Interfaith Kids: Carrie Fisher (RIP) and Harrison Ford

princess-leia-behind-the-scenes-starwars20

I grew up in what feels now like a galaxy far, far, away. In that galaxy, interfaith kids were few and far between, and we didn’t talk about the fact that we were interfaith kids. But early on, I developed a keen sense of what I now think of as “interfaithdar,” often correctly guessing which famous people came from interfaith families. Since I did not know many interfaith families in real life, each realization of another person out there from a multi-religious background gave me a tiny thrill.

And so, like many interfaith kids, I have kept a mental list of famous people with interfaith heritage who have been important to me in one way or another, including Paul Newman, Carly Simon, Peter Sellers, Adam Yauch, Lena Dunham, Drake, Bruno Mars, Matt Stone, David Yazbek, Barack Obama, Fiorello LaGuardia, Dorothy Parker, Marcel Proust, JD Salinger, Gloria Steinem, Frida Kahlo, Adrienne Rich, Gabriela Mistral, St Teresa of Avila, and Raoul Wallenberg.

But the relationship of two interfaith kids with powerful on-screen chemistry, namely Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford in the Star Wars trilogy, represent the summit of celebrity interfaith geography. And so the death of Carrie Fisher today set me to thinking about the silent bonds many of us share as interfaith kids.

Each interfaith family is different, and interfaith children can be raised with one religion, two religions, no religion, many religions, and an almost infinite variety of combinations of culture and belief and practice. Every child with mixed heritage ultimately grows up to choose their own identity, their own label. And I am not in the business of applying labels to other people based on my own frame of reference. But however we are raised, and however we identify as adults, those of us with extended family from mixed religious backgrounds share certain hallmark experiences, and learn to code-switch in a dual-faith or interreligious or intercultural context. We see the world through more than one set of lenses, and often, we learn to spot other people wearing those interfaith bifocals and trifocals.

Carrie Fisher, the daughter of the star actress Debbie Reynolds and the star pop singer Eddie Fisher, was raised “Protestant light” by her mother, but later felt affectionate bonds to her father’s Judaism. Her own daughter, actress Billie Lourd, studied religion at New York University. (In Being Both, I describe intellectual curiosity about religion and the religions of the world as a hallmark of many interfaith children). Meanwhile, Harrison Ford, the son of a Russian Jewish mother and an Irish Catholic father, once commented: “As a man I’ve always felt Irish, as an actor I’ve always felt Jewish.” I cannot help speculating about whether their parallel experiences as interfaith kids may have played some role in the way they connected, and in the off-screen romance revealed by Fisher in her most recent autobiography.

I was sixteen when I saw Carrie Fisher star as a 19-year-old in Star Wars. And so today, with the rest of the sci-fi geek world, I mourn Fisher as an icon of my youth. Her life was not easy: the lives of children raised in Hollywood rarely are. And she struggled with bipolar disorder, and with drug addiction. But as a writer, and an actress, she charmed the world with her humility, wry humor, and strength. Whatever galaxy she finds herself in now, she is at peace. And may her memory be a blessing.

 

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.

 

 

Advertisements

The Dance of Hanukkah and Christmas: 8 Tips for Interfaith Families

Christmas and Hanukkah cookies, photo Susan Katz Miller
Photo, Susan Katz Miller

The Woolf Institute in Cambridge, England, works on Jewish, Muslim, and Christian relations. They asked me to write on how interfaith families will choreograph Hanukkah and Christmas celebrations this year. In general, organizations in the UK are more open to discussing interfaith families as a part of interfaith relations than their US counterparts are. I am grateful whenever anyone acknowledges the role that interfaith families can play in interfaith peacemaking. Visit the Woolf Institute blog to see my new post there, or read it below…SKM

The solar Gregorian calendar determines the timing of Christian holidays, while both the sun and moon guide the Jewish calendar. As a result, each year interfaith families must choreograph the dance of Hanukkah and Christmas in a new way. In 2016, this dance will require some expert steps, since the first night of Hanukkah falls on Christmas Eve.

