We Count. We Just Weren’t Counted.

More on Pew’s Jewish Americans in 2020

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

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

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

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

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

Let me explain.

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

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

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

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

How can we fix this?

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

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

When One Religion Isn’t Enough

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It brings me great joy to celebrate the recent publication of When One Religion Isn’t Enough: The Lives of Spiritually Fluid People, by Duane Bidwell, who is a Buddhist, a Christian minister, and a scholar at the Claremont School of Theology. If you follow this blog, you will want to read this book.

Note: I am not the least bit objective about Bidwell’s work. I count the author as a friend, discussed the ideas with him over many years, and encouraged Beacon Press to publish this book. I knew it would help create an academic foundation for our nascent field, and greater acceptance for all of us with complex religious lives. Bidwell cites my work, including reprinting the Bill of Rights for Interfaith People I adapted from Maria Root’s work. And it is an honor to be quoted on the back of the book, alongside academic luminaries Paul Knitter, John Thatamanil and Peniel Jesadason Rufus Rajkumar.

Here’s what I wrote:

“This groundbreaking book is essential for anyone who wants to understand the contemporary religious landscape. Bidwell offers up richly detailed personal stories told with great sensitivity. In telling these stories, this book documents spiritual fluidity as transgressive yet also life-giving, and as important and surprisingly common rather than marginal and exceptional.”

I think of Bidwell’s book as a necessary complement to Being Both. While Being Both describes people from interfaith families celebrating more than one religion, Bidwell puts these families into a more global context in which whole cultures celebrate more than one religion, and also explains why more adults in the U.S. are intentionally taking on a second religion.

A word on terminology: part of the difficulty with establishing this field of study, and bringing together people from different worlds to discuss it, is that there is no consensus on how we describe ourselves. Some religious institutions still use self-referential language, such as “intermarriage” and “partial” identities. Catholic theologians created the term multiple religious belonging, but many have now shifted to multiple religious practice or multiple religious bonds, since the individual does not fully control where they can belong. Multifaith,  interreligious, interbelief, and interworldview have all been suggested as alternatives to interfaith. Anthropologists and sociologists may use the terms syncretism, hybridity, or bricolage. And in what I call #GenInterfaith, young people are more apt to use terms like mixed, religiously non-binary or intersectional, or religiously queer.

I have stood by the use of the term “interfaith,” in part because I want people to be able to find these writings, and “interfaith family” is a succinct term and still the one they are most likely to search. And while some find the many different uses of “interfaith” confusing, I am intentional in linking interfaith families and interfaith identities with interfaith peace-making and interfaith activism. And I am intentional in pushing back against those who still believe any form of “interfaith” is dangerous.

Into this complex and frankly confusing semantic landscape, Duane Bidwell makes a bold case for using the terms religious multiplicity, and spiritual fluidity.  I worry that anything with“fluidity” makes us sound mercurial, when some of us feel very grounded and stable in our complexity. But I appreciate Bidwell’s thoughtful parsing of the options and implications, and if we converge on these new terms, I’m certainly going along!  

When One Religion is Not Enough describes how individuals come to be religiously multiple, how they navigate the world with these identities or practices, and also, how they contribute to the world. This last point will strike many who harbor lingering doubts as the most novel, and most challenging. And yet, Bidwell wisely insists, “monoreligious and multiple religious people can learn from each other.”

One key contribution of this book is setting these ideas in historical and geographical context. The author refers to how spiritual fluidity arises through colonialism, conquest, appropriation, and the overlay in time and space of religious traditions. And the interviews and anecdotes draw on the rich diversity of the United States, bringing us a host of marginalized voices.

Informants include a Catholic Tibetan Buddhist, a Canadian raised with Christianity and Hinduism, a Christian theologian who grew up practicing Santeria, and a Christian pastor who is also an Ifa priest. Each of us inevitably peers through our own lenses, and Bidwell’s lenses are clearly Christian and Buddhist. But one of the many strengths of this book is the acknowledgement of the importance of immigrant, indigenous, and African diaspora religious identities in this country.

Another key contribution is the way that Bidwell organizes people with complex religious bonds: those who choose complexity, those who feel called to it, and those who inherit multiplicity either from interfaith parents or multi-religious cultures. But then he gracefully concedes that disentangling such categories is not always easy or possible: “…the categories of religious choice, heritage, and invitation are not pure or exclusive.”

I look forward to a lifetime of wrestling with this material, in conversation with this author. Bidwell writes, “In the end, people choose complex religious bonds because multiplicity offers them more benefits than drawbacks.” This certainly affirms my conclusion in studying, and living in, interfaith families. And I am thrilled that this book places people from interfaith families in conversation with other people living religiously complex lives.

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.

Interfaith Kids: Carrie Fisher (RIP) and Harrison Ford

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I grew up in what feels now like a galaxy far, far, away. In that galaxy, interfaith kids were few and far between, and we didn’t talk about the fact that we were interfaith kids. But early on, I developed a keen sense of what I now think of as “interfaithdar,” often correctly guessing which famous people came from interfaith families. Since I did not know many interfaith families in real life, each realization of another person out there from a multi-religious background gave me a tiny thrill.

