Young Interfaith Adults, In Real Life

IFFP Silkscreen Logo, Jose Dominguez, Pyramid Atlantic

What happens when you grow up with interfaith education in an interfaith families community, and then go out into the real world? Recently, a panel of young adults who grew up celebrating both family religions returned to the Interfaith Families Project of Washington DC (IFFP), to speak about their experiences.  I served as the facilitator, and below, I bring you some of the highlights of our conversation. –Susan Katz Miller

 

SKM: What was it like leaving the bubble of an interfaith families community, and going off to college?

Jonah Gold (age 28): I remember very early on going to Hillel (at a private college in the northeast) and meeting the rabbi there. At the time, I thought Hillel was a little more conservative than I wanted to be, in terms of their political beliefs and affiliations. So I guess I wasn’t fully comfortable joining the on-campus Jewish community. I didn’t want to define myself as only Jewish because at the time I didn’t feel that accurately reflected myself, and at the time Hillel wasn’t trying to bring in or talk about other faiths at all. So going to college, I felt like I had to push back to continue to define myself as interfaith. But also, over time, I felt pressure to start identifying myself as Jewish. It made it easier to put myself in a box, to say “oh yeah I’m Jewish,” and go through college that way, especially going to a school that had a lot of Jewish kids.

Grace Lerner (age 26): I went to a public school in the Midwest–it felt much more conservative than my upbringing. So I felt like there was this label of otherness. When I tried to explain the interfaith aspects it was a concept that went completely over people’s heads. People on campus were pretty critical of the interfaith idea. I really struggled with that, freshman and sophomore years. So I sort of gave up. I ended up actually going to Hillel my junior year and finding a community there because the rabbi was so great. She led the best services, and they were in the chapel, so it still felt interfaith to me on some level. She talked about her own growth into Judaism, and that was something I identified with. It’s probably a lot easier in the adult world to present yourself as interfaith, which is something I have always kind of more identified with. But in terms of the ease of explaining it to other young people, it was just a lot easier to say “I’m Jewish.” And also, with my last name, my Jewish friends immediately said, “Oh you’re Jewish.”

Katie Colarulli (age 20): I’ve been coming to IFFP since I was three, so I can’t really remember a time without IFFP. Every time I come back from college, I feel like it’s my home. I still identify as interfaith, I haven’t really picked one or the other. The first time I had trouble explaining interfaith was in seventh grade. I went to an Episcopal high school. I had my interfaith Coming of Age ceremony and all my friends just rolled with it. But my English teacher was like “You can’t be both.” So I tried to explain to her that I learned both traditions, I’m comfortable in a church and a synagogue. She just couldn’t understand it. It’s something I’m so used to: for my entire life I’ve been interfaith. I’ve been raised as both. But I guess to other people it’s a concept they just can’t wrap their mind around. I feel really blessed that I’ve had this opportunity, and I’ve learned both, and I feel comfortable in both religions. And I don’t feel pressure at all to choose.

 

SKM: How has learning two religions influenced your outlook on the world in general?

JG: The biggest way that IFFP influenced me was making me more open to other faiths but also open to thinking about religion critically, but with an open heart. I got interested in studying the Middle East and learning Arabic in college, and studied abroad in Egypt. Then the first thing I did after college was go to work for a place called Search for Common Ground, and they did interfaith journalism, trying to promote intercultural and interreligious understanding in the Middle East. Then I went to live and work in Morocco for a few years.

All of that came out of wanting to explore my faith, being open to otherness, and knowing that by understanding somebody else and where someone else is coming from, you can’t go to war with them. That’s how we’re going to build a better world is by building connections between people. And I think being interfaith was the beginning of that belief.

GL: In terms of what IFFP has given me, and my outlook on the world, it’s certainly been a much more open-minded view on things. Because I grew up interfaith, and having both these lenses and perspectives, and feeling labeled “other” by both Christian and Jewish communities–by the Jewish community especially because my mom’s not Jewish, I’m “not a real Jew” according to a lot of Jewish communities–so there’s a rejection from both of these formal systems. And so I feel like my perspective on things is, however you want to practice your religion is your prerogative. The one challenge I had is that because my mom’s Protestant, I wasn’t exposed to formal Catholicism. My husband grew up very Catholic. To me it was a big shock, but because I had the interfaith background it was much easier for me to understand where they were coming from, and even see the similarities between Catholicism and Judaism in terms of ritual. So having an interfaith education has been very helpful in terms of my own interfaith relationship, moving forward as an adult.

