The Star and the Cross: High Holy Days

I was in heaven on Rosh Hashanah. My heaven consists of sitting with my entire nuclear family (my Episcopalian husband and both our teenage children), surrounded by interfaith families, listening to our beloved Rabbi lead us through evening and morning services featuring ancient, traditional chants, sixties folk songs and a pinch of Catholicism.

Okay, so it took me a few minutes to adjust to the fact that the first-ever Rosh Hashanah services created by our Interfaith Families Project took place in the sanctuary of a local church, with a huge wooden cross looming behind our little Torah in its home-made traveling ark.

As we walked in and looked up, my teenage daughter was a little bit freaked out. I had not warned her. Waiting for services to begin, we talked about what it would have looked like if they had draped cloth over the cross (disrespectful, and perhaps calling even more attention to the hidden object). We talked about our Rabbi’s defense of the crucifix hanging in Georgetown classrooms, and his understanding of the cross as a universal symbol of suffering. We talked about the particular and very warm relationship between our interfaith community and this very progressive church. And we talked about the fact that many Christian congregations in America share their sanctuaries with young Jewish communities, communities that cannot afford synagogues yet. Someday, we hope the Interfaith Families Project will have its own spiritual space, with neutral or balanced symbology.  In the meantime, I am glad we could borrow this soaring sanctuary: as a spiritual space, it had a lot of advantages over the high school auditoriums rented by many Jewish communities for High Holy Day services.

Eventually, we all settled into the pew, and our focus shifted to the primal call of the shofar, the familiar chanting of Avinu Malkeinu, the singing of “Turn, Turn, Turn” and “Morning Has Broken.” My 13-year-old son whispered to me, “Did Cat Stevens write that before or after he became a Muslim?” After the service, we shared honeycake with hundreds of people from interfaith families from across the Washington area. I had a chance to remind my son that “Turn, Turn, Turn” is taken directly from Ecclesiastes (my daughter knows this fact). And that Cat Stevens adapted “Morning Has Broken” from a Christian hymn, before he became a Muslim. And we talked about why including a version of the peace prayer by Saint Francis in the service seemed daring but also strangely appropriate in the midst of the peace-filled liturgy for the first morning of Rosh Hashanah.

Later, I thought again of my own reaction to the cross as a backdrop for the Torah reading, the blowing of the shofar. I do not usually like to use the world “tolerance” when writing about interfaith relations and interfaith families. Tolerance seems to imply something difficult, irritating, costly. I prefer to stress appreciation, cross-pollination, embrace.

But in this case, tolerance felt like the right word. I would not have chosen to have it there, but that cross symbolized, for me, my own ability to tolerate, and even support, all the members of an extended interfaith family, an interfaith community, an interfaith world. If we are to live together in peace, we must tolerate each other’s symbols, even when they make us uncomfortable: the cross on the wall, the star in the window, the crescent moon in the heart of the city.

On the Eid, and the New Year, Savor Sweetness

This morning all of us are attempting, once again, to understand what happened on 9/11, and how that day changed us, while pondering with alarm the recent proliferation of anti-Muslim sentiment in America. All of this, while mourning all who were lost, all that was lost. The theologians will analyze, the clergy sermonize, the politicians make speeches. I have no profound words, no balm, no answers. But every year, I feel compelled to write from my perspective as an interfaith person, someone who spans two cultures and two religions, someone acutely aware of the danger of pigeonholes, and the promise of bridges.

So I search through my history, and my present experience, for fragments of hope.

Growing up in a small New England town, I knew no Muslims. Even at my cosmopolitan university, I was unaware of Muslims: surely they were there, but stayed quiet, invisible. My first face-to-face encounter with Islam was in the moderate and tolerant Muslim country of Morocco, before I moved to the moderate and tolerant Muslim country of Senegal. My boyfriend (who later became my husband) was living and working in Rabat, and my visit happened to coincide with Ramadan. I was immersed in the rhythm of people fasting through the long, hot days, and celebrating in the cool desert night. I remember sitting at sunset in a cafe overlooking the Djemaa el Fna, the famed public square in Marrakesh, watching as hundreds of people, their spoons poised over bowls of traditional harira soup, waiting for the call of the muezzin to signal the end of the fast. Actually, some of them were waiting, poised with cigarette and lighter in hand, for the first smoke of the day. Not as scenic, but perhaps equally admirable in terms of devotion to the fast.