And so, like many interfaith kids, I have kept a mental list of famous people with interfaith heritage who have been important to me in one way or another, including Paul Newman, Carly Simon, Peter Sellers, Adam Yauch, Lena Dunham, Drake, Bruno Mars, Matt Stone, David Yazbek, Barack Obama, Fiorello LaGuardia, Dorothy Parker, Marcel Proust, JD Salinger, Gloria Steinem, Frida Kahlo, Adrienne Rich, Gabriela Mistral, St Teresa of Avila, and Raoul Wallenberg.

But the relationship of two interfaith kids with powerful on-screen chemistry, namely Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford in the Star Wars trilogy, represent the summit of celebrity interfaith geography. And so the death of Carrie Fisher today set me to thinking about the silent bonds many of us share as interfaith kids.

Each interfaith family is different, and interfaith children can be raised with one religion, two religions, no religion, many religions, and an almost infinite variety of combinations of culture and belief and practice. Every child with mixed heritage ultimately grows up to choose their own identity, their own label. And I am not in the business of applying labels to other people based on my own frame of reference. But however we are raised, and however we identify as adults, those of us with extended family from mixed religious backgrounds share certain hallmark experiences, and learn to code-switch in a dual-faith or interreligious or intercultural context. We see the world through more than one set of lenses, and often, we learn to spot other people wearing those interfaith bifocals and trifocals.

Carrie Fisher, the daughter of the star actress Debbie Reynolds and the star pop singer Eddie Fisher, was raised “Protestant light” by her mother, but later felt affectionate bonds to her father’s Judaism. Her own daughter, actress Billie Lourd, studied religion at New York University. (In Being Both, I describe intellectual curiosity about religion and the religions of the world as a hallmark of many interfaith children). Meanwhile, Harrison Ford, the son of a Russian Jewish mother and an Irish Catholic father, once commented: “As a man I’ve always felt Irish, as an actor I’ve always felt Jewish.” I cannot help speculating about whether their parallel experiences as interfaith kids may have played some role in the way they connected, and in the off-screen romance revealed by Fisher in her most recent autobiography.

I was sixteen when I saw Carrie Fisher star as a 19-year-old in Star Wars. And so today, with the rest of the sci-fi geek world, I mourn Fisher as an icon of my youth. Her life was not easy: the lives of children raised in Hollywood rarely are. And she struggled with bipolar disorder, and with drug addiction. But as a writer, and an actress, she charmed the world with her humility, wry humor, and strength. Whatever galaxy she finds herself in now, she is at peace. And may her memory be a blessing.

 

Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, from Beacon Press. She works as an interfaith families consultant, speaker, and coach. Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

 

 

Young Interfaith Adults, In Real Life

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What happens when you grow up with interfaith education in an interfaith families community, and then go out into the real world? Recently, a panel of young adults who grew up celebrating both family religions returned to the Interfaith Families Project of Washington DC (IFFP), to speak about their experiences.  I served as the facilitator, and below, I bring you some of the highlights of our conversation. –Susan Katz Miller

 

SKM: What was it like leaving the bubble of an interfaith families community, and going off to college?

Jonah Gold (age 28): I remember very early on going to Hillel (at a private college in the northeast) and meeting the rabbi there. At the time, I thought Hillel was a little more conservative than I wanted to be, in terms of their political beliefs and affiliations. So I guess I wasn’t fully comfortable joining the on-campus Jewish community. I didn’t want to define myself as only Jewish because at the time I didn’t feel that accurately reflected myself, and at the time Hillel wasn’t trying to bring in or talk about other faiths at all. So going to college, I felt like I had to push back to continue to define myself as interfaith. But also, over time, I felt pressure to start identifying myself as Jewish. It made it easier to put myself in a box, to say “oh yeah I’m Jewish,” and go through college that way, especially going to a school that had a lot of Jewish kids.

Grace Lerner (age 26): I went to a public school in the Midwest–it felt much more conservative than my upbringing. So I felt like there was this label of otherness. When I tried to explain the interfaith aspects it was a concept that went completely over people’s heads. People on campus were pretty critical of the interfaith idea. I really struggled with that, freshman and sophomore years. So I sort of gave up. I ended up actually going to Hillel my junior year and finding a community there because the rabbi was so great. She led the best services, and they were in the chapel, so it still felt interfaith to me on some level. She talked about her own growth into Judaism, and that was something I identified with. It’s probably a lot easier in the adult world to present yourself as interfaith, which is something I have always kind of more identified with. But in terms of the ease of explaining it to other young people, it was just a lot easier to say “I’m Jewish.” And also, with my last name, my Jewish friends immediately said, “Oh you’re Jewish.”

Katie Colarulli (age 20): I’ve been coming to IFFP since I was three, so I can’t really remember a time without IFFP. Every time I come back from college, I feel like it’s my home. I still identify as interfaith, I haven’t really picked one or the other. The first time I had trouble explaining interfaith was in seventh grade. I went to an Episcopal high school. I had my interfaith Coming of Age ceremony and all my friends just rolled with it. But my English teacher was like “You can’t be both.” So I tried to explain to her that I learned both traditions, I’m comfortable in a church and a synagogue. She just couldn’t understand it. It’s something I’m so used to: for my entire life I’ve been interfaith. I’ve been raised as both. But I guess to other people it’s a concept they just can’t wrap their mind around. I feel really blessed that I’ve had this opportunity, and I’ve learned both, and I feel comfortable in both religions. And I don’t feel pressure at all to choose.

