Jason Segel: Growing Up Interfaith, Then and Now

Kippah from Guatemala, photo Susan Katz Miller

This week, on his “WTF” podcast, comedian Marc Maron conducts a long and thoughtful interview with actor and screenwriter Jason Segel (Freaks and Geeks, How I Met Your Mother, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Five Year Engagement, The Muppets). Segel has taken on an ambitious role, playing writer David Foster Wallace in The End of the Tour, a film opening in theaters today. Wallace wrote the iconic, postmodern novel Infinite Jest in 1996, and committed suicide in 2008.

In the first half of the interview, Segel speaks at length about his childhood growing up with a Jewish father and a Christian mother, and his education in both religions. His parents sent him to a Christian school during the day, and to Hebrew school at night. As he describes it, “At Christian school you’re the Jewish kid, and at Hebrew school you’re the Christian kid. I think that’s the nature of groups,” he said. “And so everyone wants to compartmentalize people. And I think I decided at that point, like OK, its just me versus the world kind of.” Segel questions the decision made by his parents: “Neither of them are religious. So they made this decision that they were going to let me decide, which is like the dumbest thing you can do for a kid.

I write a lot about the idea that there are both challenges and benefits to growing up as part of an interfaith family. And, I write about the linked idea that whether your parents choose one religion, or both, or none, or a third religion, or all religions, there are going to be both challenges and benefits to each of those pathways. For many of us who grew up in earlier generations, when interfaith marriage was less common, and less tolerated, the challenges sometimes seemed more obvious than the benefits. But there is a danger in projecting those negative experiences into the present and future, when our children are growing up in a very different, much more fluid and flexible religious landscape.

So, I was frustrated to see that Haaretz, Israel’s oldest daily newspaper, picked up the podcast story and ran a piece today, leading with the idea of Segel growing up “half-Jewish and complete outsider” (their words). Clearly, by leading with this idea, the intent was to use Segel’s story as a cautionary tale, warning parents away from dual-faith education, or from interfaith marriage in general. So, I would like to make a few points in response:

  1. I agree that it is not good to put pressure on interfaith children and make them feel they are uniquely burdened with the task of deciding on a religion. Those of us in interfaith families communities dedicated to raising children with both religions teach our children that they are interfaith, because they are born into interfaith families. And we teach them that all human beings grow up to decide on their own religious beliefs, practices, and affiliations.
  2. Yes, it is a problem when religious communities exclude or marginalize interfaith kids. We need to continue to work on changing these attitudes and policies if we want interfaith families to remain engaged with religion, and to find supportive communities. And in an era when we have interfaith families are everywhere, parents and teachers need to be educating all children in order to eradicate religious bullying and put more emphasis on compassion and the Golden Rule.
  3. Yes, it is a problem when interfaith kids grow up without any interfaith peers. But today, 25% of intermarried Jewish parents are raising children “partly Jewish and partly something else.” Progressive Jewish communities are filled with interfaith kids, many of them getting interfaith educations. So these kids look around and see a lot of other interfaith kids just like them. They don’t necessarily feel marginalized anymore. So those of us, like Segel, like me, who grew up in earlier generations, may find our experiences are not that relevant to parents making decisions about children born today.
  4. Yes, it is essential for interfaith children to have support for integrating two (or more) cultures in their families, rather than bouncing back and forth between two separate religious worlds. Interfaith family communities provide that opportunity, in a context where all the kids are being raised with both religions. Going forward, we need clergy to work together, across religious boundaries, to share in collaborative support of interfaith families, rather than competing for souls and bodies in the pews. And this collaborative support is important, no matter what decisions those families make about religious labeling or religious education.
  5. Segel tells the tragicomic story of being asked to stand up at his Christian school and explain his bar mitzvah, and then getting beat up the next day. In contrast, in Being Both, I tell the more recent story of Jared McGrath, an interfaith child raised in an interfaith families community, who attended Catholic school, and invited his classmates to hear him read from the Torah when he turned thirteen. It was a moving and educational experience for his classmates, and his extended family, and for Jared. No one got beat up.
  6. Haaretz neglects to mention that in the interview, Segel speaks with great affection and appreciation about the fact that his parents are still together, that they have family get-togethers, that they are coming to his movie premiere. In my book, this is a successful interfaith family.