This convergence increases the complexity of preparation, and coordination, in order to give each holiday its own time and space and integrity. But after more than 50 years of celebrating both holidays, I know that it can be done, without actually mixing or blending or fusing the two together. Here are my eight strategies for mastering the Hanukkah and Christmas dance this year:

  1. Don’t forget Hanukkah on Christmas Eve. If you are traveling, remember to pack the Hanukkah menorah. In the excitement of Christmas Eve, don’t forget to set aside a few minutes to gather everyone and actually light the first candle. Enjoy the synergy of a glowing Hanukkah menorah and a sparkling tree, and talk about the common theme of light at the darkest time of year. Safety tip: If you are going off to a mass or church service, be sure to light candles when they will have time to safely burn down.
  1. Postpone Hanukkah gifts. On Christmas day, lean into Christmas. After a full day of Christmas and stacks of presents, do remember to light candles for the second night. But consider putting off Hanukkah gifts until later in the week. In fact, resist the false competition between the holidays that has given rise to the whole idea of Hanukkah gifts.
  1. Tell the Hanukkah story. Emphasizing the religious freedom angle in the Hanukkah story is a perfect activity this year. We are lucky to live in a time and place with the freedom to celebrate either, or both, or any religion. Singing the Hanukkah song Rock of Ages (different from the Christian hymn of the same name) in English rather than Hebrew on the nights you celebrate with extended Christian family members will make the story more accessible.
  1. Give to others. Once Christmas has ended, lean into Hanukkah. The middle nights of Hanukkah would be perfect for giving back, in lieu of more family gifts. Stress that both holidays encourage us to care for those in need. Engage children in deciding what causes they want to support with charitable donations this year.
  1. Organise acts of service. Christmas encourages empathy for those who, like Mary and Joseph, must travel and seek shelter. Hanukkah provides an opportunity to talk about how Jewish history compels us to work to promote social justice. Celebrating these intertwined themes by engaging in acts of service together to support refugees and religious minorities.
  1. Give Hanukkah gifts at the end. If your family does give Hanukkah gifts, wait until the end of the week when the novelty of Christmas gifts has worn off. Some families like to emphasize books and clothes as Hanukkah gifts for children, rather than toys, to further differentiate the two holidays.
  1. Time the parties. Hanukkah spans two weekends this year, and Christmas sits squarely on the first weekend. So the second weekend could be a good time for a Hanukkah party. Try a party on Friday night with the festive lighting of both Shabbat and Hanukkah candles. Or, plan a family New Year’s Eve party with the lighting of havdalah candles for the close of Shabbat, followed by Hanukkah candles. Or, arrange an elegant adult New Year’s Eve party with caviar on latkes, champagne, and gambling with dreidels.
  1. Try not to stress. As you move through the dance of Hanukkah and Christmas this year, don’t fret over a misstep or two. Everyone forgets to light candles on occasion. Everyone has a relative who makes some awkward comment about interfaith families. Everyone has a different comfort level with where to place the Hanukkah menorah in relation to the tree. Through it all, do your best to stay in touch with a sense of holiday joy.

 

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.

Intermarried, Interfaith, Intercultural, Interschminter?

Interfaith Rings, photo Susan Katz Miller

 

This week, the (Jewish Daily) Forward published my opinion piece on why we should move away from the term “intermarried” to describe interfaith families. I have strong opinions on this topic. You can click below to read my four main arguments (plus a bunch of cranky comments of the “you’re not even Jewish” or “interschminter” variety).

http://forward.com/opinion/355358/4-reasons-we-should-stop-calling-people-intermarried/

The response to the essay has been interesting. Many in the Jewish community have been quick to defend the use of “intermarriage.” One of the main points they argue is that “interfaith” doesn’t seem like the right language at a time when secularism is on the rise. I understand this, and I understand why some people prefer “intercultural” to “interfaith.” Clearly, we need to keep looking for the right language to describe our families, and our identities, in the 21st century. But I stand firm in my opposition to “intermarriage” and I wish more readers would respond to my critique of the use of this term.