 

SKM: What would you say to clergy who still resist the idea of interfaith education for interfaith children?

GL: It makes me a little bit angry, to be honest. It feels pretty close-minded, and it feels like they’re rejecting a lot of potential people who are seeking out community, and seeking out their communities in particular, who want to be practicing these elements of their faith. It’s a large contributor as to why young people or millennials are rejecting formal institutions of religion, because it feels so institutionalized and so rigid. You don’t have the freedom to develop the curriculum that you want, or is best for your family. It’s something that I’m so eternally grateful for IFFP for. My family helped shape the curriculum for my religious education. And for myself as a teenager, I was able to help lead the High Holy Day services and create that service with the teen group and help dictate what my religious expression would look like. Having a community that supported that, having the support of a minister and a rabbi fostering that kind of environment, was something you don’t find other places.

JG: At this wedding I was just at, I went up to talk to the rabbi, who was my college Hillel rabbi. And he was talking about the need for programming for students from interfaith families. And then he said he still doesn’t do interfaith marriages. I was offended. It’s like you’re extending one hand, but saying I don’t really want to be your friend. When you look at someone like him–he’s in his late 60s–how do you get someone who’s entrenched in something their whole lives to say they’re going to change now, when they’ve been doing something one way. I think it will be up to the next generation of clergy now to be the ones that will help lead any movement for inclusivity, in churches or synagogues.

 

SKM: How do you imagine raising your own kids someday, in terms of religion?

GL: I would seek out a community like IFFP, or one where people feel like they have the liberty to create the curriculum. The most important thing to me is having a community that is not rejecting my children for having this interfaith background. I want them to be able to learn both sides. It gets even trickier: my religious upbringing is Protestant and Jewish, but my husband was raised Catholic. So it adds a tri-level to it, almost like three different things. It’s something that I’m certainly going to be very intentional about, and I want to make sure they understand where all of these traditions come from, whether it’s mom’s family, dad’s family, grandma’s family. I think a lot of that revolves around community and how you choose to celebrate and who you choose to celebrate with. And that all family members are included in understanding how we’re going to do this. I feel confident enough in my understanding of my own religious background and identity, because of IFFP, to understand that I want to expose them to everything, but also to understand that my future children’s religious identity is theirs. It belongs to them, and it does not belong to me. So I can teach them what I want, my husband can teach them what he wants, but ultimately it’s in their hands to choose, if they want to choose, that’s fine, if they don’t, that’s also great. It’s a personal choice. All I can really do is equip them with the tools to feel like they’re empowered in their own decision-making.

JG: I think it will really depend on who the partner is and what their family’s like. If I were to marry another Jewish person, I could totally see raising my kids Jewish. If I were to marry a Christian, I would then certainly promote something that was interfaith, and then would have to try to not just be the Jewish person in the family, but also be someone who is interfaith.

KC: The most important part of IFFP beyond learning both religions, is having a community. That’s something I want my children to have. It’s a community that I feel super comfortable in, that supports me. I feel like that’s something that every child needs–religious leaders to look up to and a community backing them. So whomever I marry and whatever happens, I definitely think they need a very accepting community.

JG: But that’s what’s so hard, is that you have to find that community. When you’re just a family wandering in the world, let’s say you’re not in DC and you have to strike out on your own and figure out how you’re going to do this. I think it would be really hard to be interfaith by yourself, if there wasn’t a community. So those families either try something in their own home, and they still just go to synagogue and they go to church. I think it would be hard to build a new community. I think we got really lucky that we had the six moms (founders of IFFP).

 

Question from the audience: Why do you think it is so common for interfaith kids to seek out Hillel, but not necessarily Christian community, at college?

GL: A lot of it was being identified as a Jew by other non-Jews and Jews, and also because it felt like a minority group on campus. So the Christian part of my upbringing was just there, everyone was bringing little Christmas trees into their dorm rooms. Also, in terms of the Christian groups on campus, it was like Campus Crusade for Christ, which was not something I was down with politically, and they weren’t the most welcoming people.

