A Jewish Woman Who Says Inshallah

Kaolack
The Tidjane Mosque in Kaoloack, Senegal, through the filter of red harmattan dust in 1989. Photo by Susan Katz Miller.

Once again this year, I am honored to be a part of #InterfaithRamadan, the month-long series of daily essays curated by interfaith activist Sarah Ager (@SaritaAgerman). Sarah is an English teacher living in Italy, a preacher’s kid. and a convert to Islam who describes herself as a “postmodern Anglo-Muslim hybrid.” She writes a blog called “A Hotchpotch Hijabi in Italy.” Two years ago, she posted an essay I wrote reflecting on my three-year sojourn in Senegal, a predominantly Sufi Muslim country. This year, partly in response to the toxic Islamophobic rhetoric in American political discourse right now, I wrote a new essay for #InterfaithRamadan, published yesterday, reflecting on why I say Inshallah and Alhamdulillah, and how this relates for me to the Jewish Shehecheyanu prayer. Hop over and check it out, and then browse through some of the many other wonderful #InterfaithRamadan essays there, and subscribe to Sarah’s blog.

My years in Senegal, the first years of my marriage, were formative in multiple ways. Immersion in a joyous, welcoming, progressive, and culturally rich Sufi Muslim culture permanently altered the way I see Islam and the world. As someone who has had the privilege to experience Senegal, I have written from this perspective on my own blog, again and again and again. As someone who grew up in an interfaith family, I see this as part of my role in the world: to build bridges as an interfaith activist, especially when intolerance is on the rise.

 

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 @beingboth.

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Interfaith Sunday School, on NPR

npr-home

I was glad to add my voice to an important piece this week on NPR’s All Things Considered, entitled “With Interfaith Sunday Schools, Parents Don’t Have To Choose One Religion.” Introduced by my favorite host, Michel Martin, the story was reported by Rami Ayyub, who visited the Sunday School at the Interfaith Families Project (IFFP) in order to talk to staff, parents, and students. He also stopped by my house to record an interview.

Rami comes from a background that includes Muslim and Christian family members, and he wanted to explore whether the model for educating Jewish and Christian interfaith children could be extended to other religions. For this story, he also interviewed Imam Yahya Hendi, the Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University (and a friend and colleague of IFFP’s late beloved rabbi, Harold White, who was the Jewish chaplain at Georgetown). Imam Hendi said that as often as once a month, an interfaith couple asks him if there is some kind of Muslim and Christian, or Muslim and Jewish, interfaith education program for interfaith children.

The answer is, not yet. But as I told Rami, if you build it, they will come. Traditional religious institutions are not going to create dual-faith religious education programs for children. They are still urging parents to restrict religious education and identity labels for children to a single faith. And yet, as Being Both documents, parents are voting with their feet, creating ways to give interfaith children broader interfaith education, even if it means moving away from traditional religious institutions that disapprove of this pathway.

As for Muslim and Christian interfaith families, I know that there are already communities for these families in England, Scotland and France , and a couples group in Chicago. But as of yet, I don’t know of any interfaith education program devoted to children from Muslim and Christian interfaith families. In my book, the Muslim and Christian interfaith couples I interviewed were either planning to essentially home-school for interfaith education, and/or alternating or combining single-faith Muslim and Christian education programs. It is interesting to note that in England, all students are required to get some interfaith religious education in government-funded schools. As a result, interfaith family community leaders there have told me they feel less pressure to provide interfaith education for interfaith children.

The NPR piece considers whether the existing dual-faith programs in the US, such as IFFP, could or should become tri-faith programs. In his piece, Rami quotes IFFP’s Spiritual Director Julia Jarvis (our minister) as saying that she hopes that in 20 years, groups like IFFP will have opened the door to the third Abrahamic religion (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all share the story of Abraham as patriarch).

