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.

Successful Interfaith Marriage: Marci and Rich

A year ago I wrote about the love story of my interfaith parents,  and this became one of the most popular essays on this site. People are searching for details on successful interfaith marriages, and I know hundreds of these success stories. So this week, I start an occasional series of portraits of happy interfaith couples.


Marci and Rich Shegogue met doing musical theater in college. In our interfaith families community (IFFP), they are active volunteers, infusing our program with music. Marci fronts the band during our weekly Gatherings, when we sing songs and reflect together, and she usually leads us in the Hamotzi (the Hebrew blessing over bread) before we break for bagels and cream cheese. Rich is known for his gorgeous tenor voice, and he frequently leads us in chanting the Lord’s Prayer, or performs a selection from Godspell. During Sunday School, Marci and Rich visit our interfaith classrooms with their guitars, teaching songs from both traditions.

Marci, what is your religious background? What is Rich’s background?

I was raised in Conservative Judaism, my husband was raised Catholic. My husband considers himself more “Interfaith” now.

How long have you been married, and how old are your children?

We have known each other for 25 years, been married for 18 years, and have two daughters, 13 and 9. We attended seminars on Interfaith marriage and read many books, once we decided to marry.

Did you discuss or try out other religious pathways as a couple before joining a community of interfaith families?

We had decided from the beginning that we wanted to have an Interfaith home, but weren’t really sure what that meant in reality. We thought about joining a synagogue, but couldn’t afford the dues. When the synagogue in our community said that we couldn’t have the privelege of naming our daughter there if we were not members, we looked elsewhere… and found IFFP.

How and why did you settle on joining an interfaith community?

We wanted a place where both of us felt comfortable in our beliefs… where neither one of us would be a minority, and where our children would be able to learn equally about both Christianity and Judaism without a bias toward one or the other. We also wanted to meet other families for purposes of finding out how other interfaith families handle the basics: holidays, in-laws, questions, life events, etc. We wanted to find a place where we could belong… because neither the churches nor the synagogues we visited felt like home to us.

We found IFFP through information in the back of an interfaith marriage guidebook, but waited a year until we called and talked for a long time to Sue Katz Miller who invited us to visit and see for ourselves. The first gathering we came to was the opening gathering of the year… Sept, 2001, the weekend after the 9/11 attacks… in the courtyard of a local middle school. While standing outside, with people we had yet to meet, we instantly felt the kinship and support of a community, and we joined that day.

What do you see as the benefits and drawbacks of the interfaith pathway for your family?

Benefits:  A much more well-rounded education in religion than we would ever get anywhere else. Deeper meanings, debates and conversations about the similarities and differences. A better sense of common ground. Increased tolerance of others’ spiritual choices. Kids who have a sense of belonging… not feeling like something is wrong with them if they aren’t one or the other. Always being challenged to look deeper, understand better, be patient, and think out of the box!

Drawbacks:  Having people say “that doesn’t work,” or “your kids will be all confused,” or “you know you’ll have to choose at some point,” and having to take the time to educate them (well, maybe that’s a benefit in disguise though).  Not having the intense connection to one faith when it comes to celebrating with extended family.

How have your extended families reacted to your interfaith relationship and your choice of an interfaith community?

I think both sets of parents grew to accept and embrace the interfaith-ness of our family. We had to remember that it was a choice that WE made for ourselves, and that we had had time to grow and commit to it. They had to learn from experience how we dealt with our religions within our home before they could fully accept that we weren’t watering anything down, and that we kept important traditions. To have our mothers making latkes together while the dads played a spirited game of dreidel… and then the next week all singing Christmas carols together around the piano… priceless!

How do you feel about the formation of your childrens’ religious identities, so far?

They seem to have a good handle on their religious identities so far. We talk a lot about beliefs when they come up, and find that we can have some great conversations and debates. We celebrate all major holidays, and some minor ones too, in our home with great spirit and fullness. Our feeling is that, as long as they keep asking questions and feel free to discuss, interpret and explore all concepts of religion, then we are on the right track. We can only hope though, that we give them a good foundation on which to build their own beliefs and ideals.

What do you think are the secrets to your successful interfaith marriage?

Communication, trust, willingness to make compromises, being able to talk about difficult subjects, being willing to create new traditions that have meaning to our family, courage to forge through uncharted territory and challenge old ways of thinking, and being honest and respectful about our comfort levels when it comes to religion. For instance, having a Christmas tree was a big deal to my husband, but was initially uncomfortable for me. We compromised on a table-top tree that we bring home on December 20th every year. We know where each other’s limits are, and we respect them, but discuss them as well.


