Spring Interfaith Holidays 2021

Lizas HexTop
Glorious Color quilts by my cousin, Liza Prior Lucy

This post has become an annual tradition. Over more than a decade writing this interfaith blog, I have posted multiple essays on many of the spring Jewish and Christian holidays: PurimSt Patrick’s DayPassoverEaster. But the complex, interlocking quilt squares of #GenInterfaith now go far beyond Judaism and Christianity.

My new book The Interfaith Family Journal, is designed for all interfaith families, of any or all religions, or none. And while we make many different choices about what to believe, how to practice, and where to affiliate (or not), all of us in extended interfaith families (and increasingly, that is most of us) benefit from multi-sensory interfaith experiences with extended family, neighbors, and co-workers.

Just in the coming weeks, we have a dense schedule of holidays (for a more complete list go here). Note the ancient connections many of these holidays have to the spring equinox, and often, to each other. Religions and cultures are not static, but change in response to neighboring religions and cultures, just as we do as individual members of interfaith families.

Feb 16, Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras). For Roman Catholics and some Protestants, this day marks the end of feasting before the beginning of fasting for Lent. Shrove Tuesday is the finale of Carnival (Shrovetide), with notable multi-day celebrations in Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago, New Orleans, Venice, and some Protestant regions. Carnival may have many historical ties to the pre-Christian celebrations of the return of the sun.

Feb 17, Ash Wednesday, for Roman Catholics and some Protestants, marking the start of Lent. Lent is a period of prayer and penance in commemoration of Jesus’s 40 days in the desert, and in preparation for Easter. Many practitioners make a Lenten sacrifice, giving up a specific luxury food (chocolate, all sweets, alcohol) during Lent.

Feb 26, Purim. Jewish commemoration of the Biblical story of Esther in ancient Persia, celebrated with costumed reenactments (Purim spiels), three-cornered pastry (hamantaschen), carnival games, drinking, and charity. Some believe Esther is connected to the ancient fertility goddess Ishtar, and there may be a historical connection between Norooz and Purim.

March 11, Maha shiveratri, the Hindu festival honoring the night Lord Shiva created the world. The celebration includes staying up all night to meditate, chant, and dance, in the darkest season. Check out the twitter hashtag #DontYawnTillDawn.

March 17, St Patrick’s Day. Catholic commemoration of the Feast Day of St Patrick, primarily celebrated by Irish-Americans with parades, drinking, and the wearing of the green, as a way to connect with Irish heritage. Now celebrated in America by people of many religions. Possible historical connection to Ostara.

March 21, Spring Equinox. Ostara, ModernPagan/Wiccan commemoration of the spring equinox and Eostre, the Saxon lunar goddess of fertility. Celebrated with planting of seeds and nature walks. Possible historical connections between Eostre/Esther/Ishtar, and between Easter, Passover, and Norooz.

March 21, Norooz (Nowruz, Naw-Ruz). Zoroastrian/Bahai/Persian celebration of the New Year on the spring equinox. With roots in ancient Iran, people of many religions may celebrate Norooz together in the Balkans, Caucasus, Central and South Asia, and the Middle East, with spring cleaning, flowers, picnics, feasting, and family visits. Possible historical connection between Norooz and Purim.

March 25, Mahavir Jayanti, the Jain holiday celebrating the birth of Mahavir with temple visits, charity, and in recent times, rallies promoting non-violence and veganism, and running events.

March 28, Magha Puja Day. Buddhist commemoration of Buddha delivering the principles of Buddhism, on the full moon. Celebrated in Southeast Asia with temple visits, processions, and good works.

Sundown on March 28 to April 8, Passover (Pesach), Jewish commemoration of the flight from Egypt described in the book of Exodus. Primarily a home-based celebration with one or more festive Seder meals of ritual foods, songs, and prayer. As with Easter, Passover incorporates (presumably pre-Judaic pagan) spring equinox fertility symbolism (eggs, spring greens).

