Israel and Interfaith Families: How Big is the Tent?

Many of us in interfaith families are squeamish, ambivalent, conflicted about Israel. Usually, I try to stay clear of the topic altogether. But I was scanning the program for the J Street Conference, and saw that there was going to be a sneak preview of a film, “Between Two Worlds,” touching on interfaith families. The title caught my eye, because, strangely, it is also the title of the first book written by and for adult interfaith children. And then I noticed that there was also going to be a breakout session on how to engage young Jews on the subject of Israel. Surely, the question of intermarriage would arise in that discussion as well. So I found myself with some 2000 other people this week, at the Washington Convention Center.

It was hard to resist the progressive spirit, the ebullient mix of older hippie activist rabbis and energetic millenial students, the embrace of the Palestinian “other,” the ardent longing for peace. I got to chat with Medea Benjamin, founder of the brilliant and rambunctious anti-war Code Pink movement. I was moved by Alan Stopper, a sort of Johnny Appleseed figure, personally handing out cards for his start-up “Fruit of Peace” project to plant olive tree saplings in Palestine. I ran into a friend who works for the New Israel Fund, a major sponsor of the conference, which advocates for religious pluralism and civil rights in Israel. And I ran into the rabbi who is tutoring my son for his Bar Mitzvah. Despite my ambivalence about Israel, about so many things, despite my own “way out of the box” journey, I felt like there was room for me in this huge and colorful tent.

“Between Two Worlds” addressed the very relevant question, “Who is entitled to speak for the tribe?” Filmmakers Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman point out that there is “no Jewish pope,” no official Jewish opinion on anything. While the film centered on how the Jewish community has been divided over Israel, the tale of Kaufman’s interfaith family (her sister converted to Islam) is woven through the story. The intent of the film is to “provoke a new kind of conversation” because “we all face censorship and exclusion.” Interfaith families will certainly find resonance in that statement.

So how do the themes of Israel and intermarriage interplay? At a conference session entitled “Can Young Jews Reclaim (or Redefine) a Robust Connection to Israel?” the presenters set forth at least two theories for why so many young Jews are alienated from Israel. One theory, highlighted by Peter Beinart in a controversial piece in the New York Review of Books, posits that “leading institutions of American Jewry have refused to foster—indeed, have actively opposed—a Zionism that challenges Israel’s behavior in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and toward its own Arab citizens,” thus alienating young progressive Jews. Intermarriage was not even mentioned in Beinart’s piece.

In contrast, at the conference this week, researcher Steven M. Cohen repeated his assertion that “all of the decline” in attachment to Israel is caused by intermarriage. A lot of debate ensued, but no actual interfaith children spoke out. So I found myself at the microphone, making a statement along these lines…

As an interfaith child and parent, I am averse to strict dichotomies, to the “either/or.” It is not either intermarriage, or distress over civil rights issues in Israel, causing our alienation. The two causes are inextricably linked: a classic “both/and.” As interfaith families, we are more affected by dissonance in Israel. As people with Christian and Muslim family members, we cannot help empathizing with more than one side. And if we are “patrilineal Jews,” we live with the irony that the Jewish state does not allow us religious marriages or burials.

Nonetheless, I left the conference with a sense of hope. Hope, that the new Jewish communities and organizations being created by a millenial generation with greater tolerance for complexity will make more space for interfaith families. And more space for both peace and more democracy in Israel.

Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller, available now in hardcover and eBook from Beacon Press. Paperback release on October 21, 2014.

Movies with my Interfaith Teens: Exodus

When my family has a rare moment to watch a movie together, it can be tricky finding something to engage a 16-year-old girl (romance, history), a 13-year-old boy (action), and two boomer parents (acting and directing skills a plus). I have a list posted on our kitchen wall of films I would like my kids to see before they leave home–classics I’m afraid they may miss somehow when they go out into the brave new 21st-century world.

So with the gift of a snow day this week, I subjected my family to the three and a half hours of Exodus, the 1960 film by Otto Preminger, based on a blockbuster novel by Leon Uris depicting the birth of Israel. The script is a bit clunky, the acting a bit stiff, the production values rough, the Zionist perspective a bit naive, and the length extreme. At a Hollywood preview of the film, at the three hour mark, comedian Mort Sahl supposedly jumped up and shouted, “Otto, let my people go!”

