The Star and the Cross: High Holy Days

I was in heaven on Rosh Hashanah. My heaven consists of sitting with my entire nuclear family (my Episcopalian husband and both our teenage children), surrounded by interfaith families, listening to our beloved Rabbi lead us through evening and morning services featuring ancient, traditional chants, sixties folk songs and a pinch of Catholicism.

Okay, so it took me a few minutes to adjust to the fact that the first-ever Rosh Hashanah services created by our Interfaith Families Project took place in the sanctuary of a local church, with a huge wooden cross looming behind our little Torah in its home-made traveling ark.

As we walked in and looked up, my teenage daughter was a little bit freaked out. I had not warned her. Waiting for services to begin, we talked about what it would have looked like if they had draped cloth over the cross (disrespectful, and perhaps calling even more attention to the hidden object). We talked about our Rabbi’s defense of the crucifix hanging in Georgetown classrooms, and his understanding of the cross as a universal symbol of suffering. We talked about the particular and very warm relationship between our interfaith community and this very progressive church. And we talked about the fact that many Christian congregations in America share their sanctuaries with young Jewish communities, communities that cannot afford synagogues yet. Someday, we hope the Interfaith Families Project will have its own spiritual space, with neutral or balanced symbology.  In the meantime, I am glad we could borrow this soaring sanctuary: as a spiritual space, it had a lot of advantages over the high school auditoriums rented by many Jewish communities for High Holy Day services.

Eventually, we all settled into the pew, and our focus shifted to the primal call of the shofar, the familiar chanting of Avinu Malkeinu, the singing of “Turn, Turn, Turn” and “Morning Has Broken.” My 13-year-old son whispered to me, “Did Cat Stevens write that before or after he became a Muslim?” After the service, we shared honeycake with hundreds of people from interfaith families from across the Washington area. I had a chance to remind my son that “Turn, Turn, Turn” is taken directly from Ecclesiastes (my daughter knows this fact). And that Cat Stevens adapted “Morning Has Broken” from a Christian hymn, before he became a Muslim. And we talked about why including a version of the peace prayer by Saint Francis in the service seemed daring but also strangely appropriate in the midst of the peace-filled liturgy for the first morning of Rosh Hashanah.

Later, I thought again of my own reaction to the cross as a backdrop for the Torah reading, the blowing of the shofar. I do not usually like to use the world “tolerance” when writing about interfaith relations and interfaith families. Tolerance seems to imply something difficult, irritating, costly. I prefer to stress appreciation, cross-pollination, embrace.

But in this case, tolerance felt like the right word. I would not have chosen to have it there, but that cross symbolized, for me, my own ability to tolerate, and even support, all the members of an extended interfaith family, an interfaith community, an interfaith world. If we are to live together in peace, we must tolerate each other’s symbols, even when they make us uncomfortable: the cross on the wall, the star in the window, the crescent moon in the heart of the city.

Interfaith Families, on Rosh Hashanah

At the Farmer’s Market on Sunday, I bought Jonagold apples to eat with honey, to celebrate the sweetness of the Jewish New Year this week. Then, yesterday, a Washington Post reporter came by to photograph our family with the apples, for a Rosh Hashanah story.

Here on the Mason-Dixon line, at the end of the hottest summer on record, I had to search to find local apples because peach and plum season is just starting to wind down, and apple season is only just beginning. This made me nostalgic for the Rosh Hashanahs of my childhood in New England, when we would go apple-picking as a family right after services every year. My sister and I wore cardigans over our holiday dresses, and the crisp air signaled the ready crop of northern apples–our favorites were McIntoshes and Macouns, both hard to come by in the south.

This time of year, I have often missed the ease of celebrating the Jewish New Year as part of a Jewish congregation. When I was growing up, we belonged to a synagogue, and so we automatically got tickets to services each year. My idea of a proper Reform Jewish service is inevitably based on that lush High Holiday choir of my childhood, salted with hired professionals and led by a brilliant organist, performing the Rosh Hashanah liturgy in sophisticated arrangements.