March 28-29, Holi. Hindu commemoration of the arrival of spring and love, celebrated with bonfires, throwing powdered color pigments and water on each other, music, feasting, forgiving debts, repairing relationships, and visiting. Popular even with non-Hindus in South Asia, and increasingly (and not without controversy over appropriation) throughout the world.

March 29, Hola Mohalla. Sikh celebration including processions, mock battles, poetry reading, music. There is a historical connection between Hinduism’s Holi and Hola Mohalla.

April 1, Maundy Thursday. Protestant and Roman Catholic commemoration of The Last Supper. There may (or may not) be a historical connection between The Last Supper and the Passover seder.

April 2, Good Friday. Protestant and Roman Catholic commemoration of the Crucifixion of Jesus, with church services and fasting.

April 4, Easter. Protestant and Roman Catholic commemoration of the Resurrection of Jesus, celebrated with church services, family dinners, and baskets of candy for children. Fertility imagery including bunnies and eggs may, or may not, have a historical connection to pre-Christian rituals and the spring equinox.

April 13, start of the month-long daytime fast for Ramadan in Islam, commemorating the revelation of the Qu’ran. Muslim holidays are on a lunar calendar, so move through the seasons over time.

May 2, Orthodox Easter (or Pascha) in many of the Orthodox Christian traditions using the Julian rather than Gregorian calendar, including Bulgaria, Cyprus, Ethiopia, Greece, Lebanon, Macedonia, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine, as well as millions of people in North America. Many of these cultures include a feast of lamb (connected historically to Passover) and hard-boiled eggs (connected to more ancient fertility traditions).

New Bordered Diamonds Cover
Glorious Color quilts by my cousin, Liza Prior Lucy

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

A Steep Mountain: Interfaith Life in a Pandemic

In my Easter bonnet. On mute.

We made it through Holy Week and Passover. Dayenu.

Dayenu is everyone’s favorite song at the Seder. It means, “it would have been enough.” We use it to express gratitude. Even in this harrowing time, we need gratitude. (We also need big helpings of courage, and righteous anger, and passion for social justice, all themes of the seder).

Since I last posted here, the pandemic has gotten very close and real. I know people who have died, are sick, were separated from dying loved ones, have not been able to mourn these losses with traditional ritual.

We are locked down. We are masked. We are anxious, depressed, at times terrified.

Pot by Martha Legg Katz. Photo by Aimee Miller

Still, I have the privilege of being able to feel gratitude:

For the cherry blossoms and daffodils. Dayenu.

For the mourning doves nesting on our front porch in a ceramic pot my mother made. Dayenu.

For the sweet antics of the rescue puppy we adopted just before the pandemic hit DC. Dayenu.

For my years spent in Brazil cultivating a love for rice and beans, which help me live from my pantry now. Dayenu.

For my sister who runs a homeless healthcare clinic in New York City, and all the other workers risking themselves to try to save others. Dayenu.

And for Tony Fauci, that brilliant mensch, whom I interviewed many times while covering the HIV/AIDS epidemic during my years as a science reporter. Dayenu.

And, now more than ever, I feel deep gratitude for my interfaith families community. Just as Holy Week and Passover and the Sikh holiday of Vaisakhi and Ramadan were approaching, we were forced to scramble to make the transition to online religious and spiritual gatherings. Clergy now have to be tech wizards, innovating to conjure up the sounds and smells and tastes of these holidays, while attempting to maintain a sense of community for people in tiny pixellated squares. (Teachers, including my daughter, are faced with the same awesome task and steep learning curve right now).

2020 seder plate with some pandemic substitutions

One silver lining of our abrupt and forced transition to online religious and spiritual community, is that anyone with a computer or smartphone and the link can join in. As someone who loves ritual, I was able to zoom into many different communities in the past week, experiencing different seders, and different Holy Week services. At each of those celebrations, we were joined by people from across the country and the globe for the first time. Dayenu. And I had these diverse Jewish and Christian experiences, without having to drive to the homes of relatives in multiple states (as much as I fervently wish I could do that right now).