Years later, after living on three continents, we chose to raise our children in a community that would mirror the world, offering as much diversity as possible. I yearned to feed my children the rich cultural food I had encountered around the globe, to fill them with knowledge and understanding of the peoples of the planet. In the Washington, DC, area, we found what we were seeking. We have family friends, and my children have classmates, from a broad array of ethnicities and religions, including Mormons, Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims. Over the past month, as our Muslim friends celebrated Ramadan, both my husband and my daughter were invited to iftars, celebrations of breaking the fast.

My husband went to an iftar with international development colleagues, organized by Islamic World Relief. My daughter was invited by an Egyptian-American classmate to his home, where he and his family prepared an iftar feast for several of his school friends. I felt profoundly moved and comforted by this gesture, by this seeming confirmation that we are raising our children to be at home in the world, in a future of living and celebrating together across cultural and religious divides.

This year, as anti-Muslim rhetoric seemed to swell into an ugly cacophony, I took comfort, too, in the way that the religious stars (actually, the religious moons) seemed to align. Rosh Hashanah, our Jewish New Year, and the Eid ul-Fitr, the feast to celebrate the end of Ramadan, overlapped with each other and with 9/11. For me, the sweetness in these holidays helped to take the edge off my 9/11 sorrow and distress.

The holidays share a theme of sweetness: the sweetness of Jewish honey cake, of apples and honey, for a sweet New Year, and the sweetness of the end of the fast, as Muslims celebrate with dates and honey-infused pastries. One year, my husband fasted alongside Moroccan colleagues, as he usually does out of respect and solidarity when working with Muslims, and then went to an iftar where he was served a pastry, called sfouf, so rich and sweet that he actually passed out as his blood-sugar levels went haywire.

To prevent any such untoward event from recurring this year, and because I am a ferocious chocoholic, I confiscated the chocolate world my husband received as iftar swag from Islamic World Relief, and ate it. But first, I took a photo of it for this blog. I love the synergy between the roundness of this sweet semi-globe, and the round hemisphere of raisin challah I bought for our Rosh Hashanah. The round challah, a special shape found only at the New Year, symbolizes the circle of life at the start of the New Year. A round chocolate world, a round raisin challah. Sweetness and symmetry in Judaism and Islam. May we all strive to make our real world, our integrated and unified world, sweeter this year.

September, Ramadan, and a Half-and-Half Poem

September arrived this week, and my children are now back in school. Here in the Washington area, as well as in New York, the uncanny blue skies of September take on an eerie video quality as we all remember that morning of September 11th, 2001. I had just dropped my daughter at the elementary-school bus stop, and I held my son’s little hand as we walked home. A neighbor in the street told me the first tower had been hit, and to go home and turn on the television. I watched as the second tower crumpled, and then turned it off, trying to guard my preschooler from the traumatic images, while frantically attempting to make contact with all of our New York family members. By the time my daughter got home from school, one of her classmates had lost his mother as a plane hit the Pentagon. And all of us were in shock.

This year, 9/11 arrives in the midst of the Jewish High Holidays, and alongside the Eid al-Fitr, the celebration marking the end of Ramadan. I am a very lucky Jew who happened to have a positive and formative experience in a Muslim country. Thinking back on the joyous Eids I celebrated with friends and neighbors while living in the democratic West African country of Senegal, it is painful to try to imagine the fear and depression associated with being Muslim in America at this moment.

For solace, I turned this week to a fellow interfaith child, great American poet Naomi Shihab Nye. I discovered Nye in a PBS poetry series hosted by Bill Moyers, which I used in class when I was teaching high school English in Brazil. Daughter of a Palestinian father and an American mother, Nye published an entire book of poetry in response to 9/11, with the evocative title 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East. The book was chosen as a National Book Award finalist. One of the poems, entitled “Half-and-Half” begins like this:

You can’t be, says a Palestinian Christian

on the first feast day after Ramadan.

So, half-and-half and half-and-half.

He sells glass. He knows about broken bits,

chips. If you love Jesus you can’t love

anyone else. Says he.

With the repetition of the phrase half-and-half, Nye caresses and owns the words used by others to belittle and condemn our interfaithness. “Says he.” Harrumph. In the wake of 9/11, Nye has written extensively in prose as well as poetry about her response as an Arab-American, and about her love for her Muslim grandmother and extended family in Palestine. Nye acknowledges her own mixed roots, but is driven to write primarly about her Palestinian family, to stand up for them in times of duress. I understand this–many of us who are interfaith Jewish children choose to stand with the Jews when we feel the Jews need us most.

