Bar Mitzvah of an Interfaith Child: Creative Ferment

In the final days before my son’s Bar Mitzvah and interfaith coming-of-age ceremony, we have been blessed with many opportunities for philosophical discussion (as well as a certain amount of inevitable logistical and sartorial tussling). Last Friday night, our Rabbi and our Reverend, who will co-officiate at the ceremony, came for Shabbat dinner, and we reflected together on the balance of the songs and readings: Judaism and Christianity, King David and Walt Whitman, Heitor Villa-Lobos and Marvin Gaye.

Last night, I left my son at the computer, with instructions to finish his D’var Torah: the speech reflecting on the Torah portion he will chant in Hebrew. When I returned a while later, I discovered that instead, he had been researching quotes that inspire him from Buddhist thinkers, for possible inclusion in the ceremony. Well, okay, great idea! We talked about all of the people in his life (including our minister and his official, chosen Spiritual Mentor for his coming-of-age year) who practice Buddhism. Then he wanted to know the definition of dharma. I could tell him that the dharma concept is common to a set of Dharmic religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism), in contrast to the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). Then we huddled over the laptop together, surfing through pages on the many meanings of dharma.

I remembered that at about my son’s age, I read Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. In more recent years, I  have tried to keep up with all the brilliant contemporary novels by Indian writers (Salman Rushdie, Jhumpa Lahiri, Arundhati Roy, Abraham Verghese). This year, I bought my son a signed copy of Rushdie’s current coming-of-age tale, Luka and the Fire of Life, and he enjoyed the mix of adventure and philosophy. Part of the tremendous excitement of coming of age, to his bookworm mother, is that my son can now begin to devour all of the great literature of the world.

So, after an evening of possibly tangential but certainly important research and discussion on world religions, the speech remains incomplete. But we are both, mother and son, more enlightened (or at least educated)  than we were yesterday. My life has also been enriched by the daily decision-making required by the ceremony, through constant consultation with my two teenagers, my parents, my husband, our siblings, our clergy. Could my mother (Episcopalian by birth) read her favorite Bible passage from Genesis, or will she be interpreted as a creationist? (Hmmm, thinking). Are my son’s keen young eyes strong enough to read from our community’s tiny Torah, the one that will fit him so perfectly in the procession around the sanctuary? (Yes!) How do we handle being called to the Torah, when many of our family members (including my Jewish father) do not have Hebrew names? (Consult the rabbi).

We are creating this new interfaith tradition as we go along, guided in our decisions by the environmental theme  in my son’s Torah portion, and evident in his life, and in the life of our think-global-act-local family. Long before we chose a Bar Mitzvah date, my son had plunged in the freezing Chesapeake to raise funds for climate action, and written a ballad about global warming. In this spirit, could he wear one of my brothers’ (barely worn) timeless blue blazers from the 1980s, instead of buying an entire suit he will outgrow next month?  Yes. Could there be a perfect pair of penny loafers at Value Village, the used clothing store? Yes. But perhaps we should spring for the colorful Fair Trade yarmulkes imported from Guatemala by a former Peace Corps volunteer? Yes.

I am trying to find calm in these last whirlwind days before my son officially becomes a man. I love the idea of meditation: I have had little success with it, personally. My monkey mind races, my to-do lists proliferate. I do stop, at times throughout the day, to take a deep breath or two. And to focus on thankfulness: to my son and daughter and husband for taking on this challenge, to my extended family and friends for understanding the importance of the day, to my interfaith community for pioneering such a radically-supportive context.

My Interfaith Family: Passover and Easter Week

Every year, I spend this week with my extended interfaith family: 21 members of our clan celebrating Passover and Holy Week together on Siesta Key. We are a charoset: a mixture of nuts, fruit, spirits, spice, more than the sum of its parts. Often, I am asked the recipe for raising happy children in an interfaith family. Here are some ingredients from our interfaith Spring Break together:

In the days leading up to the Seder, we collaborate on the formidable preparation of the ritual meal. My Episcopalian-common-law-Jewish mother directs the making of my Jewish grandmother’s southern-style charoset. My Jewish niece with three Jewish grandparents, who is eight (and adopted from China), helped me make the chocolate-toffee-matzoh this year, while we talked together about the connections between the Passover story and the struggle for Afircan-American freedom.