Eventually I went to Hillel because I missed the family traditions—matzoh ball soup on Passover, or apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah, whereas I didn’t feel like the Christian traditions were being neglected. I went to Hillel for High Holy Days and Passover, but I didn’t go every week, even though they had free food. It wasn’t my scene: they were a lot more Jewish than I felt like I was, and I wanted to celebrate other things. But one of my best friends in college was Jewish, and we made a point of having a Passover seder at my house, and a Hanukkah party, and inviting all of our friends, not just Jewish people. We explained how it works, we lit the menorah, we read limited sections of the Haggadah. It was something I felt equipped to create on my own. When you’re comfortable with your friends and your community, then you’re going to be comfortable sharing these experiences. Who doesn’t want to eat latkes?

SKM: In my book I point out a logistical reason for interfaith kids seeking out Jewish community on campus, which is that you arrive on campus your first year, and right away, it’s the High Holidays. So you’re without your family, and you have to find Jewish community if you want to mark those days. Whereas Christmas happens during school vacation.

JG: And that’s exactly what happened with me. I was at Hillel within weeks of going to school.

 

Question from the audience: We’ve been talking about holidays, education, identity. Does spirituality, or God, play a role in all this?

GL: I feel the spiritual aspect of religion is something I’m much more in tune with than the formal part of it, the dogma. I don’t know if God exists. Everything is God’s creation, so I don’t want to label what is God. I get upset when people try to put me in a box or put other people in a box about religion. It’s incredibly personal, and I think it will continue to evolve throughout my life. That’s why having an incredibly inclusive and warm and open-hearted community that allows that kind of growth over time, for an individual or between a couple or within a family, is what is the most important part to me.

 

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.

 

Raising Children With Two Religions: At Hanukkah

This time of year, interfaith families scour the internet for advice on celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas. For those who celebrate both December holidays, I thought I would post a roundup of the many pieces I have written on how we celebrate Hanukkah in our “raising them both” family.

My interfaith kids have always loved Hanukkah, even though we also celebrate Christmas. And my mother and husband, both Christian, love harmonizing as we sing around the candles. One of my most popular Hanukkah posts was the five reasons you do not have to fear that Hanukkah will be overshadowed by Christmas.

By the time our kids were teens, we put most of the Hanukkah gift emphasis on the importance of giving to others. Although we also treated them to a Matisyahu concert one year. I later admitted that going to a rock club on a weeknight did contribute to interfaith holiday burnout that year.

Last year, I wrote an overview of celebrating Hanukkah, Advent, Christmas and Yule in our family, along with my photo of a Hanukkah cookie. It may have been the enticing cookie that lured WordPress into selecting the post to be featured on Freshly Pressed. (I am proud to use my own photos on most of my posts).

I also wrote a piece for Huffington Post last year on celebrating both holidays in our family. In response, a blogger for the Forward wrote an outraged post in the form of a letter excoriating me. While her post was filled with misunderstandings (we absolutely do not celebrate Chrismukkah), I hope that our exchange helped to explain to a wider audience why many interfaith families are teaching their children both religions.

This year, I feel lucky because Hanukkah comes relatively early (December 8th to 16th), minimizing any awkward overlap for those of us who like to keep the holidays separate.

And we do keep them separate. For our family, part of the point of celebrating both is giving each religion (and each holiday) proper space and respect and meaning. So, no Hanukkah bush or star-of-David treetoppers for us. A Christmas tree is a Christmas tree. And a menorah is a menorah (or a chanukiah, as some folks prefer to call them these days), even when it is made of plexiglass and holds glow sticks instead of candles, like the menorah I am sending today to our daughter, who now lives far away in a college dorm where she cannot light candles because of the fire laws. Sigh. I know I will see my daughter at Christmas, but it is hard to realize that she will only be nearby for Hanukkah on the years of crazy holiday overlap.

Which reminds me, whichever holidays you celebrate in your family, treasure each Hanukkah, each Christmas, each Eid, each Diwali, each Solstice with your children. Too soon, they will be out and away in the great world, and you can only hope that they will be warmed by the nostalgic glow of family holiday memories. At our house, we try not to miss an opportunity to create those memories.

