A Wandering Jew on Yom Kippur

photo Susan Katz MillerI have a confession.  I am not taking my children to a High Holy Days service at a synagogue this year.  When they were small, I took them to free family services at a local synagogue where they handed out kazoos, presumably on the theory that these plastic noisemakers resemble shofars. As soon as the kids got their hands on the instruments, chaos ensued. The Rabbi spent the rest of the service trying to regain control of his mutinous miniature congregants. The atmosphere was not particularly conducive to deep contemplation.

Last year, I thought my children were old enough to go to an adult service with me, so I bought tickets. I did my research and chose a congregation known for its choir. I was hoping to replicate my positive High Holy Day experiences growing up in a Reform Synagogue. We had a gorgeous choir with a ringer Irish soprano: the music is what got me through those long and hungry hours, and even inspired glimmerings of spirituality. But the morning I took my kids happened to be one that did not feature the choir after all. And it went on, and on, and on, with heavy Hebrew and unfamiliar new tunes. In terms of helping my children feel positive about going to synagogues, it was what they would term an “epic fail.”

When I can, I try to fly home to my parents for these holidays, to the synagogue of my childhood. But the congregation has tripled in size–I don’t know anyone anymore. The rabbi who refused to officiate at my interfaith marriage has retired. Realistically, I cannot fly my children to Boston for both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur while school is in session. And I also know that this congregation, as with most congregations, would be challenged by the idea of how to truly welcome children with only one Jewish grandparent–and a Jewish grandfather at that.

So on Yom Kippur, we will be where we feel most at home, with our interfaith community. Our service is only an hour long, at the close of the day, to accommodate those who go to work, and those who go to temple services. But honestly, it is just the right amount of time for kids and Christian spouses. And we know for darn sure that the sermon will not be about the “dilemma” of interfaith marriage, or who should get to be a Jew, or whether we are passing all the litmus tests for raising our children correctly. And we will know just about everyone in the room. These are my people now.

“So Why Aren’t You a Unitarian?”

I love Unitarians! Some of my best friends are Unitarians! I grew up in New England, where Unitarians are very active, widely respected, part of the cultural norm. When the Unitarian Church in our town studied Judaism each year, my father, the local nice Jewish guy, would put on a Passover seder for them. And I am grateful that what has become the Unitarian Universalist (referred to as “UU”) Association has provided a home for countless wandering interfaith families.

I am aware of the lively debate on whether Unitarians are more “post-Christian” than Christian. I know that the Christian flavor of any given UU congregation varies greatly from church to church. And I also know that interfaith families have brought an active “Jewish UU” subculture to many of these churches. But still, it is a church, and some Jewish parents of interfaith children have trouble getting beyond that. Me, I feel comfortable, even inspired, in many UU churches.

But it is unlikely that a church (or synagogue) of any stripe will ever provide what I have now: an entire community of interfaith families on a journey together, an entire Sunday School filled with interfaith children dedicated to exploring both sides of their heritage. And we are dedicated to delving as deeply as we can into both the Jewish and Christian traditions. So, for instance, our program teaches the Hebrew alphabet and has a rabbi on the staff, which is not likely to happen in a UU Church.

My family is one of over a million interfaith Jewish/non-Jewish families in America now, and that number is growing by 40,000 new families each year. We need all the options to stay open for us. We need Jewish institutions to welcome us. We need churches to notice and try to understand us. And we need to continue to develop new models of how to be true to ourselves and give our children access to their rich inheritance.

A Beer with Barack

Today I claim Barack Obama as a fellow interfaith child. Of course he’s a Christian. He made that choice, and has every right to do so. I waited years to claim him as an interfaith child because I so badly wanted him to be President, and I willingly participated in the liberal media conspiracy to downplay his Muslim roots.

But at this moment, I am filled with nachas (Yiddish for pride in the accomplishment of a relative) because Obama will be drinking beer this evening at the White House with a black professor and a white police officer. I see this inspired gesture as quintessential interfaith, or bicultural, behavior. He sees the conflict from both perspectives, and inserts himself in the middle to become the human bridge between the two.

Of course, race is still the primary identifier in America, and Obama’s status as a mixed-race child trumps his interfaith background. But when you listen to his moving speech in Cairo last month, it is clear that he benefits from his formative experiences with Islam. While he did not know his Muslim biological father, growing up with knowledge of this family connection can have a strong effect on an interfaith child’s identity. Even more important was his experience as a boy in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world, with a Muslim stepfather. Obama is both a practicing Christian and someone raised with an intimate knowledge of Islam. I celebrate his interfaithness, and see that the world has already benefitted from it.

As an interfaith child, I am proud to share the “both/and” perspective with many other Americans–children who embody two or more races, immigrants who straddle two cultures, expatriate offspring raised in other countries. All of us see ourselves in Obama. Many of us aspire to use our “both/and” status to become religious bridges, Obama-style. I don’t happen to like beer, which is just as well given the different religious perspectives on alcohol. Anyone want to come over for a root beer?

