Fela: On Being Yoruba, Christian, Muslim

Our family saw “Fela” on Broadway last weekend: a remarkable musical that depicts the life of Nigerian political dissident and Afro-Beat musician Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. With ears acutely tuned to interfaith themes by now, my 15 and 12-year-old children remarked on a climactic scene in which Fela evokes many gods, or God by many names, including Allah, and the Yoruba spirits such as Shango. “It was interesting, Mom, because he wasn’t just being politically correct by naming them all, he lived with them all,” one of the kids remarked.

The idea of “being both” has a long tradition in Africa, where Christianity and Islam joined but never completely supplanted original African religions. Fela, the son and grandson of Protestant ministers, wrote blistering critiques of the imported religions of the colonial oppressors.  As South African Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said “Let us pray.” We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.”  Fela grew up in a Nigeria wracked by war between Christians and Muslims in the state of Biafra; violence between Christians and Muslims continues in Nigeria today. Fela would sneak out of his parents’ middle-class Christian home to attend traditional Yoruba ceremonies, and he reclaimed and reformulated this African religion for himself, filtering it through his experiences with the American black pride movement, and then transmitting it to the world in his music.

Listening to the powerful evocations of Shango, Egungun and Yemeja in the Broadway show, it was hard to keep my mind off of Haiti, since these Yoruba spirits also live on, fused with Catholic saints, in Haitian Vodou. At the end of the play, Fela delivers his mother’s coffin to the Nigerian military to protest their attack on his compound, and the cast members file on stage carrying small coffins. It was my children who noticed that one coffin, presumably in the last two weeks since the earthquake, had been marked “Haiti.”

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Schlepping into the Interfaith New Year

As the decade drew to a close yesterday, we dragged through the final hours of our annual odyssey through six states: an epic quest to make sure our children get to see their three grandparents, ten aunts and uncles, and assorted cousins during winter vacation. We travel by ancient minivan, praying that it holds together as we push the battered contraption past 107,000 miles. (I’m waiting for a hybrid minivan, which does not yet exist in this country, though they’ve had them in Japan for a decade.)

The trek up and down the interstate is grueling, the kids sleep on cots and couches and floors, and yet our itinerary is the same each year. We fantasize about skiing in Vermont, or going to the Caribbean, or just staying home and nesting as a nuclear family. But every year, we coax our cringing dog into the crate in the back of the van, and set off. The pull of family is stronger than the pull of adventure, or comfort, or convenience, or, really, rationality.

Why do we do this to ourselves? My husband and I both happen to hail from pathologically close families: we would rather be with our own siblings than with just about anyone else. But more to the point here, as an interfaith family committed to raising our children with two religions, we are barred by religious institutions from joining both a synagogue and a church.  And yet the urge to belong is powerful. So our primary allegiance is to an extended family bridging Judaism and Christianity, and family provides essential context and support. For my children to feel at home in either religion, they must see and hear and smell the familial connections to each religion. And that means being with family for as many of these holidays as we can muster.

Okay, so New Year’s Eve is not a religious holiday, per se. But in a year when Hanukkah fell during the school year, we stretched the Christmas trip to encompass a final gathering with my husband’s extended clan. We could have gone home earlier to celebrate New Year’s with friends, but instead we hooted at a marvelous slide show depicting four generations of the Miller clan, and joined three generations dancing to 70s music in a crowded family room.

My twelve-year-old does not remember any decade except the “oughts.” (When I made a remark to that effect last night, some middle-aged cut-up shouted that many of us don’t remember any decade except the “oughts.”) It was a tough decade–politically, environmentally, economically–and one that many of us are glad to see end.

But during this decade, we also saw a transition I have been waiting for all of my life: the arrival of the “both/and” zeitgeist. We have a biracial, interfaith President. We finally have a census that allows people to check more than one box for race. We have a tidal wave of interfaith children who will forge new religious pathways, new spiritual communities, new cultural hybrids. And we have an expanding network of family ties, as fine and strong as threads from a silkworm, weaving together more and more families from across the globe, from every race and religion.