 

 

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 (forthcoming in 2019). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

Half-Jewish, Half-Christian, Raised Both: Baseball’s Sam Fuld

In the current issue of The New Yorker, eloquent sportswriter Ben McGrath profiles Tampa Bay’s superstar outfielder Sam Fuld, an acrobatic mensch with an unusual background. A Stanford grad raised by a state senator and an academic, a role model for kids with diabetes, and a statistics geek, Fuld has been described in multiple media outlets as Jewish. Bloggers gleefully claim him for fantasy “Jewish baseball” rosters, just as they have claimed many interfaith ballplayers in the past, including Ryan Braun, Mike Lieberthal, Ian Kinsler and Lou Boudreau (who was raised Christian, for Pete’s sake). The preponderance of Jewish(ish) ballplayers who are interfaith children probably reflects the simple demographic reality of increasing interfaith marriage (though it is tempting to theorize about hybrid vigor). Meanwhile, try to imagine if Christians had the chutzpah to “root for their team” in this context and claim these players for Christianity: it would be unseemly, even shocking. Judaism, as the spunky underdog, has the fan advantage.

Nevertheless, I wish high-profile interfaith children actually raised with both religions would dare to be more “out” and proud, that they would stand up and be counted, and help explain to the world the benefits of growing up interfaith. Instead, interfaith athletes and celebrities are often given special dispensation, and counted as Jews in situations in which interfaith children would be excluded.

For those of us who are “patrilinial half-Jews,” the irony of celebrity interfaith children lauded as Jews, no matter which parent was Jewish, no matter how they were raised, feels surreal. It reminds me of the hilariously transgressive “Racial Draft” skit by comedian Dave Chappelle, a must-see for anyone (over 18) interested in identity politics. I do understand and appreciate the effort to be more inclusive, to welcome any and all interfaith children who choose to identify as Jews. But the double-standard, when so much of the Jewish world denies the Judaism of non-celebrity interfaith children, is clear. Milwaukee outfielder Ryan Braun’s non-Jewish mother called this out, saying, “Ryan is proud that people want to claim him now, but where were they before?” She added, “You know how that stuff works.” Yes, I do.

In our increasingly diverse world, we must allow people to define their own identities. Here’s what Sam Fuld told The New Yorker about his religious upbringing: “I feel like I’m almost letting some people down when I tell them, ‘Well, my mom’s Catholic, and I was kind of raised celebrating both.'” He may be letting down those who want to claim him for the Jewish team. But as a fellow interfaith child, here is what I would like to say to Sam Fuld:

You aren’t letting down your fellow interfaith children, you are making us proud.

You aren’t alone. A growing cohort of interfaith children are being raised with both religions. Your parents chose a valid path for interfaith families: each pathway has specific benefits and challenges.

Don’t let others define you. You are not defined only by your Jewish fraction. Define yourself as interfaith if that’s who you are, and be proud of that identity.

Your mom and dad are equally important. You can claim both sides of your heritage.

If you want to explore your interfaith identity, in a neutral space, I invite you to guest blog at “On Being Both.” Speak out! Join us! 

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.

Being Both: Biracial, Bireligious, Multiracial, Multireligious

Today’s front-page story in the New York Times under the headline “Black? White? Asian? More Young Americans Choose All of the Above” describes how mixed-race youth are claiming their right to what I call “the joy of being both.” I often write about the parallels between biracial and interfaith children. A lot of the quotes in the article from students at the University of Maryland will resonate with those of us who are “mixed-religion” children. The President of the university’s Multiracial and Biracial Student Association, when asked how she marks her race on a form, replies, “It depends on the day, and it depends on the options.” This is exactly my response to forms that ask for my religion.

The reporter does an excellent job of explaining that these youth are not necessarily trying to transcend the categories, they are simply “asserting their freedom to identify as they choose.” And an interfaith child should have the right to choose to be a Jew or a Christian (or whatever religion they want), or to keep the interfaith label. “All society is trying to tear you apart and make you pick a side,” says another biracial Maryland student. “I want us to have a say.” And that’s what interfaith children want.

On the other hand, the realities of African-American history, of Jewish history, of the minority experience, mean that the two sides are weighted and freighted unequally. One mother of biracial black/white children told me, “I have always been crystal clear with my kids: you are black.” Many interfaith families choose Judaism for their children, for similar reasons. Be proud and stand with your people, others are going to identify you as black (Jewish) anyway, do not try to “pass.”