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

Chelsea’s Interfaith Wedding: Recognition and Transcendence

An interfaith wedding took place yesterday, co-officiated by a Rabbi and a Minister: not a novel or remarkable event in my world, or for readers of this blog. But because, in this particular case, Chelsea Clinton married Marc Mezvinsky, a lot of new voices suddenly joined our ongoing discussion on interfaith families.

As someone who thinks about and writes about little else, tracking the sudden proliferation of writing on interfaith marriage has moved me to sorrow, worry, gratitude and delight.

I feel sadness, because the comment sections on many posts have been filled with ignorance, tribalism and general small-mindedness from folks purporting to represent several different religions (and no religion). I am all too aware that I am raising my interfaith children in a progressive bubble, in a sophisticated urban center, and my heart goes out to interfaith families who have frequent and corrosive contact with such intolerance and bile.

I feel protective concern for the wonderful Rabbi James Ponet and Methodist Reverend William Shillady, who co-officiated at Marc and Chelsea’s wedding. Rabbi Ponet, the Jewish chaplain at Yale University since 1981, now faces the wrath and disdain of Orthodox and Conservative Jews, who do not allow Rabbis to officiate at intermarriages (or allow marriage to start before sundown on the Sabbath, as this one did). He has also placed himself in the center of the continuing struggle in his own Reform Jewish movement over how far to go in welcoming interfaith couples. Some Reform rabbis refuse to officiate at interfaith weddings, some officiate but would not co-officiate with a Minister, some officiate only with the (unenforceable) condition that children be raised Jewish.

Those who draw these lines and struggle to maintain them await Rabbi Ponet’s words on how and why he decided to marry Marc and Chelsea. The rabbi is brilliant and thoughtful, as one would expect a rabbi at Yale to be. In an essay on the meaning of Hannukah, he wrote of “the capacity to sustain intimate relations with another without totally ceding your own sense of self, the ability to love without permanently merging.” Reading these words, one senses the how and the why of his decision.

I feel thankful for the spiritual and intellectual freedom afforded to clergy who work as university chaplains, rather than for congregations or denominational institutions. In a university setting, our priests and imams and rabbis and ministers can engage in deep and sustained interfaith collaboration, teaching and counseling together, modeling respect, sheltered to some degree from church and synagogue politics. Not coincidentally, both the minister who co-officiated at my own interfaith marriage (the Reverend Rick Spalding), and my beloved current rabbi (Rabbi Harold White), both of them pioneers in the interfaith field, work for universities.

Finally, the flurry of interfaith blogposts this week brought one thrilling moment: the deep satisfaction of feeling completely understood, known, seen. Rabbi Irwin Kula, a prominent author, posted a groundbreaking essay on Huffington Post that I hope will permanently shift the official discourse on interfaith families. Rabbi Kula concludes, “the more people love each other, and the more people with different inheritances and traditions form intimate relationships and families, the better we will understand each other across all boundaries, and the wiser we will be at knowing what from our rich traditions we need to let go of and transcend, and what we need to bring along with us to help us create better lives and build a better world.”

Rabbi Kula is co-President of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. His co-President (and partner on a radio show) is Brad Hirschfeld, an Orthodox Rabbi.  Rabbi Hirschfeld recently published his own mind-blowing essay, in which he refuted the idea that exposing children to more than one faith will confuse them. Clearly, these two visionaries have been talking about all of the available pathways for interfaith families, and how to support those of us who have been supporting ourselves for a long time, outside of institutions and denominations.

For many years, I have been frustrated with “interfaith dialogue,” as spiritual leaders embraced each other at conferences and then urged everyone to retreat to their separate corners after the embrace, sidestepping the growing reality of interfaith families. Now, after the somewhat random occurrence of a celebrity wedding, as more and more clergy speak out about our reality, interfaith families have a chance to feel less invisible, more recognized. Recognized, not as a dilemma, a problem, an issue. Recognized as constructive, inspiring, even transcendent.

Balanced Advice for Interfaith Families

Today, you can read a Q and A with me over on a blog called Moms Are Human. Blogger Elizabeth Katz (no relation) is a young intermarried mom who contacted me for more information on the “both” option for interfaith families.

Maybe because my interfaith identity often means I see more than one viewpoint on an issue, I try not to go bossing interfaith couples around:  I do not rank the choices interfaith families have, or label any of them problematic. I understand interfaith families choosing Judaism. I also understand interfaith families choosing Christianity, or Islam, or Buddhism…

If, on this blog, I continue to highlight the full exploration of both family religions, I do this because it is the journey of my own children, and the one I am best qualified to describe in real time. But also, I emphasize this option because it is the least understood, with little support from religious institutions, and little presence in the media or cyberspace.  As an interfaith child and a journalist, I feel compelled to provide counterweight: I am keenly aware of issues of balance. And so I blog to disseminate the existence of the “both” option, but I do not claim that it is the right option for everyone.