But I want to suggest another way of looking at this. It is true that many of us have been pushing the existing Jewish and Christian interfaith education programs to work on ways to incorporate more education about Islam, because all Americans need more education about Islam in order to combat Islamobophia. But I do not foresee all of these dual-faith programs becoming tri-faith programs. To be frank, interfaith family communities have their hands full trying to teach children about two religions, and disproving the idea that what they teach is “a mile wide and an inch deep.” They work hard to explain the great depth created when teaching the historical, theological and cultural points of connection between these two religions.

The way I see it, interfaith family programs teaching Judaism and Christianity have created a template that is available, to everyone, of any religion (or none), not in 20 years, but right now. As early as tomorrow, five Muslim and Christian families could come together and decide to build a dual-faith education program for their children. The experts in Jewish and Christian interfaith education for interfaith children stand ready to share experiences and resources on how to do this with interfaith families from Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or any other worldview.

All of us have agency–have the power to create community. Each of us can envision new ways to help our children to integrate their complex identities. Anyone has the freedom to create interfaith education programs in order to help our children to see themselves as interfaith peacemakers. We do not have to wait for permission. We do not have to wait for any door to open. The door is already open.

 

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 @beingboth.

 

Seeking Interfaith Families…at the Parliament of the World’s Religions

99 Names Project
99 Names Project. Artist, Andrew Kosorok. Parliament art exhibit.

What if I told you that almost 10,000 people converged on Salt Lake City for the Parliament of the World’s Religions, to engage in interfaith activism, interfaith education and interfaith bridge-building? And what if I reminded you that more than a third of all Americans who are married or living with a partner are in interfaith or mixed-denomination relationships according to Pew Research? Given these two pieces of information, you might expect robust discussion at this Parliament on the role of interfaith families as interfaith educators and peacemakers. Am I right?

Registration Hall, Salt Palace Convention Center, Parliament of the World's Religions
Registration Hall, Salt Palace Convention Center, Parliament of the World’s Religions

The Parliament can be overwhelming: it helps to have a thread, a focus, to organize your days. I approached the Parliament through my own lens, that of an adult interfaith child who claims a complex religious identity. So on my first day in the Salt Palace Convention Center, I went looking for the stories of people from interfaith families inspired to become interfaith peacemakers. And of course, I found them, everywhere.

But not in the official program. The official program included some 1800 presenters, and there was exactly one presenter on interfaith families. That would be me. Why only one? Like so many other old-school interfaith organizations, the Parliament has traditionally been dominated by older men–I witnessed a panel composed entirely of men in dark suits at the opening plenary–and by religious institutions interested in keeping everyone in a “Box A or Box B or Box C” model of religious affiliation.

Those of us who blur boundaries, who claim Buddhism and Christianity, or Judaism and Paganism, or create families that transgress the invisible religious borders–we make religious leaders nervous. We are disruptors, even at a conference as radically inclusive as the Parliament. We are seen as marginal, even while we are now the majority in some religious communities, even while millennials are fleeing from “either/or” identities, and from religious litmus tests, and dogma, and membership criteria.

Labyrinth, Parliament of the World's Religions
Labyrinth, Salt Palace Convention Center, at the Parliament

So, I woke up early on my first full day at the Parliament (thanks to East Coast jet lag) and set out to find my interfaith family people. And in the very first session into which I wandered, Buyondo Micheal was explaining The Peace Drum Initiative, a project in which he teaches Muslim, Christian, and Hindu schoolchildren in Uganda to drum together, under the auspices of his Faiths Together Uganda program. As he began explaining how he ended up creating this program, he described his own interfaith education as part of an interfaith family, in which he shifted back and forth from Christian to Muslim schools throughout his childhood. Lo and behold, the very first presenter I heard at the Parliament turned out to be someone from an interfaith family, inspired by this background to do interfaith peacemaking.