Nevertheless, the US census began allowing mixed-race children to check more than one box for race in 2000. A somewhat snarky line in the New York Times article attributes this change to “years of complaints and lobbying, mostly by the white mothers of biracial children.” This ignores the contributions of adult mixed-race people such as psychology researcher Maria Root, whose work was considered by the government in their decision to change the census format.

With her permission, I adapted Root’s powerful “Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage” into a parallel “Bill of Rights for Interfaith People.” Less well known is her equally compelling “50 Experiences of Mixed Race People.” The first experience on this list: “You have to choose; you can’t be both.” Familiar, indeed.

President Barack Obama, born as both a biracial and an interfaith child, writes in his first memoir of choosing to be black, and choosing to be Christian. Part of the point that mixed-race students make in today’s article is the right to this self-identification. On the other hand, some of us claiming and exploring the positive aspects of mixedness, or bothness, can be zealous in our newfound enthusiasm. We cannot help spotting and pridefully claiming fellow interfaith (or multiracial) children. The reporter describes tension between students who claim Obama as a mixed-race President, and an African-American student who pleads, “Stop taking away our black president.”

As an interfaith child, I recognize the right of any mixed child to self-identify. I respect Obama’s self-identification, just as I recognize Gabrielle Giffords as Jewish, a choice she made after being raised with a bit of “both.” I’m not trying to take away anyone’s first Jewish congressperson from Arizona. Or anyone’s black President. But as intermarriage continues, and as the population of “both” children grows, how we label ourselves, and the labels we give each other, will inevitably continue to change.

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.

100 Essays: Interfaith Children, Interfaith Parents, Interfaith Families

I have now posted 100 essays on this blog: essays on interfaith identity, interfaith community, interfaith parenting, interfaith marriage. And yes, these are essays, not just “blogposts.” For 25 years, I wrote for Newsweek, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, New Scientist…and now I write for this blog. So I defend my online work as writing, while also claiming the blogger title.

Early on, I decided to buck the conventional wisdom that blog-readers do not want to read more than a paragraph or two. As much as I like to “drive traffic” to my blog, my primary goal here is to create a body of reflections on interfaith life, and to provide hope and encouragement to interfaith couples who continue to wrestle with distressed relatives, with misinformed or disapproving clergy, with the constant refrain of “you have to choose one.” To explain our complex and controversial approach to “doing both,” to provide detail and humor and depth, requires a longer essay format. So thank you for staying with me, and not clicking away after 200 words. The community connected through this blog continues to grow, and to spread geographically, so I do not think I overestimated your attention span.

While writing these hundred essays, I have witnessed a sort of coming-of-age for the idea of a more fluid and flexible interfaith identity. The election of our biracial President, a man raised in multiple cultures in two countries, exposed to multiple religions, brought widespread public attention to the idea of our shared hybrid future. The high-profile interfaith marriage of Chelsea Cinton marked another great “coming out” moment for interfaith couples. Meanwhile, surveys have been uncovering what many of us in interfaith families have known all along: that people will define their own spirituality, choose the rituals that still have meaning for them, and switch religious affiliations as adults. And, finally, prominent rabbis have begun to speak out about the need to accept the fact that some interfaith families are going to choose to educate their children about both religions, and they have even begun to imply that this might not be the end of the world, or even the end of the Jews.

The idea of a “half-Jewish” identity is now so de rigeur in the Jewish community that even those who are not half-Jewish are trying to ride the wave: I was amazed and amused recently to read the title of a one-man show currently touring Jewish community centers and theater festivals: “Elon Gold: Half Jewish, Half Very Jewish.” Gold was raised Orthodox, went to Jewish day school, keeps Kosher and doesn’t perform on the Sabbath. This comedian is 100% Jewish, almost any way you want to define it. But he’s riffing on the fact that it’s a half-Jewish zeitgeist out there right now. And he’s probably trying to appeal to all the Jews with interfaith marriages in their families, which is just about all of them, as Jewish intermarriage has reached 80% in some cities.

Meanwhile, Krista Tippett, the host of the most influential religion show on public radio, is changing the name of her program from “Speaking of Faith” to “On Being.” I like to think she’s been reading this blog. But the truth is that both of us have been charting the shift away from religious doctrines and institutions, and toward independent spiritual practices and communities. Tippett’s canvas is broad, all-encompassing, wide-ranging, while I continue to try to chart the untold story of one category of star-crossed interfaith lovers, lovers often forced to defy their families, their institutions, their tribal rules.

