist Jewish thinking (“you’re not Jewish anyway so why would you celebrate Hanukkah”), the same thinking that has pushed so hard against the very existence of interfaith families in the name of “Jewish continuity.” And then I see those who empathize, and diagnose her alienation as a direct result of those exclusivist policies. That toddler, like my children, has one Jewish grandparent. And while every interfaith family has the right to choose how they will identify, and which rituals they will celebrate, it set me to thinking about why my children do feel connected to Judaism, in the third generation of our interfaith family.
How do I explain why both my children now feel called to be interfaith ambassadors and bridge-builders? Why do they intend this year to share ancient Jewish ritual with their households of friends, with young pupils, with their communities? Here I want to name just two of what I see as the many interconnected reasons for the persistence of Jewish ritual in the third generation of my interfaith family.
One reason was the charisma and determination of my beloved Jewish father, who was the last living grandparent for my children. At Hanukkah, we would gather around his piano to sing “Rock of Ages” each night while he played for us by the light of the menorah, with my Episcopalian mother and husband harmonizing. He gave us affection for these rituals, and he gave us a model of a harmonious interfaith family that persisted in celebrating both heritages despite all manner of official resistance from religious institutions.
The second reason is the work that my husband and I, and our interfaith families community, and our rabbis and ministers, put into raising our children to feel they have a right to claim both family religions. We made sure they had basic Jewish literacy, we made sure they felt connected to Judaism, we made sure they felt called to stand up against anti-semitism.
In light of the menorah requests this week, I now feel moved to declare that this is the moment, sixty years into our three-generation experience with interfaith family living, that I am ready to draw a definitive conclusion. Interfaith kids in the third generation, including those raised with both family religions, can feel deeply connected to Judaism (or any other religion in which they are educated). So, to all those who predicted our inevitable assimilation into the Christian majority, I conclude based on personal experience that you were wrong.
But if Jewish institutions want to ensure that menorahs do not all end up sitting unused in boxes in closets, they must ensure that we do not continue to alienate interfaith families who want to engage in Judaism. Here are the five urgent (overdue) strategies for doing that:
We have reached (finally!) the last month of the longest year I can remember, 2020. And December means that many interfaith families are about to join in the dance of Hanukkah and Christmas, whether or not they feel like dancing. This year, the eight nights of Hanukkah start on December 10th, midway between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Personally, I prefer these years when Hanukkah begins and ends before Christmas, so that each holiday gets separate celebration, and there’s even a moment to pause between them.
Whether you celebrate one of those holidays, or both, or neither, all of us need to cultivate empathy for our partners and family members in December, while honoring our own needs, and being mindful of how this season can trigger both joy and sadness, especially in a year of pandemic. We are also becoming more aware that “interfaith family” doesn’t always mean Jewish and Christian. The fastest-growing “interfaith” demographic, according to Pew Research, is Christian and “religious none” (a catch-all for atheists, secular humanists, agnostics, the spiritual-but-not-religious, and others who couldn’t find a better box to check). And an increasing number of interfaith families include members who are Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Pagan, celebrate indigenous religions, or reclaim African diasporic traditions including vodun, Santeria, or candomblé. Our interfaith families are becoming more richly complex.
Last year, I created a new resource, The Interfaith Family Journal, to help any and every family figure out how to honor diverse religious or spiritual or cultural roots, and formative childhood experiences, while claiming and creating a plan for December (and every other month) that works for your family. The Journal traces a five-week process of writing prompts, discussion topics, and creative activities. The result is a unique resource for therapists, clergy, and families. Here, I distill from the Journal eight ways to plan for a deeper, more mindful, and peaceful season:
Ask yourself about how you experienced December as a child. What did you celebrate? How did you feel about Christmas music, decorations, movies, in American popular culture? Were you aware of being part of the religious majority or minority? How have those feelings changed over time?
Ask yourself which of your childhood winter holiday rituals you want to continue in adulthood, or take on in the future? What traditions do you want to transmit to your children? Is this because they have religious meaning, spiritual meaning, and/or cultural meaning for you?
Ask your partner(s) or other intimate family members or co-parents how they felt during December as children. Do you understand how your childhood experiences overlap, or diverge? What are the differences? What are the synergies?
Ask your partner which public expressions of the season–in public town displays, on the radio, on TV–might make them feel joyful, nostalgic, sad, or alienated, this year. Do you understand why? How has this changed for them, over time? Note that secular or cultural does not necessarily mean less important than religious or spiritual!
No matter what religious (or non-religious) affiliation(s) or identity you have chosen for your family or children, are there multi-sensory December experiences that you would like to retrieve, or pass down, or take on? Music? Recipes? Crafts? Is your partner okay with tasting, smelling, hearing these with you?
The number of celebrations can feel overwhelming in December, especially for interfaith families. Make a plan! Which holidays this month will you spend with which extended family members (and when)? Which will you spend with friends? And which will you spend with just your partner(s) and/or kids? With the pandemic surging, balance celebrations you can do at home with zoom call celebrations with extended family. This is a good year to really focus on home-based traditions with your partner(s) and/or children! Make sure that your partner feels comfortable with the plan.
