Purim: Celebrating Interfaith Marriage?

Apricot Hamentasch, photo Susan Katz Miller

Every year, I don some festive garb, and head to our interfaith community‘s Purim celebration. It has been said that most Jewish holidays fit one recurring theme: “They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.” Purim certainly fits that template (along with Passover and Hanukkah). Growing up in a Reform temple, the notion that Purim also celebrates an interfaith marriage somehow never came up. Now, celebrating the holiday with my interfaith community seems particularly appropriate.

In the Purim story, Persian King Ahasuerus (apparently a Zoroastrian) chooses Esther in a beauty contest, not realizing that she is Jewish. When the Jews of the land are threatened with genocide, Esther outs herself to the King as Jewish, and convinces him to save her people.

The Purim story intrigues for many reasons. The Book of Esther, while part of the Jewish Bible, is not in the Torah, (the most holy Jewish text comprising the first five books of the Bible), but is thought to date from a much later period, with the story taking place somewhere between 600 and 400 BCE. In fact, oddly enough, the Book of Esther does not mention God. Esther, the heroine, with the help of her Uncle Mordecai, uses politics, diplomacy, and and her access to the king, to save her people. God gets no credit whatsoever. This, along with the fact that the celebration includes drinking, dressing in costumes, loud noise, and games, makes it a popular holiday with the growing secular, atheist and agnostic Jewish demographic, as well as with children. Purim shares a sense of rowdy release from social norms with Christian pre-Lenten Carnival festivities, and both holidays seem to trace their origins to “pagan”  spring fertility rites.

But peering through an interfaith lens, the most radical and transgressive aspect of Purim is the fact that the Jewish community in Persia would have been doomed if Esther had not intermarried. It was only because of her marriage to the Persian king that she was in a place to step up and save her people. What would have happened if she had refused to marry him because he wasn’t Jewish?

Many have tried to explain away the fact of Esther’s interfaith marriage. Some speculate that she intermarried only because it enabled her to save her people:  exceptional circumstances. Others argue that her interfaith marriage was acceptable because she was a woman, and Jewish law respects matrilinial descent. Another argument is that she had no choice in the matter (refusing the King could have meant death). More recently, the Purim story has been used as a cautionary tale–the problem is not the interfaith marriage, per se, but the secular lifestyle and “disengagement” that led to the interfaith marriage. One group of academics acknowledged that Esther’s marriage saved her people but was somehow able to conclude:  “But the lesson is not that intermarriage is good.”

Interfaith marriage occurs throughout the Bible: it drives the plot line in many a Biblical story, and not all those who intermarry are women. As a “patrilinial Jew” and an interfaith person, I take issue with the idea that Esther’s interfaith marriage was acceptable only because she was a woman, or because of extenuating political circumstances. Or that she is somehow a heroine in spite of, and not because of, her immersion in Persian culture. It was, precisely, Esther’s cultural fluidity and willingness to intermarry that saved the Jews.

I cannot help hoping that when Jews across the world celebrate Purim, they may, perhaps in a moment of tipsy revelry, open their minds just a little bit more to all that is positive about interfaith marriages: not just ancient, allegorical interfaith marriages taking place in exotic far-off lands, but real, contemporary interfaith marriages.

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.

Celebrating Martin Luther King: Multiracial, Multifaith in the 21st Century

This week, hundreds of communities across America will celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday with interfaith services featuring pastors, rabbis, imams. But for our community of interfaith families, this national holiday has an even deeper significance. Dr. King spoke about the day when “all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands.” In our community, we go beyond joining hands, we create families together. We now have several member families composed of Christian African-Americans married to Jews. Of course, intermarriage between Jews and blacks isn’t new—the first significant wave of marriages occurred when these two groups worked side by side during the civil rights movement. But in the 21st century, the good news is that neither the Christian African-American partner, nor the Jewish partner, has to give up their religion in order to be together. They can give their children roots in both dynamic religious traditions.

On Sunday, our community had our own celebration of Dr. King, featuring Sombarkin, a powerful a cappella gospel trio (Karen Somerville, Lester Barrett Jr. and Jerome McKinney). In our discussion group afterwards, our rabbi, Rabbi Harold White, talked about meeting Dr. King in the 60s. Rabbi White was a student of Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched alongside Dr. King in Selma and had a deep relationship of mutual respect and engagement with him.