As September 11th approaches, anger and pain stalk us all. We must all take a deep breath, read poetry (Nye’s suggestion), look into the eyes of the people in our communities. We must all understand that our lives are connected across political and religious boundaries now. Those of us who embody the liminal, who bridge cultures, have a duty to seek each other out, to affirm that interfaith love exists and that interfaith children are a sign of hope. One stanza of Nye’s poem “Half-and-Half” ends with these words: “…I press my lips to every exception.” On September 11th, I will press my lips to my own two children, exceptional embodiments of the love that can exist between people of different religions, even in a troubled world. As part of my resolutions for the Jewish New Year, I vow to seek out the other exceptions in our midst–religious, racial, linguistic, all of them–to explore what we have in common.

 

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.

Obama, Christian not Muslim: An Interfaith Perspective

 

A growing number of Americans, currently 18%, believe President Barack Obama is a Muslim. I have been mulling over the interfaith perspectives on this disturbing new statistic from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Here are some of my thoughts:

1. Obama is, in fact, a Christian/Muslim interfaith child, both by birth and through childhood experience. I identify with him because I see all of the positive interfaith traits in him: peace-making, bridge-building, the ability to see all sides of an issue.  But interfaith children have the right to choose their own labels, as I point out in the Bill of Rights for Interfaith People. Obama has chosen Christianity, and went through the appropriate rituals to officially join a Christian denomination. That makes him a Christian, period.

2. Barack Hussein Obama is stuck with a name that sounds Muslim. Interfaith children with Jewish last names who are raised as Christians, or choose Christianity, will empathize with the President in his predicament, as will many other interfaith children who live with the cognitive dissonance of an ethnic last name that differs from their religious label. No matter what our religious beliefs or practices or choices, a segment of society will continue to judge us by our names, our noses, our hair, our skin color, accent or parentage. This is deeply frustrating.

3. Interfaith children (and converts) have to try harder. We have to perform more rituals, loudly proclaim our religious institutional affiliations, show up for formal worship, be holier and more kosher than thou, in order to convince others of our religious authenticity. This is of course unfair, and supremely annoying. Obama, burned by his enthusiasm for the “wrong” church in Chicago, tried to protect himself (and guard his family’s privacy) by not affiliating with a church in Washington. Now this strategy is backfiring.

4. Many folks, nostalgic for the (mythological) monochromatic simplicity of a white Christian America, still cannot accept Obama, despite electing him.  We are tribal, and personal religious evolution or family complexity is too subtle for many folks. Or they may understand Obama’s religion perfectly well, but simply choose to pretend to misunderstand him for political reasons.

5. Confusion is in the eye of the beholder. Often, it is not the interfaith children who are confused. Obama is not confused: he knows that he has chosen Christianity. Society is flummoxed by his complex background, appearance, behavior. The survey “shows a general uncertainty and confusion about the president’s religion,” said Alan Cooperman, associate director of research with the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. We are binary beings; we have trouble “getting” complexity.

 5. How sad that being Muslim in America is still so frightening. I spent last week, the first week of Ramadan, in a cabin in the mountains in West Virginia, close to the stars and the elegant new moon, imagining my Muslim friends around the world in happy iftar (break-fast) celebrations. I was off-line for that week, and blissfully unaware of the Pew poll at first, not to mention the increasing tension over the proposed Islamic cultural center near ground zero in New York. Coming back to the media, to politics, to the on-line world, was hard.

Summer Fiction: Interfaith Love Story

We now have three generations of voracious readers in my family: I am sandwiched between my book-loving mother, and my book-loving teenage daughter. Rather than going to the library, my mother buys novels and then recycles them to us, in a heroic effort to keep her local independent bookstore from going under. Each time I visit her, I find a stack of books next to the guest bed, and  stuff them in my carry-on.

This summer, I scored a wonderful new hardback novel, and before I could get at it, my daughter grabbed it off my book pile. “I didn’t realize until I was hooked that this is an OLD PEOPLE love story,” she remarked a few hours later, peering at me with wide eyes from behind the half-finished novel. True enough, the main characters in Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand are mature, but they are also funny, intellectual, and engaged in a passionate interfaith love story. My daughter raced through the book–then I did the same.