So we spread our viewing out into two sittings. And I have to say that Exodus both entertained (romance, history, action) and educated. And who can resist the film score (the only orchestral score ever to win an Oscar), and the Technicolor panoramas (filmed on location in Cyprus and Israel)?

I admit that part of my original motivation in adding Exodus to our film queue was to convince my children that Paul Newman was more than an old guy who made salad dressing. I also felt it was time to allow them to be exposed to the allure of Zionism: the blooming desert, the utopian kibbutz, the fesity fighting Jews rising up after the horror of the Holocaust.

My own feelings about Israel are deeply ambivalent, especially as a “patrilineal half-Jew” who cannot be married or buried by rabbis there. In part because of this reality, our interfaith community does not tend to stress allegiance to Israel the way many Jewish communities do. And growing up in an ultra-progressive town, my children hear more about the plight of the Palestinians than they do about the creation of Israel. A Hollywood movie, with all of its necessary warping of events and perspectives, may seem like a dicey form of education. But at least I had the full attention of my kids. Below are some snippets of our family dialogue.

Me: “That’s Paul Newman right there. He was an interfaith child!”

Groans. “We KNOW that, Mom.”

Kids: “But this is after the war. Why are they in camps in Cyprus? Why are the British not letting the Jews into Palestine? Weren’t the British on our side during World War II?”

Me: “No one wanted the Jews, so they were still in camps. That’s why they needed a homeland. But did the British have the right to displace Arabs from their lands? They at least wanted the UN to vote on it. Shhh. Keep watching…”

Me, as Ari Ben-Canaan (Paul Newman) kisses American nurse Kitty Fremont (Eva Marie Saint): “Look! Interfaith romance!”

Kids: “Mom, why are you so obsessed?!”

Me, in the closing moments, as Ari leads his people off to fight the Arabs: “And they’ve been fighting for 60 years now, ever since.”

Kids: Quiet. Contemplating.

Raising Interfaith Children: Sunday School Flashback

Recently, I was visiting my parents, a pioneering interfaith couple. They still live in the house where I grew up, fifteen minutes from the temple where I was educated as a Reform Jew. When I visit now, I often sort through drawers and boxes and come home with a bag full of books, photographs, and childhood ephemera. On this visit, one of my finds was a book entitled When a Jew Celebrates, published in 1971, and used as a text in our temple’s weekly religious school.  The book, described as part of “The Jewish Values Series,” covers life cycle events and holidays and traditions in a manner both lively and learned, which may explain why it is still in print. I plan to try to persuade my teenagers (ages 16 and 13) to read it as a supplement to their religious education in both Judaism and Christianity in our independent interfaith community.

I will have to warn my children that the book includes one page entitled “Against Intermarriage” that makes the (to me, very questionable) twin statements: marriages between Jews are more likely to be happy, Jewish continuity requires marriage between Jews. I was not surprised to see these arguments made in a book written more than thirty years ago, and was even impressed by the authors’ admission that in Biblical times, Jews did intermarry. Ironically, the authors also state, “What you are, and what you stand for, is the addition of what your parents gave you, and what your grandparents gave them, and what your great-grandparents gave your grandparents–and on back.”

I could not agree more. When I read this sentence from my interfaith perspective, it explains precisely why I think all of my children’s grandparents should be acknowledged and honored, all of their great-grandparents, not just the Jewish ones.

In any case, as I was flipping through the book, an inscription on the inside of the front cover caused me to stop and breathe in sharply. In wobbly grade-school printing, one of my three younger siblings had written out a sort of survey or quiz–apparently notes copied from a religious school teacher:

How many times do they attend synagogue a year? What occasions?

Are the children in Sunday School?

Do they believe in God?

Do they care if their children intermarry?

These questions appear to be an attempt to determine….what? Whether a particular family is composed of good Jews? Whether a particular family is adequately guarding children against intermarriage? Were the two considered synonymous? Are they still?