By moving tables and chairs between three condos, we managed to seat all 21 of us at a long Seder table. This year, we have a Catholic boyfriend and a Catholic girlfriend with us, neither of whom had ever been to a Seder before. As a former teacher, I love introducing Jewish traditions to newcomers. And the way I see it, as intermarriage continues, the pool of folks who will gain familiarity with Judaism, and potentially teach their own children these rituals, will expand. I know the idea of a Seder can be daunting to non-Jews–in length and content–but song and laughter and those four cups of wine work magic in our family.

My 87-year-old father leads our Seder using instructions he wrote out in 1977,  on a sheet of yellow legal paper with Haggadah page numbers carefully noted, when he first led the Passover Seder for the Sunday School of the local Unitarian Church in our small New England town. His editing works well for an interfaith family, with most of the “Rabbi so-and-so said such-and-such” left aside, and all of the explanations of the symbolism carefully retained.

My Catholic sister-in-law reports that her eldest, my eight-year-old nephew who is being raised Catholic, finds our annual Seder very important in coming to terms with the idea of his Jewish father as a religious “out-parent” in their family. He is the grandchild who is named for my Jewish father, and he bears a distinctly Jewish name: he will have to reckon with being an interfaith child, as we all do, no matter what religious education and label our parents choose for us. This year, he read the Four Questions (in English), and found the afikomen. These childhood experiences will connect him forever to his Judaism and his interfaithness, even while he is an ardent Catholic with only one Jewish grandparent, who wears a Saint’s medal around his neck, and has just been Confirmed and had his First Communion.

On a trip to Sarasota Jungle Gardens with his little sisters on Good Friday, we ambled down a sandy path and stumbled on “The Gardens of Christ” exhibit, with scenes from the life of Jesus carved in wood by an Italian-American sculptor in the 1960s. I had been to Jungle Gardens many times with my own children, but somehow never discovered this permanent exhibit before. The eight scenes, including the Sermon on the Mount, the Nativity, and the Crucifixion, seemed to serve as both an educational and a spiritual counterweight to the (secular and Pagan) plastic Easter eggs scattered throughout the Jungle Gardens, and the man in the bunny suit there. But I also thought again about the American presumption of Christianity, especially in the South, and about how non-Christian families feel when they turn a corner at Jungle Gardens and encounter this display.

Contemplating Jesus on the cross on Good Friday certainly seemed appropriate. After a week of seashore experiences, my nieces were drawn to the “After the Resurrection” scene, with Jesus on the shores of the Galilee, calling to the fishermen. Then we were off to look at the giant koi and flamingos by the pond.

Meanwhile, we are going through boxes of matzoh like nobody’s business, despite the fact that only my father and I are keeping kosher for Passover (not eating leavened bread). Over the years, I have encouraged my children to eat matzoh during Passover by serving it in creative ways, but when we are on vacation with Christian cousins who are eating bread, staying in the same condos, it has been all-but-impossible to enforce a no-bread rule. Nevertheless,whether they have four, three, two, one or zero Jewish grandparents, everyone in our crew devours matzoh with butter, matzoh with peanut butter, matzoh with Nutella, matzoh with cheese. One of my brothers has bought a jar of gefilte fish and is eating it straight out of the refrigerator, even though we don’t serve it at our Seder. He says it reminds him of the little jars of “chickie stick” sausages we ate as toddlers: comfort food.

Early in our week together, I locked myself in one of our three condos in order to serve as the guest on an NPR call-in radio show about interfaith families. My entire clan listened in on a laptop, in the condo next door. When I emerged at the end of the hour-long program, Catholics, Protestants, agnostics, Jews, Buddhists, and seekers, they all cheered my defense of interfaith families and the right to choose our different religious pathways. Family is still the most important, and precious, community for me.

