Interfaith Families: Why I (Still) Use The Term

How do those of us who form families across religious (or secular/humanist/atheist) differences find other families like us?

How do we share resources and support each other?

How do we talk about our identities, advocate for our right to exist, create space at all the tables, and encourage the academic study of our experiences?

To search, google, connect to each other, and join relevant conversations, we use the term interfaith families.

I have been using that term since I was born into an interfaith family in 1961. I have been using that term for more than a decade of blogging, writing books, and posting on social media on this topic. And I used it in founding the Network of Interfaith Family Groups.

As I have acknowledged in the past, the term is imperfect. For instance, “faith” is more central for Christians and Muslims than it is for Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, or (obviously) atheists. But the alternative often used in Jewish contexts, intermarriage, is loaded with all kinds of problematic linguistic baggage, as I wrote here.

So, why write about this now?

Today, the longtime Jewish organization doing outreach to interfaith families, interfaithfamily.com, unveiled a rebranding, moving away from the term “interfaith family” in their title. They are now “18Doors: Unlocking Jewish.” Of course, to explain the purpose of the organization, the “About” section refers to interfaith couples, families, and “Jewish interfaith relationships.” To my point, interfaith families looking for help are not going to find this organization, or understand that it is meant for them, without explicit use of the term “interfaith families.”

Interfaithfamily.com has always encouraged Jewish institutions to be more welcoming and inclusive, and has always supported interfaith families practicing Judaism. Thus, they play an important progressive role in Jewish institutional spaces. That is why I have worked on occasion with interfaithfamily.com since its inception, providing essays and reviews, and most recently, speaking to their rabbinic fellows.

On the other hand, it has been awkward, at times, having a Jewish organization devoted to a relatively narrow slice of interfaith families (those “making Jewish choices”) claim all rights to the language “interfaith family.” Interfaith families include families that don’t make Jewish choices–or any religious choices at all. Interfaith families also include Hindu and Muslim families, and Pagan and atheist families, and families celebrating Catholicism and spiritual practices of the African diaspora, and many more permutations. My work now is to support all interfaith families, of any or all religions or none. The Interfaith Family Journal  takes this expansive and global approach to the interfaith family landscape. This approach, my approach, is more about creating and leading, and less about hoping for inclusion or to be welcomed, or hoping for any particular religious outcome.

With the change to 18Doors, the organization formerly known as interfaithfamily.com claims a hip, clever, and more explicitly Jewish title, leaving more space for all of the rest of us from the kaleidoscope of interfaith families worldwide to use the “interfaith family” language as the term of art.

Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of The Interfaith Family Journal, and Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family.

My (Interfaith) Decade, 2010-2019

Brittany Coast. Photo by Susan Katz Miller

This was a big decade for me. Both personally and professionally, the past ten years have featured dizzying highs and devastating lows, interwoven achievements and heartbreak. I am, frankly, exhausted just thinking back on it. And yet, it seems important to do just that–to try to gain perspective and a sure footing as I gaze out at the horizon of the next decade.

I have been laid low. I experienced more personal loss in this decade than in my whole previous half-century. The big, gorgeous, three-generation interfaith family I depicted in my first book, Being Both, changed dramatically. I lost my father, my mother, and my mother-in-law. I lost my teenage nephew. My husband and I each had to empty and sell multigenerational family homes, severing ties to two formative places in our entwined family history. And this year, we lost our 17-year-old dog.

And yet I wrote, and spoke, and advocated. Somehow, in this same decade, my experience as a journalist on three continents, and my lifetime in an interfaith family, all culminated in a new body of work. I felt called to document interfaith family life, and to speak up and speak out to defend the full diversity of our experiences. In this spirit, I published two books, including The Interfaith Family Journal this year, and ten years worth of essays (368 of them) on this blog. I published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and a dozen other media outlets. I was invited to speak in more than 30 cities in more than 15 different states and countries. And I founded the Network of Interfaith Family Groups, a national support hub for interfaith families celebrating two or more religions.

