Hamantaschen, Fertility, and Syncretism

Photo, Susan Katz Miller

Why is this hamantasch upside-down? Is it a distress signal?

No! Just Purim fun, and feminist chutzpah. I simply rotated one of my old photos 180 degrees, to give you a new perspective.

I took this photo ten years ago, intending to visually signal the fact that a hamantasch (grammatically this is the singular) looks like a vulva, or a fruitful uterus, or some combination thereof. As someone who wrote my undergraduate thesis in the history of science on anatomical depictions of women in the Renaissance, drawing on semiotics and feminism, the symbolism of hamantaschen had always been obvious to me. I posted the photo “right side up” with an essay celebrating the interfaith marriage at the heart of the Purim story, and linking Purim to spring fertility rites predating Judaism.

Then five years ago, I wrote a review of Strange Wives, a book about interfaith marriage in the Torah. I described how this book (by a rabbi and a Jewish scholar) documents how “women who married into the tribes of Israel continued to worship their own fertility gods even after marriage, and early Israelite farmers continued to appeal to fertility gods to bless their crops.” Their argument (and mine) is that Judaism has always been syncretic, picking up practices and ideas from the religions predating and surrounding it. For me, this is one example of how all religions are interfaith religions.

Purim is technically next week, but many communities hold their Purim carnivals this weekend. Yesterday, Arielle Kaplan posted “Yes, There’s a Reason Hamantaschen Look Like Vaginas” over at HeyAlma.com, a website founded by Jewish women. She has written a hilarious and definitive essay on the hamantasch as a fertility symbol, with nods to current politics, Broad City, and Polly Pocket. I highly recommend reading it.

Then, shake off your primary blues, pack up your Purell, and go make noise and celebrate Purim!

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.

Spring Interfaith Holidays 2020

Lizas HexTop
Glorious Color quilts by my cousin, Liza Prior Lucy

This post has become an annual tradition! In ten years of writing this interfaith blog, I have posted multiple essays on many of the spring Jewish and Christian holidays: PurimSt Patrick’s DayPassoverEaster. But the complex, interlocking quilt squares of #GenInterfaith now go far beyond Judaism and Christianity.

My new book The Interfaith Family Journal, is designed for all interfaith families, of any or all religions, or none. And while we make many different choices about what to believe, how to practice, and where to affiliate (or not), all of us in extended interfaith families (and increasingly, that is most of us) benefit from multi-sensory interfaith experiences with extended family, neighbors, and co-workers.

Just in the coming weeks, we have a dense schedule of holidays (for a more complete list go here). Note the ancient connections many of these holidays have to the spring equinox, and often, to each other. Religions and cultures are not static, but change in response to neighboring religions and cultures, just as we do as individual members of interfaith families.

Feb 21, Mahashivaratri, the Hindu festival honoring Lord Shiva, includes staying up all night to meditate, chant, and dance, in the darkest season. Check out the twitter hashtag #DontYawnTillDawn.

Feb 25, Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras). For Roman Catholics and some Protestants, this day marks the end of feasting before the beginning of fasting for Lent. Shrove Tuesday is the finale of Carnival (Shrovetide), with notable multi-day celebrations in Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago, New Orleans, Venice, and some Protestant regions. Carnival may have many historical ties to the pre-Christian celebrations of the return of the sun.

Feb 26, Ash Wednesday marks the start of Lent, the period of fasting before Easter, for Roman Catholics and some Protestants.

March 9, Magha Puja Day. Buddhist commemoration of Buddha delivering the principles of Buddhism, on the full moon. Celebrated in Southeast Asia with temple visits, processions, and good works.

March 10, Holi. Hindu commemoration of the arrival of spring and love, celebrated with bonfires, throwing powdered color pigments and water on each other, music, feasting, forgiving debts, repairing relationships, and visiting. Popular even with non-Hindus in South Asia, and increasingly (and not without controversy over appropriation) throughout the world.