As an adult interfaith child married to an Episcopalian, raising children with both Judaism and Christianity, I have had to work harder to access Rosh Hashanah. Over the years, we have had backyard celebrations for the “birthday of the world,” including leaving a cake out for the urban critters. We have gone to the local creek with friends for private and impromptu Tashlich rituals, throwing bread into the running water to symbolize casting off all that we did wrong in the past year. Like many families, I took my kids to the free kid services at a local temple until they were really too old for the chaos and simplistic explanations of the holiday. And for many years, I bought expensive tickets to other people’s adult services. Or I flew “home” to celebrate with my parents, in the synagogue of my youth.

Meanwhile, our interfaith community would celebrate Rosh Hashanah a little bit ahead of the actual holiday, in order to encourage families to go to synagogues on the actual date. All of these ways of celebrating have been satisfying, in different ways.

But this year, for the first time in the history of our interfaith families community, we will celebrate the actual eve and day of Rosh Hashanah together as a community. Like an apple ripening just in time for the New Year, our community has ripened to the point where we feel the pull to be together, rather than splintering our community on this day and leaving families to cast about for tickets. We have our beloved rabbi finally available to lead the services after his recent retirement from the Georgetown chaplaincy, we have an operatic cantor, and we will have both evening and morning services.

My husband and I have both served on the Board of our interfaith community. Because this is our community, the one we have helped to build together, my husband and I will sit together at the services, knowing that we truly belong, and have equal standing there, no matter what our religious backgrounds. Recently, I was asked by a new Jewish blog to contribute a tip for interfaith families celebrating Rosh Hashanah, and I wrote about the importance of couples sitting through High Holiday services together.

The ideal, of course, is to have the whole family, not just the couple, sitting together. I am hoping that my teens are old enough and musically-sophisticated enough to appreciate a mezzo soprano. I hope they are going to appreciate being in the heart of the community they grew up in, as we listen to the ancient call of the the shofar. I often write of how sounds and smells and tastes trigger what we call spiritual experience.  In the varied history of my personal Rosh Hashanahs, I have never seen a child, nor an adult, who could resist thrilling to the blast of the ram’s horn, nor the sweet-tart taste of honey on apple. The sound should be more thrilling, the taste even sweeter this year, as we celebrate with other interfaith families.

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.

Blessing of the Interfaith Babies

April showers bring May flowers, blue robin’s eggs, newborn lambs and foals. Even though human babies are born throughout the year, it seems appropriate somehow that our interfaith community welcomes new babies as a group in the spring. Our minister and rabbi work together to bless these tiniest and newest members of our community.

Our interfaith ceremony is neither traditionally Jewish nor traditionally Christian, nor is it meant to supplant the ceremonies of either tradition. Many of our interfaith babies have had a Bris, a Naming Ceremony (for Jewish girls), a Baptism, an individual interfaith Baby Welcoming Ceremony, or more than one of the above. This group ceremony specifically welcomes all of these babies, no matter what religious label their parents have chosen for them, into our interfaith community, and in so doing, recognizes that they share a bond. Our baby-blessing ceremony does include elements of both Christian and Jewish traditions, so if that makes you uncomfortable, stop reading here.

Last Sunday, we began, as we do must Sundays, by reading our interfaith responsive reading, affirming our sense of community. Then we recited the Lord’s Prayer and the Shema, the central prayers of each tradition represented by our families. Next, four community members held up a tallit, a Jewish prayer shawl, and the babies and parents crowded underneath it, echoing the ritual of the wedding chuppah. Our rabbi led us in reciting the Shehecheyanu, the Jewish prayer of thanks for reaching any milestone or holiday or new experience.

Then we read from Genesis of the promise to Abraham to make his descendants as numerous as grains of sand on the shore. These interfaith children are indeed descendants of Abraham, and part of my personal goal for my interfaith children is for them to know and remember this fact, above and beyond all the debates over “Who is a Jew?”

Next, our minister touched each baby’s eyes, ears, nose and mouth with a daisy and led us in a Unitarian blessing of children. A couple of the fussier babies went quiet at the tickle of the petals.

Bless our children’s minds with intelligence and wisdom

Bless their eyes so they will see great vistas

Bless their nose with delicious and fragrant aromas

Bless their mouth for the enjoyments of tasting and talking

Bless their hearts with deep love and a strong stady beat

Bless their arms for embracing friendship and love

Bless their feet so they will carry them happily through their days.