This work, making space for interfaith families, has often felt risky. I have received threats from organizations and individuals, and nasty attacks in the press. I have had people refuse to share a stage with me. At least one brave non-profit lost a funder because they invited me to speak. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that all of this tsuris (Yiddish for troubles) is over families that insist on loving across boundaries.

At the same time, this work continues to feel essential. And the work is not done. Interfaith families around the world are still in danger. Interfaith families in the US still face exclusion, misunderstanding, and intolerance. Meanwhile, many of us, interfaith and monofaith, are reevaluating traditional religious systems and institutions, seeking meaningful connections to carry forward.

I do see progress. After a decade of writing and speaking about the joys of being part of an interfaith family, about embracing each other, and about the benefits of interfaith education for all adults and children, I see these ideas catching on. Or at least they are now deemed worthy of debate. I see this progress in the Jewish institutional world, and in other religious, spiritual and humanist contexts.

And I do have hope. I see interfaith families inspiring and innovating new ways of being religious, spiritual, and humanist, going forward. In this decade, I have witnessed interfaith families coming together to create our own communities, use our own voices, and tell our own stories. As we begin to take on leadership roles in religious, spiritual, and secular arenas, it will become harder to talk about us, without us. May the skills and insights we have gained living as interfaith families benefit everyone, in all of our cultures, in all of our countries, as together we navigate 2020 and beyond.

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.

Eight Top Interfaith Family Posts of the Decade

Author Susan Katz Miller in Chicago in 2019

We are heading into a new decade (and the second decade for this blog). So I thought I would pause to think about the top interfaith family themes from 2009 to 2019, as represented by the most popular posts on this blog.

  1. Muslim and Jewish: Interfaith on “Shahs of Sunset (24,879 views). This post gets a lot of hits because of the success of the frothy long-running reality show, with all its fake scripted scenes and whipped-up melodrama. But I like to think there is something valuable, and future forward, about what I describe as the “unusual depiction of a close circle of Jewish and Muslim (and Christian) friends.”
  2. Ten Reasons to Teach Interfaith Children Both Religions (20,336 views). This is probably the foundational post on this blog, distilling the philosophy of interfaith families who want to give their children interfaith literacy. So I am glad it has remained a perennial top post, ever since 2010.
  3. Life of Pi: Hindu, Christian and Muslim (17,890 views). As with half the posts on this top hits list, this one goes beyond the familiar Christian-and-Jewish binary. Life of Pi reflects the global reality in which multiple religious practice is common. And the popularity of the book, and movie, has introduced many people in the United States to theological and philosophical ideas raised by the complex forms of religious identity in Asia and elsewhere around the globe.
  4. Successful Interfaith Marriage: Reza Aslan and Jessica Jackley (12,320 views). I was lucky to interview Reza and Jessica about their Muslim and Christian interfaith marriage for my first book. Later, they recorded a popular TED talk on the topic, and have begun writing about their interfaith family, so stay tuned. Muslim and Christian is one of the fastest-growing forms of interfaith family, as demonstrated by the Muslim Christian Interfaith Families group on facebook (which I helped to inspire!).
  5. Advent, Christmas, Hanukkah, Welcome Yule! Interfaith Families Doing the Most (4477 views). I have written dozens of posts on the various “December holidays” and how they overlap and interplay from year to year, but this one touches on them all. It got a spike in views in 2011 when a light-hearted piece I published in Huffington Post resulted in a nasty response in the Forward. I wrote a letter back (and eventually received an apology). For me, this post signifies the fact that much of the institutional Jewish world still cannot accept that somewhere between 25% and 50% of interfaith Jewish families are practicing more than one religion.
  6. Successful Interfaith Marriage: A Jewish and Muslim Wedding (4140 views). I love the fact that two of the posts in the “Successful Interfaith Marriage” series made it into this top eight, and neither actually centers on a Jewish and Christian family. This was the only top post written by a guest blogger, Rorri Geller-Mohammed, a social worker who runs a therapy practice focused on multiracial and multicultural families. I welcome guest bloggers, so contact me if you have anything you want to say to the world about being part of an interfaith family!
  7. Blessing of the Interfaith Babies (3782 views). This is one in an ongoing series of essays that describe moments in the communal life of an interfaith families group–in this case the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington DC. I think it gets a lot of hits because there is very little out there about how to welcome interfaith children into the family. This post provides some rituals and strategies and thoughts on how to do it.
  8. Interfaith Marriage: A Love Story (3154 views). As I write this, I see another pattern in this list. People are searching for examples of successful, loving interfaith relationships, and finding them on this blog. And it seems fitting that this post, a celebration of my parents on their 50th wedding anniversary, made it into the top eight. Now that they are both gone, I feel so very grateful that I wrote this post, and my first book, while they were still alive. Their example continues to inspire me as I begin to write about the next decade, from my new perspective as part of the eldest generation in my interfaith family.