So far, publishers have had trouble understanding how to market a book on “being both.” They fret, “It doesn’t fit into any of our categories.” The irony, of course, is that not fitting into those little boxes is precisely the topic at hand. At some point, publishers will understand who we are, understand “being both.” Whether or not you are in an interfaith family yourself, all of you who follow this blog understand that if we venture out of our boxes to dance and converse and study together, the world will be a better place.

Interfaith Novel for Teens: Three Religions in “Habibi”

What goes on inside the head of an interfaith child? An interfaith teenager? How do they process the idea of straddling two cultures, two religions?

My favorite book about being an interfaith teen was written by Arab-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye. In her (clearly autobiographical) young adult novel Habibi, Nye tells the story of fourteen-year-old Liyanna Abboud, born and raised in St. Louis, who moves with her family to Jerusalem to be near her Palestinian grandmother and experience “doubled lives.” Nye eloquently describes the sense of displacement in moving between two cultures. Immigrants share many of the “both/and” qualities of interfaith children. But in Nye’s book, the protagonist is not only living in two cultures, but born into both of them as an interfaith child.

Nye lovingly describes a family that is “half and half, like a carton of rich milk.” But she also includes moments of tension, and frustration. In one scene, Liyanna’s father tells her that Arab women don’t wear shorts, and Liyanna, a rebellious teen, mutters, “I’m just a half-half, woman-girl, Arab-American, a mixed breed like those wild characters that ride up on ponies in the cowboy movies…the half-breeds are always villains or rescuers, never anybody normal in between.”

The plot takes a new twist when this half-Muslim, half-Christian girl (raised by spiritual but not particularly religious interfaith parents) befriends a Jewish Israeli boy. Nye does not sugarcoat the Middle East for her young audience–at least not entirely. She depicts anger and misunderstanding, and violence. But she also layers in a mystical connection (between the Jewish boy and the Muslim grandmother), and leaves her readers with a sense of hope. A few adult readers have objected to the “naive” or “pro-Palestinian” politics in Habibi. It would be difficult to accurately depict the contentious and intricate politics of the Middle East in a novel narrated by a teenager. In my opinion, the book is not about politics, but about the interior and exterior lives of Liyanna and her younger brother as they grapple with their new surroundings, their extended family, and their “bothness.”

As anti-Muslim rhetoric continues to swirl around us, in the media, in the streets, I am all the more determined to ensure that my children draw on their interfaith family roots to become peacemakers. They do not have to become world leaders to accomplish this. But they do need to listen with open minds to people from every religion and background. Habibi creates an engaging model for young teens doing just that.

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 a workbook, The Interfaith Family Journal (2019).

Interfaith Families: Pray Together, Stay Together

This week, a new study appears to provide evidence for the theory that the couple that prays together, stays together. That makes sense to me. However, my concern is that this study will be misused to support the mistaken idea that interfaith marriages are doomed, especially since it  comes on the heels of a very misleading Washington Post opinion piece which recycled, contorted and misinterpreted old (some of them very old) studies and drew a highly debatable conclusion about the risk of divorce among interfaith couples. Sadly, that bogus and outdated “statistic” is now being widely circulated, citing nothing but that opinon piece as a source. And the Washington Post has yet to admit that the author of that opinion piece is a paid affiliate of  the “Institute for American Values, ” a pro-marriage (and anti-gay-marriage) think tank.

In any case, the issue of sharing a religious background or label, and the issue of sharing spiritual experiences including prayer, can and must be separated. My husband and I come from different religious backgrounds, and neither of us has converted. But if you define prayer as moments of ritualized spiritual reflection, we pray together, both at home and surrounded by our interfaith families community.

We may have different religious labels, but we share a love of singing, a connection to family, an appreciation for beauty, a sense that gratitude helps creates peace of mind and peace in the world.  We share a belief that expressing our mindfulness of all that is good will help instill values in our children  including humbleness, creativity, desire to protect and heal the natural world, thirst for justice. None of this requires a shared mono-faith label, or for that matter, a belief in any sort of traditional God.

