In Which One Interfaith Family Sings Gospel…

All four members of my family got up onstage at an outdoor Roots Festival in West Baltimore recently and sang some flat-out gospel numbers. We had joined up with about a hundred other singers to help the Alternate Roots organization stimulate healing in a neighborhood ravaged by bad urban planning (including the notorious “Highway to Nowhere“).  The dynamic Tony Winston, of Payne Memorial AME church, led us in the gospel numbers. We also sang African songs (led by  Fred Onovwerosuoke) a labor song (led by Charm City Labor Choir Director Darryl! L.C. Moch), and peace, love and understanding songs (led by Elise Witt, who happens to hail from a Jewish/Christian interfaith family, which was somehow no surprise to me, since she’s a classic bridge-builder). With only two rehearsals, we had more enthusiasm than precision, and were very thankful that Tony Winston brought in some ringers from his choir.


My husband grew up in an undemonstrative brand of northeastern Episcopalianism, and I grew up in a rather dry and cerebral form of Reform Judaism (despite my interfaith background). Neither of us were prepared from youth to stand up in the middle of an African-American neighborhood and sing gospel, though my husband went to a majority-black public school for awhile, and actually has sung in his gospel choir at work in Baltimore. I credit my years of immersion in an interfaith families community with allowing me to become comfortable enough with talking (or singing) about Jesus. I have also vowed, in choosing to teach my children about both Judaism and Christianity, to seek out opportunities for them to access this kind of authentic experience with progressive, social-justice-minded Christian believers.


I should also note that after living in Baltimore and Washington, and in Africa, I came to respect the important role that Christianity, and Jesus, plays in the African-American community. I want my children to experience this part of their community, to feel comfortable in West Baltimore. So in a spirit of cross-cultural encounter, it made sense to me to sing out in this temporary semi-gospel choir, and not hold myself apart somehow. I am secure enough in my own connection to Judaism (though others might see me as imperiled by my interfaith pedigree) that I did not feel threatened in any way by participating.


So there we were. My teenage son ended up drumming with the corps of djembe-players, my husband was off at the other end of the huge stage somewhere in the bass section, and my teenage daughter and I sang our hearts out. We danced and sang to the African chants, we urged an end to war, racism, sexism, homophobia. And when Tony Winston got up, in his elegant white suit, we sang “Total Praise” and “He is an Awesome God” and even “Jesus paid the price, now I’m free from sin. I am souled out…” In fact, this last song, while it does not reflect my own beliefs directly, has been stuck in my head for weeks now. It reminds me of the joy on my daughter’s face, singing next to me on stage, when she finally shed her exquisite teenage self-consciousness and got caught up in the spirit of the experience.


For me, part of the opportunity of being in an intefaith family, is the special role and responsibility we feel to reach out and truly embrace the other, even when it means stretching a bit and singing about Jesus. I believe that religion can be a force for good in the world (as well as an excuse for wrongdoing), and I want my children to believe this. But good does not happen spontaneously. We make it happen. And one way we can make it happen is to participate in deep encounters like the one we had in West Baltimore.

My Interfaith Family: Passover and Easter Week

Every year, I spend this week with my extended interfaith family: 21 members of our clan celebrating Passover and Holy Week together on Siesta Key. We are a charoset: a mixture of nuts, fruit, spirits, spice, more than the sum of its parts. Often, I am asked the recipe for raising happy children in an interfaith family. Here are some ingredients from our interfaith Spring Break together:

In the days leading up to the Seder, we collaborate on the formidable preparation of the ritual meal. My Episcopalian-common-law-Jewish mother directs the making of my Jewish grandmother’s southern-style charoset. My Jewish niece with three Jewish grandparents, who is eight (and adopted from China), helped me make the chocolate-toffee-matzoh this year, while we talked together about the connections between the Passover story and the struggle for Afircan-American freedom.

By moving tables and chairs between three condos, we managed to seat all 21 of us at a long Seder table. This year, we have a Catholic boyfriend and a Catholic girlfriend with us, neither of whom had ever been to a Seder before. As a former teacher, I love introducing Jewish traditions to newcomers. And the way I see it, as intermarriage continues, the pool of folks who will gain familiarity with Judaism, and potentially teach their own children these rituals, will expand. I know the idea of a Seder can be daunting to non-Jews–in length and content–but song and laughter and those four cups of wine work magic in our family.

My 87-year-old father leads our Seder using instructions he wrote out in 1977,  on a sheet of yellow legal paper with Haggadah page numbers carefully noted, when he first led the Passover Seder for the Sunday School of the local Unitarian Church in our small New England town. His editing works well for an interfaith family, with most of the “Rabbi so-and-so said such-and-such” left aside, and all of the explanations of the symbolism carefully retained.