I  understand that alliance with religious institutions, and allegiance to a particular belief system, practically obligates a blogger to advocate one option over other options. Because independent interfaith communities do not prescribe to a particular set of beliefs,  we do not feel compelled to urge families to adopt a particular religious label (though some members of independent interfaith communities do label their children as Jewish, for instance, while still wanting their children educated in both religious traditions).

In the end, in spite of my ambivalence about giving advice, I did respond to Elizabeth’s request to provide specific strategies that will be helpful in raising interfaith children, no matter what choices a couple makes.

Walking to Church: Sabbath and Shabbat

photo by Adam Hickmott,

On Sunday morning, my husband’s family decided to walk to the chapel in the beach community where they have been summering for generations. I was pleased when my teenage daughter agreed to walk with us and attend the service. As much as I love our community of interfaith families, as much as I believe that community to be just as “authentic” as ancient religions, I also believe it is essential to expose my children to synagogues and churches. Whenever we visit a synagogue or church, I use these occasions to deliver some (not so) stealth religious education on ritual and customs, to reinforce ties to family history and culture, and to create space for my children to feel comfortable in diverse sacred spaces.

And so we set off into a glorious Fourth of July morning, the air sweet with lilacs, the intense blue of hydrangeas set off against the weathered grey shingles of the summer cottages in the lanes. Despite the very Anglo-Saxon Protestant setting, I could not help feeling like a family of Orthodox Jews strolling to shul. While I love to claim my bothness, as someone who was raised as a Jew and still identifies myself as a Jew, I have a strong tendency to compare and contrast any new religious experience with Jewish practice. Anyway, on the walk to church, I suddenly understood the deep pleasure of walking to synagogue. Walking, observing the Sabbath with our bodies, we were on a family pilgrimage, removed from the household, chores and work. You can argue about the logic or pragmatism of the Orthodox prohibition against driving on Shabbat. But you can’t really argue against the tonic of a good family walk.

But when we got to the church steps, I felt a momentary and involuntary skittishness, even though the official greeters were old family friends and could not have been more pleasant and welcoming. I did not grow up going to churches:  entering a church will never feel completely natural to me. The problem is not so much theological—I understand Jesus as a great metaphor, just as most of my liberal, progressive Christian friends do, and I am open to studying his words and discussing his inspiring life. The problem is the weight of history, culture, and the lingering effects of my own narrow and defensive religious education.

I don’t want my children to feel the way I do: I want them to be able to feel at home in a church, if they end up finding churches that feed their souls, or nurture their families. So I sat in the pew, feeling vaguely “other,” but taking pleasure in the fact that my daughter now sees the list of three-digit numbers posted behind the pulpit, numbers that would have mystified me at her age, and understands them as representing the hymns in today’s service. Without glancing at me, she reaches for the red hymnal, and with simple grace and confidence, finds the opening hymn.

Interfaith in New Orleans

I have a mystical, spiritual connection to New Orleans, even though, somehow, I’ve never been there. I imagine New Orleans as a city where “being both” comes naturally: being both French and English-speaking, being both American Indian and African-American, being both Catholic and an adherent of the great West African religious traditions.

But also, readers of this blog know the story of my great-grandparents, a Rabbi and a Jewish orphan who met and married in New Orleans. Their grandson, my father, still plays jazz piano at the age of 86, and the haunting melody to “Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?” was part of the soundtrack of my childhood.

So somehow, it seemed like fate when a poignant and beautifully-written blog by an intermarried woman in New Orleans began sending new readers to “On Being Both,” last week. To understand why I write this blog, read her post on discovering “On Being Both.”

My goal in writing here has always been to support the members of interfaith families in feeling whole, proud, balanced:  to encourage them to fully explore their religious and cultural ancestries. Those of us in Washington, Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, Boston, Denver and a handful of other cities are lucky to have thriving interfaith family communities to support us. Elsewhere, people who want to raise children with access to both religions still need to struggle to find religious institutions to accommodate this radical notion, or at least to look the other way. I admit that I hope to inspire isolated families to build new interfaith communities, so that more children grow up internalizing a positive attitude about their dual birthrights.

I will turn fifty this year, and I am already planning a trip to New Orleans  to celebrate, and to research the story of my great-grandparents. While I am there, I plan to do whatever I can to support the interfaith families of New Orleans in their “bothness.”

