Interfaith Families, Beyond Chrismukkah

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Just before my son’s interfaith Coming of Age and Bar Mitzvah, I got a request from a graduate student who wanted to attend the ceremony as part of her ethnographic field work. My first reaction was, “no way.” As a journalist and a control freak, I am wary of being the subject. And I wanted to stay focused on this intimate family celebration, and not have to worry about being misunderstood. But in the end, I relented. The desire to educate won out over the desire to control my family’s narrative. And so, eight years later, Samira Mehta describes that ceremony in her new book, Beyond Chrismukkah: The Christian-Jewish Interfaith Family in the United States.

It is satisfying to feel seen and heard, as academics begin to acknowledge the rich complexity of interfaith families inside and outside of traditional religious communities. Mehta, now an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Albright College, provides an important historical framework for analyzing the choices made by interfaith families, from the 1960s to the present. (It’s a great complement to Erika Seamon’s Interfaith Marriage in America: The Transformation of Religion and Christianity). And she creates the most thorough and insightful academic analysis, so far, of those of us choosing to celebrate more than one family religion and culture. This is a book that all interfaith families, and those who love us, and those who study us, will need to read.

Samira Mehta and I have been in an extended professional conversation on these topics ever since that Bar Mitzvah, eight years ago. So this is not a standard book review, but rather an essay in response to Beyond Chrismukkah. Perhaps more objectively, Publishers Weekly called Mehta’s analysis “thorough and impressive.” They did quibble about a dearth of stories from actual interfaith couples. But here, I want to quibble with that quibble. Plenty of books (including my own) have told stories of interfaith couples. This book is valuable primarily for providing historical context and academic analysis, shedding new light on the family stories told in previous books.

The opening chapter of the book traces Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic institutional responses to interfaith marriage from the 1960s through the 1980s, decades when those institutions often worked to try to prevent interfaith marriage. (Both the rabbi who refused to marry my parents, and the rabbi who did marry them, are mentioned as playing key roles in this history). Also, Mehta’s close analysis of interfaith families in popular culture through the 20th century—in television, theater, films and children’s literature—illuminates when and why and how these families struggled for acceptance in our culture.

Beyond Chrismukkah does include several detailed stories of individual interfaith families. So, in a chapter on how race and ethnicity intersect with religion in interfaith families raising Jewish children, Mehta portrays two interfaith families—one with a black parent, one with a Latino parent. And then she makes the keen observation that the Jewish community more readily accepts incorporation of Christian elements in interfaith family practice when the Christian partner is a person of color (and thus seen as having an important minority culture of their own), as opposed to a Christian partner seen as a member of the dominant white culture.

Four additional detailed family stories illustrate four different ways that interfaith families are resisting the expectation to choose one religious affiliation, and raising children “partially Jewish,” (this is the Jewish survey terminology, not mine or Mehta’s). Mehta did extensive interviews with a family that is unaffiliated but incorporates home-based Jewish and Christian traditions, a family affiliated as Unitarian-Universalist but incorporates Judaism in that practice, a family that has separate dual affiliations in both a Jewish and in a Mormon community, and a family (my family!) that affiliates with an intentional interfaith community providing Jewish and Christian education to interfaith children. “Rather than finding such families unmoored from religious practice and moral formation,” writes Mehta, she found they “often developed a cohesive family narrative or sense of why they were together as a family beyond denominational constraints.”

As Mehta points out, (and as I have pointed out), much of the research on interfaith families has been funded by Jewish institutions, and thus has not been objective. In contrast, Mehta, as a scholar, “starts from an assumption that the religious lives and realities of the interfaith families themselves are as important as the official policies of their religious organizations toward such families.” This is indeed refreshing. And yet, this book still skews Jewish. Mehta includes two full chapters devoted to interfaith families raising children “only” Jewish, and hardly mentions interfaith families raising children Christian. At least in North America, Jewish institutional fears have largely driven the interfaith families narrative, and Mehta’s work still reflects that reality.