When these young families returned to their seats, they each clutched a daisy–a small reminder that their new interfaith child will be not just tolerated, or grudgingly accepted, or allowed to participate with qualifications, but fully welcomed and nurtured by our community as a creation as perfect as any flower.

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.

Interfaith Coming of Age: Group Ceremony

I have taught every grade level from kindergarten through high school. But my favorite students are middle schoolers: just opening to the world, still tender, but surging with energy. Adolescence is a threshold, a liminal state, a state of being both child and adult, and I am inordinately attracted to the liminal, to bothness.

Yesterday, we celebrated our annual group Coming of Age ceremony at the Interfaith Families Project (IFFP) with songs and blessings for the eighth-graders completing our dual-faith religious education program. During this gathering, each of the teens gave a speech or presented a project, bravely baring their adolescent souls and musing on topics both intimate and philosophical: the unconditional love of pets, the  power of music, exclusion and inclusion, the intertwining of two faiths, kindness, the shadow of the Holocaust, the existence or non-existence of God.

Our minister, Julia Jarvis, reminded us all that the community is still there to support these teenagers as they emerge into adulthood. She charged the adults: “You are a container that holds them right now, like the glass holds the wine.” And our rabbi, Harold White, addressed the teens: “You now assume responsibility to become a part of a community. This is not a graduation from IFFP, it’s becoming a more integral part of it.”

The rabbi recalled his own Bar Mitzvah, 65 years ago, in the midst of World War II. Both his older brothers were fighting in the Pacific at the time, and his portion from Isaiah included the very relevant, “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation.” The rabbi went on to list all the wars he has lived through in the intervening decades and told the interfaith teens: “Your challenge for the future is to be ambassadors of peace.”

Then, each teen came up to speak. The first made liberal reference to his influences in the Christian, Jewish and secular worlds, citing Martin Luther King, the Sermon on the Mount, Mother Teresa, Anne Frank, Shakespeare, and the Torah. His summation: “both religions have a lot to teach the world.” Another concluded: “I don’t have the answers but now I have a better idea of what the questions are.” A third had the community listen to mixed-race musician Michael Franti‘s anguished peace anthem “Hey World.” Said the interfaith teen, “What if you lived life as a kind person in one religion, and then died and found out you should have been a Catholic?…If life is all about choosing the right God, then life has a few flaws.”

Then, together, we celebrated the shared ethical heart of Jewish and Christian traditions. The rabbi chanted the Ten Commandments from a torah that survived the Holocaust. The reverend read the words of Jesus on the greatest commandment, from the Gospel of Mark. And then Rob Liebreich, one of our marvelous Coming of Age teachers (a Jewish man married to a Catholic woman with two young children born into our community) reenacted Rabbi Hillel reciting the essence of the Torah while hopping on one foot.

Rob and his co-teacher Joan Bellsey spent the past year shepherding these students through individual community service projects, white-water rafting, the Holocaust Museum, planning a fundraiser for Haiti, and a solo wilderness excursion. Rob described the Coming of Age program as creating “voices that understand they have power to express what they feel…this is what we nurture.” And he added that these very young and very thoughtful adults “have faith. It may not be the faith you want them to have, but it’s theirs.”

I suspect that for many of our children raised in two worlds, whether or not they settle into the practice of a single religion, drawing on both sides of their identity will continue to provide energy to fuel their bridge-building activities. As it does for Michael Franti, and for Barack Obama. For me, as for many of these emerging adults in the vigorous hybrid generation, choosing is not the issue; the issue is explaining to the world the vital essence of bothness.

Interfaith Families Easter: Metaphor and Mystery

On Easter morning, I plan to walk out before dawn with my Catholic sister-in-law and little nephew, barefoot along the water’s edge, gradually collecting a community of strangers as we head to a sunrise service on the Florida beach. I hope to experience new energy rising out of death. This lifecycle metaphor, the spirituality inherit in spring, touches everyone. As a theological Jew and an interfaith child, I do not feel I need to steel myself against this mystery.

I am lucky to have Passover and Easter with my full interfaith clan on the beach this year. But a part of me mourns the fact that I will miss an amazing event back home: for the first time ever, our interfaith families community will hold an Easter service on the morning of Easter itself. In past years, we have had educational Easter gatherings before or after the day, encouraging our families to attend churches on Easter.