Annoyed by the Dalai Lama

No, really, the Dalai Lama is a lovely man, wise and full of goodness. But his editorial in The New York Times today plucked on my last interfaith nerve. He writes of being inspired by an early meeting with Trappist monk Thomas Merton, and goes on to announce, “I’m a firm believer in the power of personal contact to bridge differences, so I’ve long been drawn to dialogues with people of other religious outlooks.”

Well, it’s all fine and dandy when a very holy and celibate Buddhist monk and a very holy and celibate Catholic monk have “personal contact” and dialogue. But when mere mortals have personal contact, they sometimes fall in love and create families. Then sometimes these “dialoguers” begin to have second thoughts about how personal the contact should be. And then they retreat to citing the importance of maintaining boundaries, and tribal purity laws. I’ve written about this before. What bothers me is what feels to me like hypocrisy: do reach out and touch somebody from another religion, but for God’s sake don’t take the ultimate step of actual intimacy.

A lot of what the Dalai Lama wrote in today’s paper is great stuff: the yearning for peace, the importance of learning, the defense of maligned religions. Refreshingly, he admits that as a boy he thought Buddhism was superior to other religions. He goes on to underscore his support for Karen Armstrong’s marvelous “Compassion movement,” and is careful to include Islam as a partner in this. But then, I couldn’t help noticing that his new book is subtitled “How the World’s Religions Can Come Together.” For those of us who are the products of this coming together, it is hard not to see that title as naive, or perhaps ironic.

I tried to explain my annoyance to my teenage daughter, who has grown up with Buddhist mentors in addition to Jewish and Christian family and education. She is far less cynical, and in general, far less annoyed, and far more, well, Zen,  than I am. “You’re looking for a problem, Mom,” she said. “As an interfaith person I’m not offended by that at all if they want to stick to their own religions, as long as they don’t tell me what to do.” Ah, but so many of them do.

Doonesbury, Gershwin, and the Mash-up, Multi-Faith Metaphor

In today’s “Doonesbury,” Garry Trudeau acknowledges the interfaith zeitgeist. In the strip, a medic informs a military chaplain that a patient is going to survive and won’t need last rites, after all. The medic notes that the patient “was worried he wasn’t eligible for rites. He’s from some sort of multi-faith family.” The chaplain replies that this would not have been a problem. The medic asks, “You do mash-ups?” The chaplain responds, “It’s not pretty, but yeah.”

In a handful of words, Trudeau touches on several key interfaith family issues.  First, note his use of the term “multi-faith family,” which indicates to me that perhaps my insistence on using “interfaith,” which I defended in a recent blog post,  is indeed behind the times. Trudeau has an ear for the sound of the future; I am reconsidering my stance.

Calling an interfaith prayer or ceremony a “mash-up” is awfully clever, and appeals to me as a tech-savvy adult (and obviously would appeal to my iPod-addicted teens). On the other hand, I think I will resist taking up this term. I am just too old-school I guess. To use a musical analogy, when I hear appropriated bits and pieces of music in a current hit, I enjoy them, but for me, the joy is in using the mash-up as an opportunity to teach my children about the original music being mashed.

For instance, both my teens and I love Sublime’s 1996 hit “Doin’ Time.” My kids happen to know that it is based on George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” because I sang the original to them as a lullaby, and because my father and my son both play the tune as jazz pianists. We are educated insiders, we get the reference. I worry about kids who are ignorant of Gershwin, who don’t understand that Sublime did not actually write the hook on which they are caught.

In the same vein, I worry about mash-up interfaith prayers or services: unless our children understand the references, appreciate the originals, they lose the historical context. I believe interfaith children should be grounded in the classics, in the rites and rituals of both their Christian and Jewish heritages. Am I just uncool?

At the same time, I understand the gleeful power of the mash-up. My teens, all teens,  resonate with the harmonics and the dissonance, the new produced by combining and overlapping old tracks. They have an intuititve understanding of Ecclesiastes (that “there is nothing new under the sun”): that  all religion, and art, evolve through recombination.

Trudeau also touches on the reality that clergy are acting, by necessity, as deejays: they are innovating, riffing on traditional rites for every life transition, in order to accomodate their interfaith flocks. Often, they are writing and performing new rituals quietly, without permission from institutional authorities, because institutions lag considerably in comprehending that this is the dawning of the Age of the Interfaith.

