Jew by Cynthia M. Baker: Book Review

Jew by Cynthia M. Baker

As someone who has been labeled a “first class disrupter,” I was of course immediately attracted to the chutzpah of a book entitled, simply, Jew. Published recently as part of the Rutgers University Press series “Key Words in Jewish Studies,” this slim volume by Cynthia M. Baker, a Religious Studies professor at Bates College, is dense with insight, nuance, and helpful frameworks for thinking about the complex histories and meanings of the word Jew, and more broadly, the complex histories and meanings of religion. Jew is not an easy read for the non-academic–I was grateful for my years living with semiotics majors in college, and my acquaintance with the ideas of Foucault and Derrida. But it is an essential read for anyone wrestling with contemporary Jewish ideas about identity, and that includes all of us in interfaith families with Jewish connections.

Faced as we are with an increase in public anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and racist acts in the current political climate, Baker’s elegant analysis of the word Jew (she chooses to italicize it and I will do the same) feels especially timely. Baker traces the evolution of the word through Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Aramaic. She illuminates how the term Jew was central to the “historical creation of Christian identity and worldview.” She delineates how Jew is often synonymous with “the other,” and has only recently been reclaimed as a (“fraught”) self-referential term of pride. She deconstructs the false binary of Jewish-by-religion versus Jewish-by-ethnicity, embedded in colonial and patriarchal Christian theologies. And she tackles the subtle differentiation of Jew and Jewish.

Baker writes of how the identity of Jew inhabits a space where “belonging and alienation, longing and being hover in a delicate–and sometimes indelicate–balance.” And she writes of the “dissolution of standard dichotomies–including us/them, homeland/diaspora, religious/secular, masculine/feminine, even Jew/Gentile…” This space, this balance, this dissolution, will feel profoundly familiar to those of us in interfaith families choosing interfaith education for ourselves and our children. 

In her final chapter, entitled “New Jews: A View From the New World,” Baker cites Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family. I am grateful that she acknowledged the significance of the 25% of Jewish parents in interfaith marriages raising children with both family religions. However, she goes on to offset the (mainly positive) experiences documented through surveys of hundreds of parents and children in Being Both, with a single anecdote meant to convey the “often-painful challenges” of embodying multiple identities. For this counter-example, she chooses an individual who is transgender, and whose parents became Orthodox. It hardly seems fair to critique the idea of interfaith education for interfaith children while layering on the complexities of conversion, fundamentalist religious practice, and gender identity. Nevertheless, I am glad we are included in the shade of Baker’s very big tent for this book. And I hope she will return to a deeper investigation of multiple religious practice in interfaith families–of who we are, where we are going, and what it all means.

 

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is a speaker and consultant on interfaith education for interfaith families. Her book Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available from Beacon Press.

 

 

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Another Form of Interfaith: A Christian From a Jewish Family

Sarahbeth Caplin

Jewish identities are diverse. Christian identities are diverse. And, interfaith identities are diverse. I often write about the idea that every child, no matter which religious label and education parents give them, grows up to choose their own beliefs, practices and affiliations. Today, guest blogger Sarahbeth Caplin recounts her journey, from a Jewish childhood to her conversion to evangelical Christianity, and her sense of being interfaith.–SKM

No one, not even myself, can figure out where my fascination with religion came from: I wasn’t raised in a religious family, and I certainly wasn’t raised within any Christian tradition. I don’t know what my Jewish parents thought about my early fascination with saints and martyrdom; surely it wasn’t normal, at an age when most girls I knew were into reading The Babysitter’s Club and Boxcar Children series. As an adult, it’s clear to me that God had a firm grip on my life. The question is which God.

My fascination with Christianity, particularly the idea of a god in human form, led to inevitable conversion. I spent many years trying to shoehorn my new Christian beliefs into a Jewish identity while trying to ignore the dramatic differences between the two faiths: evangelical Christianity places heavy emphasis on an afterlife, which is not a top priority in Judaism. Some Christians define sin as a state of being, while Jews view sin as an action only. And that’s just the beginning.

Messianic Judaism was a loophole I thought I found in college that would allow me to “be both,” but it quickly proved to be another branch of Christianity, albeit with some Hebrew and Jewish worship garb tossed in. I was treated like as much of a novelty in those congregations for being a Jew by blood, as I was in elementary school for being the only Jewish kid in a school full of Christians. Most disturbingly, the sermons and discussion groups centered on “outreach” and emphasized Jesus “fulfilling” the Old Law, and that never sat well with me.