Nevertheless, the arrival of Beyond Chrismukkah signals that more objective academic exploration of interfaith families and complex religious identities has finally begun. Alongside a handful of new books studying “multiple religious practice,” (including Duane Bidwell’s upcoming book), Mehta’s work marks a new willingness to listen to the voices of those with complex religious lives. For, as she concludes, without grappling with “the many ways that those families live out their lives and with the hybrid identities that they create, it is no longer possible to understand religion in American.”

 

Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family.

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Manischewitz: A Tale of Two Bottles

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This year was the first time we held a Passover seder in my childhood home, since my Episcopalian mother died. My father still lives in the house, and my siblings and I gathered this year to create a seder with, and for, him. At 93, Dad still sits at the head of the table and leads us through the prayers and songs in the haggadah (the booklet that sets out the service before and after the Passover meal).

To lead, he uses a sheet of yellowed paper with an outline of pages to include and pages to skip, tucked into our stack of haggadot. In my father’s penciled block lettering, the sheet is marked “First Parish, 1977.” That was the year he first edited a one-hour model seder for the Sunday School at the Unitarian church overlooking our town green. As one of the only Jewish people in our New England village in that era, he felt both honored and obligated to take on this annual educational duty. Dad’s distillation of the seder turned out to be the perfect length for our extended family of all ages and all religions. And so the “First Parish, 1977” seder became a part of our own tradition.

If my father was in charge of the service, my mother was always in charge of the kitchen. And we struggled this year with trying to replicate her seder. Her matzoh balls were always perfect. Mine fell victim to multi-tasking: they fell apart and floated out into the soup, more like stratus clouds than cumulus. My sister and I chopped the charoset, but then I kibbitzed as she sauteed the nuts in butter, just like Mom used to. Mom swore it made the charoset taste better, but this step seems “de trop,” and somehow not in the proper kosher spirit to me now.

Every moment of seder preparation this year felt like a meditation on time and tradition, with a hundred small decisions about whether to stick to the ways of our past or move on. So this became the year that I finally poured the last dregs of Manischewitz from a bottle we had used for decades down the sink. This is cheap wine, but the $2.59 price sticker (and the font of that sticker) spoke to the ancient origins of this particular bottle. No one in our family drinks the stuff: we only use a glug or two for the charoset each year. So the bottle had lasted almost forever, like a Passover miracle. The remaining wine was brown and cloudy with sediment, but I had a hard time letting go of the lovely old bottle, imagining how my mother’s hand had lifted it each year and poured the sacred libation into the charoset.

I thought about tucking the empty Manischewitz bottle into my carry-on bag and sneaking it home, but I am a notorious pack rat and decided to do the brave thing instead. Before I consigned it to recycling, I set up the old and new bottles side by side, and studied the changes over time. The wine has gone from 12 percent alcohol to 11 percent: my brother who lives in Napa Valley tells me this is presumably a cost-cutting measure. The lovely images of grape leaves are now smaller and less distinct and the dusty blue Concord grapes have become more standard purple grapes on the new bottle. There is less Hebrew, and the looping Hebrew cursive script is gone. The gold Star of David has become smaller. And most notably, the Old World rabbi with the long white beard on the original bottle has disappeared completely on the new bottle.

I don’t know what year Manischewitz edited out that rabbi. I tried to google for a date, but found only a piece from NPR describing how the wine was once popular with African-American men in particular, with a link to a marvelous television ad featuring Sammy Davis Jr. One can imagine that the company made most of the label changes in order to attract a consumer base beyond the Jewish community. As for the rabbi on the bottle, a Manischewitz brand manager was not sure what year the label changed. But she told NPR, “you’re not going to find it on the shelf—and if you do, goodness, don’t drink it, I don’t know how old it is.”

Oops. We did find it on a shelf, in the bottom of the wet bar, in the suburb of my youth. And we did use it in our charoset last year, with no ill effects. But this year, it was time to let go.

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Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family.