For years, I have been reviewing new interfaith fiction, while the list of non-fiction on interfaith love remains frustratingly short. For some reason, our fiction writers recognize love across cultural and religious barriers as a central theme in our globalizing culture, a very contemporary theme with ancient resonance. The treatment in fiction of these issues can be far more nuanced, more elegant, and more sympathetic than the territorial posturing of non-fiction writers, who usually have an axe or two to grind on the subject of interfaith marriage.

In any case, I urge you to immediately buy, borrow, or (sigh) download Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, an utterly engaging first novel by British author Helen Simonson, an expatriate now living outside Washington. In her book, Major Pettigrew, a very proper, lonely widower, falls for Mrs. Ali, a Muslim Pakistani widow and the shopkeeper in their tiny English village. Adventures both hilarious and poignant ensue.

At one point, Mrs. Ali flees the village, and the village Vicar delivers to Major Pettigrew words that many of us, in interfaith families, will find all too familiar. He attempts to comfort the Major, saying:  “…it’s for the best, believe me.”  He goes on to describe the interfaith couples he has married, and the opposition they face from their own families, and how they come to him for guidance. “They want me to promise they’ll be together in heaven, when the truth is I can’t even offer both a plot in the cemetery. They expect me to soft-pedal Jesus as if he’s just one of many possible options.”

Simonson touches on some very real issues here. Many cemeteries exclude interfaith couples from family plots. Many Christian clergy, and family members, fret that the Christian partner in an interfaith marriage will abandon Jesus, or that the non-Christian partner will not go to heaven.

Simonson’s characters are complex, never one-dimensional, and I even felt a bit of sympathy for the Vicar–he represents one of the last vestiges of a cultural empire, trying to toe a fast-vanishing line as he makes his best case against interfaith love. But (spoiler alert!) I was relieved to discover that he cannot stop the Major, in the end, from loving or pursuing Mrs. Ali. Those of us in happy interfaith families will be anxious to discover whether or not this charming couple will prevail, and join our ranks.  Thanks for passing this book on, Mom!

Ten Reasons to Teach Interfaith Children Both Religions

The concept of raising children as “both” continues to raise eyebrows, hackles, and goosebumps. From where I stand, with my second-generation-interfaith children almost grown, the benefits of raising them with both religions seem clear. But I thought it might be useful to sum up my reasoning and experience:

  1. Children have the right to understand and appreciate both cultures and religions represented in their family tree. Withholding information or explanations about this background can create resentment, or a sense of the suppressed religion as “forbidden fruit.” This was my own experience, growing up in an interfaith family without any education about my Christian side.
  2. Children who are equally rooted and equally comfortable with both sets of extended family may feel they have greater family support from both sides. My children, teens raised with both, are comfortable in church with Grandma, and at the Passover Seder led by Grandpa. All of the grandparents participated in my daughter’s interfaith Coming of Age ceremony, which drew on both traditions.
  3. Whether they eventually choose to identify with one religion or with both, people who are religiously bi-literate, who know the stories and rituals of two religions, will have a greater understanding of world politics, history, culture and literature.  My teens often find themselves explaining religious imagery and concepts to their peers from “monofaith” families.
  4. Some interfaith families abandon religious education altogether when they cannot agree on one religion. But interfaith adults raised with “nothing” sometimes express regret and frustration at their own religious ignorance. If both parents are unified in passing on an atheist, secular humanist or ethical culture perspective (different from choosing nothing), that’s fine. But for me, teaching both is vastly preferable to avoiding religious or ethical education altogether.
  5. Children deeply appreciate it when both parents are equally comfortable sharing their religious traditions, places of worship, and thinking, and when they sense a balance of power between parents. When one parent is the “out” or “odd” parent with a religion that differs from the rest of the family, the child may sense the lack of family unity, and may even interpret one parent as dominant and the other as submissive, misguided, or even in moral danger. I have encountered children who worry and take it on themselves to try to convert the “out” parent.
  6. As parents, we cannot ultimately control the religious identity of our children anyway. All adults can, and many do, switch religious affiliations in adulthood. Giving children some basis in both familial traditions gives them a better basis for making a choice or shifting labels, rather than forcing them to start from scratch in learning a new religion.
  7. Even if parents label their child with one religion, the outside world may reject that label. Jews will either label your children based on the religion of the mother (in the case of Conservative and Orthodox), or based on meeting certain litmus tests of Jewish practice (in the case of Reform). Meanwhile, Muslims go by the religion of the child’s father. Some Christians will label children based on whether they have been baptized, or “saved.” Your ability to control your child’s label is limited once they go out into the world, and the cognitive dissonance created by conflicting criteria in different religions and denominations may diminish your ability to make a particular label stick.
  8. The sense that learning about both religions is radical or controversial actually appeals to teens and young adults, engaging them at precisely the moment when many youth lose interest in religion. I know more than one teenager who has used their interfaith identity as a college application essay topic. The jazzy, rebellious pride exhibited by young “half-Jews,” the reappropriation and transformation of this once-derogatory label, is further evidence of positive energy derived from interfaithness.
  9. The ability to see the world from more than one perspective, the interfaith child’s stereoscopic vision, has benefits beyond the religious domain. Many adult interfaith children testify that their interfaith status predisposes them to become natural peacemakers and bridge-builders.
  10. Celebrating both sets of holidays, and studying the intertwined history of any two religions (particularly any two of the three Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity and Islam), creates a rich synergy. No religion ever sprang full-blown into the world, out of nowhere. Each religion is woven from the strands of previous traditions, and discovering their historical interconnectedness is deeply satisfying to those of us in interfaith families. The rich tapestry of each interfaith family is a microcosm of the lively design of religious evolution through history. Scientists testify to the power of this type of “fractal” design, in which  each small part echoes the pattern of the whole: fascinating, complex, and gorgeous.