If I’m being honest with myself, another huge appeal Christianity had for me, besides the Incarnation, was something that Jews in my home town lacked: community. There is no shortage of churches where I’m from, but only one synagogue: a building that used to be, incidentally, a church. I was Bat Mitzvahed there before the crosses in the stained glass windows were replaced. You could say my conversion was almost prophetic.

If I’m being even more honest with myself, I feel more like “me” wearing Hebrew jewelry than I ever have with a cross. I cannot fluently speak the language that many evangelical Christians use – phrases like “Born again,” “Time in the Word,” “Washed in the blood,” etc. But my ears can’t help but perk up whenever I hear the expressions my mother and grandmother use: kvetching, chutzpah, mitzvah, oy vey. My cupboards are filled with coffee mugs labeled “Jewish penicillin” and other Yiddish-isms instead of Bible verses with cutesy floral designs. I feel a more instant connection with other Jews than I ever do when I meet a Christian, because there are so few of us. Clearly, there is more to being Jewish than a set of beliefs, and even those are not uniform among Jews (though to be fair, beliefs aren’t uniform among all Christians, either).

I now fully accept the reality that Judaism and Christianity are two very different faiths. A Jewish identity, however, is something a bit more fluid, something I have room to work with. No matter what I believe, my childhood of lighting Hanukkah candles and having Shabbos dinners cannot be erased. My strong sense of tikkun olam cannot be denied, particularly when I hear of missions groups choosing to send bibles overseas to tsunami victims instead of food or water. These are just a few of the things that make up my still-Jewish identity.

My biggest problem, however, is figuring out the best way to explain it to people. I am constantly paranoid about killing a chance for meaningful conversation because someone might not be able to accept my interfaith self. Those people are not my friends, but rejection and accusations of hypocrisy and even apostasy still hurt.

It’s actually something of a comfort for me to remember that everyone is considered an apostate to someone. For instance, I know there are Christians who won’t consider me a “true Christian” because I support gay rights. At some point, one must own who one is and where one has been, no matter how contradictory. Life journeys, particularly religious ones, are deeply personal. If there’s anything I’ve learned from being interfaith, it’s not to condemn a person for having beliefs I might find distasteful in some way. Diversity thrives when the journey behind the belief is respected, even if we disagree with the beliefs themselves.

Sarahbeth Caplin is a stay-at-home author, blogger, editor, and freelancer in northern Colorado with a degree in English Literature from Kent State University and an MFA in progress at Colorado State. Her first book, Confessions of a Prodigal Daughter, is a memoir of her religious journey. Follow her blog at http://www.sbethcaplin.com.

Cathedral of the Pines: A Worship Space for All Faiths

Cathedral of the Pines

My husband and I were lucky enough to be driving around New England on a recent summer weekend when we spotted the Cathedral of the Pines on a map. We drove an extra hour to Rindge, New Hampshire, to see this 200-acre outdoor worship space founded in 1945 in response to World War II, for “all faiths, one family, one earth.” I love a cathedral. And the idea of a plein-air cathedral struck me as inspired and inspiring.

I was curious to see how this memorial and sanctuary wove together the threads of war and peace and patriotism and interfaith understanding, a complex set of themes not always found together. My father, 89, is a Word War II veteran and a part of that “greatest generation,” and we had just spent the Fourth of July with my interfaith parents, outside Boston. The soundtrack to my childhood is my father playing Sousa marches and “Grand Old Flag” on the piano (along with American songbook standards, hymns, and Bach). Perhaps this is why I always feel very American, somehow, in New England.

We discovered that the Cathedral of the Pines was founded in 1946 by Douglas and Sibyl Sloane, a couple who lost their only son when the plane he piloted was shot down in 1944 over Germany. Lieutenant Sanderson Sloane had planned to build a home with his wife on the hilltop. After his death, his parents created the outdoor Cathedral there instead.

Approaching the site, a crest of tall pines comes into view, clustered around a single bell tower built from local field stones. The tower, with English and Flemish carillon bells chiming on the hour and four bas-relief bronze plaques designed by Norman Rockwell, was built as a memorial tribute to all American women who sacrificed their lives for their country. The four panels depict women in combat forces, civilian women who supported the troops (a war correspondent, a USO entertainer, a nun, a Salvation Army officer, and Rosie the Riveter), nurse and Red Cross founder Clara Barton, and a pioneer woman. Dedicated in 1967, it is the first national monument to women lost in conflict.