This year, the Interfaith Families Project service on Easter will be a Christian service, designed to fulfill as many of our Christian members as possible (while recognizing that our members come from very diverse and even divergent Christian traditions and you cannot please them all). It will not be an amalgam of Christianity and Judaism, or “watered down,” but will include familiar hymns, the story of Holy Week, and encouragement to dress in Easter finery. So if what we offer is a more-or-less traditional service, why do families want to celebrate Easter with other interfaith families? The main reason is that our community is strong, and many of our families want to be together, not among strangers, on Easter. But also, the service is being designed with Jewish partners and interfaith children in mind. That means, most importantly, that you are guaranteed not to hear language that implies that the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus. This language, sadly, persists in many churches during Holy Week. We discovered that for many of our families, the Interfaith Families Project is the only place they feel they can safely attend a service that can be fraught with theological tension and echoes of antisemitism.

Our Easter service will also feature a unique attraction for all interfaith family members: a reflection on Jesus by our rabbi, Rabbi Harold White, who has spent over 40 years at Georgetown University. While there, he developed a profound appreciation for Jesuit teachings, and an unusual degree of comfort with speaking out about Jesus as a Rabbi, and a Jew. And no, we are not “Jews for Jesus.” Our community does not evangelize and we do not teach our children that Jesus was their personal savior. We educate them about the different Jewish and Christian beliefs, without requiring adherence to any dogma. But we do encourage them to think about metaphor, and mystery. And Easter blooms with both.

After the service, we are offering another wildly unprecedented event: a pancake breakfast (traditional in many churches on Easter) with the option for matzoh brei (matzahs fried in scrambled eggs) for those who are abstaining from leavened bread during the week of Passover. Inspired creative thinking? A messy debacle? Intrepid interfaith families intend to find out…

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

Interfaith Community: Why it Matters


For the second week in a row, it looks like our interfaith community is going to be snowed out on Sunday. While getting up on Sunday mornings sometimes feels like a sacrifice, now I find myself pining to return, and frustrated about the cancellations. I often describe myself as an interfaith zealot. Why? I grew up on the margins of Jewish life: always a little different, a little suspect, because of my Christian mother. But in our interfaith community, all families are on equal footing, all parents have equal standing, all children are equally welcome. Everyone takes part in our rituals. This radical inclusivity is powerfully seductive for me, after a lifetime of feeling like a religious outsider.

The interfaith families in our community range across a spectrum in terms of race, ethnicity, sexual-orientation, ideology. We are atheists and God-lovers, liberals and conservatives. But our common bond–the shared condition of having created an interfaith family, the desire to build something joyous out of our differences, the determination to see dual religious heritage as something positive and enriching rather than simply as a problem–this bond thrills me.

When we do not meet, I think of all we are missing. Last week, my seventh-grader was supposed to lead our Tu Bishvat gathering with his “Coming of Age prep” class. This week, we were supposed to hear from our Rabbi and Minister about the trip they just took to Israel with their friend, Imam Yaya Hendi, and students from Georgetown. My husband, who once lived in a seminary in Haiti, was supposed to say the Lord’s Prayer in Haitian Creole for us. And the children were supposed to file up to drop smooth stones into the bowl of concerns as we think of the people of Haiti. My teenage daughter was supposed to work, as she does each week, reading stories and helping with crafts in the kindergarten classroom. And we were supposed to schmooze and eat bagels together, and sing together to our rocking house band.

So I’m hoping the deep snow melts soon, and I can return quickly to my community, to my beloved motley crew of non-joiners, reluctant religionists, visionaries, brilliantly cynical secularists, and passionate mystics. We call ourselves the Interfaith Families Project because we are building the community as we go along, never sure exactly where we are going to all end up. All I can tell you is that wherever we are going, that is where I want to go.

Celebrating Martin Luther King: Multiracial, Multifaith in the 21st Century

This week, hundreds of communities across America will celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday with interfaith services featuring pastors, rabbis, imams. But for our community of interfaith families, this national holiday has an even deeper significance. Dr. King spoke about the day when “all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands.” In our community, we go beyond joining hands, we create families together. We now have several member families composed of Christian African-Americans married to Jews. Of course, intermarriage between Jews and blacks isn’t new—the first significant wave of marriages occurred when these two groups worked side by side during the civil rights movement. But in the 21st century, the good news is that neither the Christian African-American partner, nor the Jewish partner, has to give up their religion in order to be together. They can give their children roots in both dynamic religious traditions.