 

SKM: How has learning two religions influenced your outlook on the world in general?

JG: The biggest way that IFFP influenced me was making me more open to other faiths but also open to thinking about religion critically, but with an open heart. I got interested in studying the Middle East and learning Arabic in college, and studied abroad in Egypt. Then the first thing I did after college was go to work for a place called Search for Common Ground, and they did interfaith journalism, trying to promote intercultural and interreligious understanding in the Middle East. Then I went to live and work in Morocco for a few years.

All of that came out of wanting to explore my faith, being open to otherness, and knowing that by understanding somebody else and where someone else is coming from, you can’t go to war with them. That’s how we’re going to build a better world is by building connections between people. And I think being interfaith was the beginning of that belief.

GL: In terms of what IFFP has given me, and my outlook on the world, it’s certainly been a much more open-minded view on things. Because I grew up interfaith, and having both these lenses and perspectives, and feeling labeled “other” by both Christian and Jewish communities–by the Jewish community especially because my mom’s not Jewish, I’m “not a real Jew” according to a lot of Jewish communities–so there’s a rejection from both of these formal systems. And so I feel like my perspective on things is, however you want to practice your religion is your prerogative. The one challenge I had is that because my mom’s Protestant, I wasn’t exposed to formal Catholicism. My husband grew up very Catholic. To me it was a big shock, but because I had the interfaith background it was much easier for me to understand where they were coming from, and even see the similarities between Catholicism and Judaism in terms of ritual. So having an interfaith education has been very helpful in terms of my own interfaith relationship, moving forward as an adult.

 

SKM: What would you say to clergy who still resist the idea of interfaith education for interfaith children?

GL: It makes me a little bit angry, to be honest. It feels pretty close-minded, and it feels like they’re rejecting a lot of potential people who are seeking out community, and seeking out their communities in particular, who want to be practicing these elements of their faith. It’s a large contributor as to why young people or millennials are rejecting formal institutions of religion, because it feels so institutionalized and so rigid. You don’t have the freedom to develop the curriculum that you want, or is best for your family. It’s something that I’m so eternally grateful for IFFP for. My family helped shape the curriculum for my religious education. And for myself as a teenager, I was able to help lead the High Holy Day services and create that service with the teen group and help dictate what my religious expression would look like. Having a community that supported that, having the support of a minister and a rabbi fostering that kind of environment, was something you don’t find other places.

JG: At this wedding I was just at, I went up to talk to the rabbi, who was my college Hillel rabbi. And he was talking about the need for programming for students from interfaith families. And then he said he still doesn’t do interfaith marriages. I was offended. It’s like you’re extending one hand, but saying I don’t really want to be your friend. When you look at someone like him–he’s in his late 60s–how do you get someone who’s entrenched in something their whole lives to say they’re going to change now, when they’ve been doing something one way. I think it will be up to the next generation of clergy now to be the ones that will help lead any movement for inclusivity, in churches or synagogues.

 

SKM: How do you imagine raising your own kids someday, in terms of religion?

GL: I would seek out a community like IFFP, or one where people feel like they have the liberty to create the curriculum. The most important thing to me is having a community that is not rejecting my children for having this interfaith background. I want them to be able to learn both sides. It gets even trickier: my religious upbringing is Protestant and Jewish, but my husband was raised Catholic. So it adds a tri-level to it, almost like three different things. It’s something that I’m certainly going to be very intentional about, and I want to make sure they understand where all of these traditions come from, whether it’s mom’s family, dad’s family, grandma’s family. I think a lot of that revolves around community and how you choose to celebrate and who you choose to celebrate with. And that all family members are included in understanding how we’re going to do this. I feel confident enough in my understanding of my own religious background and identity, because of IFFP, to understand that I want to expose them to everything, but also to understand that my future children’s religious identity is theirs. It belongs to them, and it does not belong to me. So I can teach them what I want, my husband can teach them what he wants, but ultimately it’s in their hands to choose, if they want to choose, that’s fine, if they don’t, that’s also great. It’s a personal choice. All I can really do is equip them with the tools to feel like they’re empowered in their own decision-making.

JG: I think it will really depend on who the partner is and what their family’s like. If I were to marry another Jewish person, I could totally see raising my kids Jewish. If I were to marry a Christian, I would then certainly promote something that was interfaith, and then would have to try to not just be the Jewish person in the family, but also be someone who is interfaith.

KC: The most important part of IFFP beyond learning both religions, is having a community. That’s something I want my children to have. It’s a community that I feel super comfortable in, that supports me. I feel like that’s something that every child needs–religious leaders to look up to and a community backing them. So whomever I marry and whatever happens, I definitely think they need a very accepting community.

JG: But that’s what’s so hard, is that you have to find that community. When you’re just a family wandering in the world, let’s say you’re not in DC and you have to strike out on your own and figure out how you’re going to do this. I think it would be really hard to be interfaith by yourself, if there wasn’t a community. So those families either try something in their own home, and they still just go to synagogue and they go to church. I think it would be hard to build a new community. I think we got really lucky that we had the six moms (founders of IFFP).

 

Question from the audience: Why do you think it is so common for interfaith kids to seek out Hillel, but not necessarily Christian community, at college?