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 a workbook, The Interfaith Family Journal (2019).

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.

Five Quirky Picks: Interfaith Religion Books of 2009

My touchstone topics on this blog:  interfaith identity, spirituality, ritual, music, nature, culture, family, community. Two topics I don’t mention very often: God, and the Bible.

I am not very comfortable with either one. I am open to the idea that some sort of energy infuses the world, and that human brains subconsciously tap into this energy or spirit, but I don’t refer to it as a “higher power” or believe that this spirit listens or responds to us. My problem with calling this energy “God” is that the word has been so abused by fanatical, narrow-minded, exclusivist clergy and followers that it still makes me squirm a little. And the Bible? I find it often delightfully inscrutable, resonant with the rich imagery of my Jewish and Christian cultures. But also: filled with nonsense and anachronisms which have inspired hatred and violence. So mention of the Bible often makes me squirm as well.

But I’m pushing myself outside my own box a little bit here in picking five books from the past year, all of which mention God or the Bible in their titles. None of these books is fanatical, narrow-minded or exclusivist. In fact, they are iconoclastic, open-minded and daring, and each has some connection to the interfaith world.

It’s Really All About God: Reflections of a Muslim, Atheist, Jewish Christian (Samir Selmanovic). When my husband met the author at an interfaith conference this year and came home with this book, I was tremendously excited by the title. I was a little bit disappointed to discover that Selmanovic is now, in fact, a passionately Christian minister—the other religions are indeed adjectival, describing phases of his life and influences as much as they represent a true multifaith identity. But as I read on, I was seduced by this book—the story of his journey from an atheist Muslim Croatian family (with some Christian roots) to becoming the founder of Faith House, a unique New York City meeting place where Jews, Christians and Muslims talk and mingle. This funny and revealing book has helped me towards appreciating that not all Christian clergy are out to convert or condemn me. Selmanovic is a mensch of the first order, with an extraordinary desire to “embrace the other.”

The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb (R. Crumb). The text here is straight Bible, the words of Genesis without commentary or midrash, and so I guess this is the most traditional book on this list. Except that it is, if we concede that the Bible is fiction, a graphic novel, created by the provocative hippie-era comics artist Robert Crumb. For me, his devotion to this huge project is even more interesting because of his long, creatively fertile interfaith marriage to Aline Kominsky. Crumb grew up Catholic, Kominsky has a very strong Jewish cultural identity but has called herself a pagan. This book confirms my theory that interfaith marriages sometimes produce great artistic and intellectual engagement with religion, even among people who straddle religious categories.