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.

Book Review: Darius the Great is Not Okay

We need to listen to the voices of kids from all sorts of interfaith families, not just Jewish and Christian families. Darius the Great is Not Okay, by Adib Khorram, is a poignant, lyrical, hilarious novel, with an unforgettable protagonist from a complex interfaith family. This award-winning 2018 Young Adult (YA) novel stars Darius Kellner, an American teenager who happens to have a Persian-American Zoroastrian mother, and a European-American secular humanist father. The novel centers on a summer when Darius goes for an extended visit with his grandparents in Iran. While there, he meets a boy who happens to be Baha’i.

Darius may seem, on some levels, like a universal YA protagonist: awkward, insecure, and struggling with the feeling that he is disappointing his parents. He’s a nerd who loves Star Trek and Tolkien, and hates gym class. As the plot progresses, he faces some of his demons and bullies, comes to understand his flawed parents better, and grows into a more confident young man.

But this coming-of-age narrative stands out for multiple reasons. The author, who himself experienced clinical depression as a teen, creates a nuanced portrait of a teen with inherited depression who benefits from anti-depressants. His depiction of Darius as he begins to realize he is attracted to another young man is subtle and poetic. And the exploration of Iranian religions and culture is compelling, especially to those of us who are religious history nerds.

Most relevant here, Darius will fascinate anyone who is an interfaith kid. The novel, while absolutely unique, echoes some of the themes of previous YA books with protagonists from interfaith families, going all the way back to Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret (1970), up through the more recent books My Basmati Bar Mitzvah, and Mira in the Present Tense and including the brand new All American Muslim Girl. But the closest parallel may be found in prize-winning poet Naomi Shihab Nye’s Habibi. As in Darius, the protagonist of Habibi is a US-born teen with one European-American parent and one immigrant parent, who goes abroad to stay with grandparents, explores cultural and religious heritage, and makes a close friend of another religion. (In the case of Habibi, a teenage girl goes to stay with her Palestinian Muslim grandmother, and meets a nice Jewish boy).

Whether we grow up in Jewish/Christian, Muslim/Christian, or Zoroastrian/atheist families, interfaith kids share some common experiences. Darius describes himself as a “Fractional Persian.” He worries about whether he is Persian enough. He wonders whether he has the right to claim a Persian identity in Iran while feeling marked by his Persian identity back in the U.S. And he feels cut off from claiming Zoroastrianism because it is patrilinial (a barrier familiar to interfaith kids from other religions with gender-based inheritance traditions, including Judaism and Islam).

Darius also expresses a longing for unity across religious boundaries, and an attraction to learning about religious history, qualities many interfaith kids in my research share. He fondly notes the social solidarity of Persians in exile, who “celebrated Nowruz and Chaharshanbeh Suri together in big parties, Baha’is and Muslims and Jews and Christians and Zoroastrians…” And while in Iran, he speaks to the beauty of the muezzin’s call to prayer, the wonder of the Assyrian statues in Persepolis, and the power of the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence. Darius may identify with his father’s secular humanism, but he is also deeply engaged with his own complex religious heritage, and the religious landscape around him.