 

 

Passover and Good Friday, 2018

Spring purple crocus
Photo, Susan Katz Miller

In both Christianity and Judaism, the dates for the major spring holidays are guided by an intricate dance of the moon and the sun–the lunisolar calendar. This means Passover and Holy Week (from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday) often overlap. And this year, Good Friday and the first Passover Seder fall on the same night, maximizing the logistical challenges for interfaith families who celebrate both religions. (I first wrote about this convergence in 2012, and again in 2015).

Theologically, many interfaith families experience more cognitive dissonance in the spring, when Passover and Holy Week overlap, than they do in December, with Hanukkah and Christmas. The idea that the Last Supper was a Passover Seder is tantalizing, though historically debatable. But for Jews, this idea may also raise the red flag of supersessionism—the problematic idea that Judaism was simply a starter religion in the evolution of Christianity.

The contrasting moods of Passover and Good Friday may also contribute to the dissonance. Good Friday is a solemn commemoration of the crucifixion and death of Jesus. A Passover Seder is a joyous celebration of the exodus from slavery in Egypt, involving feasting and drinking. (Though this joy may be tempered by acknowledging the violence of the plagues, frustration over the long history of Middle Eastern conflict, and the ongoing effects of slavery and colonial oppression worldwide).

Meanwhile, in the realm of the practical, both Passover and Good Friday involve culinary restrictions. And they are both traditionally marked in the evening. So the overlap this year may pose a greater logistical challenge than the overlap of Passover and Easter (which is celebrated mainly in the morning and afternoon).

So, how to honor both, with grace under pressure? Keep in mind that every family celebration, especially when there are small children involved, is going to be imperfect. As inspiration, I offer the words of multifaith bard Leonard Cohen: “Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

Below, I suggest some possible strategies for this year:

  1. Move the Seder. Many Jewish families celebrate multiple Seders–before, during, and even after the official eight days of Passover. If Christian family members want to fast and attend church on the night of Good Friday this year, consider shifting the first Seder to Saturday night. Some families might even wait to have a Seder on Sunday or Monday night, when the mood will be more festive for both Jewish and Christian family members.
  2. Adapt the Seder. Some Christians may be fine with going to a noon service on Good Friday, and then a first Seder on Friday night. And some interfaith families will feel they must hold the first Seder on the traditional date. In this case, it would be thoughtful to adapt the Seder main dish, if your Christian family members are avoiding meat for the Good Friday fast. So, salmon instead of brisket? Or, explain to extended family ahead of time that your Christian family members may skip the brisket and wine, but partake of the matzoh-charoset-horseradish sandwich and matzoh ball soup, egg and parsley.
  3. Adapt Easter. Whether you have your first Seder on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, or later, look for ways to make Easter easier for Jewish family members. For breakfast, we like to make matzoh brei (eggs scrambled with matzoh) instead of the traditional Easter pancakes—the savory protein dish offsets the sugar rush of Easter candy. And at Easter dinner, my interfaith family serves lamb, a Passover tradition in many Sephardic homes, rather than ham. (Be aware that there is a big debate about whether and what kind of lamb you can eat at Passover). Avoiding ham reduces the culinary dissonance, even in a family like mine that doesn’t keep kosher the rest of the year.
  4. Curate. Trying to reenact every single family Passover and Easter tradition in one weekend may cause parents and children to melt down like Peeps in the microwave. Every family, whether monofaith or interfaith, curates the family traditions they want to preserve, and sets aside others. So, as much as I loved the idea of the Easter cake made in the shape of a lamb, we skip this tradition. I don’t love cake made from matzoh meal, and the idea of cutting into a lamb cake always bothered my vegetarian daughter. Our preferred dessert for the weekend is matzoh toffee brittle. On the other hand, we always make space for dying eggs. We’re a family of artists, and it pleases me that the hard-boiled egg is connected to both holidays.

As always, creating successful family holidays depends on putting yourself in the shoes of others, and clear communication. If a strategy works for you, try to tune out the self-proclaimed experts telling you that you are doing it wrong. Be confident in the knowledge that the different ways to celebrate together are as numerous as the leaves of spring grass.