On Sunday, our community had our own celebration of Dr. King, featuring Sombarkin, a powerful a cappella gospel trio (Karen Somerville, Lester Barrett Jr. and Jerome McKinney). In our discussion group afterwards, our rabbi, Rabbi Harold White, talked about meeting Dr. King in the 60s. Rabbi White was a student of Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched alongside Dr. King in Selma and had a deep relationship of mutual respect and engagement with him.

Then, Rabbi White and Karen Somerville, an African-American museum director and historian, talked about their own close friendship, and the ups and downs of the history of the relationship between Jews and African-Americans.  They pointed out that African-Americans recognized and celebrated Jesus as a Jew, long before white Protestant churches began to see Jesus in this way. And of course, there’s the solidarity that comes with the knowledge of having been slaves, however attenuated that knowledge is now for Jews. And the shared sense of survival in the wake of tragedy (American slavery, the European Holocaust). And the shared sense of being a repressed minority in America (increasingly rare for Jews).  But none of this is new.

Here’s what is new: an African-American father, married to a Jewish mother, standing up at our celebration to lead the responsive reading excerpted from the “I Have a Dream” speech. As this father read of the day when, in Dr. King’s words, “with this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together,” the interfaith and biracial children in our community have implicit permission to fully appreciate King as a minister, as a man of deep Christian faith. They could listen to those words knowing that both of their parents belong equally in our interfaith community. Neither one is a guest or visitor. Neither one must compromise their religious identity. And in our community, these children will learn the history and rituals and ideas of Christianity, as well as the history and rituals and ideas of Judaism. These children can grow up listening to gospel songs of freedom, based on the Exodus story so dear to both Judaism and African-American Christanity, and so often sung at interfaith Shabbats and Seders. But they are also free to explore the gospel songs that mention Jesus, and perhaps even to download Sombarkin’s sublime version of “I Want to Walk and Talk With Jesus” (the only Sombarkin song available as a ringtone!) — a song that probably isn’t played at any Shabbat or Seder.

Interfaith Epiphany: On the Magi

As an interfaith child growing up as a Reform Jew, I always had a thing for the Three Kings. I identified with these magicians or astrologers as the outsiders in the story. Perhaps this is because depictions of the Holy Family in Massachusetts in the 1960s inevitably featured blue eyes and blond hair (WASP coloration) whereas the Magi were always swarthy, with my own dark curls and exotic brown eyes. (The idea that Jesus and Mary and Joseph were Jews themselves was not much mentioned in the New England of my youth.)

As a Jewish child, straining on my metaphorical tiptoes to peek at the forbidden baby Jesus, I felt kinship with the three strangers who appeared out of nowhere into this story to glimpse Jesus, deliver mysterious gifts, and then quietly disappear once again. Presumably, they were changed by their encounter, but the Bible does not describe how they felt after returning home. For all I knew, they remained sceptics like me, with affection and appreciation for baby Jesus but without necessarily forsaking their own religions. In fact, we know nothing about their religions, though the term Magi used in Matthew (the only gospel to mention them) originally referred to Persian Zoroastrians. Matthew specifies only that they came “from the east”: some believe they were Yemeni Jews. We do know for sure that they did not instantly become Christians–we don’t know if they ever met Paul or his followers as they began to build the church many decades later, long after the death of Jesus.

So this week, in honor of the feast that celebrates the Three Kings in many countries around the world, I claim the Magi as fellow interfaith beings. Perhaps they were not beings at all, but only literary devices created by a Christian storyteller who wanted to tie the birth of Jesus back to prophesies in the Torah about a messiah worshiped by kings. But in any case, through my interfaith lens, I cannot help seeing them as Zoroastrians who opened themselves up to strangers in Bethlehem, expanding their spiritual worlds with a mysterious and poetic encounter with the “other.” I imagine how their lives were enriched by straddling their “eastern” culture and religion, whatever it was, and this new experience.