GL: A lot of it was being identified as a Jew by other non-Jews and Jews, and also because it felt like a minority group on campus. So the Christian part of my upbringing was just there, everyone was bringing little Christmas trees into their dorm rooms. Also, in terms of the Christian groups on campus, it was like Campus Crusade for Christ, which was not something I was down with politically, and they weren’t the most welcoming people.

Eventually I went to Hillel because I missed the family traditions—matzoh ball soup on Passover, or apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah, whereas I didn’t feel like the Christian traditions were being neglected. I went to Hillel for High Holy Days and Passover, but I didn’t go every week, even though they had free food. It wasn’t my scene: they were a lot more Jewish than I felt like I was, and I wanted to celebrate other things. But one of my best friends in college was Jewish, and we made a point of having a Passover seder at my house, and a Hanukkah party, and inviting all of our friends, not just Jewish people. We explained how it works, we lit the menorah, we read limited sections of the Haggadah. It was something I felt equipped to create on my own. When you’re comfortable with your friends and your community, then you’re going to be comfortable sharing these experiences. Who doesn’t want to eat latkes?

SKM: In my book I point out a logistical reason for interfaith kids seeking out Jewish community on campus, which is that you arrive on campus your first year, and right away, it’s the High Holidays. So you’re without your family, and you have to find Jewish community if you want to mark those days. Whereas Christmas happens during school vacation.

JG: And that’s exactly what happened with me. I was at Hillel within weeks of going to school.

 

Question from the audience: We’ve been talking about holidays, education, identity. Does spirituality, or God, play a role in all this?

GL: I feel the spiritual aspect of religion is something I’m much more in tune with than the formal part of it, the dogma. I don’t know if God exists. Everything is God’s creation, so I don’t want to label what is God. I get upset when people try to put me in a box or put other people in a box about religion. It’s incredibly personal, and I think it will continue to evolve throughout my life. That’s why having an incredibly inclusive and warm and open-hearted community that allows that kind of growth over time, for an individual or between a couple or within a family, is what is the most important part to me.

 

Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, from Beacon Press. She works as an interfaith families consultant, speaker, and coach. Follow her on twitter @beingboth.

 

Many Yet One? Multiple Religious Belonging

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As someone born into an interfaith family, I am attracted to synergy, hybridity, complexity, and convergence. Lately, I see a moment of convergence approaching, when my progressive Jewish communities and my progressive Christian communities might begin to engage with each other on the topic of interfaith families, multiple religious practice, and complex religious identities. This moment cannot come too soon.

In the Jewish world, conversations about interfaith families have historically taken place as part of a fraught discourse on the threat of “intermarriage” to Jewish continuity and worries about confused children. Meanwhile, a separate but parallel conversation has been occurring, first among Catholic theologians and academics, and more recently in the progressive Protestant world, under the labels of “hybridity” and “multiple religious belonging” (sometimes shortened to MRB). In this literature, there has been a growing realization that multiple religious practice is actually the norm, rather than the exception, in much of Asia, and among many American Indian and other indigenous peoples as a result of colonization, cultural disruption, and diaspora.

And so it was that in 2014, the World Council of Churches gathered theologians and academics in Chennai, India, for a conference on multiple religious belonging. Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson of the United Church of Christ traveled to India for the conference. She then organized two consultations in the US, in order to connect clergy to theologians thinking and writing about this new reality. I was honored to present my research on interfaith families and interfaith identities at the first of these US events.

Now, a new book of essays published by the World Council of Churches, Many Yet One? Multiple Religious Belonging (edited by Peniel Jesudason Rufus Rajkumar and Joseph Prabhakar Dayam), brings together more than a dozen of these theologians, academics, and clergy, many of them Asian or Asian-American. The academic and theological language here can be dense and at times exhausting for even the most interested general reader (that would be me). For example, I am glad I happened to go to a university that offered a semiotics major, and so had some acquaintance with the work of French postmodern philosopher Jacques Derrida.

And yet, this slim volume is essential reading to those of us from interfaith families and other multiple religious practitioners engaged in defining ourselves, and in creating new spaces in which to do that. These essays describe, explain, and restore the religious plurality and complexity found in whole cultures, and in individuals. In so doing, this book has become my new bible, if you will, because it probes, affirms and illuminates much that is positive about my experience as someone with a complex religious identity.

Some of the essays focus primarily on Christians who become dual-faith practitioners after taking on Buddhist or Hindu practices. Others focus on the dual-faith practice in areas of Asia where this has long been the norm. At least some of the essays mention interfaith families as a source of multiple religious practice. Of course, all the writers here are looking at this topic through a Christian lens (or a “Christian and” hyphenated perspective). But after spending so much time defending interfaith families in the Jewish world, it was intellectually refreshing to be immersed in the world of Christianities.