Whether or not you celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah as a family, December can be an inspiring time to think about helping your community and to prepare for New Year’s resolutions. Especially after the horrific 2020 we have all just experienced, community service can help to keep the midwinter blues at bay. Talk to your family members about starting a tradition of December giving, or December action, to help to heal your community or the world.
No matter which traditions you celebrate, the scientific reality is that this is the darkest and coldest time of year in the northern hemisphere. It is probably not a coincidence that near the midwinter solstice, we try to brighten our world with the Yule hearth, Christmas lights, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa candles, or firecrackers for the Chinese Lunar New Year. So be gentle with yourself, and with your family members, as we move through the darkest days of this most difficult of years, until we tilt again towards the sun.
Note: I wrote an earlier version of this piece last year for Psych Bytes, a publication that subsequently folded in the pandemic.
Stina Kielsmeier-Cook and her husband Josh, the son of a missionary, met at an evangelical Christian college, married, and spent time living off the land together in a Christian farming community. But a few years into their marriage, Josh announces that he has stopped believing in God. This book charts Stina’s journey through adjusting to this new asymmetry in their relationship to Christianity. Seeking spiritual support and community, she engages with an order of Catholic nuns in their neighborhood in downtown Minneapolis, in an attempt to learn what it is like to be “spiritually single.” But the nuns reject this term, and instead help Stina to feel connected to multiple communities, and to feel less alone by the end of the book.
The memoir follows a chronology through the seasons and the liturgical calendar of that first year after Josh leaves Christianity. Their two small children serve as minor characters, illustrating the universally messy reality and comic relief of parenting. But the focus of this memoir is Stina’s struggles: to reimagine life without a Christian partner, to face her own doubts on religion and marriage, to find community, and to forge new relationships and religious growth with the nuns. Josh, rather than being the antagonist, is depicted as a mensch, often coming to the rescue to pick up Stina and the kids at church, and patient and considerate with his wife as she works to process his revelation. By the end of the book, she has traveled through shock and fear and grief at Josh’s loss of religion, to an eventual sense of trust and peace and acceptance.
Stina is a seeker, ecumenical by nature, willing to learn from others, but with a perspective deeply rooted in the Protestant world. She describes her experiences as part of Presbyterian, evangelical, Mennonite, Episcopalian, and Baptist communities, and her enrichment through discovering Catholic liturgies, saints, and monastic life. For interfaith families who are not Christian, the language of believers versus nonbelievers, of being unequally yoked, of heaven and hell and salvation–may not resonate. By definition, this book will be most relevant for practicing Christians who have spouses who have left Christianity. And there are many.
Nevertheless, the book describes challenges that are common for interfaith couples, whether they are Christian and Jewish, or Pagan and atheist. What does it feel like to sit alone (or alone with children) in a place of worship, feeling that everyone else is sitting with a spouse? What does it feel like to feel exhausted by the burden of trying to transmit your religious heritage to children without a partner’s participation? What does it feel like to realize your children may not go to your beloved childhood religious school or camp?
I admire the author’s determination to capture this pivotal year while the experience was still fresh. As such, it will be most useful to other couples at the start of an interfaith relationship. On the other hand, those who have been in interfaith relationships for many years or decades may need to search their memories to recall some of the feelings described. The desire for a spouse to convert (or in this case, re-convert), expressed frequently in this book, may not be as familiar to those from non-proselytizing religions. And it is a feeling that has been faced and firmly put aside in many mature interfaith relationships. The strict binary of “faith” or “no faith,” (again, a traditionally Christian-centric way of considering the concept of religious identity), often shifts in longtime interfaith relationships into a more complicated conversation. And many of us eventually shift away from the undue influence of societal insistence that interfaith families are problematic, to an appreciation for the benefits and richness that interfaith families can bring.
So I hope that Stina will report back some years from now on her fascinating journey with a sequel to this spiritual memoir. We have precious few books written from inside interfaith families, and even fewer by writers aspiring to literary non-fiction. In the meantime, I will be adding this book to my list of resources for interfaith families. It pairs nicely with Duane McGowan’s more journalistic book In Faith and in Doubt, written from the point of view of an atheist married to a Christian, describing many such families. I am grateful to Stina Kielsmeyer-Cook for adding to the growing roster of authors from interfaith families who are chronicling our myriad experiences, and creating a new category in the world of books.
Q: Your book chronicles the idea that the secret, unpronounceable name for God in ancient Israel is Hu-Hi, or “He-She,” an entity equally male and female. Tell us a bit about the influences of other religions and cultures on this idea of a dual-gendered God in the ancient world.
A: Dual-gendered gods were utterly normative in the ancient world. The Mesopotamians had them, the Egyptians had them. No one questions this. Israel sat between these two ancient regional superpowers. It’s hard to imagine how Israel could not have been influenced by them.
Q: And briefly, how is this idea of a dual-gendered God manifested in the Torah.