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.

The Five Year Engagement: Jason Segel’s Interfaith Worldview

Plenty of movies depict interfaith couples: Exodus, Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally. The new romantic comedy The Five Year Engagement chronicles the courtship of chef Tom (Jewish), and graduate student Violet (Christian). Actor Jason Segel, the leading man and script co-writer, happens to hail from an interfaith family himself. So I went to see the movie, searching for traces of Segel’s view on interfaith life.

Last year, Segel co-wrote and starred in The Muppets. The first time I heard “Man or Muppet,” the Grammy-nominated song from that movie, the song immediately struck me as a metaphor for the choices the world forces on interfaith children. I would love to find out whether Segel ever thought of the song in those terms.

Generally, I have to say I am not a fan of  the work of Judd Apatow, producer of The Five Year Engagement. Though I appreciate the sharp and witty dialogue, I prefer my romance without Apatow’s signature drunken vomiting, potty humor and crude guy talk, all of which appear in this film. The Five Year Engagement also runs too long, with a rambling chronology. On the other hand, the film centers on a real and bittersweet exploration of the dilemma for both partners over work, geography, and marriage.

Religious difference plays very little role in this film’s plot. Segel has said that some of the religion material ended up on the cutting-room floor. I like to imagine that by minimizing religion as a source of conflict, Segel, as an adult interfaith child, is making a positive statement about the possibilities of interfaith love.

We do get a glimpse of religious difference in each of the successive wedding plans, as the couple repeatedly approach and then back off from tying the knot. In the first wedding planning session with all four parents and a clergy member representing each side, the Jews announce that the men will wear yarmulkes, and the Christians counter with a plan to have communion at the wedding. Interfaith lesson #1: passive-aggression, willful religious ignorance and hardline negotiation are not effective interfaith communication skills. The wedding plan falls through.

In their next attempt, the couple approach a Chabad rabbi at the last minute, who asks if the bride is Jewish. The couple dissembles and the rabbi dances at the engagement party (in a barbecue joint specializing in pork!). But the wedding again falls through. Interfaith lesson #2: dishonesty about who we are and last-minute random religious choices are not helpful. The wedding plan falls through.

In the end (spoiler alert, though you will see it coming from a mile away), the couple succeed in getting married. Choosing between a Christian, an “extreme Christian” (who appears to be Eastern Orthodox), a Buddhist, a Rabbi, and a justice of the peace, Tom chooses the lay officiant. Cue the happily-ever-after credits. Interfaith lesson #3: the desire for a sense of balance often leads interfaith couples to choose a secular officiant. If both members of the couple are secular people, this works fine.

For those of us who want balance, but also care deeply about religion, finding clergy to co-officiate is the alternative to a justice of the peace. But this solution would have been too complex for the rushed wedding in this movie, and perhaps too much religion for the fictional couple in question.

In a recent interview with the Jewish Journal, Segel described his upbringing this way: “My dad’s Jewish, and my mom’s Christian, so I was raised with a little bit of everything.” Note that he introduces his own religious background with a description of balance, rather than choice. His lament is familiar to all of us who felt excluded growing up as patrilinial Jews: “I wasn’t considered Jewish at Hebrew school because my mother isn’t Jewish, and I wasn’t considered Christian at Christian school. What occurred to me is, ‘This is not God’.”

Segel had a Bar Mitzvah. But when asked if he considers himself a “cultural Jew” he replies: “Yes. But in terms of organized religion, again, I think the notion of ‘I know better than someone else’ is wildly arrogant.” Here, Segel sounds to me like a classic adult interfaith child. Having lived the experience of growing up in interfaith families, we tend to see the world from more than one viewpoint, and we tend to question the idea that only one religious tradition could be the true path. We are also likely to feel alienated from religious institutions that have rejected us.

Rather than bitterness, Segel’s fairytale ending expresses optimism that interfaith couples can achieve happiness. For those of us who grew up in functional interfaith families, interfaith love is not just a romantic fiction. We need to stand up and be counted, to let the world know that in spite of the obstacles our parents still love each other, that we are not confused, and that we draw creative power from our double-belonging.

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