Historically, I have not always found Easter and Holy Week comfortable, as a Jew. More like, complicated. But once again this year, celebrating with the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington DC, in a service created by and for interfaith families, felt glorious. I could relax the part of my brain on alert for supersessionist ideas or language. Instead, the beauty of Easter’s metaphor, of renewal, of resurrection, shone through in the time of the pandemic, with over 100 families zooming in. In our community, Easter traditions include singing Morning Has Broken (with music by a Christian who became a Muslim), and Lord of the Dance (a Christian song inspired in part by a Hindu deity), as well as more traditional Easter hymns.

Among academics of religion today, the trend has been to repudiate the idea–the metaphor–that all religions are different paths up the same mountain. Instead, the dominant paradigm now is that each religion is a separate mountain, with different goals. I am glad I am not trying to earn tenure right now, because every time I experience interfaith community, I disagree with my heart and soul. I feel we share the mountain, just as we share the globe.

The mountain is the human condition. And on this shared mountain, the slope feels particularly steep right now. How do we persevere through pandemics and plagues? How do we cultivate community and compassion? Each religion and culture develops different strategies, different rituals, different liturgies. (For those in academia, yes, I am forever #TeamHustonSmith, #TeamKarenArmstrong. Apologies to friends on #TeamStephenProthero). No one said all religions are the same–or anyways not Huston Smith, not Karen Armstrong, and not me. If they were all the same, why would I need a life enriched by both religions in my heritage, the sibling religions of Judaism and Christianity?

Both Passover and Easter include the egg as a symbol. The mourning dove lays exactly two eggs. On my front porch, which represents the edge of the permissible world for us right now in lockdown, those eggs are due to hatch any day. Mourning seems appropriate in a pandemic. And doves feel like a hopeful sign, as they were for Noah. The doves (the male and female take turns on the nest) are hunkered down. They have adapted to us walking inches from their home, and even to the bark of our untamed puppy. When they hatch, I will feel another small moment of Dayenu.

It will have to be enough.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2015), and The Interfaith Family Journal (2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Eight Top Interfaith Family Posts of the Decade

Author Susan Katz Miller in Chicago in 2019

We are heading into a new decade (and the second decade for this blog). So I thought I would pause to think about the top interfaith family themes from 2009 to 2019, as represented by the most popular posts on this blog.

  1. Muslim and Jewish: Interfaith on “Shahs of Sunset (24,879 views). This post gets a lot of hits because of the success of the frothy long-running reality show, with all its fake scripted scenes and whipped-up melodrama. But I like to think there is something valuable, and future forward, about what I describe as the “unusual depiction of a close circle of Jewish and Muslim (and Christian) friends.”
  2. Ten Reasons to Teach Interfaith Children Both Religions (20,336 views). This is probably the foundational post on this blog, distilling the philosophy of interfaith families who want to give their children interfaith literacy. So I am glad it has remained a perennial top post, ever since 2010.
  3. Life of Pi: Hindu, Christian and Muslim (17,890 views). As with half the posts on this top hits list, this one goes beyond the familiar Christian-and-Jewish binary. Life of Pi reflects the global reality in which multiple religious practice is common. And the popularity of the book, and movie, has introduced many people in the United States to theological and philosophical ideas raised by the complex forms of religious identity in Asia and elsewhere around the globe.
  4. Successful Interfaith Marriage: Reza Aslan and Jessica Jackley (12,320 views). I was lucky to interview Reza and Jessica about their Muslim and Christian interfaith marriage for my first book. Later, they recorded a popular TED talk on the topic, and have begun writing about their interfaith family, so stay tuned. Muslim and Christian is one of the fastest-growing forms of interfaith family, as demonstrated by the Muslim Christian Interfaith Families group on facebook (which I helped to inspire!).
  5. Advent, Christmas, Hanukkah, Welcome Yule! Interfaith Families Doing the Most (4477 views). I have written dozens of posts on the various “December holidays” and how they overlap and interplay from year to year, but this one touches on them all. It got a spike in views in 2011 when a light-hearted piece I published in Huffington Post resulted in a nasty response in the Forward. I wrote a letter back (and eventually received an apology). For me, this post signifies the fact that much of the institutional Jewish world still cannot accept that somewhere between 25% and 50% of interfaith Jewish families are practicing more than one religion.
  6. Successful Interfaith Marriage: A Jewish and Muslim Wedding (4140 views). I love the fact that two of the posts in the “Successful Interfaith Marriage” series made it into this top eight, and neither actually centers on a Jewish and Christian family. This was the only top post written by a guest blogger, Rorri Geller-Mohammed, a social worker who runs a therapy practice focused on multiracial and multicultural families. I welcome guest bloggers, so contact me if you have anything you want to say to the world about being part of an interfaith family!
  7. Blessing of the Interfaith Babies (3782 views). This is one in an ongoing series of essays that describe moments in the communal life of an interfaith families group–in this case the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington DC. I think it gets a lot of hits because there is very little out there about how to welcome interfaith children into the family. This post provides some rituals and strategies and thoughts on how to do it.
  8. Interfaith Marriage: A Love Story (3154 views). As I write this, I see another pattern in this list. People are searching for examples of successful, loving interfaith relationships, and finding them on this blog. And it seems fitting that this post, a celebration of my parents on their 50th wedding anniversary, made it into the top eight. Now that they are both gone, I feel so very grateful that I wrote this post, and my first book, while they were still alive. Their example continues to inspire me as I begin to write about the next decade, from my new perspective as part of the eldest generation in my interfaith family.

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.

A Jewish Woman Who Says Inshallah

Kaolack
The Tidjane Mosque in Kaoloack, Senegal, through the filter of red harmattan dust in 1989. Photo by Susan Katz Miller.

Once again this year, I am honored to be a part of #InterfaithRamadan, the month-long series of daily essays curated by interfaith activist Sarah Ager (@SaritaAgerman). Sarah is an English teacher living in Italy, a preacher’s kid. and a convert to Islam who describes herself as a “postmodern Anglo-Muslim hybrid.” She writes a blog called “A Hotchpotch Hijabi in Italy.” Two years ago, she posted an essay I wrote reflecting on my three-year sojourn in Senegal, a predominantly Sufi Muslim country. This year, partly in response to the toxic Islamophobic rhetoric in American political discourse right now, I wrote a new essay for #InterfaithRamadan, published yesterday, reflecting on why I say Inshallah and Alhamdulillah, and how this relates for me to the Jewish Shehecheyanu prayer. Hop over and check it out, and then browse through some of the many other wonderful #InterfaithRamadan essays there, and subscribe to Sarah’s blog.

My years in Senegal, the first years of my marriage, were formative in multiple ways. Immersion in a joyous, welcoming, progressive, and culturally rich Sufi Muslim culture permanently altered the way I see Islam and the world. As someone who has had the privilege to experience Senegal, I have written from this perspective on my own blog, again and again and again. As someone who grew up in an interfaith family, I see this as part of my role in the world: to build bridges as an interfaith activist, especially when intolerance is on the rise.

 

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.

A Millennial Perspective on Interfaith Marriage: When Unchurched Meets Unmosqued

Frank and Medina
Frank and Medina

 

 

(Note: Today I’m pleased to share this space with guest blogger Frank Fredericks.)

I recently read Susan Katz Miller’s Being Both, which is a practical, story-based guide on the many options interfaith couples have, with a particular focus on the feasibility of raising children in more than one faith tradition.

Being in an interfaith marriage of my own as a Millennial, I was fascinated by the different approaches offered, but at times felt like the discourse within its pages was for Gen X’ers, who are now raising children, whether toddlers or teens, and Boomers, the generation before them.  The challenges presented to them as interfaith couples include communal acceptance, birth and coming of age rituals, and ultimately identity in adulthood.  I believe Millennials will be facing slightly different challenges.

While reading, I reflected on my own marriage with Medina, who is a Muslim of Afghan and Mexican descent, and grew up in an interfaith household.  We are Millennials, both practicing in our respective faith traditions, but not particularly tied to specific congregations.  We believe, but our community of social interaction is wider than our religious community.  We both strongly identify with our religious communities, I as an evangelical Christian and Medina as a Muslim, but we are both extremely wary of institutions who claim to represent us.  We’re thus taking stock of what we want to give to our children when we begin, and what we’ll leave behind.

Reflecting on our own childhoods, I attended church, Christian schools, and even played guitar on worship team for both, while Medina attended mosque with her mother, and went to Islamic school after the regular school-day.  We both grew up fairly entrenched in our own traditions, but as adults no longer seek congregational life to experience the fruits of our religious traditions.

And it appears that Medina and I are representative of a larger trend of Millennials and religious practice. While the headlines often highlight the trend towards the growing non-religious identity among Millennials, there’s something else that’s equally telling: While two-thirds of Millennials identify with a religious tradition, only 22% of millennials actually attend weekly religious services.  In other words, the majority of Millennials religiously identify but do not belong to or regularly attend services with a congregation.  This has been referred to as the “unchurched” or the “unmosqued” movements, with a similar parallel for young Jews as well (granted, with a completely different construct for religious identity).

As a result, we’re not troubled by the same things Gen X interfaith and Boomer interfaith couples are.  We really don’t care at all about congregational acceptance. And like many people outside mainline Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish congregations, birth and coming of age rituals are simply not a part of our religious traditions.  Granted, some of this is denominational, but as interfaith relationships become more widespread, Millennials in interfaith couples will be much more likely to come from communities beyond Jews, Catholics and mainline Protestants, including my own evangelical tradition, which although the largest religious group in America, has historically been more insular.

But one can argue, all this non-institutional Millennial hogwash might simply be a phase.  Perhaps we too as a generation will return to the pews and prayer rugs when our firstborns shock us with the life-changing initiation to parenthood.  Interestingly, the research hints that some of us may never do so. In American Grace, by Robert Putnam and Joseph Campbell, they outline how not only are Millennials attending weekly religious services less than those belonging to older generations, but they are also attending at a lower rate than those generations did at the same age. Essentially, this means that though one’s likelihood to attend a house of worship increases as you get older, each subsequent generation is attending less frequently, even when adjusted for age. The big question is how close to the pattern Millennials will stay, once they become parents.

Even if Millennials in interfaith relationships stay out of congregations even after entering parenthood, we still face plenty of challenges. Like the generations before us, we must grapple with identity, family acceptance, and family tradition. In fact, in the absence of congregational liturgy, the challenge of feeling “authentic” in individual worship, balanced with shared family ritual, may be even more difficult to navigate.

So when Medina and I have our first child, we may not be able to take wholesale all of the wisdom from the interfaith generations before us. But we can learn from how they created new religious responses to a changing landscape, to forge the religious practices of the 21st Century. I’m sure more of Being Both will become relevant as those of us in my generation become parents. And I pray that our children will find our innovations on religious life applicable for them, when they too face a changing religious landscape, just as we learned from the generations before us.

 

Frank Fredericks is the founder of World Faith, a global interfaith development organization, and Mean Communications, a digital strategy firm. He’s the shockingly fortunate spouse of the wildly intelligent and beautiful Medina Fredericks. He tweets at @frankiefreds

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.

 

Supporting Muslim and Christian Couples (And the Rest of Us)

Rainbow in the Waves, photo Susan Katz Miller

Recently, support for interfaith families of all kinds took a giant step forward when the London-based Christian Muslim Forum released an excellent new publication: “When Two Faiths Meet: Marriage, Family and Pastoral Care.” These guidelines for clergy were released at an event at the venerable Westminster Abbey no less, and attended by supportive ministers and imams.

Longtime UK independent interfaith family support groups (the Inter Faith Marriage Network and the Muslim-Christian Marriage Support Group) helped to produce the guidelines. Neither of these groups represents a single religion: they are grassroots networks of interfaith couples and families. This collaboration between an interfaith dialogue group, clergy from more than one religion, and interfaith families strikes me as important. Too often, high-level interfaith dialogue has avoided the subject of interfaith families as too controversial, rather than supporting interfaith families and even drawing on their experiences with communication across religious divides.

The new document includes case studies of Muslim and Christian couples and families, and ten “Ethical Principles for Ministers, Imams, and other faith leaders” on how to best provide pastoral care to interfaith couples. The report points out that neither ministers nor imams “are being trained to respond to the increasing numbers” of interfaith couples.

The guidelines include the importance of ensuring that “individuals are not forced or pressurized to convert in order to marry.” Conversions made under pressure “may cause resentment in the long term” a “risk which may also apply in the case of enforced decisions about the faith identification of future children,” the guidelines state. This is brave language, and applies equally, in my experience, to Jewish and Christian, or Hindu and Muslim, or any other interfaith couples.

The report notes that the children of interfaith families “often report that their connection to two heritages is important to their sense of identity” and that they “are not confused by knowing both faiths or learning differences.”

Seeing my own positive reality as an interfaith child and an interfaith parent reflected in a report produced with the help of clergy from more than one religion, I feel a tremendous sense of affirmation, of being understood. I can only hope that here in the US we will take inspiration from this collaboration, and these new guidelines. In the meantime, we all benefit from the ability to get a free download of the guidelines from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Life of Pi: Hindu, Christian and Muslim

At a recent preview screening of the new film Life of Pi by director Ang Lee, based on the novel by Yann Martel, I was relieved to discover that the film preserves  a key theme of the book: multiple religious belonging. The filmmakers have transformed a rather dense and philosophical read into a rollicking 3D adventure tale, focused on the survival of a young man and a tiger in a lifeboat on the high seas. But the film very clearly depicts the protagonist Piscine (“Pi”) Patel as claiming not one, not two, but three religions: Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam.

The venerable Interfaith Alliance sponsored the screening, which gives me hope that advocates for interfaith dialogue are beginning to feel more comfortable engaging with the idea that people can and do claim more than one religion. Some of us who who feel connected to more than one faith come from interfaith families. I envision a day when interfaith activists will actively include the perspectives of interfaith families in the interfaith conversation. And with Life of Pi in theaters, I look forward to a lively conversation about how claiming more than one religion fits into the push for respectful religious pluralism.

In the book, the clergy of all three religions challenge Pi’s right to multiple religious belonging:

The pandit spoke first. “Mr. Patel, Piscine’s piety is admirable. In these troubled times it’s good to see a boy so keen on God. We all agree on that.” The imam and the priest nodded. “But he can’t be a Hindu, a Christian and a Muslim. It’s impossible. He must choose.”

In the film version, it is Pi’s father who insists that his son must choose one religion, while his mother points out that he is still young, and has time to choose a path. And yet, at the end of his adventures, despite wisdom and experience, a middle-aged Pi still defines himself as Hindu, Catholic and Muslim.

The example of Pi challenges the assertion that dual-faith or multiple-faith adherence is simply immature, or a temporary state. For those of us in interfaith families celebrating both family religions, this debate is all too familiar. Often, we are told that interfaith children “must” choose one religion eventually. And yet, some interfaith children insist in adulthood on maintaining connections to both religions, having grown accustomed to the benefits of claiming both.

While many religious institutions find the blurring of boundaries threatening, academic theologians have been discussing both the challenges and opportunities of multiple religious belonging for some time. They acknowledge that religious double-belonging has been the norm through much of history in many parts of the world, whether in Asia, Africa or Latin America. In Europe and America–areas dominated by the more exclusivist Abrahamic religions–claiming more than one religion has been less common. But as religious flux and fluidity (and intermarriage) rise with globalization, dual-faith adherence inevitably rises as well.

In the introduction to the book Many Mansions?: Multiple Religious Belonging and Christian Identity theologian Catherine Cornille writes, “…widespread consciousness of religious pluralism has presently left the religious person with the choice not only of which religion, but of how many religions she or he might belong to.”

But interfaith families claiming two religions are not simply inspired by a consciousness of religious pluralism: they are living this pluralism on an intimate daily basis. Rather than choosing religions as in a cafeteria, interfaith children raised with both religions are are growing up celebrating the dual faiths already present around the family dinner table.

Some interfaith children raised with two religions choose a single faith identity in adulthood. And some, like Pi Patel, will insist on claiming dual or multiple religions, even in maturity. I am glad that the movie version of Life of Pi is bringing this theological discussion to the big screen. I hope that it will bring together interfaith activists doing the important work of trying to calm the seas of religious misunderstanding, with those of us who insist on riding the waves of more than one religion.

 

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

Saint Francis: Interfaith Peacemaker

Though the East Coast is still reeling from Hurricane Sandy, I could not let the season of All Saints and All Souls go by without note. And I wanted to describe how our community of interfaith families celebrated the life of Saint Francis of Assisi, who had his feast day recently.

Neither our rabbi nor our minister (who was raised as a Baptist) grew up celebrating the lives of the saints, and yet they co-officiated at this recent Gathering. About half of the Christians in our interfaith families community were raised Catholic, and we embrace Saint Francis as an interfaith peacemaker .

On the morning of our celebration, a simple wooden statue of the saint, with a bird balanced in his palm, stood at the front of the room. So, before a word was even uttered, some of us were working through interfaith issues. Such “graven images” present a challenge for some Jews (and Muslims) who grew up with only abstract religious art, based on Biblical and Qur’anic injunctions against idolatry. But for me, contemplating an image of a saint, while learning about his or her life and spiritual practice, is not the same thing as praying “to” or worshipping a saint.

As patron saint of animals and the environment, and as a man born wealthy who gave up all his worldly goods, Saint Francis holds tremendous appeal across the religious divides. Both Catholics and Anglicans (and thus Episcopalians) celebrate his feast day with a blessing of the animals, when parishioners actually bring animals to church. I find this idea tremendously appealing, perhaps because it breaches the usual human/animal divide, inviting nature into the sanctuary.

The life of Saint Francis has inspired many popular works of music and art.  Franco Zefferelli’s 1972 film Brother Sun, Sister Moon depicted Francis as a sort of flower child, with a soundtrack of sweet songs by Donovan. My favorite Saint Francis film is the less sentimental and rather surreal and even inscrutable Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Uccellacci e uccellini (or The Hawks and the Sparrows) a mystical political fable with a talking crow.

While many people associate Saint Francis with nature, not as many know the story of his voyage to the Muslim world as a peacemaker. At our gathering, an interfaith father raised Catholic told the story of the journey of Saint Francis in 1219, during the Fifth Crusade, to seek out the sultan of Egypt, Malik al-Kamil. Two books devoted to this story came out in the wake of 9/11: The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace by journalist Peter Moses, and Saint Francis and the Sultan: The Curious History of a Christian-Muslim Encounter by religious historian John Tolan.

Apparently, Francis and the Sultan developed deep respect for each other during days of intense dialogue in the midst of war. The Sultan treated Francis as a guest rather than an enemy. And Francis arrived home urging Christians to take inspiration from Muslims, and live peacefully beside them.

At our celebration, we sang the Catholic hymn “Make Me an Instrument of Peace,” based on the Prayer of Saint Francis. The prayer (whether or not Francis had anything to do with writing it) has inspired many composers and has many tunes. I love this version by a rabbi and a Franciscan monk who harmonize. As our group sang (a different tune), I noticed that our house interfaith band that week included a Jewish keyboard player from England, a Jewish doumbek player from Morocco, and two Jewish singers. It’s not that we’re converting to Catholicism. All of us feel inspired by Francis, and enriched as members of interfaith families, and as individuals who yearn for peace, by spending a morning devoted to learning about his life.

 

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.