Posted tagged ‘interfaith marriage’

Strange Wives: The Paradox of Biblical Intermarriage

February 4, 2015

Stange Wives, by Ned Rosenbaum


Abraham, Moses, Ruth, David, Samson, Joseph, Esther, Solomon.

What do they all have in common?

They were intermarried.


Thus begins Strange Wives: The Paradox of Biblical Intermarriage, a comprehensive and compelling exploration of the formative effects of intermarriage in Biblical times. This book provides a very readable guide to the history of intermarriage in the mixed multitude of cultures and practices and beliefs coalescing gradually, over centuries and millennia, into the people Israel. The authors conclude that the “early willingness to reach across tribal and ethnic boundaries was a source of strength, which Jews later forgot or chose not to remember.”

Here, I am glad to claim my relationship to the three people who created this long-awaited book. Strange Wives was written by Stanley Ned Rosebaum, with Rabbi Allen Secher, and edited by Mary Heléne Pottker Rosenbaum. Ned and Mary co-wrote Celebrating Our Differences: Living Two Faiths in One Marriage, a groundbreaking chronicle of a dual-faith family. Rabbi Allen was the first rabbi working with interfaith families communities in Chicago. I met Mary, Ned and Rabbi Allen at a series of national conferences to support interfaith families, through the Dovetail Institute.

Ned studied at Hebrew University and the Sorbonne, got his PhD in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis, published scholarly books on Biblical topics, and spent almost three decades as a beloved professor of Jewish Studies at Dickinson College. Then in 2011, he died in a tragic automobile accident, leaving Mary and Allen to get this book out into the world. Which they did, and for which I am very grateful.

As an interfaith child, and an interfaith parent, I have often faced the argument that Judaism has always prohibited intermarriage. This book puts that idea to rest, with deep erudition, wit, and aplomb. Strange Wives is nothing if not thorough, with footnotes, a full bibliography, and plenty of credit given to academics writing on this topic. But this is a book for all of us, with crystal clarity, and lively tone.

Strange Wives draws on both Scripture and archaeology to describe the Biblical setting as a cultural caravansary at the nexus of Africa and Europe, and of the Indian and Mediterranean Oceans. The authors document marriages of Israelites with Ammonites, Amalekites, Moabites, Midianites, Samaritans, Canaanites, Amorites, Hittites, Egyptians, and Babylonians. The women who married into the tribes of Israel continued to worship their own fertility gods even after marriage, and early Israelite farmers continued to appeal to fertility gods to bless their crops, and saw their God as competing with, incorporating, subsuming, and possibly even (inter)marrying other local gods. “Tradition has forgotten,” the authors write, “if it ever knew, how religiously diverse early Israel was.”

The authors argue that the fact that Ezra the Scribe, on his return from Babylonian exile, called on Jews to divorce their “strange wives,” is simply proof that such marriages were indeed common. Rather than seeing intermarriage as a threat to some essential or pure monotheism, they write, “Without the contribution of all these foreigners, mostly women, Judaism would have had a vastly different shape—or perhaps no shape at all.”

But didn’t the wives (for they were mainly wives) convert to Judaism? Like Ruth? While the idea of Ruth as the “first convert” is popular in contemporary Jewish culture, academics have long understood that, as the authors puts it, “there was no conversion in any meaningful sense” until two thousand years after Ruth.

Rosenbaum and Secher, towards the end of this book, write that they both “share the standard fear for the future of the Jewish community.” However, they also write, “We feel strongly that the very positive role so many intermarriages played in Israel’s formative centuries…ought not to be neglected or, worse, misrepresented for partisan purposes.” As we enter yet another period of extensive interfaith marriage in the Jewish community, Strange Wives asks us to study, and remember, this part of our past.


Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press.