But then, I get to thinking about how all of the early followers of Jesus were Jews, struggling with each other and with themselves over how to integrate the Jewish and the proto-Christian perspectives. In a sense, they were all interfaith children. It was only later, through dark conflict and with tragic consequences, that folks were forced to check off box A or box B or box C: to confine themselves to the Jewish, or Christian, or Zoroastrian label.

Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wrote of the spiritual significance of entering into an  “I and Thou” relationship with the other, with the stranger.  Ever since Rabbi Harold White introduced me to Buber’s thinking, this idea has woven through all of my thoughts on interfaith identity. It is interesting to note that Buber married a non-Jew (though Paula Winkler did convert to Orthodox Judaism), and that he advocated strenuously for a two-state solution in Palestine even before the founding of Israel, and continued to advocate for equal rights for Palestinians in Israel and for interreligious communication.  As I embrace these three Magi strangers, I wonder what Buber would have thought of my insistence on viewing the world through my interfaith lens, and on viewing religious history as a continuous evolution formed by encounters with the other.

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

Halloween, Interfaith Style

Pumpkin Carvings, photo Susan Katz Miller

On Saturday night, I was out late partying with people dressed variously as a dying newspaper, Facebook (the culprit), Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. On Sunday morning, I woke up, shook off my candy hangover, and went to celebrate All Saints and All Souls Days with our interfaith community.

Halloween is the quintessential interfaith holiday, with both pagan and Christian roots, and an enthusiastic following among Jews. When I was growing up, no one questioned that American Jews should celebrate Halloween. But then again, it was an era when many Jews celebrated secular Christmas.

More recently, fear of assimilation and a return to deeper Jewish practice triggered a lively debate on whether or not Jews should celebrate Halloween at all. As an interfaith family and community, our thirst for full educational disclosure drives us to explore the religious origins and meaning of the holiday, rather than staying on the secularized, commercial surface. And thinking about the history of this interfaith holiday, and even developing a specifically Jewish perspective on Halloween, enlivens and enriches the holiday, and imbues it with special resonance for interfaith families.

The Spiritual Leader of our interfaith community, Reverend Julia Jarvis, stood in front of the hundreds of members of our community on Sunday morning and explained the pagan origins of Halloween, and how a Roman Pope encouraged the incorporation of this pre-Christian festival into the Catholic calendar, and the distinctions between All Saints and All Souls Days. A Catholic member of our group, married to a Jew, recounted with wise humor how praying to Saint Gerard, patron saint of motherhood, gave her comfort and strength when she was facing infertility.

Next, our Spiritual Advisor, Rabbi Harold White, stepped up to give a Jewish perspective on All Souls and All Saints. He made the distinction between the Christian veneration of dead saints, and the mystical Jewish tradition of the 36 righteous people (Lamed Vav Tzadikim), akin to living Jewish saints, who walk the earth in each era. He also compared the restless souls of Halloween to the dybukkim of Jewish folklore: I imagine the Christian and Jewish spirits roaming together among the living, neither of them able to settle into their graves.

Then our folk band lead us in singing  Mi Sheberach, a prayer of healing, while community members placed rocks into a bowl in remembrance of their personal saints, or loved ones who struggle or are gone from us. This is a ritual our community adapted from Unitarian congregations, but by singing a traditional Hebrew prayer, we both comfort our Jewish members with a familiar song and help to create a connection in our children to Jewish practice.

So what did our interfaith community take away from our All Saints and All Souls gathering? The sizable contingent of adult atheists and secularists in our community enjoyed the cerebral and historical perspective. The practicing Catholics appreciated recognition of the spiritual side of these holidays, so often overshadowed by pumpkins and chocolate. Children heard an affectionate reflection on saints from a Catholic parent. They learned from our rabbi that this is a Christian holiday, but that Jews can have a respectful and appreciative perspective on it. And they learned about the Jewish tradition of the 36 righteous, and about dybbukim.

We mourned and provided comfort to each other as a community. And then, to emphasize the continuity of life even in the face of death, the band struck up a rowdy rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Community members leapt into the aisle and joined hands to dance in a line that wove around the room: it was a joyful interfaith hora, New Orleans style. My 12-year-old son darted from his place in the band and joined the dancers, playing a djembe strapped to his chest. I am betting that he will remember that there is more to Halloween than candy, and that he will feel in his bones that belonging to an interfaith community can be both a cerebral and ecstatic experience.

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

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