So in this new decade, more and more of us will do the work of building and maintaining these family networks, across cultural lines and theological lines and state lines. I just hope this is also the decade when we get those hybrid minivans, so that we can schlep around, patching and strengthening our webs, without feeling so guilty about the mileage.

Thoughts On This, the Last Night of Hanukkah

Tonight is the last night of Hanukkah, and my obsessive side is very satisfied to discover that I have exactly the right number of leftover candles accumulated over the past several years to fill our Hanukkah menorah. Each package of Hanukkah candles comes with exactly the right number to get you through the holiday. But in practice, at our house, each year we celebrate one or two nights at the homes of other families, and don’t light our own, so the extra candles roll around in my tea cupboard. This year, in deference to the economy and the state of the planet, we used the assorted candles left behind from past years. The mismatched theme seemed to fit our family:  jazzy and colorful, if a little untidy.

Hanukkah was appropriately low-key this year. We gave our teenagers glow-in-the-dark Silly Putty one night, and fuzzy pyjama pants another night. My husband contributed some cool light-up “party rats” that you clip on the end of each finger “for night blogging.” I’ll have to borrow those.

On one night, instead of giving the kids gifts, we made a donation to our friends who run FairVote, a group trying to upgrade American democracy by getting rid of the electoral college. This is a political cause my teens understand and support. Another night, we gave our Hanukkah donation to the winter Special Olympics, the charity designated by my son’s ski club this season.

Perhaps because this is my first Hanukkah in the blogosphere, I have been reading a lot (some of it disturbing, wise, funny) about the multiple meanings of Hanukkah. I realize that by emphasizing the “light in darkness” theme, I risk being accused of watering down or avoiding the historical and political origins of the holiday because I’m a half-educated half-Jew. Or worse, I could be accused of “settling for” the theme Hanukkah shares with Christmas and the solstice as part of a least-common-denominator homogenization, rather than wrestling with the distinctive and sometimes difficult meanings that are unique to Hanukkah.

I am wrestling though. For instance, we have guests coming to celebrate with us tonight, so I printed out copies of the three English verses of Ma’oz Tzur as written out in gorgeous script years ago by my Episcopalian mother. (Note:  rather sad that children cannot read cursive any more). This hymn has its origins in the 13th century, and it appeals to me because it seems to fulfill a requirement for ritual storytelling, and it emphasizes the theme of religious freedom, which appeals to me as a religious renegade.

My family sings all three verses, because that’s the way we’ve done it for generations, and because it is somehow pleasurable to rub up against the difficulties of the text, like worrying a loose tooth with your tongue.  We sing “and thy word broke their sword,” even though none of us believe that the almighty, if he/she exists, takes sides in (dubious) military battles. We sing “priests approved in suffering” even though it triggers uncomfortable associations with the victim mentality. And we even sing “children of the martyr race” in the final verse, even though it conjures up the deeply problematic “chosen people” issues, and the martyr complex, and the persistently pernicious idea that Judaism is a race (or even ethnicity).

Someone has written a new, more politically-correct lyric to replace that last one..subbing in “children of the wanderers.” One year, I gently suggested this change, but my father, never a big change advocate, was staunchly opposed. So I have retreated to singing, and wrestling with, the old lyric. For one more night. And then it’s on to wrestling with Christmas.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (forthcoming in 2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

“Oh, You Mean THAT Interfaith…”

meeting-of-the-ways, The Lama Foundation

 

As an interfaith child, I am acutely aware of the increase in “interfaith” activity since 9/11.  So yesterday, I went to the unveiling of the global Charter for Compassion, an interfaith project launched by the non-profit  TED and one of my intellectual heroes, religion writer Karen Armstrong. Then, I blogged about it at Jewcy.com.