On Easter, my Catholic sister-in-law has promised to return from the sunrise Easter service on the beach in time to make a special breakfast of Dutch Babies, the skillet pancakes that puff up in the oven. Ironically, my father remembers his German-Jewish mother making these same pancakes, though not during Passover. I will make matzoh brie, for my father and myself, and anyone else who wants to partake. It’s great with a side of leftover charoset.

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.

New Profile of a Community for Interfaith Families

Recently, I was contacted by two students from the Columbia Journalism School. They were completing a “digital storytelling” project entitled “Being Interfaith,” in which they profile the Interfaith Community in New York City. The Interfaith Commuity (now in several regions and cities) grew out of the very first interfaith education program for interfaith children, an afterschool program that started in 1987 for students at New York’s Trinity School. In a coincindence one could describe as b’shert (Yiddish for destiny), the Christian half of the Jewish/Christian teaching team for that first interfaith religious education program was Reverend Rick Spalding, who happens to be my husband’s first cousin, and the minister who co-officiated with a rabbi at our wedding in that same year. But I digress.

The elegant and informative “Being Interfaith” website went live this week. It includes video segments on how interfaith families celebrate, how interfaith classes work, and what interfaith teenagers have to say for themselves. Of course, all of this is familiar to those of us in interfaith families communities, but it is gratifying to see our reality reflected in the media. The NY program and our program in DC have co-evolved, sharing ideas and inspiration, and advising each other over the years. The segment on celebrating Christmas and Hannukah is similar to a profile of my family broadcast on PBS, several years ago.

The logo for the project (above), while striking, uses specific Christian and Jewish symbols, limiting the scope. Going forward, the message I think of as “interfaith education for interfaith children” is beginning to reach intermarried Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, secular humanist and other families.

The most newsworthy and fascinating aspect of the “Being Interfaith” site is the talking-head segments with New York institutional and academic experts, acknowledging that interfaith families are raising their children with both, and that this trend is not going away. These segments are essential viewing. Sociology professor Samuel Hellman puts interfaith identity in the context of “the post-modern world” of “multiple identities.” Sheila Gordon, a founder of the Interfaith Community who continues to lead and expand the program, talks about the shift in just the last five years to greater recognition and acceptance of interfaith communities from clergy, in particular Jewish leaders. Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, Exectuvie Director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, describes the official policy forbidding families to join synagogues if they are raising their children in both religions. But he then goes on to describe a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in many congregations on this issue. Although he also insists on a distinction between interfaith Jewish children who have Christmas trees, and children raised with fully interfaith identities.

As intercultural and interfaith marriages become more and more common, the appeal of allowing children to gain knowledge about both religions and cultures is not going to diminish. It is encouraging to finally witness this reality beginning to sink in, and to gain tentative acknowledgement.

Easter Approaches: Talking with Interfaith Children About Jesus

Hyacinths and daffodils are splashing new color through surburbia, signaling the approach of Passover and Easter. For those of us dedicated to educating interfaith children about both holidays, this is the moment for some complex but essential conversations. Today, I was reading in my son’s Bar Mitzvah study guide that in 1976, the Central Conference of American Rabbis issued a policy statement on Jewish traditions, in which it states that Reform Jews (like me) are called on “to exercise their individual autonomy, choosing and creating on the basis of commitment and knowledge.” And that’s exactly what I feel I’m doing in raising interfaith children, and educating them about both family religions.

But what does this education look like on a day to day basis? And in the Easter season, how do we, as interfaith parents, approach the topic of Jesus? This week, another parent in our independent interfaith families community shared with me a recent conversation he had with his daughter, and agreed that I could share it with you. How do these conversations happen in your own family?

Today after Sunday school Myka and I bicycled to the Woodside Deli in Silver Spring.  Over grilled cheese and a Greek salad we had our most extensive theological discussion to date.


