A Catholic, a Muslim, a Jewish Education, an Interfaith Family

Kristen & Ilyas
Kristen & Ilyas

Interfaith families continue to build bridges–quietly, peacefully, steadily, around the world. For today’s post, I invited guest blogger Kristen to write about her Catholic and Muslim relationship, and why she intends to raise her children with both family religions.

Ilyas and I got to know each other when we found ourselves living in the same neighborhood as college students. A Muslim who emigrated from Algeria as a child, Ilyas has no accent and lots of American friends. He seamlessly fits into both worlds, and I found him both interesting and easy to relate to. I am a Catholic of European descent who loves to travel and learn. Ilyas has said that my blue eyes drew him in, and that my kindness and optimism brought him closer. We both agreed that being together felt right in a way that no relationship ever had. Just the right amount of interesting and familiar, we were soon inseparable and completely in love.

As the relationship progressed, Ilyas and I began to think about what the future might hold. We didn’t have everything figured out yet, but we knew that our futures would include each other, and so we decided to get married. Religion had never been an issue between the two of us–he occasionally goes to church with me, and I will attend some events at the mosque with him.   We both value our religions, and respect each other’s beliefs and right to form our family’s identity. Even so, we felt it was important to discuss how to handle religion when we decide to have children. Most Muslim sources say that the kids have to be raised as Muslims, and most Catholic ones say that the kids should be raised as Catholic. We found ourselves in a conundrum.

The predominant view seems to be that interfaith couples should choose one faith for their children, but neither of us felt comfortable with the idea. Religion, culture, and identity are inextricably linked. How could either of us sacrifice the influence of our religion, the right to be a part of forming the religious and cultural identity of our children, without losing ourselves and our heritage in the process? Almost every family get-together, every memorable event of both of our childhoods, is linked to the things we celebrated as a result of our families’ religious identities. We feared that not sharing in either of those identities would isolate our children from the “out” parent’s side of the family because they would not be celebrated as an insider, and a member of the community. Ilyas and I were both concerned that we, and our future children, would feel such a loss very strongly, and we could not imagine asking each other to make such a sacrifice. We were sure that our marriage would not work if we chose one faith, so we chose both.

Although I am from a Christian family, I actually attended a Jewish preschool and elementary school, and I participated in the plays and Jewish celebrations. My parents thought that the smaller classes and rigor of the Jewish private school would help create a more challenging environment than any other local schools. I found it to be a really wonderful experience that taught me the value of interfaith knowledge and understanding. It definitely influenced the positive way that I view the idea of exposing children to more than one religion. Looking back on his years of celebrating Christian holidays with my family, Ilyas agreed.

The more we talked about it, the more clearly Ilyas and I saw what we believe. We believe that it is a human right to help shape the religious and cultural identity of one’s children, for both the mother and the father. It would be devastating for either of us to be excluded from that right, and so being both–raising our future children attending church and the mosque, fully part of both of our religious communities– is essential for us. We both value our religions and find profound and substantial similarities between our faiths that we feel will unite our future family.

We plan to explain the differences in our beliefs by telling our children that God, so amazing that he created this universe and more out of nothing, is just too great for any human to fully understand, and so people differ in beliefs in their effort to try. We aren’t diluting our faiths–we are teaching everything about both. We feel that we will be giving our future children a religious heritage that is accurate and complete by refusing to ignore either side of their family’s background. It may not work for every family, but we are confident that we are making the right decision for our family, and that we will have no regrets.

 Kristen is an Ohio native who loves British TV, good books, and the Buckeyes.

 

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

My Easter with Christians, Jews and Muslims

Easter Bonnet

We celebrated Easter this year with our community of Christian and Jewish interfaith families. Our minister started off by pointing out that Easter is not in the Bible, and that our holiday traditions make reference to ancient goddesses, and the fertility rites of spring. She then gathered the children together and talked to them about the Buddhist metaphor of a cup of tea representing the comforting memories of life after the tea bag (or body) is gone. She’s not your typical minister.

Next, our rabbi gave an adult sermon about the themes of intimacy, transcendence and unity in the story of the resurrection of Jesus. Somehow, the idea of life beyond death, of renewal and regeneration, seemed completely universal to me as he spoke. As a Jew, I do not feel I need to believe in a messiah or a personal savior in order to celebrate these Easter messages. Our rabbi spent his career at Georgetown, knows his gospels, and has been called a “closet Catholic” by Catholic friends. And yet, he’s an erudite, dedicated and deeply spiritual Jew. He’s not your typical rabbi.

In addition to the Lord of the Dance and older traditional Easter hymns, we sang Bob Marley’s One Love. Then, we had a pancake breakfast that included matzoh brei (matzoh fried in eggs) for those of us who aren’t eating leavening until the end of Passover. This type of radical culinary inclusion is the norm in an interfaith families community. And it is part of what makes this community so comfortable, and so precious, for me.

After our Easter morning with Christians and Jews, I made a quick change out of my pastel dress and Easter bonnet and into a bold print Senegalese outfit, in order to join a community of Catholics and Muslims for our second Easter event of the day, a gathering of the local Catholic Senegalese association. We had the great fortune to be invited to this event by two Senegalese-American friends, one Catholic and one Muslim, who are cousins from an interfaith family, and who know that my husband and I crave Senegalese food and company ever since our years in Dakar. Intermarriage between Muslims and Catholics is not uncommon in Senegal. In fact, both of the Muslim Presidents of Senegal I interviewed as a journalist (Abdou Diouf and Abdoulaye Wade) had Catholic wives.

What struck me at this Easter feast, and touched me deeply, was the way the Catholics made sure to accommodate the dietary restrictions of Muslim family members and friends. All of the main dishes featured mutton or chicken, rather than ham, and the one dish with pork in it was carefully labelled. Our Muslim friend reminded us how people of all religions in Senegal share another local culinary tradition on Good Friday: ngalax, a dessert made from peanut butter, vanilla, sugar, and the fruit of the baobab tree, served with raisins over millet couscous. Typically, Catholics make the dish on Good Friday and deliver it to neighbors, friends and family of all religions, just as Muslims in Senegal share the mutton from the Tabaski (or Eid al-Adha) feast with neighbors of all religions.

I often use the Passover dish of charoset as a metaphor for my interfaith family: a mix of nuts, fruits, spices and wine, with flavors melding over time. Now I have a sweet new metaphor: the nuts and fruits and grain of ngalax, bonding interfaith families, neighborhoods, and countries.

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.