Tibetan Buddhist sand mandala, Registration Hall, Salt Palace Convention Center
Tibetan Buddhist sand mandala, Registration Hall, Salt Palace Convention Center

Next, I lined up for langar, the lunch served by the Sikh community each day, and ended up sitting on the floor eating with a local woman who was volunteering at the Parliament, from a Mormon and Catholic interfaith family. (In the langar line on another day, I ran into a friend from my online interfaith activism world, from a Hindu and Sikh interfaith family). Each day while waiting in the langar line, I watched the sand mandala made by the Tibetan Buddhist monks slowly taking shape. The intricate patterns seemed to reflect the complexity of the interfaith world, and my own interfaith identity.

After curried potatoes, spicy cauliflower and chai tea at langar, I went to give my talk on interfaith families as interfaith peacemakers. During the discussion, the young woman who was randomly assigned as a volunteer to our session, who was there to make sure the projector worked, raised her hand tentatively. She said, “I didn’t even know what this session was going to be about. But I’m an interfaith child. My parents are Mormon and Baha’i. And I’ve never heard anyone talk about it in this way before. I thought I was the only one. So I just wanted to thank you.” That moment, right there, made the trip to Salt Lake City worthwhile.

Each of these Parliament participants born into an interfaith family was motivated to walk through the doors of the Salt Palace because of, not in spite of, their experiences as interfaith bridge-builders in their own families. But I only got a glimpse of these inspiring stories in the liminal spaces—in the lunch line conversations, and as tangents. At the next Parliament, we need to hear about the rich complexity of interfaith family life in multiple panels, and in the plenary sessions.

Assembly Hall, Temple Square, Salt Lake City
Assembly Hall, Temple Square, Salt Lake City

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.

Successful Interfaith Marriage: Reza Aslan and Jessica Jackley

Zealot

Reza Aslan’s newest book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, had already reached the bestseller list when a video clip of the author went viral this week. The religion scholar appeared on Fox news to explain his latest work, but the host repeatedly questioned why a Muslim would be writing a book about Jesus.

Aslan–the acclaimed author of No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam–demonstrated extraordinary grace and patience on the show, explaining over and over that religion scholars write as academics, not as adherents. Buzzfeed asked if this was “The Most Embarrassing Interview that Fox News Has Ever Done?” Meanwhile, in the course of the interview, Aslan mentioned that his wife and mother are both Christians.

As it happens, I tell the story of this high-profile interfaith family in my book Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family. About a year ago, Aslan tweeted: “I’m in a blissful interfaith marriage with my Christian wife. We are raising our children to respect all faiths and choose 1 for themselves.” When I read that tweet, I contacted him, and he and his wife agreed to be interviewed for my book chapter entitled “Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists: The Next Interfaith Wave.”

Aslan’s wife Jessica Jackley is prominent in her own field, as the co-founder of Kiva, the pioneering microfinance non-profit. But Aslan’s engagement with Christianity did not begin with marriage. In Being Both, he describes his own journey as the child of a family of Iranian refugees who were “cultural Muslims,” to a period of evangelical Christian zeal beginning in high school (during which he converted his own mother to Christianity), to rediscovery of Islam while a student of religions.

One of my themes is how being part of an interfaith family can inspire deeper understanding of one’s own religion(s), in the religion of a partner, and ultimately in the religions of the world. In describing their courtship and marriage, Jackley, who comes from an evangelical Christian family, told me, “He knows the Bible better than I do. He’s writing a book right now on Jesus. He understood my life better than most Christians.” That book eventually became Zealot.

Aslan and Jackley are now raising their twin sons with the values shared by both family religions, and with stories from diverse traditions. “What we’re going to teach our kids is the values, the beliefs, the activism, the worldview,” Aslan told me. “And when it comes to the stories, we’ll give them all of them.”

Being Both includes more on the marriage of Aslan and Jackley, the reaction of their interfaith families, and how they are raising their sons. They are two, perhaps the most prominent two, out of the hundreds of people who entrusted me with their interfaith family stories. Aslan, who received an advanced copy, calls the book, “A gorgeous and inspiring testament to the power of love to not only transcend the divides of faith and tradition, but to bring faiths together and create wholly new traditions.”