For those who don’t know, I’m co-teaching Myka’s first grade class at the Interfaith Families Project.  This morning we told the story of the 12-year-old Jesus coming to the temple and impressing the rabbis and other elders with his knowledge and questions.   Except for the Christmas story and a couple parables told by an unnamed “teacher,” we haven’t focused much on Jesus yet.  So as we started eating, I asked Myka if her classmates understood where Jesus fit in in relation to Abraham and Sarah and Judaism.  She said she thought some of them did but a lot were confused.  I asked if she wanted to know more about the Jesus story, and she did.

For the next 30 minutes I laid out as objectively as I could the story of Jesus.   She said she understood that Jesus was a Jew. I told her about how he had been raised in the Jewish tradition but that he also disagreed with some of the teachings in the temple at that time.  I told her about Jesus finding his disciples, including the fishermen – “I will make you fishers of men” – about his traveling around the countryside and saying good things for three years.  I told her about the Romans and the governor where Jesus lived and how the government grew concerned about this man with such a following.  White donkey.  Palm branches.  Barabbas .  We covered a lot of ground.

Then I told her where all this had come from, what the Gospels were and when they were written.  I told her that, because there were no tape or video recorders back then, and because those books had been written so many years after Jesus died, it’s not clear how much in them is true.

“Why would people write something that wasn’t true?”

Sharp kid.  I said some people think parts of them were written to blame the Jews for bad things, including killing Jesus.  I said we clearly know that much is wrong.  The Romans killed Jesus.

Then I told her the story about Jesus’ crucifixion, death and resurrection.  I told her about the women finding the stone rolled away, about Mary and her how Jesus said to her, “Don’t you see that it is me?”  I told her how he showed his nail holes to “doubting” Thomas.

“I think Jesus after he died was kind of scary.”

I had to agree to that.  I finished up with the story of the Ascension.

Then I said that it’s because of this story about Jesus coming back to life that we celebrate Easter, and that Easter Sunday is the day that Jesus supposedly rose from the dead.
Myka was immediately stunned.  “Then what about the Easter Bunny and chocolate and eggs?  They’ve got nothing to do with Easter!!”
I said that was true, except probably for the part about the egg.  We then briefly touched on the seder and its origins, and about Christianity borrowing from Judaism.

On the bike ride back home I said the Easter Bunny was kind of like Santa Clause — both Easter and Christmas are supposedly about Jesus, but neither the Easter Bunny nor Santa has anything to do with them.   I asked Myka if she wondered how it got started that we have the Easter Bunny and Santa.

After a second she answered, “They were waiting in the non-human category for a job to open up.”
Susan Katz Miller’s book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family is available now in hardcover and eBook from Beacon Press.

Interfaith Families Project: 15 Years and Thriving

Fifteen years ago, four friends–two of them Jewish (Stacey Katz, Laura Steinberg), two of them Christian (Mary Joel Holin, Irene Landsman)–got together and dreamed of educating their interfaith children in both family religions. The idea seemed so obvious, so natural, that they wrongly assumed at first that such a program must already exist in the Washington DC area. This was before the age of the internet, so they began working the phones, calling any telephone book listing with “interfaith” in the title. Irene Landsman recalls that they were told either, “Some of our best friends are Jewish” (by the churches) or, “You have already made a big mistake, but we’ll help you raise your kids Jewish” (by the synagogues).

The idea of an interfaith Sunday School was new to DC, but already percolating in a few other cities. Stacey Katz read Lee Gruzen’s seminal book describing the first interaith religious education program for interfaith kids in New York. Then she found Dovetail, a national network for interfaith families, and talked to the creator of an interfaith Sunday School in New Haven. Encouraged, the four “founding mothers” in Washington created the Interfaith Families Project (IFFP). This week, we celebrated the 15th birthday of IFFP with them, and with some of the “founding children,” now college graduates.