The Woman Who Named God: Abraham’s Dilemma and the Birth of Three Faiths (Charlotte Gordon). I stumbled on Gordon and her book because she has written a blog post on her marvelously personal  and readable blog about being a “half-Jew.” We share paternal Jewish status, and of course I like to believe that her interfaithness (though she is now a practicing Jew) led her to the marvelous idea of bringing to life the story shared by Judaism, Christianity and Islam: the story of Abraham and his two partners: Sarah (the mother of Isaac, and thus Judaism) and Hagar (the mother of Ishmael, and thus Islam).  Drawing on sources from all three religions, this is non-fiction that reads at times with the pace and poetry of fiction.

Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible (David Plotz) Written by a secular Jew (and Slate editor), this book is, to borrow a phrase, “bizarre, hilarious, disturbing, marvelous and inspiring.” I’ve been slogging through some heavy prose by theologians this year in my quest to understand what the heck I’m talking about on this blog. Plotz’s book is an antidote to all that: a refreshingly and frankly disbelieving reader gives his cynical spin on the jumble of tall-tales, non-sequiturs and poetry he encounters.

The Case for God (Karen Armstrong). Armstrong is the interfaith goddess: a prolific, compelling and deep writer who has chronicled each phase of her own journey from Catholic nun to atheist to ardent intellectual engagement with religion, as well as illuminating the history of all of the world’s religions, and the way they have evolved from and influenced each other. In this book, she explains why the term “God” makes me and a lot of other people squirm, and she makes the case for both God and religion, at a time when atheism appears to be gaining momentum. Even if you really don’t want to hear the case for God, you will find Armstrong’s nimble arguments and vast knowledge of Eastern and Western spirituality worth the read.

I Brake for Poetry

I am wary of the schmaltzy universalism that sometimes pervades the world of multifaith encounters. In our interfaith families community, we strive to preserve and hold the funky particularities of Judaism and Christianity, even when this leads to dissonance, instead of dwelling always in the safer zone of overlapping interfaith values.

But recently, my husband came home with a poem that found its way through my defensive cynicism. Peace activist Christopher Matthias wrote the poem to read at an interfaith conference on corporate responsibility. I love that his poem contains both timeless religious imagery, and more angular modern references. Chris works for an order of Roman Catholic nuns. So I thought I better write for permission to post the poem, warning him that this blog takes the radical position of advocating raising children with two religions. He wrote back, “I would be more apprehensive to share permission if your blog were not radical.”  So here’s the poem.

THIS, HOLY THIS

Nothing.

Silence.

Like the breath held.

Pregnant.

Ready to. Ready to. Ready to flare forth!

Om………………..

The sound of creation vibrating all life from the center

Like the vibrating lips of the aborigine through the didgeridoo

Telling the story of how THIS, HOLY THIS arrived and flows in tones of hydrogen and light.

We are learning your name as it is spelled out.

Creation. Life. Our God.

We hear you underwater;

In the wind;

In the bells;

In each other.

We have known your loving kindness:

Our mothers’ affection;

Our fathers’ embrace.

We are spelling out your name life by life, life after life;

Our holy charge to play our part—to dot an “eye”

As the desert fathers and mothers searched for home.

As Buddha touched a sacred moment under the Bodhi tree;

As Ganesh first swung the trunk of his newly given pachyderm head;

As Samson pushed apart the pillars—blind—shamed—but loved by you;

As the Sufi poet spins himself to ecstasy,

As Rumi found the words:

If anyone wants to know what “spirit” is,
or what “God’s fragrance” means,
lean your head toward him or her.
Keep your face there close. Like this.

As Peter stepped out on the water;

As the medicine wheel is painted on the regalia of a dancer, dancing for his honor, for his people’s honor, for the love of you…

As the sisters took off their habits after centuries;

As they struggle to be just as much your church as their brothers;

As two pines from Lebanon were nailed together

to suspend a man from Nazareth until he exhaled no more.

As sinners and saints ate bread,

Drank malt liquor,

Told jokes bother clean and dirty.

As wars erupted,

As fish ate fish ate fish;

As Mary said her “Yes!”

As Joseph Dreamed;

As Moses held out his arms;

As Miriam played her trick;

As people threw snickers wrappers in garbage cans;

As beads crossed the devotee’s fingers;

As children were conceived;

As children were not born;

As morning came;

As icicles melted;

As peace was sought with picket signs, hunger strikes, songs and letters,

As Gandhi placed calloused feet one in front of the other;

As gossip spread;

As Shakespeare crossed out words he didn’t like;

As mountains fell;

As we have doubted our place in all of this;

As the grandparent died;

As we forgot the beauty of difference;

As the young man died;

As we found ourselves in our opponents;

As the sister from Seattle died;

As we threw our heads back and laughed at ourselves;

As memories were lost;

As a lover proposed;

As oranges were blessed;

As papers were filed;

As curses were spoken;

As those who are on the same team fought instead of yielding, forgiving, and renewing their commitments to each other.