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

Supporting Muslim and Christian Couples (And the Rest of Us)

Rainbow in the Waves, photo Susan Katz Miller

Recently, support for interfaith families of all kinds took a giant step forward when the London-based Christian Muslim Forum released an excellent new publication: “When Two Faiths Meet: Marriage, Family and Pastoral Care.” These guidelines for clergy were released at an event at the venerable Westminster Abbey no less, and attended by supportive ministers and imams.

Longtime UK independent interfaith family support groups (the Inter Faith Marriage Network and the Muslim-Christian Marriage Support Group) helped to produce the guidelines. Neither of these groups represents a single religion: they are grassroots networks of interfaith couples and families. This collaboration between an interfaith dialogue group, clergy from more than one religion, and interfaith families strikes me as important. Too often, high-level interfaith dialogue has avoided the subject of interfaith families as too controversial, rather than supporting interfaith families and even drawing on their experiences with communication across religious divides.

The new document includes case studies of Muslim and Christian couples and families, and ten “Ethical Principles for Ministers, Imams, and other faith leaders” on how to best provide pastoral care to interfaith couples. The report points out that neither ministers nor imams “are being trained to respond to the increasing numbers” of interfaith couples.

The guidelines include the importance of ensuring that “individuals are not forced or pressurized to convert in order to marry.” Conversions made under pressure “may cause resentment in the long term” a “risk which may also apply in the case of enforced decisions about the faith identification of future children,” the guidelines state. This is brave language, and applies equally, in my experience, to Jewish and Christian, or Hindu and Muslim, or any other interfaith couples.

The report notes that the children of interfaith families “often report that their connection to two heritages is important to their sense of identity” and that they “are not confused by knowing both faiths or learning differences.”

Seeing my own positive reality as an interfaith child and an interfaith parent reflected in a report produced with the help of clergy from more than one religion, I feel a tremendous sense of affirmation, of being understood. I can only hope that here in the US we will take inspiration from this collaboration, and these new guidelines. In the meantime, we all benefit from the ability to get a free download of the guidelines from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Muslim and Christian: The Legend of the “Torre de la Minyona”

This week, I attempted to take a break from writing my book on interfaith identity, in order to celebrate my daugher’s graduation from high school on a family trip to Spain. But I cannot help myself now from seeing the world through my interfaith lens. Everywhere I go, I see the evidence that around the globe, and throughout history, people fall in love across the lines of race and religion and tribe. As long as we treat these love stories as transgressive and problematic, they will remain transgressive and problematic. When we accept them as natural, as sources of creativity and inspiration, as good for humanity, we will come closer to achieving that reality.

Less than two hours north of Barcelona,we stayed in a lovely hotel constructed from a medieval castle on a hilltop overlooking the town of  Cardona. Thousands of castles dot the Spanish landscape, in part because of the long history of conquest and reconquest on the shifting frontline between the Christian and Muslim world. I knew of the long history of Judaism prior to the Inquisition in Spain, and of the co-existence of the three Abrahamic religions in al-Andalus in the south of the country. The religious harmony in ancient Andalusia is often romanticized, held up as a model for interfaith trialogue and peace-building of the sort that has three separate and distinct religions interact while retaining clear boundaries. But in recounting this history, very rarely does anyone mention what happened when Christians and Muslims and Jews actually fell in love with each other in medieval Spain. And yet, when people live and work side by side, love stories are inevitable.

The Cardona castle overlooks a Roman-era salt mine which provided the wealth to build the garrison and ramparts and towers over many centuries. Wilfred the Hairy began the castle construction in 886 CE. (Orson Welles chose this castle as the main setting for his Shakespearean film “The Chimes of Midnight.”) The most celebrated and iconic section of the castle is the cylindrical 11th century “Torre de la Minyona” or Maiden’s Tower. I climbed the  tower, looking mainly for a view through a bright cloudless sky over the Catalonion countryside. But after stopping to read the historical plaque about the tower, the rolling landscape took on a strange and gloomy cast.