Interfaith Families, Jewish Communities: Spring Thaw

January 26, 2015

Frozen Branch, photo Susan Katz Miller

Do you hear a rumbling, creaking, sighing noise, like an iceberg melting? That’s the sound of policies designed to freeze out interfaith families, shifting and groaning as they thaw. Since the release of the 2013 Pew Research report on the Jewish American landscape (and the publication of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family), I have been predicting a warming trend in engaging with interfaith families. Just in recent weeks, I note at least four new efforts by the Jewish community to include or acknowledge interfaith families:

1. A Conservative Jewish rabbi considered officiating at interfaith weddings, but then decided not to. Rabbi Wesley Gardenswartz, emailed his congregants in the Boston surburbs to say he was considering performing interfaith marriages, but only if the couple signed a “Covenant to Raise Jewish Children.” Interfaith families quickly pointed out that you cannot really extract such a promise about hypothetical children. A few days later, the rabbi backed off his proposal, noting that the “Covenant is not workable.”

My Response: This brave rabbi realized what many Reform rabbis (and the Catholic Church) have already realized. Requiring an interfaith couple to raise children in a particular religion as a condition for marriage is neither wise nor enforceable when both partners are on dynamic spiritual journeys. I deeply appreciate this rabbi’s attempt to address the hypocrisy of welcoming interfaith families into Conservative congregations, while refusing to attend or officiate at their weddings. But it really isn’t going to be possible to change this Conservative policy, without also accepting the children of Jewish fathers as Jews (“patrilineal descent”). Which needs to happen.

2. A Conservative Jewish youth movement relaxed their policy on interfaith dating (sort of). The leadership of the United Synagogue Youth (USY), a national teen group, voted to remove the phrase calling for national and regional board members to “refrain” from interfaith dating, though they did include language on “recognizing the importance of dating within the Jewish community.” After a fierce community backlash, teen leaders explained that the intent was not so much to endorse interfaith dating, but to show respect for the many teen leaders from interfaith families.

My response: More than any change, or lack of change, in policy, this story is fascinating because young Jews from interfaith families are making their voices heard. Among teens now, more come from interfaith families than from families with two Jewish parents. Going forward, as this generation comes into leadership roles in the adult Jewish community, I look forward to the inevitable acceptance and inclusion for interfaith families.

3. A prize sponsored by Russian Jewish philanthropists and the Israeli government was awarded to actor Michael Douglas, who was born to a Jewish father and Protestant mother and now identifies as a Reform Jew. Douglas is married to Welsh actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, who grew up Catholic. Douglas and Jones recently traveled to Israel for the Bar Mitzvah of their son Dylan (who, like my children, has only one Jewish grandparent, a grandfather). Immediately, bloggers and columnists questioned rewarding a wealthy movie star who has not been particularly active in the Jewish community, simply for maintaining some connection to his Jewish identity (and Israel). And this week, the CEO of the prize foundation suddenly quit. In awarding the prize, the Genesis Foundation explained that the Douglas family embraces their Jewish heritage “on their own terms” and that this “embodies an inclusive approach for Jews of diverse backgrounds.”

My response: Douglas was chosen because of his interfaith background, not in spite of it. In the Russian Jewish community in Israel, the exclusion of people who are “patrilineal Jews”, or do not have “kosher enough” conversions has been a huge issue. In a particularly cutting response entitled “Genesis Prize Goes to Michael Douglas. Really?” Jewish Daily Forward editor Jane Eisner stated baldly that “Douglas isn’t Jewish according to Jewish law,” ignoring the fact that he identifies as a Reform Jew. Note that even the more progressive American Jewish media sources are still filled with language excluding the growing number of “patrilineal” Reform Jews.

4. Interfaith Israel launches new tours designed specifically for people from interfaith families. Big Tent Judaism (formerly the Jewish Outreach Institute) is co-sponsoring these programs, starting this summer, for interfaith teens, young interfaith professionals, and interfaith families to visit Israel. The teen trip promises exploration of Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Druze and Baha’i cultures in Israel.