In the first year, the four families simply celebrated holidays together in their own homes. Next, they networked, going through school directories and  cold-calling families with promising name combinations like “Kelly/Rabinowitz” or “Levine/Degrassi.” A dozen families signed on for the first one-room interfaith Sunday School. By 1998, the year my family joined, IFFP had grown to 30 families and hired a Sunday School director, the very progressive and visionary Reverend Julia Jarvis. Five years later, there were 90 families and IFFP could afford to balance the minister with a staff rabbi, the very progressive and visionary Rabbi Harold White. Today, there are 120 families in the community, and more than 140 children in the Sunday School.

On Sunday, the founding mothers and children, and founding father Ron Landsman, seemed overwhelmed by the two cakes, the balloons, and the fuss, but mostly by the sea of hundreds of young couples, parents, toddlers, teens, and grandparents who turn out most Sundays to sing and reflect and discuss Judaism and Christianity and the joys and challenges of being an interfaith family.

In front of this vast and grateful community, the founding families explained their creation process, and what the group means to them. “I was in deep denial about my daughter’s religious education,” recalls Ron Landsman, remembering the period before IFFP. His spouse, Irene, explains it this way: “Ron said he didn’t care, but the day our babysitter took our daughter to mass, he realized he did care.” Looking back now, Irene concludes, “IFFP brought peace to our home…it was a healing force.”

The guiding principle of balance, of equal weight for both religions, was important from the outset. “We’re a very balanced set,” Stacey Katz noted of the four founding mothers. “In the early years, we had a very strong rule that the Board had to be a balance of Christians and Jews, because we realized people reallly did have hot-button issues.”

When asked about the choice of the word “Project” rather than a more official or permanent-sounding identity, founding mother Laura Steinberg spoke out strongly in favor of the do-it-yourself  nature of IFFP. Even with hired staff, dues, and a full program of activities, the group continues to run on volunteer power, with parents teaching in the classrooms, and members brainstorming new events and forging new directions each year.  Says Steinberg, “In the beginning, IFFP was an idea. I hope it always remains an idea–something growing, dynamic, without boundaries.”

Positive Interfaith Identity in Children: Five Strategies

Those of us born into more than one race, culture or religion share a bond of “bothness.” Whether from immigrant families, adopted, multifaith, multiracial, raised overseas, or simply of mixed Irish and Italian background, we share the experience of growing up with more than one worldview. And we share the reality of existing outside of neat, labeled identity boxes. As an interfaith child and parent, I am teaching my own children to leap joyfully in and out of those boxes, and frolic in the space between them.

My parents (one Jewish, one Protestant) have been happily intermarried for more than fifty years now. I revel in being a “both/and” person rather than an “either/or” person. Through working with a community of over 100 interfaith families, counseling interfaith couples, and writing an interfaith families blog, I have distilled principles to help in cultivating the joy of being both:

1. Give children permission to explore and connect with all sides of their heritage. This sounds obvious, but there is tremendous pressure from society to reduce your child’s identity to a single label. Every time we fill out a form and check one box for race, or religion, we face this reductive and diminishing pressure. Ironically, ignoring a significant part of a child’s background can create a situation in which the “forbidden fruit” becomes more attractive than the identity you are trying to foster.

2. Avoid setting up an expectation that the child will “choose” an identity someday. Pressure to choose can create a sense of competition. Understand that your child may shift identities in different circumstances, and over time. We are complex, not confused. Pioneering psychologist Maria Root has written a “Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage” every “both” child should hang in his or her bedroom. With Dr. Root’s permission, I have adapted this into a “Bill of Rights for Interfaith People.”

3. Understand that those who are not born into bothness, even those who are intermarried, may never fully appreciate the idea of being both. For historical, political, or practical reasons, we all choose labels sometimes that simplify our backgrounds and allow us to fit in, or make a statement of solidarity with one of our cultures. In the presence of anti-Semites, I loudly proclaim my Judaism, rather than denying it. Many black/white biracial children find it necessary in American culture to identify as African-American. But we still feel our bothness.