I started musing about the questions I would choose to determine if someone is a good Jew, not that I would ever pass this kind of judgement. But if I were required to list criteria, they might be: Do they live by the golden rule and the ten commandments? Do they study and debate and question? Do they sing and make space for some form of Shabbat, for peace and reflection? Do they devote themselves to tikkun olam (repairing the world)? Do they do justice, love kindness, stay humble, as suggested by the prophet Micah?

The scrawled list also echoed in a most unfortunate way the list of questions that interfaith families face when they attempt to label their children as Reform Jews. In 1947, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the official body of Reform Judaism, considered the Biblical evidence for patrilineal Judaism and (in my opinion, very wisely) specified that in the case of patrilineal interfaith children, “the declaration of the parents to raise them as Jews shall be deemed sufficient for conversion.” So in my childhood, in the 1960s and 1970s, interfaith children were tolerated in Reform synagogues, without a lot of questions, and held to the same standards of Jewish practice as any other children.

But after 1983, the Reform movement declared that interfaith children (whether patrilineal or matrilineal) would be considered Jewish only if they performed certain mitzvot (commandments): litmus tests for being Jewish enough. The official list of “appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people” includes circumcision, acquisition of a Hebrew name, Torah study, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, and Confirmation. Many of us who are interfaith adults practicing Judaism struggle with this list. Again, it does not align very well with my personal criteria for what makes a good Jew. And it irritates many interfaith adults who want to claim Jewish identity, since we know many “100% Jews” who have ignored some or all of those same mitzvot but do not have to defend their religious identity.

In religious school, I remember feeling marginal, suspect because of my interfaith condition, in spite of being an engaged and avid student. I remember lectures about the dangers of intermarriage from rabbis, from the bima (pulpit). And the notes inside this book, copied so carefully, are proof that some respected teacher described intermarriage as a threat, to one of my siblings. For me, the subtext is clear: your parents should not have married, no matter how happy they are, and your Judaism is questionable. Small wonder, then, that I have decided to raise my children in an independent interfaith community in which intermarriage is celebrated, rather than discouraged.

“So what Are You? Jewish or Christian?”

Recently, my teenage daughter experienced a formative moment: someone expressed negative feelings about her Jewishness. Frankly, I was thrilled. The fact that she has faced a moment common to all of us with Jewish identity means my plan to raise my children with strong connections to both Judaism and Christianity is working.

My children, with only one Jewish grandparent, could have passed as Christians. But that was not our family strategy. Our intention was to make them equally proud, equally knowledgeable, about both family religions, so that when this formative moment arrived, they would stand up as Jews, and feel the bracing sting of being outsiders, rather than duck and pass.

I am quick to identify myself as Jewish, particularly to Christians and Muslims, when I sense an opportunity to further the cause of interfaith dialogue, or to dispel prejudice or misunderstanding.

Ironically, with fellow Jews I am more likely to identify myself as an interfaith child. This is a defense mechanism (many wouldn’t consider me Jewish anyway because I’m a patrilineal “half-Jew“). But it is also another part of my mission to educate: I want my fellow Jews to try to understand bothness, interfaithness, the extent to which multicultural people cannot be described in binary terms. And I want them to understand that, although I don’t describe myself as a flat-out Christian for theological reasons (I do not believe Jesus was the messiah), I feel my interfaith status gives me permission to explore all that is inspiring and profound in Christianity.

I am Jewish. I am an interfaith child. I am both. And I claim the right to bodysurf these waves of fluid identity as the spirit moves me. I stand bobbing in the ocean, lifting gently off the sand for small waves, throwing my body ahead of the larger ones, catching exhilirating rides. I am not intimidated by the power of religious tides and spiritual currents. I am in my element, and the water is fine.

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.

 

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

British Court Stands up for Interfaith Children

Blue Skies, photo Susan Katz Miller

My pulse started racing when I read in the New York Times this morning that the British government has stepped into the center of the hopelessly snarled “Who is a Jew?” debate. A court ruled that basing school admission on whether or not the applicant has a Jewish mother is discriminatory under British law. If Britain’s Supreme Court upholds the ruling, life will become easier for interfaith children who want to identify as Jews.