Armstrong is a daring and deep thinker, and when I went up after the presentation to speak to her about the interfaith families movement, she seemed intrigued. But too often, theologians and clergy in interfaith “dialogue” put a heavy emphasis on  maintaining the boundaries between religions. We are exhorted to be very clear about our own personal and singular religious identities, and then make field trips across the boundaries to embrace and challenge each other. As religious adventurers, we are then supposed to return to an even more profound understanding of our own religion. Kind of like going to another country, eating exotic but possibly dangerous food, and then coming home with a renewed appreciation for America, for home.

This is all swell. But it is not particularly relevant to those of us who live with more than one religion in our families, or in our very beings. And surprisingly, the burgeoning cohort of interfaith marriages and interfaith children are rarely even mentioned, let alone invited and included, in these interfaith events. We make everyone uncomfortable, because we represent the blurring of those boundaries. What happens when you cross a boundary to embrace the other, and instead of returning home enlightened, you actually progress to making babies with that other, and commit to forming an interfaith family? The official interfaith dialogues between religious institutions, between clergy members, between well-meaning congregations, do not want to hear about dissolving boundaries.

And yet, interfaith children are here. And I would argue that as travelers who decided to stay and go native, who decided to forgo the comforts of home and instead become bicultural, we have a lot to offer to these interfaith palavers. Some of us who grew up with parents from two religions can act as the ideal tour guides. A lot of us are fluent in two religious languages, and we have spent a lifetime translating from one to the other.

We have gotten ourselves into a semantic situation where “interfaith” has two very separate meanings. Searching for “interfaith” on the web, on facebook, on twitter, turns up a lot of institutions and programs and events, in what seems like every town in America, especially since 9/11. And this is a good thing. But to get to the level of interfaith I’m talking about on this blog, an intimacy found between spouses, between parent and child, between two religions found in a single body, you have to type in “interfaith families,” or “interfaith marriage,” or “interfaith children.”

Halloween, Interfaith Style

Pumpkin Carvings, photo Susan Katz Miller

On Saturday night, I was out late partying with people dressed variously as a dying newspaper, Facebook (the culprit), Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. On Sunday morning, I woke up, shook off my candy hangover, and went to celebrate All Saints and All Souls Days with our interfaith 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 should celebrate Halloween. But then again, it was an era when many Jews celebrated secular Christmas.

More recently, fear of assimilation and a return to deeper Jewish practice triggered a lively debate on whether or not Jews should celebrate Halloween at all. As an interfaith family and 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 interfaith families.

The Spiritual Leader of our interfaith community, 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.

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

Interfaith Marriage…in Israel and Lebanon

Mediterranean Coastline--photo Susan Katz Miller

If you think being intermarried in the United States is challenging, consider what it would be like in the Middle East. This week’s Economist has an interesting article about the prohibition on interfaith marriages in Lebanon. Couples who are Muslim and Druze Christian, or Jewish and Greek Orthodox, must fly to Cyprus, half an hour away, to tie the knot. That’s because there is no provision for civil marriage in Lebanon.

I raised my eyebrows at the mention of Cyprus. As a “patrilineal” half-Jew, Cyprus already has dark resonance for me. In Israel, I am not a “legal” Jew despite learning Hebrew, becoming a Bat Mitzvah, and all of the sacrifices made by my Christian mother to raise me without any Christian influence. But if I marry in Israel, I have to fly to Cyprus to do it. If I die in Israel, I have to fly to Cyprus to be buried. Is it any wonder I have deep ambivalence about Israel?

Speaking of Israel, the government there unveiled a campaign this week against interfaith marriage, comparing those who have married non-Jews to abducted missing persons. And yes, I know all the arguments for why a tiny and embattled religious minority feels the need to define and guard its tribal identity. Many of us believe that this aggressive and exclusive stance will drive away more “could be Jews” than it will attract. And it is simply offensive.

Meanwhile, newsflash–people from different religions are going to continue to marry each other, and even have the chutzpah to create children together. So be thankful if you live in the USA, where we have civil marriage, the right to raise our children as we please, and the right to be buried in our own country.