March 10, Purim. Jewish commemoration of the Biblical story of Esther in ancient Persia, celebrated with costumed reenactments, three-cornered pastry (hamantaschen) that may reference the ancient fertility goddess Ishtar, drinking, and charity. There may be a historical connection between Norooz and Purim.

March 10, Hola Mohalla. Sikh celebration including processions, mock battles, poetry reading, music. There is a historical connection between Hinduism’s Holi and Hola Mohalla.

March 17, St Patrick’s Day. Catholic commemoration of the Feast Day of St Patrick, primarily celebrated by Irish-Americans with parades, drinking, and the wearing of the green, as a way to connect with Irish culture. Now celebrated in America by people of many religions. Possible historical connection to Ostara.

March 20. Spring Equinox. Ostara, ModernPagan/Wiccan commemoration of the spring equinox and Eostre, the Saxon lunar goddess of fertility. Celebrated with planting of seeds and nature walks. Possible historical connections between Eostre, Easter, Passover, and Norooz.

March 21, Norooz (Naw-Ruz). Zoroastrian/Bahai/Persian celebration of the New Year on the spring equinox. With roots in ancient Iran, it is celebrated by many people of all religions together, throughout the Balkans, Caucasus, Central and South Asia, and the Middle East with spring cleaning, flowers, picnics, feasting, and family visits. Possible historical connection between Norooz and Purim.

April 9, Maundy Thursday. Protestant and Roman Catholic commemoration of The Last Supper. There may (or may not) be a historical connection between The Last Supper and the Passover seder.

April 10, Good Friday. Protestant and Roman Catholic commemoration of the Crucifixion of Jesus, with church services and fasting.

April 12, Easter. Protestant and Roman Catholic commemoration of the Resurrection of Jesus, celebrated with church services, family dinners, and baskets of candy for children. Fertility imagery including bunnies and eggs may, or may not, have a historical connection to pre-Christian rituals and the spring equinox.

Sundown on April 8 to April 15, Passover (Pesach), Jewish commemoration of the flight from Egypt described in the book of Exodus. Primarily a home-based celebration with one or more festive Seder meals of ritual foods, songs, and prayer. As with Easter, Passover incorporates (presumably pre-Judaic pagan) spring equinox fertility symbolism (eggs, spring greens).

April 19, Orthodox Easter (or Pascha) in many of the Orthodox Christian traditions using the Julian rather than Gregorian calendar, including Bulgaria, Cyprus, Ethiopia, Greece, Lebanon, Macedonia, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine, as well as millions of people in North America. Many of these cultures include a feast of lamb (connected historically to Passover) and hard-boiled eggs (connected to more ancient fertility traditions).

April 24, start of the month-long daytime fast for Ramadan in Islam, commemorating the revelation of the Qu’ran. Muslim holidays are on a lunar calendar, so move through the seasons over time.

New Bordered Diamonds Cover
Glorious Color quilts by my cousin, Liza Prior Lucy

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.

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).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Passover and Easter 2017 in Interfaith Family Communities

 

Egg.
Egg.       Photo, Susan Katz Miller

 

Spring is here, and many interfaith families will be celebrating Passover and Easter at events  with other interfaith families. Below, I share with you a round-up of spring celebrations hosted by interfaith family communities devoted to interfaith education for interfaith families. All are welcome at all of these events, just RSVP to the various organizers and see what you can bring. Some of these events are held before the actual holidays, such as a model teaching Seder, or a discussion of the various interfaith perspectives on Easter. Other events are held on the actual dates and are identical to more traditional holidays, except that they are designed by and for interfaith families who celebrate both Judaism and Christianity. And some interfaith family communities have partnered with churches and synagogues, and join those congregations for the holidays.