In reading this book, I penciled in a hail of asterisks and exclamation points on almost every page. I could, should, and still may write a whole post in response to each essay in this volume. For now, I am going to simply cite a list of just some of the phrases that made me so excited about this book:

  • “Must claims of double-belonging receive communal authorization before they can be recognized as valid?” Rajkumar (World Council of Churches) and Dayam (Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church)
  • “From my location in a seminary, I encounter increasing numbers of religious leaders and leaders-in-training who embody forms of multiple religious identity or practice.” John Thatamanil, Union Theological Seminary.
  • “Regardless of the resistance of religious institutions in accepting multiple religious belonging, individuals are finding their way to multiple paths without help or assistance.” Karen Georgia Thompson
  • “East Asian ‘both-and’ mode of relational thinking such as yin-yang has no problem in logically including dual identities.” Heup Young Kim, Hanshin University.
  • “…hybridity often functions as a space that allows two or more seemingly contradictory ideas or identities to co-exist without eliminating the distinction between them.” Raj Nadella, Columbia Theological Seminary.
  • “…hybridity is inherent even in what we may be tempted to categorize as ‘monolithic’ or ‘orthodox’ religious faiths.” Sunder John Boopalan, Princeton Theological Seminary.
  • “…hybrid entities cannot be understood adequately when viewed through the lens of monoculturality.” Julius-Kei Kato, University of Western Ontario.

The editors, Rajkumar and Dayam, conclude by urging churches to “move beyond tacit obliviousness and engage robustly with the phenomenon of multiple religious belonging.” This book will help Christian communities to do that. But as a bridge-builder, a synthesizer, a complex, hybrid person, I am waiting for the creation of a shared language to communicate with each other across religious boundaries. Specifically, I still wait for the time when my Jewish and my Christian communities figure out how to work together to welcome, engage, and learn from those of us who rejoice in our interfaith identities. I wait for a book like this one, written not with a Jewish lens, or a Christian lens, but by, for, and about those of us with multireligious “both-and” perspectives.

 

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

 

Hanukkah AND Christmas: 7 Books For Interfaith Children

 

 

Once upon a time, December holiday books for children focused on either Christmas, or Hanukkah. Now, many children grow up in Jewish families celebrating Christmas with Christian grandparents. Or, they grow up in Christian families celebrating Hanukkah with Jewish grandparents. Or, they grow up in interfaith families celebrating both. Here, I review seven Hanukkah and Christmas books, in order to help you find the right book for your young interfaith children or grandchildren.

1. The first popular book on this topic was probably Light the Lights! A Story About Celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas (ages 3-5), from 1999. This sweet and simple story focuses on a girl participating in both holidays at home, but does not go into the underlying religious meaning of either one. This may be frustrating for parents who want to teach religious literacy, but for young children celebrating one or both of the holidays in a secular fashion, this book is a safe choice.

2. In contrast, I do not recommend My Two Holidays: A Hanukkah and Christmas Story (ages 3-5) from 2010. The boy in this book feels embarrassed in school to admit that he celebrates both holidays. While emotionally dramatic, this plot twist does not ring true in my experience with contemporary interfaith children, and reading it could make children who feel just fine about celebrating both, feel a sense of shame. The author seems to have bought into the (increasingly mythical) “December Dilemma” conflict. Avoid this book.

3. Daddy Christmas and Hanukkah Mama (ages 5-8) from 2012, features jazzy modernist collage illustrations, and a recipe for Cranberry Kugel. The mixed media style echoes the hipster parents in this book, who mix the holidays together in a sort of Chrismukkah mash-up. They hook candy canes on their menorah, and leave latkes out for Santa. If your family does this kind of blending, this is your book. But for families trying to help kids to understand and respect the differences between the two religions, well, this is definitely not your book.

4. Published last year, Eight Candles and a Tree (ages 3-5), follows Sophie as she explains to friend and playmate Tommy that she celebrates Hanukkah and Christmas. Tommy only celebrates Christmas. I appreciated the very gentle tension as Sophie diplomatically answers questions about how and why she celebrates “both.” Sophie explains the miracle of the oil lasting eight nights in the Temple, but both children mention only the more secular aspects of Christmas (the tree, the feast), so this book works for interfaith Jewish families celebrating a secular Christmas at home, as well as families celebrating both religions. This would also be a good pick for young Christian kids curious about a cousin or friend who celebrates both, as they can identify with Tommy.

5. New this season, Nonna’s Hanukkah Surprise (ages 3-8) features the most dramatic and emotionally satisfying plot of any book for interfaith children I have seen. Rachel is flying with her family to spend Hanukkah and Christmas with her father’s Christian family. Rachel is upset when she leaves behind her menorah on the airplane, but her kind Nonna (Italian for grandmother) saves the day by creating a lovely new menorah for her, out of recycled perfume bottles. The Christian cousins gather affectionately around the menorah with Rachel to help her celebrate, modeling bridge-building across the religious divide. The author weaves in some of the meanings of Hanukkah, but the references to Christmas are oblique. This book (from a publisher of books on Judaism) was clearly written for interfaith children being raised Jewish, who celebrate Christmas only with extended family. In fact, it was a recent selection for PJ Library, the free Jewish book program for children. But I recommend it for any interfaith family.

6. The other new book this season is perfect for those who celebrate both holidays, and want to begin to teach their children the underlying meaning of both Hanukkah and Christmas. December’s Gift (ages 3-8) follows Clara as she helps her Bubbe to make latkes, and then helps her Grammy to make Christmas cookies. (The book includes recipes for both, and charming illustrations). Bubbe tells Clara the story of the destruction of the temple and the miracle of the Hanukkah oil. And Grammy teaches Clara how the star-shaped cookies and the star on the tree represent the star that led wise men to the birth of a king. There is no mention of Jesus by name. But for interfaith parents who want to give their interfaith children an interfaith education, this book is an excellent start.