Trudeau also hints at the truth that many clergy are ambivalent about their roles on the cutting edge of creating and leading interfaith liturgy. “It’s not pretty,” the chaplain sighs. The mash-up makes her long for the original, the unadulterated Gershwin. But Gershwin, in Porgy and Bess, was appropriating, transforming, mashing-up the African-American gospel form with jazz and opera. And religions have been cross-fertilizing since the beginning of time. There is nothing new under the sun.

Finally, Trudeau refers, obliquely, to a conundrum facing this first great generation of interfaith families as we age: how do we gracefully ritualize the end of our lives in an interfaith world? I personally know a Jewish man whose wife was exhumed after someone decided to enforce a prohibition against non-Jews being buried in a Jewish cemetery. My own mother, after more than fifty years of interfaith marriage, makes nervous jokes about needing to do a deathbed conversion before she can be buried in our family plot. Our interfaith community is seeking a solution: a final resting place for interfaith families. Or, if you will, a final mash-up.

Identity Labels: Interfaith, Multifaith, Dual-faith, Bifaithful, Cross-cultural?

Is “interfaith” the best word to describe my family, and my community of families? Recently, a reader of this blog  wrote in, expressing ambivalence about the term, and proposing an alternative:  “I sometimes wonder about the term “inter”faith, which to me seems to imply stuck between two faiths, like someone in a boat stuck between two islands. I am wondering if “multi”faith might work better, at least for my family.”

Well, first of all, whatever works for your family, works for your family! I absolutely endorse the right of interfaith children, and interfaith families, to self-identify, create their own labels, as described in the Bill of Rights for Interfaith People. Claiming a label is a powerful act of self-definition and empowerment for any group that has been marginalized. And yes, interfaith people and families have been marginalized.

I, too, have mixed feelings (pun intended) about the interfaith label, though primarily because the term is in wide use to express something very different: dialogue between religious institutions or representatives determined to keep rigid, impermeable boundaries between them. For interfaith families, osmosis across “cell walls” not only happens, it is often the defining, and joyfully positive, characteristic of our religious or cultural identity.

I can also empathize with those who are uncomfortable with the emphasis on “faith” in interfaith. Often, these folks are secular, atheist or agnostic Jews, since Judaism puts more emphasis on ritual practice and less on credo. Christians sometimes struggle when they encounter practicing, atheist Jews, though this is a common paradoxical state. (There is a parallel, growing cohort of secular Christians who acknowledge Christianity as their formative religious culture but might be equally uncomfortable with talk of “faith.”) Those squirmy with the whole faith concept (I count myself here) might gravitate towards “cross-cultural” or “multicultural” as labels, though these terms are already in wide use with other (distracting) connotations. And they do not express the reality that in many interfaith families, faith of one sort or another does play a role.

On the other hand, I do not share the reader’s discomfort with “inter” as a chosen Latin prefix. My community, the Interfaith Families Project, uses a Venn diagram to represent the interlocking rings of Judaism and Christianity. The central, overlapping “inter” space is not an empty ocean between two islands, but the most vibrant and full part of the metaphor: the place where Judaism and Christianity share history, theology, ritual, and ethical grounding.

I worry that the concern over being “stuck between two islands” stems from immersion in the dismal soup of interfaith family portrayals in literature and on the internet. Most of these negative images are created through a process funded or influenced by religious institutions that are anti-intermarriage, or anti-interfaith-families, or anti-interfaith-families-raising-kids-with-both.

Well, but, what’s wrong with “multifaith?” Nothing, except that to my ear, “multifaith” strongly connotes more than two religions. The word does reflect the reality of a small but growing cohort of interfaith kids (those with, say, one Jewish grandparent, two Christian grandparents, and one Hindu grandparent). On the other hand, it seems to invite the all-too-frequent criticisms of “mile wide, inch deep” religious education. Teaching more than two religions with depth and meaning is a daunting task, though one that is admirably tackled by Unitarians, and Baha’i.

So if the family in question wants to embrace “multifaith” as their label, perhaps because they share more than two faiths, I cannot possibly object. In the end, for me, the strongest reason for sticking with “interfaith family” and “interfaith child” is a practical one: the relatively long history of using “interfaith” in this context, and the ability to google-search whatever resources and literature are available on the topic.

But also, I happen to have positive associations with “interfaith.” The linguistic harmonics include intersect, interweave, interlace, interdependent, interact and intercourse. Oh, and intertwine! (A word I have to stop myself from intertwining into each blog post.) Anyway, all good stuff. And none of it really works with “multi” as a prefix (multisect, multiweave, multilace, multidependent, multiact, multicourse, multitwine?). Though I suspect those lively words may evolve at some point in the near future, and I welcome them, as I welcome future multifaith families.


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 @beingboth.

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).

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