For all who are lucky enough to live near an interfaith family community, here are some upcoming Passover and Easter events:

WASHINGTON DC

This Sunday morning, April 2nd, the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington DC (IFFP) will host their annual potluck community Seder, designed by and for families celebrating both Judaism and Christianity. It will be led by the IFFP’s Rabbi Rain Zohav.  And on Easter Sunday, April 16th, IFFP hosts an Easter-themed Gathering with reflections from a minister and a rabbi. After the Gathering, join the community for a Pancake and Matzo Brei breakfast.

PHILADELPHIA

On Saturday April 8th, the Interfaith Families of Greater Philadelphia (IFFGP) will be hosting their 9th Annual Interfaith Passover Seder for interfaith families that celebrate both family religions. The event will be held in Lansdale, PA. For more info check out the facebook event page.

NY/NJ/CT

In New York City, the original Interfaith Family Community (IFC), which helped pioneer the idea of interfaith education for interfaith families, now has both a Jewish and a Christian  “home” to extend holiday observances. As a group, they will be joining St. Michael’s Episcopal Church for their Easter Sunday service and egg hunt on April 16th. And they are also allied with the innovative Romemu Jewish community, the only Jewish community I know of with a minister on staff to meet the needs of multi-faith families. You can join Romemu for an adult discussion of Passover and Easter this Wednesday, March 29th.

The Interfaith Family Community chapter in Westchester will hold their annual Easter-Passover celebration on April 2nd in White Plains. For more information and/or to RSVP, email IFC.wes@gmail.com

The IFC Orange/Rockland/Bergen chapter had their Passover event last weekend. They will hold a family Easter celebration followed by an egg hunt and bunny hop race this Sunday, April 2 in Rivervale, NJ.

The Interfaith Community of Long Island, at the Brookville Church and Multifaith Campus, will host a discussion on Passover led by Rabbi Paris and Cantor Irene during Shabbat on April 7th. And their “Have a Seder/Need a Seder” program matches up families who offer to host or attend a Passover Seder. A Palm Sunday Service led by interfaith youth is on April 9th, and a Family Easter Service is on Sunday April 16th followed by an egg hunt.

And in central New Jersey, Faithful Families, a joint project of Congregation Beth Mordecai and St. Peter’s Episcopal Church of Perth Amboy, is hosting an Interfaith Jewish-Christian Agape Meal Seder, exploring the Jewish and Christian traditions steeped in the language of the exodus from Egypt. The event is on Thursday April 13th, which is the fourth night of Passover, and Maundy Thursday in the Christian calendar. A new interfaith families community for central New Jersey is also in formation, and will be meeting up at the Perth Amboy event.  If you are a local family raising kids with Judaism and Christianity, join their facebook group.

CHICAGO

The Union School for Interfaith Families (http://www.interfaithunionschool.org/) in the Chicago suburbs will be hosting a Passover Seder for families in their interfaith education program on April 9 from 9:30-11am at St. Raymonds in Mt. Prospect. Sign up here (http://www.signupgenius.com/go/10c0e44aea72babfc1-union1). Email questions to leslimarasco@gmail.com.

Catholic and Jewish families from downtown Chicago‘s interfaith Family School, an interfaith education program for interfaith children, often celebrate Easter together at Old St. Pat‘s.

ELSEWHERE

Not in one of the areas listed above? Your interfaith family has at least two options for finding community. One is to seek out progressive religious institutions in your area that will welcome interfaith families. Most progressive churches welcome interfaith families, though very few provide specific programming for them. Many Jewish communities now also welcome interfaith families (though they may not  approve of educating children in both religions), and many are holding community Seders. Check out Jewish Community Centers (JCCs) as well as synagogues.

The second option is to build a new interfaith families community to organize interfaith education and interfaith celebrations in your area. Inviting a few families for a Seder, or an Easter celebration, could be a great way to start. To find other families raising children with interfaith education in your area (whether your family is Jewish and Christian, or atheist and Hindu, or Pagan and Buddhist), join the Network of Interfaith Family Groups. New communities are forming all the time!