My Catholic sister-in-law reports that her eldest, my eight-year-old nephew who is being raised Catholic, finds our annual Seder very important in coming to terms with the idea of his Jewish father as a religious “out-parent” in their family. He is the grandchild who is named for my Jewish father, and he bears a distinctly Jewish name: he will have to reckon with being an interfaith child, as we all do, no matter what religious education and label our parents choose for us. This year, he read the Four Questions (in English), and found the afikomen. These childhood experiences will connect him forever to his Judaism and his interfaithness, even while he is an ardent Catholic with only one Jewish grandparent, who wears a Saint’s medal around his neck, and has just been Confirmed and had his First Communion.

On a trip to Sarasota Jungle Gardens with his little sisters on Good Friday, we ambled down a sandy path and stumbled on “The Gardens of Christ” exhibit, with scenes from the life of Jesus carved in wood by an Italian-American sculptor in the 1960s. I had been to Jungle Gardens many times with my own children, but somehow never discovered this permanent exhibit before. The eight scenes, including the Sermon on the Mount, the Nativity, and the Crucifixion, seemed to serve as both an educational and a spiritual counterweight to the (secular and Pagan) plastic Easter eggs scattered throughout the Jungle Gardens, and the man in the bunny suit there. But I also thought again about the American presumption of Christianity, especially in the South, and about how non-Christian families feel when they turn a corner at Jungle Gardens and encounter this display.

Contemplating Jesus on the cross on Good Friday certainly seemed appropriate. After a week of seashore experiences, my nieces were drawn to the “After the Resurrection” scene, with Jesus on the shores of the Galilee, calling to the fishermen. Then we were off to look at the giant koi and flamingos by the pond.

Meanwhile, we are going through boxes of matzoh like nobody’s business, despite the fact that only my father and I are keeping kosher for Passover (not eating leavened bread). Over the years, I have encouraged my children to eat matzoh during Passover by serving it in creative ways, but when we are on vacation with Christian cousins who are eating bread, staying in the same condos, it has been all-but-impossible to enforce a no-bread rule. Nevertheless,whether they have four, three, two, one or zero Jewish grandparents, everyone in our crew devours matzoh with butter, matzoh with peanut butter, matzoh with Nutella, matzoh with cheese. One of my brothers has bought a jar of gefilte fish and is eating it straight out of the refrigerator, even though we don’t serve it at our Seder. He says it reminds him of the little jars of “chickie stick” sausages we ate as toddlers: comfort food.

Early in our week together, I locked myself in one of our three condos in order to serve as the guest on an NPR call-in radio show about interfaith families. My entire clan listened in on a laptop, in the condo next door. When I emerged at the end of the hour-long program, Catholics, Protestants, agnostics, Jews, Buddhists, and seekers, they all cheered my defense of interfaith families and the right to choose our different religious pathways. Family is still the most important, and precious, community for me.

On Easter, my Catholic sister-in-law has promised to return from the sunrise Easter service on the beach in time to make a special breakfast of Dutch Babies, the skillet pancakes that puff up in the oven. Ironically, my father remembers his German-Jewish mother making these same pancakes, though not during Passover. I will make matzoh brie, for my father and myself, and anyone else who wants to partake. It’s great with a side of leftover charoset.

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.

Easter Approaches: Talking with Interfaith Children About Jesus

Hyacinths and daffodils are splashing new color through surburbia, signaling the approach of Passover and Easter. For those of us dedicated to educating interfaith children about both holidays, this is the moment for some complex but essential conversations. Today, I was reading in my son’s Bar Mitzvah study guide that in 1976, the Central Conference of American Rabbis issued a policy statement on Jewish traditions, in which it states that Reform Jews (like me) are called on “to exercise their individual autonomy, choosing and creating on the basis of commitment and knowledge.” And that’s exactly what I feel I’m doing in raising interfaith children, and educating them about both family religions.

But what does this education look like on a day to day basis? And in the Easter season, how do we, as interfaith parents, approach the topic of Jesus? This week, another parent in our independent interfaith families community shared with me a recent conversation he had with his daughter, and agreed that I could share it with you. How do these conversations happen in your own family?

Today after Sunday school Myka and I bicycled to the Woodside Deli in Silver Spring.  Over grilled cheese and a Greek salad we had our most extensive theological discussion to date.