Last month, news broke that Darius the Great is Not Okay will become a film. And fans are eagerly awaiting a sequel novel due out in the fall: Darius the Great Deserves Better. A lot of the excitement around the sequel has focused on Darius’s coming out journey (Korram tweeted that one of the titles they considered for the sequel was Darius the Great is Not Straight). But I hope the film, and the sequel, also make space for Darius to contemplate his complex spiritual and cultural identity, as part of an extended interfaith family.

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). 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).

The Interfaith Family Journal. Wait, What Is It Again?

So I recently ran into a friend at a party who asked me, “Didn’t you publish a calendar or something this year? Based on your first book?”

I tried to be very calm in replying. Note: words in parentheses are words I was thinking but did not say.

“(Dude!!!!) it’s not a (flipping) calendar, it’s a (completely awesome) interactive journal, or workbook. (And by the way, I put my heart and soul into creating it).. And it’s not based on my first book, (which is a chronicle of interfaith families doing both). The Interfaith Family Journal  is a resource (filled with entirely new content) for anyone and everyone, whether or not they practice any religion, and no matter which religions or how many religions they practice.”

In this awkward social moment, I realized, once again, that it is not immediately obvious what the Journal is, who it is for, or what it can do for you. So I thought I’d write down some thoughts on how individuals, couples, and communities can use the Journal.

ON YOUR OWN

Any individual person, married or partnered or single, LGBTQ+ or straight, of any culture or religion, whether or not they are a parent, whether or not they grew up in an interfaith family, can use the Journal on their own. It is designed to deepen your understanding of your relationship with your formative religious or spiritual or secular experiences as a child and adult, and your dreams for the future. So indulge your-journaling-self and buy a copy!

For therapists, clergy, and religious leaders, and those considering religious leadership, working through the Journal supports the process of self-discovery and discernment. And the Journal is an essential tool for therapists and religious leaders as they counsel interfaith couples and their extended family members, including jittery parents of brides and grooms. So give a gift copy to the therapists or religious leaders in your life.

WITH A PARTNER OR PARTNERS

For those in relationships, the Journal provides a safe and supportive, intimate and private way to work through ways to engage with each other’s religious heritages and experiences (good and bad) and families, to figure out what to celebrate and when and where and how, and to explore different religious, spiritual, or secular pathways together. The Journal does not promote a particular pathway, but instead inspires deep conversation on how to be your own happiest and strongest interfaith family.

An engaged or married or partnered couple or group can best benefit by each having their own copy of the Journal, and meeting weekly (or on your own schedule) to swap Journals and read and reflect on your responses together. Your Journal partner could also be a child old enough to want to engage in questions of religion and spirituality, or a beloved friend or mentor, especially one who is helping you to raise a child.

IN COMMUNITY

A group of people and families may want to meet together, book-club style, on a weekly basis over a period of five weeks to engage together with the questions raised in the Journal, share experiences and resources, and support each other. How did you mark life cycle transitions in your family? Do you want to invite family elders to be religious or spiritual or cultural teachers for your children? Which family traditions do you want to pass down, and which ones do you want to leave behind?

If you are a religious leader or religious educator, organize a course or workshop for your community around using the Journal. Or, anyone can invite a few other interfaith couples or families to join in a five-week meet-up to go through the chapters together. You can even include children—there are downloadable coloring pages at interfaithfamilyjournal.com, and the Journal describes other creative activities for children to help with, such as drawing illustrations for your own Interfaith Family Cookbook. (You could share those family recipes at the meet-ups).

It could also be inspiring to use the Journal for community-building, with a group of neighbors who may span cultural, racial, and/or socioeconomic barriers. Imagine creating an Interfaith Neighborhood Cookbook! You don’t have to think of yourself as an interfaith family in order to benefit from the prompts and exercises in the Journal.