Meanwhile, of those who have read my essay and did not grow up Jewish, virtually none of them think of these marriages as “intermarriages”–indeed they find the term awkward and uncomfortable. I believe that’s because the term “intermarriage” is tied to a long history of worrying about, excluding, sitting shiva for, and castigating those in interfaith families for their choices. It clearly marks those who use “intermarriage” as representing one side, one culture, one religion. In contrast, 21st century interfaith (or intercultural or interreligious) families refuse to be labeled solely in reference to their relationship to Judaism. They may have relationships with both family religions. Or they may have left behind both family religions completely. In either case, they do not see themselves as one partner who married “out” and one partner who married “in,” but rather as full partners, and therefore as equals.

What do you think?

 

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

Catholic and Buddhist: Barbara Johnson, Deconstructing False Binaries

My days and nights are full now as I work to meet the deadline for my book manuscript. I am weaving together the stories of hundreds of interfaith families, describing the growing grassroots movement to teach interfaith children about both Judaism and Christianity.

So at the moment, I try not to be distracted by the daily news. But it has become impossible to ignore the story of local art teacher Barbara Johnson, who was refused Communion, because she is a lesbian, by the Catholic priest at her mother’s funeral. Now, the media has discovered an online paper Johnson wrote, in which she described herself as a Buddhist. So the focus has shifted from “Should a priest give Communion to a lesbian?” to, “Should a priest give Communion to someone who claims both Catholicism and Buddhism?”

Suddenly, Barbara Johnson’s story has become yet another “both/and” challenge to the “either/or” world. Washington Post religion reporter Michelle Boorstein, who has covered this story from the start, interviewed Johnson (and her brother) to get Johnson’s own description of the role these two religions play in her life. Johnson says that by the time of her mother’s death, ironically, she “had really integrated my Catholic identity into my larger identity as someone who is very influenced by Buddhist teachings.” She also described how, for her, Buddhism and Catholicism “inform one another in this constant internal conversation.” That conversation will be a familiar one to many of us who are born into interfaith families.

Often, clergy who claim religious double-belonging seem to carry more weight than those of us who are rank-and-file dual-faith individuals. And so, Boorstein mentions Trappist monk Thomas Merton as another Catholic who embraced Buddhism. And she mentions, though not by name, Ann Holmes Redding, a former Episcopal priest who describes her religious identity as a convergence of Christianity and Islam.

Perhaps the best contemporary exploration of religious double-belonging is by eminent theologian and former Catholic priest Paul Knitter, in his 2009 memoir, Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian. Knitter writes, “dualism results when we make necessary distinctions, and then take those distinctions too seriously. We turn those distinctions into dividing lines rather than connecting lines; we use them as no-trespassing signs.” When writing about his own identity, he says, “I have to be religious interreligiously.” As an adult interfaith child, I, too, feel compelled to be religious interreligiously.

As an interfaith parent raising interfaith children, this rising tide of fluid identity thrills me: I feel lifted up, weightless and exhilarated, each time a new wave rolls in. I feel supported by other Jewish and Christian interfaith families, but also by Catholics claiming Buddhism, and Episcopalians claiming Islam, and multiethnic and bilingual and immigrant and expatriate and multiracial families, and all of the many expressions of gender identity and sexual orientation in our world.

In the 2011 memoir Nina Here Nor There: My Journey Beyond Gender, Nick Krieger concludes, “Some people see it as a binary, a spectrum, a continuum, or a rainbow. But when I envision my own gender, it is with my eye to the lens of a kaleidoscope that I spin and spin and spin.” Thanks to Krieger’s metaphor, I can now visualize the complexity of my own religious identity as a kaleidoscope of shifting spots of Jewish belief, English and Scottish and Irish heritage, Jewish ritual, New England Protestant culture, Jewish studies, Catholic social teaching, Muslim immersion, African animist encounters, Buddhist practice.

In Barbara Johnson’s eloquent academic paper posted online, she discusses the dilemma of gay and lesbian teachers in the context of queer theory that is “deconstructing the false sexual binaries of masculine/feminine and heterosexual/homosexual.” And now, by her own example as a Catholic and a Buddhist, I believe that she is helping to deconstruct false religious binaries, as well.