Beyond the tower, on a ridge looking across the valley to Mount Monadnock, simple wood benches in an outdoor amphitheater face a stone altar constructed in 1946. This Altar of Nations incorporates stones from all 50 states, soil from Jerusalem, and stones contributed by every President starting with Harry Truman. In 1957, Congress recognized the Altar as a National Memorial to all American war dead.

Cathedral of the Pines, Altar of the Nations

A simple cross rises permanently from the altar. However, other religious symbols including a star of David, and the Muslim crescent moon and star, are positioned beside the cross for interfaith celebrations. And when the amphitheater is used for a Jewish service, for instance, an antique Sephardic wooden ark containing the Torah blocks the cross from view.

At other times, that ark is protected from the elements in a small indoor all-faiths chapel adorned with a string of flags displaying the symbols of Baha’i, Native American, Buddhist, Hindu and many other religions. Beyond the outdoor altar, paths meandering down the hillside take visitors through a Zen garden and smaller outdoor chapels and memorials with lush plantings and a waterfall, as well as inspirational and Biblical inscriptions in English and Hebrew. Weddings, baptisms, and bar mitzvahs take place in the amphitheater and in the various gardens and chapels.

Thou Shalt Love...Cathedral of the Pines

The Sloanes, according to a brochure, created intended that Cathedral be “not a church, meeting house, temple or synagogue,” but rather “all of these depending on what may be happening there.” The Cathedral facilitates the celebration of the common elements shared by so many religions–healing grief and striving for peace through meditation in nature, singing together, and cultivating mutual understanding–as well as the particular rituals that make each religion unique and rooted in specific cultures.

This summer, events at the Cathedral include a lecture on Islamic art, a drum circle for the solstice, services by Congregational, Polish Catholic, Seventh Day Adventist, Lutheran, and Baha’i groups, a Blessing of the Animals in the outdoor Saint Francis chapel, an annual Blessing of the Bikes for the motorcycle community, many concerts, and an interfaith service, as well as an annual renewal of wedding vows for all, by a New Hampshire Justice of the Peace.

Douglas Sloane called the Cathedral that he and his wife built “A place where all may come and worship, each in their own way.” While the site retains roots in Christianity–the use of the word cathedral, the primacy of the cross–the family who created this space in the 1940s were visionaries unusual in their time, early interfaith activists, and their legacy benefits all of us. Now run by a non-profit relying on donations, the mission of the Cathedral of the Pines organization is to “honor service to the nation by promoting peace, interfaith understanding, and respect for the natural environment.” In creating this space, one family of idealists turned the terrible personal loss of war into an opportunity for all of us to experience peace and interfaith sprituality on a New Hampshire hilltop.

Top Ten Interfaith Posts on This Blog

Interfaith Collage by Robin Allen

Pausing for reflection at the end of the year, I thought I would reveal the most popular posts from this blog on interfaith identity, interfaith parenting, interfaith children, interfaith families, and interfaith life. Below is a list of the top ten most-viewed posts since this blog began in 2009. In the comments, let me know which posts were your personal favorites of all time, and what topics you would like to see covered in the year to come.