 

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

 

About That Interfaith Tree-Topper

IMG_1539
Peace card by emma’s revolution

We put a tin Mexican star with eight colorful points on the top of our Christmas tree. This star refers to the star that led the Magi to find the baby Jesus, as the story is told in the gospel of Matthew. And from a Pagan perspective (on a tree with Pagan origins), the star as a winter Solstice theme makes sense to me because we are more aware of the brilliance of the stars on the longest of all nights.

But this year, the number of interfaith families putting a six-pointed star, the traditionally Jewish symbol known as the Star of David, on top of Christmas trees seems to have reached some kind of critical mass. Reporters have been calling me to ask about this kind of holiday mash-up, or “Chrismukkah” celebration. And lovely interfaith couples have been tweeting and emailing me to market their mixed-faith holiday greeting cards and ornaments.

My family does not celebrate Chrismukkah, but we are beginning to feel outnumbered. One year, I had a very public and feisty back-and-forth with a blogger who both misunderstood and objected to my family’s approach to the holidays. Our family doesn’t hang dreidels or top the tree with a Star of David. Our approach to being an interfaith family has been to seek to provide our children with literacy in both family religions, and respect for the integrity of each. That has meant teaching and celebrating the two religions separately, giving them each space, in order to honor their specific historical and cultural and theological meanings.

Every interfaith family has to find the pathway that works best for them. For some, that will mean choosing one religion and celebrating the “other” holidays only with grandparents. For our family, it means celebrating both, but in separate, traditional ways. But for what seems to be an increasing number of more-or-less purely secular interfaith families, it has come to mean the freedom to create mash-up celebrations.

As Samira Mehta, an academic with a forthcoming book on interfaith families recently explained to her local newspaper, “In the past 20 years, Chrismukkah has become increasingly public. First, it has grown because of the increasing secularization of society and the growing number of ‘nones’ (those not affiliated with any institutional church or synagogue), and secondly the growing acceptance of multiculturalism in our society.”

I am all for accepting multiculturalism, for seeing what is shared and universal in our families and our cultures, and for celebrating together the theme of hope for peaceful pluralism in a world troubled by intolerance and violence. That is why the first ornament I placed on our tree this year was a card from our friends Pat and Sandy (emma’s revolution) who wrote the moving Peace Salaam Shalom song after 9/11, and created a graphic representation of these three words. While my family does not celebrate a mash-up of religions, we do acknowledge that there are historical ties between the three sibling religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And now, with Islamophobic politicians spreading fear, is a good time to remember these ties.

After hanging the Peace card on our tree, I wanted to stop there–to have this be the only ornament this year, to lift up this crucial message. But then our kids arrived home from college on the Wrong Coast, and we wanted to trim the tree together as a family, and put up all the beloved ornaments. And so we did that. They understand that the desire for peace must be universal, but on our tree we hang Christmas ornaments. Because even though my family has been an interfaith family for two generations now, we want our children to understand the distinct religious cultures, and the specificity of a history that continues to both unite and divide us.

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). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

An Interfaith Child’s Hanukkah and Christmas

I’m very pleased to announce that Being Both is the December selection for the #UUreads program. I wrote this piece for Beacon Broadside, the marvelous blog from my publisher, Beacon Press. To read it on that blog, click here.

Snow in Hawley, PA

Seeing the Sacred in One Interfaith Family

Slowing Time, Barbara Mahany, photo Susan Katz Miller

 

Barbara Mahany describes her new book as a field guide to wonder. The essays in Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door at times bring to mind Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver, Anne Lamott, Karen Maezen Miller, Waldorf pedagogy, and mystics including Julian of Norwich. Mahany leads us through the cycle of seasons in the natural world, and in the life of a Christian and Jewish interfaith family. A former Chicago Tribune columnist (and former pediatric oncology nurse), Mahany writes as a parent, a naturalist, and a Catholic. Her voice—funny, humble, brave, affectionate—narrates this unusual volume, pulling together disparate elements into a moving whole, lovely in both form and content.