Children of Abraham

Sue in Senegal, 1980s

In 1987, I got married, quit my job as a Newsweek reporter, and moved to the West African country of Senegal. I had to forge a new identity as a nice half-Jewish girl, married to a Protestant boy, working for a Catholic organization, in a Muslim country. The word “interfaith” had always implied Jewish and Christian to me. Now I found myself immersed in a moderate, thriving democratic culture with a Muslim president, Abdou Diouf, who was married to a Catholic. My world view expanded radically, and I began to see the world through three religious filters instead of two.

The full realization that Islam and Judaism are siblings came to me in dramatic fashion soon after arriving in Senegal. In the celebration known in West Africa as Tabaski (the Eid al-Adha to Muslims around the world), families sacrifice a ram to commemorate the story in which God asked Abraham to bind his son, but then provided a ram to sacrifice instead. Sound familiar? To Jews, the son was Isaac, Sarah’s son. Muslims believe it was Ishmael, Hagar’s son. Jews read this story from the Torah each autumn on the Jewish New Year—Rosh Hashanah.

On both holidays, we seek forgiveness. In synagogues, we say that God will forgive us for sins against God, but only our fellow human beings can forgive us for sins against them. We say this, and every year we intend to go out and actually ask forgiveness, but how many of us follow through?

On my first Tabaski, in the home of a Senegalese schoolteacher,  friends and neighbors dropped by throughout the day. Our host explained, “God forgives sins against God, but these visitors come to ask us for forgiveness for sins against them.”  I was humbled by and envious of the sincerity, the personal action, the deep communal bonding going on before my eyes. Somehow, this essential part of the forgiveness ritual had disappeared from the American suburban Reform Judaism of my youth.

Since 9/11, many Americans are attempting to include the growing American Muslim population in a “trialogue” to replace the old interfaith dialogue between Christians and Jews. We acknowledge that these three faiths share a history, that we are all “children of Abraham.” As the Jewish Days of Awe approach this year, I think again of the possibilities for reconciliation between the children of Abraham. American Jews and Christians now live side by side with Muslims–we go to school together, even marry each other. The day of reconciliation, an awesome day indeed, will be hastened as we all overcome our ignorance through personal experience.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Speaking of Interfaith Dreamboats…

As a counterpart to interfaith dreamboat Paul Newman, consider Scarlett Johansson. Unfortunately, an outrageously sexist and objectifying piece about her appears in today’s New York Times Style Magazine. It’s about the only section of the NYT I don’t read. Luckily, my husband was perusing it for some reason and alerted me to the religion reference. “What?” I asked, my antennae shooting up. “Why are they talking about her interfaith status in a fashion magazine?”

It took me a while to page through the glossy, saturated mix of indistinguishable ads and editorial to find the little column about Johansson. And it took me a while to find the religion reference, because I came to a complete standstill after almost every sentence. The author manages to compare Johansson to a headless fertility statue, drool over her curves and “pubescent lips,” and impugn her intelligence and convictions.

Finally, I found this: “…Johansson’s physiognomy seems to combine two countervailing materials: strong Semite (her mother is Jewish) and etiolated Northern European (her father was born in Denmark).” Etiolated means pale–as in a plant deprived of light. So it connotes feebleness, weakness–not very nice to the Danes. In this context, we have to then also question the characterization of Semites as “strong.” Strong how exactly? I shudder to think what was on the author’s mind.

In essence, the piece promotes Johansson as an example of the “hybrid vigor creates more beautiful children” theory. According to this thinking, genetic mixing creates greater facial symmetry–and humans perceive symmetry as beautiful. The social science behind this theory is shaky, beauty being notoriously subjective and laden with social constructs. Given the context in such an apalling and superficial story, the reference to Johansson’s ancestry makes me queasy. She’s not a hybridized plant. She’s a talented actress, she is in fact gorgeous, and I’m happy to claim her as a fellow interfaith child. I’m just sorry that this reference to her interfaith heritage is embedded in such a snarky and salacious context.