4. Insist on the joy of being both. In the face of skepticism from the media, friends, family and clergy, stay true to the vision that inspired you to intermarry, move to a new culture, or adopt across boundaries. Communicate to your children that they represent hope for the future, bridges of peace and understanding, crucial new connections across rigid, deteriorating barriers.

5. Seek and develop communities that share your bothness. I grew up as the only “half-Jewish” kid I knew. Now, I see my children thriving in a community of interfaith families. Find or construct a community that shares your family’s complexity. This will be easier in Brooklyn or Vancouver than in a rural area. If you are an interfaith family, check the list of resources on my blog, onbeingboth.com. (An interfaith families community in Philadelphia is just starting up!) No matter where you live, it is getting easier for us to find each other online. Because we are the demographic future.

 

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.

I wrote this essay for the debut issue of  Bridge Magazine, a Philadelphia-based digital publication created to tell the stories of the intereverything generation (biracial, interfaith, transracially adopted, etc.). Special thanks to Sam Watson, founder and editor, for permission to repost.

In Defense of (Interfaith) Christmas

Growing up as an exotic half-Jew in a New England town right out of Currier and Ives, the very public celebration of Christmas made sense to me demographically, culturally, and somehow, esthetically . If you have a town hall from 1847 with a white steeple overlooking a perfect town green, it is hard to resist stringing lights on the tallest spruce. And if you have a colonial tavern on the other side of the green, it only makes sense to gather the townsfolk to sing carols with a brass band in front of the tavern on Christmas Eve. I bundled up and participated every year, but not without a certain amount of worry, introspection, and selective silence on red-flag lyrics.

As an adult in the diverse global village, I acknowledge that public Christmas displays can cause alienation, and raise all kinds of questions about who funds them, whether we should have community Hanukkah and Diwali and Eid celebrations, or whether the depths of winter would be better with no outdoor lights or indoor greenery. The American population is shifting, Hindus and Muslims and Buddhists now live in my New England hometown, and we have not yet fully grappled with these very real issues. On the other hand, many “100% Jewish” people, like my friend, blogger Susan Fishman Orlins, defend their right as Americans to indulge in secular Christmas rituals.

For my own children, we have chosen a pathway that minimizes the conflict over celebrating Christmas. The decision to raise them with both Judaism and Christianity means we can fully immerse ourselves in Christmas, without having to weigh and analyze each ritual and each ornament on the tree for hidden religious meaning. We don’t get hung up on whether the tree is a pagan symbol or refers somehow to the cross. We don’t get hung up on how angels figure in Jewish theology. We don’t get hung up on which carols feature Jesus, and which ones stick to sleighbells in the snow. As an interfaith child, and someone fascinated by the evolution of religious culture, I find all these questions interesting and worthy of mulling, preferably over a glass of mulled wine. But I do not have to work through them before tiptoeing into each holiday event with my husband and children. In educating our children about both religions, we have pledged to go as deep and wide into Christmas (and Hanukkah) as we can manage, con brio, stopping only just short of exhausting ourselves in the process.

Yesterday, my daughter went to the Best Buddies holiday party afterschool, and helped a girl with Down’s syndrome make a Christmas card, and reassured her when the Grinch yelled at his little dog Max. I am thankful that she did not have to feel conflicted about participating. And tonight, in our house, we will put on Nat King Cole and lift each ornament from its nest, and attempt to balance the white birds and tiny copper cookpots on each branch of the waiting tree. I am thankful that I do not have to feel conflicted about this annual moment of peace and joy. This Sunday, the last Sunday of Advent, all four members of our family will be part of the choir for the service of lessons and carols at our Interfaith Families Project. I am profoundly thankful that we do not have to feel conflicted about that. And on Christmas, we will share a roast beast with my pioneering interfaith parents, and all my siblings and their children: the Jewish grandchildren, the Catholic grandchildren, and the interfaith grandchildren. And we will know in the wisdom of our hearts, that deeper unity in which family transcends all boundaries.

 

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