My response: Israel remains an uncomfortable topic for many interfaith families. In part this is because Orthodox control of religious identity in Israel excludes Reform Jews from interfaith families with Jewish fathers, and Jews who converted under the auspices of Reform rabbis, from being married or buried in Israel as Jews. Also, those of us from interfaith families are wary when we feel we are only hearing one side of any story story (for instance, the Israeli narrative but not the Palestinian narrative). Nonetheless, when compared with the Birthright trips to Israel–which only accept those who identify as exclusively Jewish–these new trips are radically accepting of the fact that people (especially young people) from interfaith families have fluid and complex religious identities. In the application, interfaith teens are not asked to check religious identity boxes, and the trip is open to any teen with at least one Jewish grandparent. Program founder Michael Dorfman emailed me that “this trip is designed to embrace the duality of a teen’s interfaith identity and provide them with an experience that will speak to their needs.” As with any sponsored trip, it’s important to think about the goals of the sponsors. But I wish we had more US-based programs for interfaith teens using this kind of inclusive language.


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

A Catholic, a Muslim, a Jewish Education, an Interfaith Family

January 16, 2015
Kristen & Ilyas

Kristen & Ilyas

Interfaith families continue to build bridges–quietly, peacefully, steadily, around the world. For today’s post, I invited guest blogger Kristen to write about her Catholic and Muslim relationship, and why she intends to raise her children with both family religions.

Ilyas and I got to know each other when we found ourselves living in the same neighborhood as college students. A Muslim who emigrated from Algeria as a child, Ilyas has no accent and lots of American friends. He seamlessly fits into both worlds, and I found him both interesting and easy to relate to. I am a Catholic of European descent who loves to travel and learn. Ilyas has said that my blue eyes drew him in, and that my kindness and optimism brought him closer. We both agreed that being together felt right in a way that no relationship ever had. Just the right amount of interesting and familiar, we were soon inseparable and completely in love.

As the relationship progressed, Ilyas and I began to think about what the future might hold. We didn’t have everything figured out yet, but we knew that our futures would include each other, and so we decided to get married. Religion had never been an issue between the two of us–he occasionally goes to church with me, and I will attend some events at the mosque with him.   We both value our religions, and respect each other’s beliefs and right to form our family’s identity. Even so, we felt it was important to discuss how to handle religion when we decide to have children. Most Muslim sources say that the kids have to be raised as Muslims, and most Catholic ones say that the kids should be raised as Catholic. We found ourselves in a conundrum.

The predominant view seems to be that interfaith couples should choose one faith for their children, but neither of us felt comfortable with the idea. Religion, culture, and identity are inextricably linked. How could either of us sacrifice the influence of our religion, the right to be a part of forming the religious and cultural identity of our children, without losing ourselves and our heritage in the process? Almost every family get-together, every memorable event of both of our childhoods, is linked to the things we celebrated as a result of our families’ religious identities. We feared that not sharing in either of those identities would isolate our children from the “out” parent’s side of the family because they would not be celebrated as an insider, and a member of the community. Ilyas and I were both concerned that we, and our future children, would feel such a loss very strongly, and we could not imagine asking each other to make such a sacrifice. We were sure that our marriage would not work if we chose one faith, so we chose both.

Although I am from a Christian family, I actually attended a Jewish preschool and elementary school, and I participated in the plays and Jewish celebrations. My parents thought that the smaller classes and rigor of the Jewish private school would help create a more challenging environment than any other local schools. I found it to be a really wonderful experience that taught me the value of interfaith knowledge and understanding. It definitely influenced the positive way that I view the idea of exposing children to more than one religion. Looking back on his years of celebrating Christian holidays with my family, Ilyas agreed.

The more we talked about it, the more clearly Ilyas and I saw what we believe. We believe that it is a human right to help shape the religious and cultural identity of one’s children, for both the mother and the father. It would be devastating for either of us to be excluded from that right, and so being both–raising our future children attending church and the mosque, fully part of both of our religious communities– is essential for us. We both value our religions and find profound and substantial similarities between our faiths that we feel will unite our future family.

We plan to explain the differences in our beliefs by telling our children that God, so amazing that he created this universe and more out of nothing, is just too great for any human to fully understand, and so people differ in beliefs in their effort to try. We aren’t diluting our faiths–we are teaching everything about both. We feel that we will be giving our future children a religious heritage that is accurate and complete by refusing to ignore either side of their family’s background. It may not work for every family, but we are confident that we are making the right decision for our family, and that we will have no regrets.

 Kristen is an Ohio native who loves British TV, good books, and the Buckeyes.