As they passed through it—beginning again, and again, and again.

As fields were planted;

As poison filled the ocean;

As millions died in genocides;

As stories of beauty saved, changed, and vindicated lives;

As atheists made sacred the time of one life.

As miners never emerged from the belly of the earth;

As wind turned chimes—revealing the harmony of the two sides of this touching the two sides of that.

As the nautilus grows and grows, echoing the shape of the universe;

As we ask you to be with us as we speak our part of your name

Day by day

Choice by choice

Forgiveness by forgiveness

Voice by voice

Coast by coast

Bite by bite

Child by child

Love by love by love by love by love by love.

Ten Things I Love About Islam

I spent three formative years living in Senegal, a stable democratic country that is more than 90% Muslim. I emerged with a deep appreciation of Islam, and I believe my experiences as an interfaith child helped me to be open to forming these positive impressions. My friend Surabhi commented on my blog post “Ten Things I Love About Christianity” that there are probably ten things we love about each religion we come to know. So I was inspired to write a personal and somewhat random list for the third of the three Abrahamic faiths.

  1. Ethnic Inclusivity. Muslims don’t think of themselves as a tribe. Indonesia, Mali, Jordan—three Muslim countries, three different races. I am inspired by Malcolm X’s 1964 “Letter from Mecca,” in which he begins to overcome his own antipathy to white people when he sees Muslims of all colors praying together
  2. Humility in Worship. When we lived in Dakar, our apartment balcony looked out on a street that was filled each Friday with the faithful bowed down in prayer. Businessmen in European suits and embroidered African robes, and the lowliest street sweepers in rags, all would roll out their mats side by side in the street and kneel down together.
  3. The Sound of the Muezzin. President Obama remarked on the evocative sound of the call to prayer. We used to spend weekends on the Senegalese island of Goree, where our friend Harriet had a house with a rooftop terrace covered with Mauritanian leather pillows. We would lounge up there, drinking tea right under the megaphone on the mosque next door. Each time the call went out across the island, it moved and thrilled me.
  4. Islamic Design. In Islam, the prohibition against making figurative art evolved into gorgeous calligraphy, and murals and tiles in intricate patterns tied to the rich history of Arab geometry, algebra and astronomy.
  5. Islamic Architecture. I remember the silhouette of a splendid minaret against a huge orange moon rising from the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Dakar. And the ancient mud mosques of Djenne, in Mali, are worth the endless bus ride from Bamako. Magnificent, like dip-drop castles by way of Gaudi, each spire topped by an ostrich egg.
  6. Sufi Dancing. I’m a sucker for a circle dance. For all my half-Jewish ambivalence about Israel, I adore Israeli dancing, and Greek dancing too. The Sufi zikr, ecstatic chanting and dancing, has developed a tremendous following in the United States and Europe. Some Westerners seek to divorce Sufism from Islam, and to avoid the Muslim label. I like to credit Islam with giving birth to a practice that has such universal appeal.
  7. Senegalese Music. The Islamic brotherhoods of Senegal have inspired music appreciated around the world. I groove to the Muslim references in songs by Toure Kunda, Baaba Maal, Youssou N’Dour, and anything by the deeply spiritual Cheikh Lo.
  8. Rumi. The ever-popular thirteenth-century Persian poet and Sufi mystic, widely appreciated for his ecumenical philosophy, was nonetheless a devout Muslim.
  9. Hagar. Mother of Abraham’s son Ishmael, and thus the matriarch of Islam, Hagar was exiled in the desert, but survived and prevailed. Israeli peace activists who advocate for a two-state solution in the Middle East now cite her as inspiration. Charlotte Gordon’s fascinating new book revolves around Hagar’s central role in the founding of the three Abrahamic faiths.
  10. Jesus the Prophet. I’m not the first to realize that the Muslim view of Jesus–that he was one in a line of prophets descended from Abraham–could actually fit into my Jewish (or at least Jewish/Christian) world view. As an interfaith child, I look for these opportunities for a personal “meeting of the three faiths.”

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