  1. Ten Reasons to Teach Interfaith Children Both Religions. It seems fitting that the number-one post on this site is devoted to explaining the benefits of exploring both family religions with dual-faith children.
  2. Advent, Christmas, Hanukkah, Welcome Yule! Interfaith Families Doing the Most. This post includes vignettes from my family celebrating each of these holidays. It was selected by WordPress for their “Freshly Pressed” feature. It also benefited from traffic based on the provocative public letter addressed to me by a blogger for the Jewish Daily Forward who objects to intermarriage.
  3. Welcome Walker Diggs, Interfaith Child. Fans of intermarried Broadway and television stars Idina Menzel (Jewish and white) and Taye Diggs (Christian and black) have kept this post at the top of the hit list. When their baby son Walker was born, I wondered in this post how they would choose to raise him in terms of religion. The last I read, the couple is still figuring out their religious pathway for Walker.
  4. Interfaith Marriage: A Love Story. The post describing the long and happy marriage of my Jewish father to my Christian mother has become a perennial favorite on this blog. When they celebrated their 50th anniversary, I wrote about how their successful interfaith marriage has made it impossible for me to feel that intermarriage is a bad idea. Readers are scouring the internet, looking for signs of happy interfaith couples. The popularity of this post inspired me to start a whole series on successful interfaith marriages.
  5. Muslim and Jewish: Interfaith on “Shahs of Sunset.” Okay, so this post is popular because of a trashy reality TV series, featuring wealthy Jews and Muslims of Persian (Iranian) descent misbehaving in Los Angeles. Fans trying to figure out which character is Muslim, which is Jewish (and which is from an interfaith Muslim/Jewish family) end up on my blog. Intermarriage between Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews and Christians represents the next wave of multi-faith families. So I am glad the interfaith world beyond Judaism and Christianity is represented in my top-ten posts.
  6. Roger Williams, My Bat Mitzvah, and the “Lively Experiment.” I adore the fact that this tribute to a 17th-century religious rebel in New England remains a top post on my site. Roger Williams founded what would eventually become Rhode Island as a refuge for Quakers, Jews, Anabaptists, and anyone fleeing the religious oppression of Massachusetts Puritans. Williams himself ended up becoming a very early example of the “religious nones,” without institutional religious affiliation.
  7. Black and Jewish, Interfaith and Interracial, Hilarious and Offensive. A parody music video created by two pop culture stars who are black and Jewish inspired this post. It represents a pushback against the idea that Jews are by definition white, and a reminder of the rise of racial and religious intermarriage in our increasingly multicultural world.
  8. Successful Interfaith Marriages Ignored Once Again. This post critiques a Washington Post opinion piece that described interfaith marriages as doomed to frequent failure. The author is affiliated with a conservative think tank, and was fired this year from a blogging position at the Chronicle for Higher Education over a post described by some as racist. People searching for news of successful interfaith marriages stumble on this post, and I am glad that responding to an anti-intermarriage piece provided me with an opportunity to connect with more readers and bring them news of happy intermarriages.
  9. Celebrating Martin Luther King: Multiracial, Multifaith in the 21st Century. This post in honor of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday refers to his relationship with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched alongside King. I go on to describe how my community of interfaith families, composed of intermarried Jews and Christians, and intermarried blacks and whites, celebrates King’s birthday holiday and the Civil Rights movement.
  10. Interfaith Children: Born This Way. I wrote this post to respond to the blogger who was dismayed by the idea that my family celebrates both Christmas and Hanukkah. While making reference to Lady Gaga’s anti-bullying campaign and her hit song “Born This Way,” I describe how children from interfaith families benefit from claiming our interfaithness and discovering all that is positive about bridging two religions and two cultures. I am glad the idea that families can and should instill pride rather than shame in their interfaith children, made it into the top ten posts.

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

 

The Book of Mormon Girl: Mormon and Jewish

Few writers are chronicling the interfaith family journey from anything other than a “raising the kids Jewish” perspective. So, soon after I started this blog, I was thrilled to discover an essay written by Joanna Brooks about her Mormon and Jewish family. As she explained in that essay to her daughters, “You are what we all are: composite, recycled…You are a whole soul living in a divided world.”

Brooks, I soon learned, is an English professor who writes a blog called “Ask Mormon Girl,” in which she dispenses thoughtful advice and perceptive explanations to troubled Mormons, and curious non-Mormons. This year, she launched a self-published memoir, The Book of Mormon Girl, into the midst of the prolonged “Mormon moment” which has now reached an extended climax with the a Mormon candidate for President. During the run-up to the election, Brooks became the go-to media voice of progressive Mormonism, her memoir was picked up by a commercial publisher, and she even appeared with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.

For Mormons, as for Jews, growing up as part of a misunderstood religious minority with distinct foodways and cultures exerts a powerful effect, even on those who move outside the formal borders of the community. In her memoir, Brooks chronicles her idyllic childhood as part of the Mormon community in southern California, her painful alienation over Mormon opposition to feminism and same-sex marriage, and her eventual, rather unorthodox return. She brings affection and charm and wry humor to her depiction of Mormonism, while also agonizing over how to confront the difficult realities of exclusion in her cradle religion.

Brooks displays her trademark bravery, independence and vision when she and her Jewish husband decide to raise their daughters with exposure to both Judaism and Mormonism, despite the usual advice from clergy to choose one religion. Her pioneering role as an interfaith parent plays only an oblique role in this memoir. And I admit I was disappointed that the topic did not come up during her appearance with Jon Stewart (another intermarried parent, since he is Jewish and married to a Catholic).  In the book, Brooks stands firm in the choice she and her husband have made. She writes, “…to put away either one of our stories, our families, our peoples, to hold back these huge parts of ourselves from our children seems more damaging than the confusion that well-meaning people grimly prognosticate.” These words will resonate with many of the parents on this blog—parents who have chosen to raise children with two religions.