For those who don’t know, I’m co-teaching Myka’s first grade class at the Interfaith Families Project.  This morning we told the story of the 12-year-old Jesus coming to the temple and impressing the rabbis and other elders with his knowledge and questions.   Except for the Christmas story and a couple parables told by an unnamed “teacher,” we haven’t focused much on Jesus yet.  So as we started eating, I asked Myka if her classmates understood where Jesus fit in in relation to Abraham and Sarah and Judaism.  She said she thought some of them did but a lot were confused.  I asked if she wanted to know more about the Jesus story, and she did.

For the next 30 minutes I laid out as objectively as I could the story of Jesus.   She said she understood that Jesus was a Jew. I told her about how he had been raised in the Jewish tradition but that he also disagreed with some of the teachings in the temple at that time.  I told her about Jesus finding his disciples, including the fishermen – “I will make you fishers of men” – about his traveling around the countryside and saying good things for three years.  I told her about the Romans and the governor where Jesus lived and how the government grew concerned about this man with such a following.  White donkey.  Palm branches.  Barabbas .  We covered a lot of ground.

Then I told her where all this had come from, what the Gospels were and when they were written.  I told her that, because there were no tape or video recorders back then, and because those books had been written so many years after Jesus died, it’s not clear how much in them is true.

“Why would people write something that wasn’t true?”

Sharp kid.  I said some people think parts of them were written to blame the Jews for bad things, including killing Jesus.  I said we clearly know that much is wrong.  The Romans killed Jesus.

Then I told her the story about Jesus’ crucifixion, death and resurrection.  I told her about the women finding the stone rolled away, about Mary and her how Jesus said to her, “Don’t you see that it is me?”  I told her how he showed his nail holes to “doubting” Thomas.

“I think Jesus after he died was kind of scary.”

I had to agree to that.  I finished up with the story of the Ascension.

Then I said that it’s because of this story about Jesus coming back to life that we celebrate Easter, and that Easter Sunday is the day that Jesus supposedly rose from the dead.
Myka was immediately stunned.  “Then what about the Easter Bunny and chocolate and eggs?  They’ve got nothing to do with Easter!!”
I said that was true, except probably for the part about the egg.  We then briefly touched on the seder and its origins, and about Christianity borrowing from Judaism.

On the bike ride back home I said the Easter Bunny was kind of like Santa Clause — both Easter and Christmas are supposedly about Jesus, but neither the Easter Bunny nor Santa has anything to do with them.   I asked Myka if she wondered how it got started that we have the Easter Bunny and Santa.

After a second she answered, “They were waiting in the non-human category for a job to open up.”
Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover and eBook from Beacon Press.

Lessons and Carols: Interfaith Community

On Sunday, our community of more than 100 interfaith families held our annual Lessons and Carols service, in anticipation of Christmas. The fifth-graders tied toy stuffed sheep and donkeys to their heads, and acted out the nativity scene. My son played djembe, my daughter sang with the choir while dandling someone’s baby on her knee. Together, we pondered the story of the the angels, the wisemen, the star.

As always, as an interfaith community, our aim is not to meld, mash-up, mix, water-down or confuse our two religions. Instead, we strive to celebrate each holiday, whether Jewish or Christian, with full respect and all the trimmings. So how and why are these celebrations different from those you would find in any church or synagogue? Often, we begin and end a celebration by reciting our interfaith responsive reading, which is not a statement of creed, but a recognition that some of us are Jews, some of us are Christians, some of us have interfaith identities, and we are all equal members of this community. For me, simply knowing that we are an interfaith community changes my perception of any event: ancient rituals, songs and prayers, shimmer with the newness of radical inclusivity.

But also, our clergy, and our members, speak from their interfaith experiences, putting each holiday into our interfaith context. For instance, this week, our rabbi spoke of what Christmas means to him as a Jew. He hears the universal message of Christmas as the existence of God in the poor, the oppressed, the excluded, the “holy other.” He sees God in the pregnant girl, the baby born into poverty, the lowly shepherds, the mysterious travellers who came bearing gifts from afar. You do not have to believe that Jesus was the only human incarnation of God to be inspired by this narrative.

For many of our members, being part of an interfaith community gives them an opportunity to connect to family traditions and history, rather than suppressing them. At our service this week, Jonathan Brown spoke of his great grandfather, who was Head Chorister in the original “Nine Lessons and Carols,” created 130 years ago in Truro, Cornwall. Jonathan explains, “The service was designed to be as inclusive as possible: non-denominational, no creeds, no ceremonies or communion.” Of course, at the time, virtually everyone in Cornwall was Christian, but the idea of expanding this tradition to include Jonathan’s Jewish wife, his interfaith son, feels somehow organic and true.