 

The court heard how the Jews’ Free School, one of 7000 religious schools in Britain receiving government financing, refused to admit a boy for not being Jewish enough. Although he has a father who was born Jewish, and a mother who converted, she was not converted by the Orthodox. The family sued for discrimination and lost, but the Court of Appeal overturned the decision in the summer.

The court argued that basing school admission on the religion of the applicant’s mother was an ethnic test, and not a religious test, and that whether the criterion was “benign or malignant, theological or supremacist, makes it no less and no more unlawful.”  Last week, the case was before the Supreme Court, which is expected to give a final ruling before the end of this year.

As a result of the Court of Appeals ruling, the school has already shifted to a new admissions policy which requires applicants to meet certain litmus tests of  Jewish practice, rather than relying on parentage. This mirrors the shift among Reform Jews in America after 1983 from matrilineality as the test of Judaism, to proof of sufficient Jewish practice.

As a (patrilineal) interfaith child, I certainly agree with the court that religion is a set of beliefs and practices, not an ethnicity, and thus cannot be inherited. To say otherwise is deeply offensive not only to interfaith children, but to people who convert to Judaism, including adoptees who are converted as infants.

As an American, I hold dear the concept of separation of church and state, and I’m a bit aghast at the very concept that the British government is funding religious schools. So there is a certain amount of irony in the fact that the co-mingling of public education and religion in Britain led to this groundbreaking legal ruling on the discriminatory nature of matrilineal descent. I do find myself wondering, if the US government funds vouchers to parochial schools, does that give us power to demand the same scrutiny by courts here?

Yet in America, where only about 10% of Jews identify themselves as Orthodox,  interfaith children have many more options for Jewish community and Jewish education than in Britain, where Orthodox Jews constitute a majority and appear to exert a power akin to that in Israel. Here in the US, we have schools representing multiple forms of Judaism, and the freedom to create our own communities in which Judaism is truly a matter of belief, not ethnicity.

The President’s Interfaith Family

President Obama, University of Maryland, photo Susan Katz Miller

All this time I’ve been relating to Barack Obama as a fellow interfaith child, because his father and stepfather were Muslim and his mother’s family was Christian. Not to mention his wise interfaith Buddhist half-sister, and his wife’s cousin the rabbi. Now, it turns out he has a half-brother who is half-Jewish. And of course, many Jews in the blogosphere have been quick to point out that Mark Obama Ndesandjo is “halachically 100% Jewish” because his American mother, teacher Ruth Nidesand, is apparently Jewish. Although so far, Mark Ndesandjo has made no comment on his own religion, as far as I know. Ndesandjo spoke to the press about his connection to the President for the first time this week, in conjunction with the publication of a novel that appears to be heavily autobiographical. The topic of religion was reportedly barred in the ground rules of the press conference.

Why do we care? The idea that this could be the first American president with relatively close Jewish (step or half) family members appeals to our tribal pride. Almost 80% of American Jews voted for Obama: many of us continue to want to claim him, we crave the thrill of nachas. We don’t know much about Ruth Nidesand, but  we know she managed to escape from what Ndesandjo depicts in his book as an abusive and alcoholic Barack Obama Sr. She raised a son who went on to get a physics degree from Brown (my alma mater), an MBA, learn Mandarin and classical piano. In short, I suspect that Ruth is a strong, smart woman, in the same mold as Ann Dunham, no surprise there.

But me, I’m primarily intrigued by Ndesandjo, not because of his Jewishness, but because of his bothness: both black and white, both Muslim and Jew, both African and American. We are just beginning to see Muslim and Jewish intermarriage, so any Muslim/Jewish interfaith child in his forties is of interest to me, by definition, as a fellow pioneer in interfaithness. I imagine that he fled to China to escape the relentless efforts to stuff him into identity boxes: black, white, African, American, Jewish, Muslim, as well as to escape the traumatic memories of abuse by his father. Ndesandjo says he’s thinking about publishing his memoirs, and I hope he does. I don’t really care if he’s capitalizing on the Obama name to sell books—I know how hard it is to sell books these days. We need more interfaith children to tell their stories in order to help us all grow into our hybrid future together. And we need to hear the stories of “and/both”  people of all kinds (whether adopted, converted, biracial, immigrant, bisexual, intersexual, bilingual or otherwise bicultural).