Brooks has said that a publisher dissuaded her from making her Mormon and Jewish interfaith marriage the central element of her memoir, fearing such a combination would be too obscure. But as the election nears, Mormonism is no longer so obscure, and Brooks has become its most eloquent commentator, with the ideal “insider/outsider” viewpoint. I hope that her next book will continue her interfaith story, sharing more of her perspective as part of a growing movement of interfaith families raising children with more than one religion.

Black and White, Jewish and Christian

Mixed race, mixed religion. To what extent are these parallel states of being? What experiences do we, as children of racial and religious intermarriage, have in common? And at what point does this powerful metaphor break down? I have spent a lifetime contemplating these questions, most recently this week, when I read an essay by author Thomas Chatterton Williams in The New York Times, in which he worries that “a new multiracial community could flourish and evolve at black America’s expense.”

Williams and I are both the “mixed” children of blond-haired and blue-eyed mothers. We were both raised to identify exclusively with our paternal half: in his case African-American, in my case Jewish. We each, nevertheless, “intermarried” in adulthood–he married a white woman, I married a Protestant. The comparisons between white/black and Jewish/Christian identity resonate in part because of all the ways in which Judaism has functioned historically as a race, culture, and civilization, as well as a religion.

Several writers of African-American and (white) Jewish parents have written memoirs exploring the convergence and divergence of race and religion in their own families, and the usefulness and limits of the interracial/interfaith metaphor, notably Rebecca Walker in Black, White and Jewish, James McBride in The Color of Water, and anthropologist Katya Gibel Azoulay in the more scholarly Black, Jewish, and Interracial. Williams himself compares the two states towards the end of his recent essay, writing, “I am struck by the parallels that exist between my predicament and that of many Western Jews, who struggle with questions of assimilation at a time when marrying outside the faith is common.”

How did Williams become aware of this Jewish struggle? It is worth watching this engaging and disarming video produced for the release of his memoir in 2010, in which he discusses the role of books in his life with his father, a sociologist and huge bibliophile. Both men feel a special attachment to Jewish scholar Maimonides, and have read deeply in Jewish history and philosophy.

In this week’s essay, entitled “As Black as We Wish to Be,” Williams acknowledges the right to self-identify. He concludes that his (theoretical) children “will have to make up their own minds” about their racial identity. My children will also have to make up their own minds, which is why I adapted Maria Root’s Bill of Rights for Mixed Race People into the Bill of Rights for Interfaith People.

On the other hand, Williams worries that “the cost of mixed-race blacks deciding to turn away” from the African-American community “could be huge.” He asks, “Do a million innocuous personal decisions end up having one destructive cumulative effect?” This is precisely the fear expressed by institutional Judaism when faced with those of us who insist on educating our children about both Judaism and Christianity. But why does learning about both have to be interpreted as abandoning Judaism? Why does checking both a white and an African-American box on the census have to mean turning away from the black community?

And, I must ask, how can those of who are “mixed” ignore the race, religion, culture, and influence of the “majority” (white or Christian) people in our families? I understand the compelling political and sociological argument for choosing blackness, as outlined by Williams, and as explained by my friend Denise in a comment on one of my previous blogposts on this topic. But I find that the parallel electric lines of this metaphor converge, cross, and short out in sparks of frustration, when I feel like I am being told I should only be Jewish, or my children should only be Jewish. My children may choose Judaism because they feel the Jews need them more, or simply because they love the ritual or history or theology or culture. But I feel exhausted sometimes by the domination of this discussion by the imperative to maintain Jewish continuity: the pressure, the guilt, the disrespect for the experiences and feelings of those who marry Jews, and for those of us who want to celebrate kaleidoscopic identities.

Williams plans to teach his children “that they, too, are black–regardless of what anyone else may say–so long as they remember and wish to be.” In the same way, and for many of the same reasons, I have insisted on teaching my children to identify with their Judaism, and have provided them with the education to be able to defend that identity, if they so choose. But I have also taught them to acknowledge and understand and appreciate the complexity of their identities, and to acknowledge everyone who contributed to that complexity.