As an interfaith community, we encourage families to take children to church, to synagogue, to celebrate with extended family, to maintain their connections to ancient traditions. This week, Jonathan and his family will return to his birthplace in Cornwall, and his son will be the fifth generation to take part in the Lessons and Carols service there.

But we also know that by providing a space and time to celebrate together, as an interfaith community, we help each other through the moments of dissonance and alienation that inevitably come along with the exuberance and thrill of our pioneering cross-cultural and cross-religious relationships.

Another member of our community confessed to me this week that he had bought his wife a Christmas present for the first time, after decades of marriage. A most loving and supportive husband, as a Jew he just had not been able to transcend the bitter history of religious conflict and wrap his head around the idea of a Christmas gift. He credited our interfaith community with his shift in thinking, and his ability to finally arrive, bearing a gift from afar.

Interfaith Love for Pink Martini

It’s easy to gripe about holiday music.  A dearth of good Hanukkah tunes. Too many cheesy strings. Novelty songs about reindeer and snowmen. Bob Dylan dredging up material from school assemblies of yore.

My approach has been to stick with the classics: brass quintets, lush classical choirs, Nat King Cole, Mel Torme. But now that I have teenagers, I must try to stay relevant. So I made an impulse purchase a couple of weeks ago at the counter of guess-which-coffee-franchise, and bought Joy to the World by a “little orchestra” based in Portland, Oregon.

Oh, Pink Martini! How do I love thee? Let me count the ways:

1. Such visual taste! Your pale pink packaging, as comely as a cupcake, with cut-out skyline featuring a church and a mosque, and only the most subtle of references to the complementary colors of red and green.

2. Such musical taste! Spare jazz guitar and trombone, glorious harmonies, a slide guitar, a cello, an accordion, a mandolin.

3. Such intellect! The duo fronting Pink Martini, classically-trained pianist Thomas Lauderdale and singer China Forbes, met as Harvard undergraduates. Joy to the World features songs and verses sung in Ukrainian, Japanese, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Hebrew, Ladino and Arabic. Oh, and NPR White House correspondent Ari Shapiro sings (astoundingly well) on both of the Jewish-themed songs.

4. Such cosmopolitan sophistication! Rhythms from Afrobeat to Brazilian samba revive songs I thought I never wanted to hear again (“We Three Kings,” “Auld Lang Syne”). And Forbes’s sultry, smoky lounge sound makes new such classics as “White Christmas” and “Santa Baby.”

5. Such leaping across boundaries! Forbes is half African-American and half European-American. Bothness! My theme! Just like an interfaith child, she embodies the future, recombines cultures. Nimbly avoiding the “let’s throw in one lame Hanukkah song” tradition, Pink Martini does justice to Flory Jagoda’s Sephardic tango of a Hanukkah song, “Ocho Candelikas,” and a gorgeous contemporary setting of part of the Amidah, a central Shabbat prayer (out of place? who cares?). And how many holiday albums attempt to move beyond dialogue to trialogue? In an inspired oblique reference to all three Abrahamic faiths, Joy to the World features poetic Arabic verses on two songs, including “Silent Night.”

6. Such historical hipsterism! In interviews, Thomas Lauderdale admires the golden age of Christmas music written between 1940 and 1965. Joy to the World includes definitive renditions of two of my guiltiest secret pleasures from that era, “The Little Drummer Boy” and “Do You Hear What I Hear.” Who knew that the latter song was a plea for peace written in response to the Cuban Missile Crisis? And if you just cannot bear “The Little Drummer Boy” again, well, you’re missing something.

Pink Martini will broadcast live this evening on Prairie Home Companion. Garrison Keillor got all crotchity last year on the subject of Christmas songs, I know. But how many holiday albums truly reflect the joy of our global, cross-cultural, interfaith world? Tune in, bliss out, enjoy the glow of Pink Martini.

 

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.

In Defense of (Interfaith) Christmas

Growing up as an exotic half-Jew in a New England town right out of Currier and Ives, the very public celebration of Christmas made sense to me demographically, culturally, and somehow, esthetically . If you have a town hall from 1847 with a white steeple overlooking a perfect town green, it is hard to resist stringing lights on the tallest spruce. And if you have a colonial tavern on the other side of the green, it only makes sense to gather the townsfolk to sing carols with a brass band in front of the tavern on Christmas Eve. I bundled up and participated every year, but not without a certain amount of worry, introspection, and selective silence on red-flag lyrics.