We pray together on Shabbat, we pray together at our weekly gatherings with our interfaith families community, and we have experienced powerful moments of prayer together at lifecycle events such as family church funerals and  my daughter’s interfaith coming-of-age ceremony. I am sure these experiences do contribute to the strength of our marriage. But, again, none of this requires us to choose one religion.

Raising Interfaith Children: Sunday School Flashback

Recently, I was visiting my parents, a pioneering interfaith couple. They still live in the house where I grew up, fifteen minutes from the temple where I was educated as a Reform Jew. When I visit now, I often sort through drawers and boxes and come home with a bag full of books, photographs, and childhood ephemera. On this visit, one of my finds was a book entitled When a Jew Celebrates, published in 1971, and used as a text in our temple’s weekly religious school.  The book, described as part of “The Jewish Values Series,” covers life cycle events and holidays and traditions in a manner both lively and learned, which may explain why it is still in print. I plan to try to persuade my teenagers (ages 16 and 13) to read it as a supplement to their religious education in both Judaism and Christianity in our independent interfaith community.

I will have to warn my children that the book includes one page entitled “Against Intermarriage” that makes the (to me, very questionable) twin statements: marriages between Jews are more likely to be happy, Jewish continuity requires marriage between Jews. I was not surprised to see these arguments made in a book written more than thirty years ago, and was even impressed by the authors’ admission that in Biblical times, Jews did intermarry. Ironically, the authors also state, “What you are, and what you stand for, is the addition of what your parents gave you, and what your grandparents gave them, and what your great-grandparents gave your grandparents–and on back.”

I could not agree more. When I read this sentence from my interfaith perspective, it explains precisely why I think all of my children’s grandparents should be acknowledged and honored, all of their great-grandparents, not just the Jewish ones.

In any case, as I was flipping through the book, an inscription on the inside of the front cover caused me to stop and breathe in sharply. In wobbly grade-school printing, one of my three younger siblings had written out a sort of survey or quiz–apparently notes copied from a religious school teacher:

How many times do they attend synagogue a year? What occasions?

Are the children in Sunday School?

Do they believe in God?

Do they care if their children intermarry?

These questions appear to be an attempt to determine….what? Whether a particular family is composed of good Jews? Whether a particular family is adequately guarding children against intermarriage? Were the two considered synonymous? Are they still?

I started musing about the questions I would choose to determine if someone is a good Jew, not that I would ever pass this kind of judgement. But if I were required to list criteria, they might be: Do they live by the golden rule and the ten commandments? Do they study and debate and question? Do they sing and make space for some form of Shabbat, for peace and reflection? Do they devote themselves to tikkun olam (repairing the world)? Do they do justice, love kindness, stay humble, as suggested by the prophet Micah?

The scrawled list also echoed in a most unfortunate way the list of questions that interfaith families face when they attempt to label their children as Reform Jews. In 1947, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the official body of Reform Judaism, considered the Biblical evidence for patrilineal Judaism and (in my opinion, very wisely) specified that in the case of patrilineal interfaith children, “the declaration of the parents to raise them as Jews shall be deemed sufficient for conversion.” So in my childhood, in the 1960s and 1970s, interfaith children were tolerated in Reform synagogues, without a lot of questions, and held to the same standards of Jewish practice as any other children.

But after 1983, the Reform movement declared that interfaith children (whether patrilineal or matrilineal) would be considered Jewish only if they performed certain mitzvot (commandments): litmus tests for being Jewish enough. The official list of “appropriate and timely public and formal acts of identification with the Jewish faith and people” includes circumcision, acquisition of a Hebrew name, Torah study, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, and Confirmation. Many of us who are interfaith adults practicing Judaism struggle with this list. Again, it does not align very well with my personal criteria for what makes a good Jew. And it irritates many interfaith adults who want to claim Jewish identity, since we know many “100% Jews” who have ignored some or all of those same mitzvot but do not have to defend their religious identity.

In religious school, I remember feeling marginal, suspect because of my interfaith condition, in spite of being an engaged and avid student. I remember lectures about the dangers of intermarriage from rabbis, from the bima (pulpit). And the notes inside this book, copied so carefully, are proof that some respected teacher described intermarriage as a threat, to one of my siblings. For me, the subtext is clear: your parents should not have married, no matter how happy they are, and your Judaism is questionable. Small wonder, then, that I have decided to raise my children in an independent interfaith community in which intermarriage is celebrated, rather than discouraged.