7. Finally, I cannot resist writing about a book I have long imagined—a book that does not exist, yet. One of my very favorite authors, Patricia Polacco, is from an interfaith family, but has yet to write a book about that experience. She has written many Christmas books, and perhaps the two very best children’s books about loving friendships between Jews and Christians (Mrs. Katz and Tush, and The Trees of the Dancing Goats). A book about an interfaith family from Patricia Polacco is at the top of my holiday fantasy wish list.

 

 

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).

 

Another Form of Interfaith: A Christian From a Jewish Family

Sarahbeth Caplin

Jewish identities are diverse. Christian identities are diverse. And, interfaith identities are diverse. I often write about the idea that every child, no matter which religious label and education parents give them, grows up to choose their own beliefs, practices and affiliations. Today, guest blogger Sarahbeth Caplin recounts her journey, from a Jewish childhood to her conversion to evangelical Christianity, and her sense of being interfaith.–SKM

No one, not even myself, can figure out where my fascination with religion came from: I wasn’t raised in a religious family, and I certainly wasn’t raised within any Christian tradition. I don’t know what my Jewish parents thought about my early fascination with saints and martyrdom; surely it wasn’t normal, at an age when most girls I knew were into reading The Babysitter’s Club and Boxcar Children series. As an adult, it’s clear to me that God had a firm grip on my life. The question is which God.

My fascination with Christianity, particularly the idea of a god in human form, led to inevitable conversion. I spent many years trying to shoehorn my new Christian beliefs into a Jewish identity while trying to ignore the dramatic differences between the two faiths: evangelical Christianity places heavy emphasis on an afterlife, which is not a top priority in Judaism. Some Christians define sin as a state of being, while Jews view sin as an action only. And that’s just the beginning.

Messianic Judaism was a loophole I thought I found in college that would allow me to “be both,” but it quickly proved to be another branch of Christianity, albeit with some Hebrew and Jewish worship garb tossed in. I was treated like as much of a novelty in those congregations for being a Jew by blood, as I was in elementary school for being the only Jewish kid in a school full of Christians. Most disturbingly, the sermons and discussion groups centered on “outreach” and emphasized Jesus “fulfilling” the Old Law, and that never sat well with me.

If I’m being honest with myself, another huge appeal Christianity had for me, besides the Incarnation, was something that Jews in my home town lacked: community. There is no shortage of churches where I’m from, but only one synagogue: a building that used to be, incidentally, a church. I was Bat Mitzvahed there before the crosses in the stained glass windows were replaced. You could say my conversion was almost prophetic.

If I’m being even more honest with myself, I feel more like “me” wearing Hebrew jewelry than I ever have with a cross. I cannot fluently speak the language that many evangelical Christians use – phrases like “Born again,” “Time in the Word,” “Washed in the blood,” etc. But my ears can’t help but perk up whenever I hear the expressions my mother and grandmother use: kvetching, chutzpah, mitzvah, oy vey. My cupboards are filled with coffee mugs labeled “Jewish penicillin” and other Yiddish-isms instead of Bible verses with cutesy floral designs. I feel a more instant connection with other Jews than I ever do when I meet a Christian, because there are so few of us. Clearly, there is more to being Jewish than a set of beliefs, and even those are not uniform among Jews (though to be fair, beliefs aren’t uniform among all Christians, either).

I now fully accept the reality that Judaism and Christianity are two very different faiths. A Jewish identity, however, is something a bit more fluid, something I have room to work with. No matter what I believe, my childhood of lighting Hanukkah candles and having Shabbos dinners cannot be erased. My strong sense of tikkun olam cannot be denied, particularly when I hear of missions groups choosing to send bibles overseas to tsunami victims instead of food or water. These are just a few of the things that make up my still-Jewish identity.

My biggest problem, however, is figuring out the best way to explain it to people. I am constantly paranoid about killing a chance for meaningful conversation because someone might not be able to accept my interfaith self. Those people are not my friends, but rejection and accusations of hypocrisy and even apostasy still hurt.

It’s actually something of a comfort for me to remember that everyone is considered an apostate to someone. For instance, I know there are Christians who won’t consider me a “true Christian” because I support gay rights. At some point, one must own who one is and where one has been, no matter how contradictory. Life journeys, particularly religious ones, are deeply personal. If there’s anything I’ve learned from being interfaith, it’s not to condemn a person for having beliefs I might find distasteful in some way. Diversity thrives when the journey behind the belief is respected, even if we disagree with the beliefs themselves.

Sarahbeth Caplin is a stay-at-home author, blogger, editor, and freelancer in northern Colorado with a degree in English Literature from Kent State University and an MFA in progress at Colorado State. Her first book, Confessions of a Prodigal Daughter, is a memoir of her religious journey. Follow her blog at http://www.sbethcaplin.com.

New Pew Data on Interfaith Marriage. And Coming Soon, on Interfaith Identities

Pew 2014 Intermarriage chart

For as long as I have been writing about interfaith families, for decades now, it has been hard to get good data on the overall increase in interfaith marriage in America. This week, Pew Research released the most comprehensive report on religion in America since their 2007 report. The new report, America’s Changing Religious Landscape, and much of the subsequent news reporting, focused on two angles: the rise of the “religious nones,” and the interlinking shift away from traditional forms of Christianity.