As an adult in the diverse global village, I acknowledge that public Christmas displays can cause alienation, and raise all kinds of questions about who funds them, whether we should have community Hanukkah and Diwali and Eid celebrations, or whether the depths of winter would be better with no outdoor lights or indoor greenery. The American population is shifting, Hindus and Muslims and Buddhists now live in my New England hometown, and we have not yet fully grappled with these very real issues. On the other hand, many “100% Jewish” people, like my friend, blogger Susan Fishman Orlins, defend their right as Americans to indulge in secular Christmas rituals.

For my own children, we have chosen a pathway that minimizes the conflict over celebrating Christmas. The decision to raise them with both Judaism and Christianity means we can fully immerse ourselves in Christmas, without having to weigh and analyze each ritual and each ornament on the tree for hidden religious meaning. We don’t get hung up on whether the tree is a pagan symbol or refers somehow to the cross. We don’t get hung up on how angels figure in Jewish theology. We don’t get hung up on which carols feature Jesus, and which ones stick to sleighbells in the snow. As an interfaith child, and someone fascinated by the evolution of religious culture, I find all these questions interesting and worthy of mulling, preferably over a glass of mulled wine. But I do not have to work through them before tiptoeing into each holiday event with my husband and children. In educating our children about both religions, we have pledged to go as deep and wide into Christmas (and Hanukkah) as we can manage, con brio, stopping only just short of exhausting ourselves in the process.

Yesterday, my daughter went to the Best Buddies holiday party afterschool, and helped a girl with Down’s syndrome make a Christmas card, and reassured her when the Grinch yelled at his little dog Max. I am thankful that she did not have to feel conflicted about participating. And tonight, in our house, we will put on Nat King Cole and lift each ornament from its nest, and attempt to balance the white birds and tiny copper cookpots on each branch of the waiting tree. I am thankful that I do not have to feel conflicted about this annual moment of peace and joy. This Sunday, the last Sunday of Advent, all four members of our family will be part of the choir for the service of lessons and carols at our Interfaith Families Project. I am profoundly thankful that we do not have to feel conflicted about that. And on Christmas, we will share a roast beast with my pioneering interfaith parents, and all my siblings and their children: the Jewish grandchildren, the Catholic grandchildren, and the interfaith grandchildren. And we will know in the wisdom of our hearts, that deeper unity in which family transcends all boundaries.

 

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

Interfaith Services: Beyond the Common Ground

This week, I attended a marvelous Community Thanksgiving Interfaith Service, in a Long Island suburb that has been gathering together each year since 1940. A dozen different Christian clergy members and a half-dozen representatives from three different Jewish congregations participated. A combined choir of Jews and Christians sang an elaborate setting of the synagogue favorite, Hiney  Mah Tov (arranged by Iris Levine), and American composer Virgil Thomson‘s poetic arrangement of the 23rd psalm, My Shepherd Will Supply My Need. And together, we sang America the Beautiful.

Townsfolk in yarmulkes and townsfolk in holiday sweaters packed the service. We all felt warm and fuzzy, and progressive, reading prayers and singing songs from both Jewish and Christian traditions, not to mention patriotic anthems.

I loved it. But I also kept thinking that for our family, the service felt strangely familiar. Every week throughout the year, we sing Christian and Jewish songs, and say Christian and Jewish prayers, led by Christian and Jewish clergy, in a community filled with Christians and Jews. Somehow, when a town gathers for this type of service once each year, it’s Norman Rockwell territory. On the other hand, when the Christians and Jews happen to be married to each other and gather every week, we make people nervous.

What’s the difference? At a community interfaith service, whether at Thanksgiving, or at a Freedom Seder in the spring, Jews and Christians come together but very clearly retain their separate identities. In our interfaith families community, a large proportion of the children and a growing number of the adults identify themselves as interfaith: a label that can provoke alarm and concern.

Another difference is that community interfaith services tend to tread carefully and deliberately on the most common ground, avoiding any mention of Jesus, for instance. Christians, understandably, agree to abstain from mentioning Jesus on these annual moments of togetherness, for the sake of making their Jewish neighbors more comfortable. Jews and Christians who are intermarried, and sing and pray together each week, ultimately must wrestle with Jesus rather than avoiding him. That doesn’t mean the Jews convert. It means they become comfortable talking about the historical role of Jesus, and the spiritual role he plays for Christians in our extended families. It means they no longer flinch when his name is mentioned.

Our interfaith community uses the Venn diagram of two interlocking rings to represent the three spaces we teach and explore together. The common ground in the intersection of the two rings is a space that feels good, feels safe. But as interfaith families journeying together, we aim to explore all three spaces: Jewish, interfaith, Christian. Sometimes, venturing away from the center, into the rocky terrain of religious particularities, feels difficult. But just as often, it feels exhilarating.

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.