 

So, at the bottom of each page we find a running commentary of poetic field notes on the moon and other astronomical and agricultural changes through the year. Each section ends with a recipe, reflecting the spiritual and seasonal bounty (beginning and ending with winter, which gets two sections, and thus two recipes). And each season begins with notes acknowledging the agrarians roots of Jewish and Christian and secular holidays, and providing suggestions on how to infuse these celebrations with new meaning.

 

For example, I love this entry on the spring calendar, for a holiday with Pagan origins: May Day (May 1): Caretaker of Wonder Pledge: I will rescue broken flowers and ferry them to my windowsill infirmary, where I’ll apply remedies and potions, or simply watch them die away in peace.

 

In this one brief and surprising sentence, Mahany manages to avoid both the saccharine and the how-to, instead reflecting on the hard truths of the natural world, providing insight into her interactive and intentional approach to marking the seasons, and perhaps provoking us to join her in this novel contemplative activity.

 

For me, the fact that Mahany writes as a Catholic woman married to a Jewish man, raising children with both religions, provides an important key to experiencing Slowing Time. (For more on Mahany’s interfaith family story, listen here to her wonderful Holy Rascals interview with Rabbi Rami Shapiro). Often, I am asked if interfaith families celebrating both religions end up with a dry, intellectual approach, devoid of spirituality, as if we are studying the religions in a museum or academic course, comparing and contrasting, with all the sacred juice drained out.

 

These questions come from people who have never experienced life inside an interfaith family like Mahany’s. I like to say that we are religious maximalists, not minimalists, celebrating both, rather than nothing. Indirectly, quietly, without arguing or defending or setting out data (as I must do as an advocate and journalist), Mahany makes the case for the rich spiritual lives of interfaith families who intentionally immerse themselves in the earthly connections, and particularities, of these two sibling religions.

 

Or, as Mahany writes, while her family “encounters the Divine in the rituals and idioms of two faith traditions,” she finds that “the dual lenses refract and magnify both light and shadow, and that my sense of the sacred pulses throughout the year.” The sense of sacred pulses throughout this book, and throughout the lives of those of us who draw meaning and take inspiration from more than one ancestral religion. I am grateful to Mahany for her deep consideration of how this looks and works and feels for her, through many small moments, keenly observed.

 

Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller, available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press. Please support local brick-and-mortar bookstores!

High Holidays with an Interfaith Community: 2014 Edition

Fall Maple Leaves, photo Susan Katz Miller

Each year, I have taken to posting a set of links to Jewish High Holiday (or High Holy Day) services designed by and for interfaith families. Of course, many such families now feel welcome and included at progressive services in Jewish communities around the country. But there is still something different, and deeply moving for many of us, about gathering with an intentionally interfaith community. Of course, you don’t have to be in an interfaith family to attend these radically inclusive services. At our services in Washington DC, for instance, you will find curious people of other religions who aren’t even married to Jews, and entirely Jewish families just looking for accessible High Holidays. All are welcome!

The very first High Holiday services designed by and for interfaith families took place in Manhattan in the 1980s, and those services continue today. Now, families from the Interfaith Community chapters in Manhattan, Long Island, Westchester, Orange/Bergen/Rockland Counties, Danbury, Connecticut, and Boston 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. In downtown Chicago, families from the Interfaith Family School and the Jewish Catholic Couples Dialogue Group, and suburban interfaith families from the Interfaith Union and Union School for Interfaith Families gather together at local synagogues for the High Holy Days.

And in Washington DC, my own community, the Interfaith Families Project provides a set of five traditional, progressive High Holy Day services (plus a break fast). The services are specifically designed by and for interfaith families, will be led once again by our rabbi, Rabbi Harold White, who is the retired chaplain of Georgetown University.

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.