A: Well, for instance, in the Book of Deuteronomy it says that God “your Father” (32:6) “convulsed in labor for you,” (32:18) “gave birth to you,” (32:18) and “suckled you” (32:13). And there’s a lot more where that came from, if you can read the Hebrew. Moses addresses God in the second person masculine singular (attah) and the second person feminine singular (at). The adam, the human being — pointedly said to have been created in God’s own image — is referred to as “them” (otam). Indeed, the rabbis took this to mean that the original earth creature had been created as an androgynous being, which was later separated by God into the male and female characters Adam and Eve.
Q: So then, how and why did that male-female aspect of God become suppressed and subsumed? Do you see that suppression as related to power and patriarchy? After all, there are no women commenting on the Torah in texts, until the 20th century.
A: I do wonder about the how and why. But yes, of course. I mean, there were occasional exceptions when women rose to power. Pharaoh Hatshepsut — considered one of the greatest of the pharaohs — was a woman, as of course was Deborah in Israel. In the early twentieth century, Hannah Rachel Verbermacher, known as the Maid of Ludomir, was a Chassidic master. But again, these were the rare exceptions. Gerda Lerner, some thirty years ago, wrote that “the system of patriarchy is a historic construct; it has a beginning; it will have an end. Its time seems to have nearly run its course—it no longer serves the needs of men or women and in its inextricable linkage to militarism, hierarchy, and racism it threatens the very existence of life on earth.” Amen, late sister.
Q: We are in the midst of a dramatic shift in American culture in which individuals who have non-binary gender identities are telling their stories, creating space, and rising to leadership. How much did you think about this, while writing this book, and how is your book and this historical moment intertwined?
A: I have to say that, at first, I wasn’t thinking about it at all. I was really just trying to figure out the puzzle; trying to figure out why, in Hebrew, the Torah is gendered the way it is (men are referred to in the feminine; women are referred to in the masculine). It was only later that I began to consider how this intertwines with stories in my own family — stories about one pioneering, transgender cousin in particular, as well as about elderly gay and lesbian cousins who had been closeted their whole lives — and, as you say, how this intertwines with the historical moment. That’s chapter seven of my book.
Q: I think for many progressive Jewish leaders, it has become relatively comfortable to speak about the intersectionality of being a feminist and Jewish, or gay and Jewish, or Italian and Jewish, or Black and Jewish. But when interfaith families want to talk about the enriching and formative effects on us of Hinduism and Judaism, or Paganism and Judaism, or, heavens forbid, Christianity and Judaism, the room goes silent. Has your historical work changed the way you see interfaith families who insist on teaching their children, or practicing, more than one religion?
A: It has. In Hinduism, the six-sided Shatkona star — in form and meaning — is indistinguishable from the Magen David (Jewish Star of David). They symbolize the intersection of male and female energy. As does the six-sided star of Shintoism, the Kagome Crest. Paganist reverence for the physical world is not alien to Judaism. The Chassidim teach what’s called avodah b’gashmiut, “bodily prayer.” Mystery — which we associate with Christianity — was central to how Jews did religion. The Zohar was considered a holy book, on par with the Torah, until historical circumstances (the Shabbatai Tzvi debacle, a story for another time) made Jewish mysticism seem too dangerous. So when you ask about teaching our children more than one religion, I think it’s worth considering that very important, spiritually essential, core Jewish beliefs and practices — such as non-dualism, body-centrism, and mysticism — have been nurtured in non-Jewish communities, and in some of our Jewish communities have been lifted up again only as people who grew up elsewhere have entered into contact, alliance, and sometimes affiliation with us.
Q: In interacting with interfaith families, religious institutions often present the idea that different religions are completely distinct, and that to be authentic, one must practice them in some pure, unadulterated, static form. In contrast, as with gender identities, many people from interfaith families see their religious identity as more “both/and,” or hybrid, or non-binary. It may not be a coincidence that a growing percentage of young adults are no longer affiliating with religious congregations (of any religion). I find religious scholars like yourself often understand the complexity and shades-of-grey realities of the history and culture of religions, and how interfaith families might be claiming that complexity. But how would religious institutions need to change to accommodate this kind of thinking? And is that going to happen?
A: Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, may his memory be for a blessing, said a religion is like a cell. If anything can pass through the membrane, the cell dies. If nothing can pass through the membrane, the cell dies. I think it would behoove religious institutions to bear in mind that there’s no such thing as “pure, unadulterated, static” religion. It never existed; it doesn’t exist today. Religions — like all other eco-systems and organisms — evolve. And they keep on evolving. The Jewish community is evolving toward a greater awareness of and appreciation for how much the community is enriched by all the panim chadashot — all the new faces, new talents, new perspectives.
Binaries will always exist, of course. You and I are speaking just after a presidential election, right? Not everything can be both/and. Sometimes we have no choice but to make a choice. Having said that, the families of the president-elect and vice-president-elect alone comprise — in addition to a host of ethnic and racial backgrounds and blends — Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Jews, Hindus, and Baptists.
Welcome to America. Seeing the opportunities, approaching each other with openness and curiosity, wondering what we might learn from each other, developing a nuanced sense of what religions are capable at their best of doing — all of this can all help us progress as humans, individually and collectively. Is it going to happen? It’s happening.