But of course, my first response was to comb through the report, looking for signs of those us who live in the complex, fluid, flexible, interfaith world. Pew began describing that world in a very good 2009 report on multiple religious practitioners (people celebrating more than one religion). And after speaking to one of the researchers today, I have exciting news to share on upcoming research on those raised with, or practicing, more than one religion.

“Interfaith Marriage Commonplace” –Pew Research, 2015

But first, let’s look at the important data on interfaith families in the new report. The researchers write that “people who have gotten married since 2000 are about twice as likely to be in religious intermarriages as are people who got married before 1960.” They found 28 percent of Americans living in an interfaith marriage or partnership (when we consider Protestants as one religion). That rises to 33 percent if we consider evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants, and historically black Protestant denominations, as separate religious groups.

For those in partnerships, rather than marriages, Pew found that interfaith relationships are much more common, at about 49 percent. And they are more common in younger generations. Overall, 19 percent of people married prior to 1960 reported that they were in an interfaith marriage, as compared to 39 percent of those married after 2010. (Although the researchers note that the low percentage of pre-1960 interfaith marriages may be skewed by the fact that those who divorced, or those who converted and now have one faith in the marriage, were not counted as interfaith marriages).

Here are some additional findings on interfaith families from the study:

  • The apparent rise of interfaith marriage is driven “in large part” by marriages between Christians and religiously unaffiliated spouses. Fully 18% of people surveyed who have gotten married since 2010 are in marriages between a Christian and a religiously unaffiliated spouse.
  • Buddhists are the most likely in this study to be in a mixed-faith relationship, at 61%.
  • The least likely in this study to be in an interfaith relationship were Hindus (9%), Mormons (18%) and Muslims (21%).
  • The interfaith marriage or partnership rates were 25% for Catholics, 35% for Jews, and 41% for mainline Protestants.

What About Interfaith Identity and Multiple Religious Belonging?

In this study, Pew asked respondents for the religion in which they had been raised, present religion, and the religion of the partner or spouse. So of course my first question was (as it is for every study of religious identity), “Could respondents claim more than one religion for their upbringing, or for their current identity (or the identity of their spouse)?”

The answer to my question was not obvious in over 200 pages of report and appendices. So I contacted Pew, and ended up in conversation with the very helpful sociologist Besheer Mohamed, a Research Associate who worked on the report. I learned a lot about how this survey recorded and classified people raised in, or currently claiming, more than one religion. The answers were intriguing.

First, the researchers did write down the verbatim responses of those practicing or raised in more than one religion, although less than one percent identified themselves this way. Mohamed agreed with me that some people who practice or were raised in more than one religion might not have identified themselves that way in the survey. After a lifetime of being faced with “only pick one box” religion surveys, we really do need specific permission in order to claim more than one religion. We need to hear, “You may choose one or more religions,” before it occurs to us that this is finally an option. I know those who practice more than one religion, who will self-identified as “nothing in particular,” or “agnostic,” or just pick one religion, when the reality is that they claim two.

In this initial report, although Pew did record them, the existence of these double-religious or multiple-religious practitioners was hidden. Because those claiming two religions including any form of Christianity, were counted by Pew in the “other Christians” category. So whether Jewish and Catholic, or Buddhist and Methodist, they were coded as Christian. This is a dramatic example of the Christian lens through which we see all discourse on American religion.

Even stranger, those who claimed two religions not including any form of Christianity, for instance Jewish and Buddhist, were counted in the “other world religions” category. This category was designed for single-faith practitioners including Sikhs, Baha’is, Jains, Rastafarians, Zoroastrians, Confucians and Druze. It does seem an unlikely place to park the many people I know who are Jewish Buddhists, or Buddhist Hindus.

To add to the complexity, the study had a separate category for “other faiths,” which Pew somehow distinguished from “other world religions.” The “other faiths,” included Unitarian-Universalists (UUs), those who practice Native American religions, and Pagans. But it’s not clear to me whether a Pagan UU (and there are plenty) was also coded under “other faiths,” or coded under “other world religions” because they claimed two non-Christian religions.

The excellent news is that Pew did get much more detailed data on people raised with or identifying with more than one religion. And a report on these folks (my interfaith people!) will be forthcoming from Pew, before the end of 2015. As interfaith relationships continue to become more common, interest will continue to grow in the relationship between interfaith relationships, the growth of the religious nones, and the new ways in which people are engaging (and disengaging) with traditional religious practices and institutions.

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

Being Both: Paperback Release Events!

Being Both M&Ms

Dear readers (interfaith families, interfaith activists, therapists, visionary clergy, theologians, sociologists, historians of religion), I am so very thankful to you for joining the conversation around Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, over the past year. With your help, I have been able to bring the stories of interfaith families engaged in interfaith education to churches and synagogues, libraries and bookstores, colleges and universities. And because of our success, Beacon Press is honoring the one-year anniversary of Being Both by releasing a paperback edition on October 21st. (Random House handles distribution for Beacon Press, thus the lovely box that just arrived on my front porch, pictured below).