Thanksgivukkah, Syncretism, and the Luxury of Interfaith Humor

Centerpiece by Bethany Karn, ButterKup Flowers
Bethany Karn, ButterKup Flowers

I have to admit to ambivalence about Thanksgivukkah. Why do I feel this way? It has something to do with the fact that, as interfaith families who celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas, we spend a lot of time explaining that we don’t mix or merge holidays: we give each one specific religious meaning. I am happiest when Hanukkah and Christmas whirl to the farthest reaches of their orbital dance, at opposite ends of the winter calendar, giving each holiday the space it deserves. We don’t do Chrismukkah.

But why not merge the “secular” American holiday of Thanksgiving with a Jewish holiday when they happen to overlap? Certainly, these two holidays have a natural affinity and synergy: both celebrate religious freedom, both encourage gratitude, and both feature rich feasting. What’s not to like? And yet, I have found myself side-stepping (until now) the frenzy of menurkeys, pumpkin latkes with cranberry sauce, and Thanksgivukkah songs.

I would not be the first to note that part of the zeal for Thanksgivukkah this year is driven by commercialism, and that part of it seems to stem from a sort of sublimated or frustrated desire for the far-less-kosher Chrismukkah. And yet some of those who are reveling in the “hybridity” of Thanksgivukkah would be strongly opposed to interfaith families raising children with both family religions. The layers of complexity and irony here go deep, for such a giddy and essentially harmless holiday.

Speaking of Hanukkah and Christmas, this week, progressive Orthodox Rabbi Brad Hirschfield (and no, that is not an oxymoron) wrote a fascinating column about why he actually celebrates a new product called a Menorah Tree (a chanukiah wound with greenery and lights). I spend so much time and energy distancing myself from this kind of holiday mash-up. So Rabbi Brad kind of blew my mind by writing “What religious custom isn’t at least somewhat syncretistic? Every sacred tradition belonging to every religion I know was once an innovation, and most of them have their roots in, or were borrowed from, some other community.”

True! I made exactly that point in Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family. But many will hear the message more clearly (and with less resistance) coming from a traditional religious leader, than from an interfaith families activist. An Orthodox rabbi can get away with embracing a Menorah Tree, while a second-generation interfaith parent, not so much. I keep my distance.

So forgive me if the idea of turkey-stuffed donuts makes me (and, apparently, Kathie Lee Gifford) slightly queasy. We will take out our traditional brass menorah on Thanksgiving this year at sundown. It won’t be adorned with solstice greenery (we will celebrate the winter solstice on the solstice). The moment to light the candles for the second night of Hanukkah will probably arrive sometime toward the end of our Thanksgiving dinner. But I am not going to make a big deal about the overlap.

I really do not want to come off as humorless, or as the Grinch who stole Thanksgivukkah, especially since this convergence won’t come around again for an estimated 77,000 years or so. I was happy to loan one of my menorahs out to a friend–wildly talented floral designer Bethany Karn–so that she could create a Thanksgivukkah centerpiece for a local contest. I laughed with delight at her extravaganza of vintage pilgrim and turkey candles, gelt and dreidels, gourds and pheasant feathers. In fact, I am going to use it at a book launch event this week.

But I am always very, very cautious when it comes to religious humor. If you’re Jewish, you can get away with hilarious R-rated Hanukkah humor, like my friend Sean Altman (aka Jewmongous) does. (His website warns: “not recommended for children under 13 unless you’re raising them to be sailors.”) And I suppose if you’re Christian, you can do the same with Christmas. For those of us born into interfaith families, we have to be careful when we venture into religious comedy in either direction, because we may be seen as “others” rather than “insiders,” and thus lose the right to joke around with impunity.

So yes, I giggled at this off-color Thanksgivukkah horror film trailer parody. And I laughed til I cried watching Stephen Colbert’s attack on Thanksgivukkah. He can get away with this, I believe, as a Catholic, in part because of his ongoing dialogue with the (Jewish) Jon Stewart. And because, well, they are Stewart and Colbert. And I’m not. So I am just going to have to play it straight here. Happy Hanukkah. Happy Thanksgiving. Celebrate, and give thanks.