 

Susan Katz Miller is a speaker and consultant on interfaith families and interfaith bridge-building, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family.

Coming Soon: A New Book for Interfaith Families

Frozen Pine Needles
Photo by Susan Katz Miller

 

It has been a freezing winter, with everything cased in ice, still waiting for a thaw. Meanwhile, my longtime followers may have noticed that my blog has been in hibernation. After almost a decade of posting, and more than 300 essays on the topic of interfaith families, I have been sluggish in writing new material here. Instead, I curled up in my den, trying to keep warm through seasons of family grief, and dark times for the country, and the planet.

But now spring is on the way. And, while hibernating, I have been gestating a new book for interfaith families. Now that I have submitted the manuscript, and the sun is returning, and grief is receding, I will return to posting more often here. In the meantime, you can always find my curated links for interfaith families on my facebook author page, and on twitter.

The percentage of interfaith families continues to grow, and there is still a serious lack of informed and impartial books and resources by, for, and about us. Before 2018 ends, if all goes according to plan, my new book will reach you, providing support and inspiration for all interfaith families, whether Protestant and atheist, Muslim and Jewish, Hindu and Unitarian-Universalist, Pagan and Catholic. And I am already booking a new round of speaking engagements and workshops for next fall and winter, so that we can continue these conversations in person. So, stay in touch here for more details, as we awake, stretch, and stumble out into the spring light together.

 

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is a speaker and consultant on interfaith families, interfaith education, and interfaith peacemaking. Her book Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available from Beacon Press.

“Intermarriage” and a Rabbi Roundtable

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I could not resist responding to a piece posted today in The Forward, as part of a new regular feature called the Rabbi Roundtable.

The topic: “Is Intermarriage a Problem or an Opportunity?”

Where to start? Let’s start with the sample. The Forward published answers from 22 rabbis, and half of them are Orthodox. Only two are Reform. According to Pew Research (2013), 10% of American Jews claim Orthodox affiliation, and 35% Reform (by far the largest denomination). As I read through the first five rabbinic responses, all of them Orthodox or Conservative, my mind was blown as I noted each rabbinic affiliation. Why would The Forward skew the sample so radically away from the reality of the American Jewish landscape?

Next, there’s that word, intermarriage. This is not a word used by most people in interfaith families to describe themselves. Among the 72% of American Jews who are neither Orthodox nor Conservative, you are rarely going to hear anyone call themselves “intermarried.” Less than a year ago, The Forward published my piece, “Four Reasons We Should Stop Calling People Intermarried.” I hope more of the rabbis in this Roundtable will read it, and talk with real life interfaith families about how they feel about this term.

Also problematic: giving the rabbis a stark choice of “problem, or opportunity.” I don’t experience my family as a problem, or as an opportunity for the Jewish community (or any other community). Interfaith family members are taking leadership roles in religious communities across the spectrum, and we may be your best hope for understanding and engaging with the unaffiliated. But we don’t experience our families from the perspective of Jewish market share. We see our interfaith families as embodying and celebrating boundary-busting ritual and liturgical creativity, and spiritual inspiration, and interfaith bridge-building, and cross-cultural peacemaking.

And finally, I must speak to the corrosive content of many of the rabbinic responses. In today’s Roundtable, rabbis call interfaith marriage “a sin,” “tragic,” a way “for Jews who are not interested in Judaism to leave,” something we “must work harder to combat,” and the “high price for acceptance” that is leading to Judaism being “hugged and kissed to death.” Of course, many of these rabbis, even some of the Conservative and Orthodox ones, also spoke to the importance of trying to be more welcoming and inclusive. Unfortunately, the extreme bias in the survey sample in this case means that interfaith families will feel neither welcome nor included after browsing through these Roundtable opinions. Today’s piece in The Forward badly misrepresents the experiences of interfaith families, and minimizes the important reality of shifting rabbinic opinions on our existence.