If you have been waiting for a lighter and less expensive edition of Being Both, with plans to order a whole stack of them for Christmas and Hanukkah gifts, for your in-laws, for the clergy and therapists you know, this is the moment!

2014-09-28 23.19.09

And to celebrate the paperback, I’ll be signing the book at a number of appearances this fall. (Books will be available for sale and for signing at all these stops). So if you have friends or family in Washington DC, Frederick MD, Baltimore MD or Chicago, please let them know about these upcoming events:

Washington DC, Sunday October 19,  7-9pm, I’ll be giving a 3-minute talk, along with 16 other authors, and signing the brand new paperbacks at the DCJCC Literary Festival Local Authors Fair. FREE but you’re encouraged to Register, because space is limited!

Chicago, Friday October 24 at 8pm, I’ll be giving the Shabbat talk and leading discussion on interfaith families at Kol Hadash Humanistic Jewish Congregation, at North Shore Unitarian Church, in Deerfield IL. All are welcome! This is my only public appearance in the Chicago area on this trip.

Baltimore, MD, Wednesday November 5 at 6:30pm, Book Talk and Signing, Enoch Pratt Free Library, 400 Cathedral Street.

Frederick, MD, Sunday November 9, Adult Education talk at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick (10am) and Book Talk and Signing, Curious Iguana Bookstore (4pm) Please RSVP on Facebook.

Takoma Park, MD, Sunday November 16 2014 1-3pm, Book Signing and Paperback Release Celebration, at Now & Then. Refreshments, including Being Both M&Ms!

My calendar is now filling with events for spring and beyond, so contact me if your church, synagogue, college or book club wants to sponsor a talk. Every interfaith family deserves to encounter the idea that interfaith families have real benefits (as well as challenges). And every clergy member needs training in how to support interfaith families. I plan to continue speaking out, wherever I am invited to go, until interfaith families feel heard, and feel appreciated in their role as skilled interfaith ambassadors and peacemakers. Please join me!

PS In case you missed it, check out this great review of Being Both by atheist author Dale McGowan, over at Patheos on the Secular Spectrum channel. And also, I think you would be interested in my latest Huffington Post piece, Letter to an Interfaith Child, in honor of the birth of Charlotte Clinton Mezvinsky.

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

Jewish and Muslim: Interfaith Children in Israel

Olive Branches, photo by Martha Legg Katz
Olive Branches, photo by Martha Legg Katz

One of the reasons I wrote Being Both was to encourage more adult interfaith children to speak out about their own experiences, positive and negative. Too often, the discourse on interfaith marriage has been dominated by people speculating and worrying about the experiences of interfaith children, rather than listening to the voices of those who actually grew up in interfaith families.

So I was very glad to read a story in Haaretz this weekend about Jewish and Muslim interfaith families in Israel. The reporter actually interviewed not only parents, but at least two children from these families (ages 10 and 19) about their experiences and identities. The article adds to the small but important collection of stories told by interfaith children about their own lives in the 21st century (including the fifty interfaith children I surveyed for Being Both).

I appreciate the reporter and Haaretz for acknowledging that these intact interfaith families exist, for giving them space to tell their own stories, and for allowing them to describe both the challenges and the benefits of being intercultural, interfaith families. In the article, 10-year-old Nour says “I’m half-Jewish, half-Arab, and I’m not ashamed of it.” This is a strong statement from a very young person, given the history of conflict in the region. (And putting aside for a moment the fact that Arab is a language-group and ethnicity, not a religion, and that there are Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Arabic-speakers).

The article does have a certain amount of language derived from traditional anti-intermarriage discourse, including the idea that identity questions “plague” interfaith children “for life.” For the interfaith families in this article, I would argue that part of the stress clearly derives not from celebrating two religions, but from living in a war zone in which the parents are expected to identify with opposite camps. It is hard to keep straight the religious, cultural, ethnic, tribal, and national issues at play in this context. For instance, the reporter writes that one family observes “the holidays of both religions except…Independence Day.” Israeli Independence Day is not a  Jewish holiday, it is a national holiday, even if some Jewish communities in the US choose to celebrate it.

But despite the complexity of this story, it is hard to ignore the voices of young people testifying to the benefits of growing up interfaith. We have young Nour, age 10, declaring that she “felt at home everywhere.” Reading her words, she does not sound plagued. She explains the issue here very succinctly, as she describes friends who gossip about her interfaith status: “I’d prefer to leave my parents the way they are, but it’s easier for friends when parents have the same religion.” In other words, she is comfortable with her interfaith family: the confusion, as I have so often written, is in the eye of the beholders.

In this article, an Israeli advocate for interfaith families, Irit Rosenblum, frets that sometimes these children choose a single religious identity in adulthood, and this can lead to a “break with one parent.” My point of view is that this break occurs only when parents cannot accept the reality that children, all children, whether interfaith or monofaith, can and will grow up to make their own religious choices. But Rosenblum also observes that some of these children lead “happy lives, content with both cultures,” and that while parents may struggle, “these children are more open to dialogue and cultural receptivity, and they can more easily cross cultural divides.” It is heartening to observe that even in Jewish and Muslim interfaith families, even in the fraught atmosphere of Israel at the end of a very long summer, the idea that growing up in an interfaith family can have benefits as well as challenges can no longer be pushed aside or ignored.

 

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