NEXT UP: Join me this Sunday at the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington DC as we welcome Chicago filmmaker David Kovacs, a founder of the Chicago Interfaith Family School, and see excerpts from his interfaith families film Leaps of Faiths.

On November 3rd, I’ll be facilitating the first of a two-part Interfaith Couples Workshop at the Interfaith Families Project in DC. A rare opportunity to get support from a minister, a Catholic priest, a rabbi, and me, live and in-person. Sign up now!

And, join me in Chicago for a book talk and signing on November 10th. Free and open to all.

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).

Book Review: Dessert First

We need people from interfaith families to write a whole list of books–on love, birth, coming of age, aging together–written from diverse religious, spiritual and secular perspectives. So I am thrilled that J. Dana Trent is on her way to producing an entire canon from her perspective as a Baptist minister married to a Hindu. Her first book, Saffron Cross: The Unlikely Story of How a Christian Minister Married a Hindu Monk, described her interfaith courtship and marriage with humor and humility. Her latest book, Dessert First: Preparing for Death While Savoring Life, brings those same attractive qualities to writing about the idea that we are “all terminal.”

Trent has abundant experience with death. She spent a formative year as a hospital “death chaplain,” sitting with dying patients, and with grieving families. She has been, at a relatively early age, through the deaths of her father, her mother, and her father-in-law. And she has experienced both the death of a parent with whom she had a distant and troubled relationship, and the death of a parent with whom she had an extraordinarily close relationship.

There are many self-help books out there about grief. Trent’s book stands out, not only because of the interfaith family angle, but because her irrepressible wit leavens the inevitable pain and turmoil surrounding death. For instance, she describes trying to fill out the necessary paperwork and plan a funeral in the first days after a death as ” like assembling IKEA furniture in a wind tunnel.” Having recently been through the death of both my parents, I found this to be a very apt, and funny, metaphor.

Dessert First was clearly written by a Christian living in the Bible belt. So, Trent spends significant time thinking about–and writing about–the afterlife, heaven, and the way that Christians do, or do not, navigate these ideas as death approaches. More interesting, for me, were the brief moments describing the interfaithness of her family, and the way this interfaithness has expanded to include the parental generation. So, for instance, we see her Hindu husband chanting into his father’s ear as he lies dying. And we see her mother’s body, after death, with glass Protestant prayer beads in one hand, and wooden Hindu beads wrapped in the other hand. Trent shows, in these glimpses, how her interfaith family is starting to figure out their own way to honor the religion of the deceased, while also honoring the religious rituals of those left behind.

The interfaithness of the book is also reflected in the inspirational quotes at the head of each chapter, including not only Christian texts and theologians but Rabbi Harold Kushner and the Bhagavad Gita. And Trent, who is a professor of world religions, provides a brief synopsis of ideas about the afterlife in Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism. Dessert First also includes guidance on leaving instructions for your own death and funeral or memorial, in a section that complements the material on these topics in The Interfaith Family Journal.

My only significant qualm about this book is that the author expresses a strong preference for hospital deaths, versus home deaths. Trent is from a family of health practitioners (her brother is a doctor, her mother was a nurse) and her own experiences, both as a chaplain, and with her mother, were of hospital deaths. I’m not sure what informed her idea of “the trauma of dying at home.” Both my parents died in home hospice. I found these experiences peaceful and profound, and my only regret is that we did not bring my mother home from the hospital sooner. But inevitably, we each write from our own experiences.

Whether or not you are from an interfaith family, Dessert First makes a cogent case for discussing death early and often, for leaving explicit instructions, and for approaching this essential topic with curiosity and compassion, rather than fear and trembling. This is a slim and attractive book (with sprinkles on the cover!), filled with Trent’s stories and with her bravery in writing about this topic. Dessert First should provide succor, metaphorical balm, and even laughter, to all who read it.

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).