Perfect Pitch, or Polyrhythms

A fascinating story in today’s Washington Post describes how some Japanese children develop perfect pitch after their parents train them throughout the day, over a period of years. I admire these parents, just as I admire the parents who work hard to instill Jewish identity in their children through daily practice and sacrifice. I certainly admire my own mother, who schlepped us to Hebrew school, came with us to temple, and even tried studying Hebrew, though she never converted to Judaism.

I regret a bit that I did not work with my children to help them develop perfect pitch. It seems like a magical quality. But at the conclusion of the article, an American music professor states that he’s not sure many Americans would want their children to be so specialized at such a young age. He says, “In our culture…we seem to want our children to be well-rounded, involved in a multitude of activities.”

In choosing dual religious training for my children, I decided I wanted them to be well-rounded, even though I knew I was forgoing the benefits of total immersion in one religion. The musical metaphor for their training might be polyrhythms—the simultaneous playing of more than one independent rhythm.

Is it possible to become a musician without perfect pitch? Of course. I suspect American musicians even have some easy, swinging quality they might not have had with more rigid musical training early in childhood. Is it possible to become a good Jew or a good Christian after a childhood straddling both religions? Those who convert later in life often have a zeal, or flair, which comes from the experience of choosing a religion as an adult.

I made my choices for my children, knowing that there would be benefits and drawbacks. I realize they may never have the ability to name the individual notes in a piece of music, as if hearing in a third dimension. And it will be harder for them to develop fluency in Hebrew or the sense of unquestioned belonging in either religion. But if they decide they want to convert to Judaism, or Christianity, they will have a well-rounded religious training on which to build. I don’t have any expectation that they will choose one religion, or not choose. I do expect them to improvise, to swing, and feel music and spirit in their bones, whatever music it may be.

To Be or Not to Be…a Half-Jew

I appreciate the in-your-face “we can call ourselves whatever we want” quality of the half-Jew movement. Many of us have issues with the fact that Jews can’t even agree on who is a Jew, and yet they try to tell us we can’t call ourselves half-Jews.

Traditional Jewish law known as halacha specifies that either you’re a Jew (because your mother was a Jew) or you’re not. Your Jewish father? He’s, uh, chopped liver. But since 1983, Reform Jews have officially accepted either matrilineal or patrineal half-Jews as Jews, as long as they have been “raised Jewish.” The seemingly endless arguments over “Who is a Jew” continue to alienate interfaith families.

Meanwhile, many of us insist that being half-Jewish is a unique and even positive state, despite widespread disapproval. A spunky website called halfJew.org died an untimely death after vicious flaming shut down the comments section. But in the 21st century, it will be hard to ignore half-Jews as we come into our own. By the year 2030, there will be more half-Jewish children than there will be “full-blooded” Jewish children in America. As Robin Margolis, founder of the Half-Jewish Network points out, “If we’re the majority, we’ll decide who’s a Jew.” You can read great blog posts just this month about being half-Jewish at jezebel.com and thefbomb.com.

Personally, while I’m cheering on the half-Jew movement, I usually identify myself as an interfaith child rather than a half-Jew. I like the positive associations of interfaith—of cooperation, of interweaving, and even the possibility that we are talking about faith or spirituality, as well as culture. I don’t like the way “half-Jew” ignores and diminishes my other half. I identify myself as a whole, not as a fractional Jew. And I have common ground with interfaith children who aren’t Jewish at all—whether they’re Muslim/Hindu, or Christian/Buddhist. Finally, I think about my own children, who are only one-quarter Jewish, and the “wrong” patrilineal quarter at that. Our family shares a label, a community, a history now. We’re not a half-Jewish family. We’re an interfaith family.

My Interfaith Declaration

I’m an interfaith child. I’m not confused or lost. I embrace my Jewish and Christian family. I explore the history and rituals of both religions. It is natural for me to switch off between my Jewish and Christian lenses, the way I switch between my reading glasses and my distance glasses. Each pair is useful. I carry them both with me. I need both perspectives.

I’m also an interfaith parent. My children are not confused or lost. They have been raised to celebrate both their family religions.  They have learned about both traditions in a religious education program with over 100 other interfaith children in Washington, DC. Our interfaith community here is part of a growing, international movement of interfaith families who do not want to choose one parent’s religion over the other. My children know that this choice is still unusual and highly controversial. They take pride in being different, in learning both Hebrew and parables. They wear the progressive lenses that fuse two ways of looking at the world.

I have hesitated for years before launching this blog, in part because I know it will attract some anger from both individuals and institutions. But as I advise interfaith families and groups around the country, as we forge this hybrid universe together, I wanted to create a forum to share our stories. I invite you to be brave, and do just that.