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

A Millennial Perspective on Interfaith Marriage: When Unchurched Meets Unmosqued

December 11, 2014
Frank and Medina

Frank and Medina



(Note: Today I’m pleased to share this space with guest blogger Frank Fredericks.)

I recently read Susan Katz Miller’s Being Both, which is a practical, story-based guide on the many options interfaith couples have, with a particular focus on the feasibility of raising children in more than one faith tradition.

Being in an interfaith marriage of my own as a Millennial, I was fascinated by the different approaches offered, but at times felt like the discourse within its pages was for Gen X’ers, who are now raising children, whether toddlers or teens, and Boomers, the generation before them.  The challenges presented to them as interfaith couples include communal acceptance, birth and coming of age rituals, and ultimately identity in adulthood.  I believe Millennials will be facing slightly different challenges.

While reading, I reflected on my own marriage with Medina, who is a Muslim of Afghan and Mexican descent, and grew up in an interfaith household.  We are Millennials, both practicing in our respective faith traditions, but not particularly tied to specific congregations.  We believe, but our community of social interaction is wider than our religious community.  We both strongly identify with our religious communities, I as an evangelical Christian and Medina as a Muslim, but we are both extremely wary of institutions who claim to represent us.  We’re thus taking stock of what we want to give to our children when we begin, and what we’ll leave behind.

Reflecting on our own childhoods, I attended church, Christian schools, and even played guitar on worship team for both, while Medina attended mosque with her mother, and went to Islamic school after the regular school-day.  We both grew up fairly entrenched in our own traditions, but as adults no longer seek congregational life to experience the fruits of our religious traditions.

And it appears that Medina and I are representative of a larger trend of Millennials and religious practice. While the headlines often highlight the trend towards the growing non-religious identity among Millennials, there’s something else that’s equally telling: While two-thirds of Millennials identify with a religious tradition, only 22% of millennials actually attend weekly religious services.  In other words, the majority of Millennials religiously identify but do not belong to or regularly attend services with a congregation.  This has been referred to as the “unchurched” or the “unmosqued” movements, with a similar parallel for young Jews as well (granted, with a completely different construct for religious identity).

As a result, we’re not troubled by the same things Gen X interfaith and Boomer interfaith couples are.  We really don’t care at all about congregational acceptance. And like many people outside mainline Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish congregations, birth and coming of age rituals are simply not a part of our religious traditions.  Granted, some of this is denominational, but as interfaith relationships become more widespread, Millennials in interfaith couples will be much more likely to come from communities beyond Jews, Catholics and mainline Protestants, including my own evangelical tradition, which although the largest religious group in America, has historically been more insular.

But one can argue, all this non-institutional Millennial hogwash might simply be a phase.  Perhaps we too as a generation will return to the pews and prayer rugs when our firstborns shock us with the life-changing initiation to parenthood.  Interestingly, the research hints that some of us may never do so. In American Grace, by Robert Putnam and Joseph Campbell, they outline how not only are Millennials attending weekly religious services less than those belonging to older generations, but they are also attending at a lower rate than those generations did at the same age. Essentially, this means that though one’s likelihood to attend a house of worship increases as you get older, each subsequent generation is attending less frequently, even when adjusted for age. The big question is how close to the pattern Millennials will stay, once they become parents.

Even if Millennials in interfaith relationships stay out of congregations even after entering parenthood, we still face plenty of challenges. Like the generations before us, we must grapple with identity, family acceptance, and family tradition. In fact, in the absence of congregational liturgy, the challenge of feeling “authentic” in individual worship, balanced with shared family ritual, may be even more difficult to navigate.

So when Medina and I have our first child, we may not be able to take wholesale all of the wisdom from the interfaith generations before us. But we can learn from how they created new religious responses to a changing landscape, to forge the religious practices of the 21st Century. I’m sure more of Being Both will become relevant as those of us in my generation become parents. And I pray that our children will find our innovations on religious life applicable for them, when they too face a changing religious landscape, just as we learned from the generations before us.