“…in the very early days of the castle, Adelaida, the lovely daughter of the count, fell in love with a Muslim jailor from a neighboring town. Despite the fact that the young man planned to convert to Christianity, the maiden’s parents sentenced her to be locked up in the tower, where she was attended only by a mute maid. Tradition tells that the suitor even built a cross using stones from the river to demonstrate how fervently he embraced his new faith. However, the lords would not give in and the young girl’s health deteriorated from her suffering. She died in captivity.”

The curators of the castle point out that this tale is legend, not history, and that the origins of the story are “lost in the mists of time.” Over the centuries, many versions of the tale have circulated in Catalonia. Some say the lover was a prince named Abdullah, and that the forbidden love affair caused a protracted war between the Christians and Moors. In this version, Adelaida draws a cross with the blood of her own fingers before dying to prove that she has never renounced her Christianity. Others say Adelaida’s brothers imprisoned her, in part because she converted to Islam. It is said that her father relented on his deathbed and called for her release, but that Adelaida died just before he arrived, or at the moment she was freed. Many believe that her ghost now haunts the castle, as does a ghost of Abdullah, who rides up to the castle every evening at the hour when the lovers first met.

Haunted parapets, star-crossed lovers, religious passion. I am sure these ingredients help to engage the tourists who come to stay at the castle, and I plead guilty to being one of them. But for me, the Legend of the Tower of the Maiden of Cardona serves as a  poignant reminder of the stubborn, ongoing resistance to interfaith love. In the 21st century, interfaith couples still face family members who attempt to sabotage their relationships, religious communities that expect outrageous proof of fidelity from those who dare to intermarry, and states ready to do battle over religious difference.

I cannot help musing about how the history of Cardona might have been different if Adelaida and Abdullah had been united. In one version of the tale, the storyteller has Abdullah describe this vision to Adelaida: “I say we hope for the future together, a sunny future that will allow children with brown skin and blue eyes to run through this castle, enjoying the scenery of this homeland, as seen from this tower. I pray that you have faith, please.”

I would like to think we are closer to the time when Abdullah’s vision can become a reality. I have faith that creating interfaith families will help to build peace and understanding on the most intimate level, with global repurcussions. Inspired by Abdullah and Adelaida, let us break free from our towers of isolation, make love not war, and help to make the 21st century a time of unprecedented harmony.

Raising Interfaith Children: Search for Online Support

One of the goals of this blog is to support couples raising children with two religions. Based on the internet search terms people use to arrive here, I feel encouraged that people who are seeking reassurance and specific examples of success are finding their way to onbeingboth.com.

Some of the most common of these search terms include, not surprisingly, “raising interfaith children,” “raising children with two religions,” and “successful interfaith marriages.”

Other search terms document the fact that it is not only Jews and Christians who are intermarrying or claiming two religions these days. In the past month alone, people searching for information on how to celebrate the Muslim/Christian, Catholic/Buddhist, Muslim/Jewish, Hindu/Christian, Buddhist/Jewish and Muslim/Yoruba religions simultaneously, or raise children in both of these religions, all surfed here. Even though my own family grew from Jewish and Christian roots, I think many of the posts on educating children in two religions, and claiming an identity drawing on more than one religion, will be relevant to them. And I hope that these visitors discover the right-hand column of the main page of this blog, listing links to sites addressing many of these religious combinations.

Some search terms remind me that, while my interfaith families community experiences great joy and fulfillment on our interfaith pathway, many families still struggle with the disapproval of family and institutions when they intermarry. In the past month, people arrived at this blog searching for help with the terms “jewish parents giving up sons over interfaith marriage,” “opposition of interdenominational marriage,” and “jewish why gay marriage okay but not interfaith.”

Other online seekers this month asked the questions, “can you be jewish if you’re mixed race?” “can babies have a baptism and a bris,” “can my child be taught two religions,” and “can a child have two religions?” I hope they found the answers they were clearly seeking on this blog: yes, yes, yes and yes.