 

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is a speaker and consultant on interfaith families, interfaith education, and interfaith peacemaking. Her book Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available from Beacon Press.

 

 

 

High Holy Days 2017: Finding Interfaith Community

Rosh Hashanah Apples, photo Susan Katz Miller

September means back to school. The last of the tomatoes, and the first pumpkins. Cooler nights. The angle of the autumn light. And for many families celebrating Judaism, a scramble to figure out how to celebrate the High Holy Days.

The New Year of 5778 in the Hebrew calendar starts at sundown on September 20th this year. That means that the High Holy Days start with Rosh Hashanah on the evening of September 20th. And the Days of Awe always conclude ten days later with Yom Kippur, which starts this year with the Kol Nidre service on the evening of September 29th.

Fall sends many interfaith families in search of a spiritual home. For those who want to give children a (not necessarily exclusive) Jewish education and identity, at least two different options now exist in many places. Jewish communities have become more inclusive and welcoming to interfaith families. And at the same time, a growing proportion of interfaith families are seeking out communities to support them in celebrating both family religions.

Jewish religious educators and clergy have created programs to serve interfaith families, and have become more skilled in creating warm and appreciative pathways for interfaith families choosing membership in Jewish communities, whether or not the Christian (or Muslim, or Hindu, or Buddhist) spouse converts to Judaism.

What you will not find in these Jewish interfaith family programs is the support and advice of Christian clergy (with one notable exception, that I’m aware of, in NYC), or education for children about Christianity. And partly in response to these limitations, intentional, independent interfaith communities began to grow in many cities across the country in the 1980s, built by families with a desire to provide literacy in both religions for children, and spiritual support for both spouses.

The High Holy Day services these interfaith communities provide, or the Jewish services they attend as a group, are not a mixture of the two religions. They are traditional services, chosen or designed to be as welcoming and inclusive as possible, and celebrated by interfaith families together as a group sharing profound respect for both religions.

In New York, intermarried couples first designed their own High Holy Day services led by interfaith families in Manhattan in the 1980s. Today, families from the Interfaith Community chapters throughout the New York metropolitan area, including New Jersey and Long Island, gather to celebrate together, both at their own events, and with local Jewish communities.

In Chicago, Jewish and Catholic families have been teaching children both religions since 1993. Chicagoland families from the Interfaith Family School downtown, and the suburban interfaith families from the Interfaith Union, attend services together at local synagogues for the High Holy Days.

And in Washington DC, my own community, the Interfaith Families Project (IFFP), provides a full set of four traditional (yet progressive) High Holy Day services specifically designed by and for interfaith families, now led by Rabbi Rain Zohav. IFFP also provides specific children’s services on both holidays.

Meanwhile, families from IFFP in DC who moved to Philadelphia started their own interfaith families community,  to teach both religions, years ago now. You can join them for their 9th annual Rosh Hashanah apple-picking event this year. Growing up, my Reform Jewish family always went apple-picking around Rosh Hashanah: it’s a lovely tradition!

But what if you live in Seattle, or Nashville, or anyplace that does not yet have an intentional interfaith families community? Start by reading my  tips on how to get started with Rosh Hashanah at home, and with finding and creating a community of your own. Then, join the Network of Interfaith Family Groups, designed to support families celebrating any two (or more) family religions, and to help you to find other such families in your area. Already, we have a group that is coalescing in Atlanta

Each fall provides a new chance to connect with other interfaith families, to begin religious education for your children, to discover or rediscover the beauty of the Jewish holidays. As the days grow shorter, return, renew, rejoice in the many options for interfaith families.

 

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is a speaker and consultant on interfaith families, interfaith education, and interfaith peacemaking. Her book Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available from Beacon Press.

Passover and Easter 2017 in Interfaith Family Communities

 

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Egg.       Photo, Susan Katz Miller

 

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

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

WASHINGTON DC

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

PHILADELPHIA

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

NY/NJ/CT

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

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

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

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

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

CHICAGO

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

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

ELSEWHERE

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

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

 

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