Then, Rabbi White and Karen Somerville, an African-American museum director and historian, talked about their own close friendship, and the ups and downs of the history of the relationship between Jews and African-Americans.  They pointed out that African-Americans recognized and celebrated Jesus as a Jew, long before white Protestant churches began to see Jesus in this way. And of course, there’s the solidarity that comes with the knowledge of having been slaves, however attenuated that knowledge is now for Jews. And the shared sense of survival in the wake of tragedy (American slavery, the European Holocaust). And the shared sense of being a repressed minority in America (increasingly rare for Jews).  But none of this is new.

Here’s what is new: an African-American father, married to a Jewish mother, standing up at our celebration to lead the responsive reading excerpted from the “I Have a Dream” speech. As this father read of the day when, in Dr. King’s words, “with this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together,” the interfaith and biracial children in our community have implicit permission to fully appreciate King as a minister, as a man of deep Christian faith. They could listen to those words knowing that both of their parents belong equally in our interfaith community. Neither one is a guest or visitor. Neither one must compromise their religious identity. And in our community, these children will learn the history and rituals and ideas of Christianity, as well as the history and rituals and ideas of Judaism. These children can grow up listening to gospel songs of freedom, based on the Exodus story so dear to both Judaism and African-American Christanity, and so often sung at interfaith Shabbats and Seders. But they are also free to explore the gospel songs that mention Jesus, and perhaps even to download Sombarkin’s sublime version of “I Want to Walk and Talk With Jesus” (the only Sombarkin song available as a ringtone!) — a song that probably isn’t played at any Shabbat or Seder.

Will Chelsea Clinton Convert? Why Do You Ask?

My Jewcy.com editor suggested I write a response to all the Jewish media interest in whether or not Chelsea Clinton is going to convert to Judaism. See my letter to Chelsea here. My heart goes out to Chelsea: she has to go through the entire interfaith journey in a very public way. You have to wonder if it made her hesitate about marriage. So many busybodies are going to have an opinion on how she should go about getting married, raising children, and having a fulfilling spiritual life. So I’m trying to avoid being one more busybody, and give some calm advice on staying strong and tuning out some of the extraneous voices. I’m hoping she will take time to walk labyrinths and meditate and listen to music and otherwise call on her own wise inner voice.

But my best advice is to have a really, really short engagement. That’s the way my interfaith parents did it. That’s the way my husband and I did it. Like me, like my parents, Chelsea and Mark  spent many, many years in courtship. Once you’ve made the decision, just go for it. Don’t give the buttinskys time to tell you how to do it or why it won’t work. Can I suggest February 13th? It’s my parents’ anniversary (yes, we started celebrating it three months early this year), and works nicely as a prelude to Valentine’s Day…

Rosh Hashanah, Interfaith Style

Rosh Hashanah apple--photo by Susan Katz MillerYesterday, our interfaith community celebrated the Jewish New Year. Yes, we are early by a week. We want our members to be able to go to synagogues next weekend with their extended Jewish families, with parents and grandparents.

As it happens, my own parents were visiting yesterday and came to our early Rosh Hashanah. They stood up as I introduced them to our community as interfaith pioneers. At ages 85 and 79, they are celebrating 50 years of interfaith marriage this year, proof that it can be done, and done with incredible depth and style.

The presence of my own personal wise elders was fortuitous. Our Rabbi, Harold White, reflected on Jewish respect for old age as a thread that runs through the Jewish New Year. We read about Abraham and Sarah, delighted in old age by the birth of their son Isaac. The rabbi pointed out that we celebrate the New Year, not in spring as one might expect, but at the end of the agricultural cycle, in fall. The autumn of our years, he explained, is just as important to Jews, just as much an integral part of life, as birth.

Yesterday, my Jewish father got to sit next to his grandchildren while singing “Oseh Shalom” and “Adon Olam” hearing the call of the shofar, reciting the Shehecheyanu, and the Reader’s Kaddish.

And my Christian mother got to sit next to her grandchildren as they recited the Lord’s Prayer. Why the Lord’s Prayer at a Rosh Hashanah celebration? The Rabbi pointed out that this Christian prayer appears to be based on the Kaddish. And that the Kaddish is written in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke in the streets of Jerusalem.

My Jewish father recited the Lord’s Prayer along with us—it happens to be lodged deep in his memory. In small town Pennsylvania in the 1930s, children recited the prayer each day in his public schools. There is no mention of Jesus in the prayer. Dad says, “I didn’t know it was a Christian prayer until about ten years ago.”

Celebrating the New Year a week early may seem like a dress rehearsal for the real thing. But an interfaith celebration, while it may be devoted to a particular Jewish or Christian holiday, has unique flavor because it inevitably touches on the historical reality of the interplay between the two religions. And it creates a way to celebrate these connections—whether we are interfaith children, interfaith parents, or interfaith grandparents.

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.

%d bloggers like this: