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).

A Beer with Barack

Today I claim Barack Obama as a fellow interfaith child. Of course he’s a Christian. He made that choice, and has every right to do so. I waited years to claim him as an interfaith child because I so badly wanted him to be President, and I willingly participated in the liberal media conspiracy to downplay his Muslim roots.

But at this moment, I am filled with nachas (Yiddish for pride in the accomplishment of a relative) because Obama will be drinking beer this evening at the White House with a black professor and a white police officer. I see this inspired gesture as quintessential interfaith, or bicultural, behavior. He sees the conflict from both perspectives, and inserts himself in the middle to become the human bridge between the two.

Of course, race is still the primary identifier in America, and Obama’s status as a mixed-race child trumps his interfaith background. But when you listen to his moving speech in Cairo last month, it is clear that he benefits from his formative experiences with Islam. While he did not know his Muslim biological father, growing up with knowledge of this family connection can have a strong effect on an interfaith child’s identity. Even more important was his experience as a boy in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world, with a Muslim stepfather. Obama is both a practicing Christian and someone raised with an intimate knowledge of Islam. I celebrate his interfaithness, and see that the world has already benefitted from it.

As an interfaith child, I am proud to share the “both/and” perspective with many other Americans–children who embody two or more races, immigrants who straddle two cultures, expatriate offspring raised in other countries. All of us see ourselves in Obama. Many of us aspire to use our “both/and” status to become religious bridges, Obama-style. I don’t happen to like beer, which is just as well given the different religious perspectives on alcohol. Anyone want to come over for a root beer?

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