Half-Jewdar

paul-newman

I have Half-Jewdar—a radar detector for half-Jews. I exult with an “I knew it!” whenever I find out someone has mixed religious background, especially when it’s someone intriguing. Why do I do this? My family gets tired of my interjecting “interfaith child!” whenever someone mentions Marcel Proust, John Kerry, J.D. Salinger, Frida Kahlo, Arlo Guthrie, Fiorello LaGuardia, Harrison Ford…

I daydream about comparing notes with these celebrities to find out how they integrated their Jewish and Christian ancestry. Recently, I found myself mourning the loss of Paul Newman, not only as a great actor but as a fellow interfaith child. He has to be the ultimate argument for the controversial “mixed children are more beautiful” theory. Bill Maher talked about his interfaith background this year in his documentary “Religulous.” He’s a witty, bitter half-Jew who now disdains all organized religion. I have also been pondering the religious education of Michael Jackson’s interfaith children. According to what I’ve read, the Jackson family now includes Christians and Muslims. But because their biological mother is Jewish, Orthodox and Conservative Jews continue to insist on claiming the two older children as Jews. If they grow up without contact with Judaism, I wonder whether either of them will ever explore this “forbidden half.” Many interfaith children seem to feel strongly compelled to investigate their suppressed familial religion (see authors Robin Margolis and Susan Jacoby).

Why does it matter who shares my interfaith background? Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, when marriage between Christians and Jews was less common, I felt marginalized. Nowadays, interfaith children are the norm rather than unusual in many Jewish congregations. And my family belongs to a thriving independent community made up entirely of interfaith families. Nevertheless, I cannot stop myself from tallying interfaith children—I feel comfort in our growing numbers and prominence. When we are successful, or simply happy, we prove a point. We are here, in growing numbers. And our parents were not mistaken or misguided when they created us.

 

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

Nourishing the Roots

Temple Beth Elohim

Tomorrow I am taking my children to our ancestral Jewish homeland—Wayne County, Pennsylvania, where there’s more cows than people. Or at least that’s the tagline we always give it in my family. It seems like an unlikely source of Jewish culture, but my roots on my Jewish side, my father’s side, go very deep there.

My great-grandfather emigrated from Germany to Honesdale, the seat of Wayne County, in 1864. There, he lived peaceably beside German Catholic and Lutheran neighbors. William Jonas Katz and his brothers started peddling from a horse and cart and built this into the Katz Brothers department store, the anchor store on Main Street. As a child, I delighted in “working” at the store on vacations, making ribbons for Christmas packages, or helping my beloved Cousin Nathan put change into the little canisters that went whooshing along the ceiling in vacuum tubes.

Katz Brothers closed after the arrival of big box stores in the strip mall outside town. But for my children, Honesdale still holds the magic of family history. At my grandmother’s house, where we gather as a family even though she’s been gone for 15 years, they love the laundry chute and the slate sidewalks. And they know that the little white building with the steeple downtown, on the bank of the Lackawaxen River, is actually Temple Beth Israel, where my father became a Bar Mitzvah.

My family returns to the temple when we are in Honesdale for Shabbat or lifecycle ceremonies. The memorial yahrtzeit plaques on the back wall bear the names of my grandparents and great-grandparents. We visit the town cemetery at least once a year, and say the mourner’s Kaddish with my father, and place pebbles on the graves. My children listen to their only Jewish grandparent tell stories of their ancestors. And my daughter, who is “only a patrilineal quarter-Jew,” wants to learn the Kaddish so that she can recite it in the cemetery and the temple.

And how could this not be a wondrous thing, and even “good for the Jews”? Who would maintain that she has no right to this knowledge, this gut-level connection to her family history? Who dares to tell her that she somehow does not count in the graveside minyan? I cannot think of anyone who could possibly count more.

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