Frank Fredericks is the founder of World Faith, a global interfaith development organization, and Mean Communications, a digital strategy firm. He’s the shockingly fortunate spouse of the wildly intelligent and beautiful Medina Fredericks. He tweets at @frankiefreds

Being Both: The Paperback

October 21, 2014
Opening the first box of paperbacks. Random House pattern echoed in my grandfather's Persian carpet.

Opening my first box of paperbacks.


Today, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family comes out in paperback. For me, the paperback release also marks one full year on the road with Being Both. In DC, Maryland, Virginia, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and California, I have entered into deep interfaith family conversations, with Jews, Christians, Muslims, atheists, Buddhists, Bahai’s, Mormons, Unitarians, Pagans, Hindus, and those with complex religious identities, with theologians, seminarians, religious studies professors, ministers, rabbis, parents, grandparents, and interfaith children.

One of my goals in writing this book has been to encourage adult interfaith children to speak out about their own experiences in interfaith families, and to encourage those from interfaith families to bring their skills to interfaith activism. I see that happening now. Whether we are Hindu and Muslim, atheist and Buddhist, or Jewish and Christian, we’re here. And we have our own stories to tell. This is the end of the era when people could write or lecture about us, without us.

For delivering this book to the world, and for supporting Being Both through a very successful first year, I must again thank agents May Wuthrich and Rob Weisbach, and my visionary Beacon Press team, starting with Amy Caldwell, Will Myers, Travis Dagenais, Tom Hallock, Pam MacColl, Jessie Bennett, Jenah Blitz-Stoehr, Alyssa Hassan, Rob Arnold, Daniel Barks, and extraordinary cover designer Gabi Anderson. Beacon Press publishes books that leap across traditional boundaries and challenge readers to think (and live) outside the traditional boxes. I am profoundly grateful that they took a chance on Being Both, and that the readers of the world have endorsed that leap of faith(s). I also must thank Gabi in particular for the fact that this book (whether in hardcover or paperback) glows with warmth and beauty. Yes, it’s available as an eBook, but I think you will find the physical object very pleasing.

And now, on to year two of traveling, speaking, and sharing interfaith conversations with all of you. I’m planning California and Oregon, Philadelphia and New York. Contact me about a Being Both event in your community.

Reminder, Upcoming Events:

Chicago, Friday October 24 at 8pm, Kol Hadash Humanistic Jewish Congregation, at North Shore Unitarian Church, in Deerfield IL. All are welcome!

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)  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! RSVP on Facebook.

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

Being Both: Paperback Release Events!

October 7, 2014

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.

A Rabbi for Interfaith Families, for UUs, for All of Us

June 25, 2014

A few months ago, I had the honor of interviewing Rabbi Chava Bahle about her historic selection as a rabbi to lead a Unitarian-Universalist (UU) community. We talked about her background as one of the handful of rabbis working directly with an interfaith families community raising children in both family religions. For almost ten years, she has been the rabbi at Chicago’s Interfaith Family School.

Now you can watch Rabbi Chava tell her story at a recent TEDx talk in Traverse City, Michigan. She describes this moment in history as a spiritual paradigm shift, when we begin to look around and see “us” rather than “them.” In listening to her funny, moving and inspiring talk, it is easy to imagine why a UU community took a leap of faith and hired a rabbi to lead them. In her TEDx talk, Rabbi Chava describes what she sees as the importance of the Catholic and Jewish families in Chicago as “game-changers.” Embedded in her talk is the excellent video created by the Family School for their 20th anniversary this year, in which you hear interfaith parents, Catholic and Jewish clergy, and young people raised with both religions, talking about the benefits of interfaith education.

For Being Both:Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, I interviewed Chicago clergy, parents, and young adults from the Family School. I am looking forward to visiting Chicago in the fall, to celebrate the release of the paperback edition of my Beacon Press book with the groundbreaking community there. In the meantime, it is thrilling to me to have one of the clergy members most closely associated with the interfaith families movement telling her own story, and testifying to a public audience about all that is compelling about raising children with both family religions. I look forward to more clergy, parents, and young people who are part of this paradigm shift, those creating and supporting and growing up in interfaith family communities, bearing witness to the movement we have created.


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