Ramadan, Passover, and Good Friday. Interfaith Families Making it Work

The crescent moon will appear this Saturday night, marking the start of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting and reflection. I am a Jewish and Christian interfaith kid who spent three years in Senegal, a predominantly Muslim country, so I pay attention to our intersecting religious calendars. And this year, we will have a great convergence, as all three Abrahamic religions mark important religious holidays on the night of April 15th. Good Friday falls not only on the night of the first Passover seder, but in the middle of Ramadan. So interfaith families, whether Jewish and Christian, Christian and Muslim, Jewish and Muslim, or encompassing all three religions, will need to do some extra planning this year.

It is not uncommon for Good Friday to fall during Holy Week (from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday). This is because both Christianity and Judaism are guided by an intricate dance of the moon and the sun–the lunisolar calendar–for these spring holidays . When Good Friday and the first Passover Seder fall on the same night, it can maximize the logistical and emotional challenges for interfaith families who celebrate both religions. (I first wrote about this convergence in 2012, and again in 2015, 2018 and 2019). Meanwhile, Ramadan is on a fully lunar calendar, so the month shifts through the seasons of our Gregorian solar calendar year.

Theologically, many interfaith families experience more cognitive dissonance in the spring holidays, than they do in December. Some Jewish and Muslim family members find it easier to celebrate the birth of Jesus with Christian family members, than they do to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus as the only son of God and the central event that led to the creation of Christianity. And for Jews, historically Holy Week was a time of pogroms and increased antisemitism in Europe, and that generational trauma can persist.

The idea that the Last Supper was a Passover Seder is a tantalizing point of connection, though historically debatable. But for Jews, this idea may also raise the red flag of supersessionism—the problematic idea that Judaism was simply a starter religion in the evolution of Christianity. The recent enthusiasm among evangelical Christian communities for holding “Christian seders” without Jews there to guide them has also created friction. Although to be clear, inviting Christians–whether family or friends–to a seder led by Jews does not pose the same problems.

The contrasting moods of Passover and Good Friday may also create a challenge. Good Friday is a solemn commemoration of the crucifixion. A Passover Seder is a joyous celebration of the exodus from slavery in Egypt, involving feasting and drinking. This joy is tempered by acknowledging the violence of the plagues, and the ongoing effects of slavery and colonial oppression worldwide. And the Exodus story, which turns on conflict between Jews and Egyptians, can trigger discomfort in interfaith families given ongoing conflict in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, in the realm of the practical, both Passover (no leaven) and Good Friday (no meat) involve culinary restrictions. And the emphasis on wine as a key ritual component of the seder can pose a problem for Muslim family members.

Nevertheless, despite the challenges and inspired by our differences, we create families across religious boundaries, and insist on marking holidays together, in all our complexity and diversity. So, in a year like this one, how to honor two or three religions, with grace under pressure? Keep in mind that every family celebration, especially when there are small children involved, is going to be imperfect. As multifaith bard Leonard Cohen reminds us, “Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

Here, I suggest some practical strategies for the spring holiday convergence this year:

  1. Flexible Scheduling. Many Jewish families celebrate multiple Seders–before, during, and even after the official eight days of Passover. If Christian family members want to fast and attend church on the night of Good Friday this year, consider shifting the first Seder to a night later in the week, when the mood could be more festive for both Jewish and Christian family members.
  2. Adapt the Seder Menu. Some Christians may be fine with going to a noon service on Good Friday, and then a first Seder on Friday night. And some interfaith families will feel they must hold the first Seder on the traditional date. In this case, it would be thoughtful to adapt the Seder main dish, if your Christian family members are avoiding meat for the Good Friday fast. So, salmon instead of brisket? This would also please pescatarians and those who don’t eat red meat. Or, explain to extended family ahead of time that your Christian family members may skip the brisket, and fill up on matzoh ball soup.
  3. Honor the Sunset. When holding a Passover seder during Ramadan in a Jewish and Muslim interfaith family, be sure to time the first seder foods for after sundown, which will not be until 7:45pm on April 15th this year on the East Coast of the US. This way, Muslim family members will be able to break their fast by sharing in the Passover meal. As early as 1806, Thomas Jefferson moved the time for an official White House dinner to sunset, in order to accommodate a Muslim envoy from Tunisia. Muslim and Christian families might also consider holding the Easter meal after dark this year, during Ramadan.
  4. Consider the Fruit of the Vine. Fancy sparkling non-alcoholic grape juice for children has always been a part of most seders. In our family, over the years, numerous family members have stopped drinking alcohol because they live with addiction, because they are elderly, or for other health reasons. With Muslim guests and family members in attendance, consider shifting to sparkling grape juice for all. Your relatives in recovery will appreciate it. And the blessing over the fruit of the vine works just as well!
  5. Honor the Iftar. The foods included in an Iftar meal to break the Ramadan fast vary with different cultures. Of course providing water is important, and many break the fast with dates. Why not include plates of dates on the seder table? And in the spirit of Passover as a celebration of social justice and liberation, some people include an olive on the seder plate for Palestinians and all oppressed peoples. Olives are typically included in an Iftar feast, and plates of olives to pass around the seder table feels like a welcoming gesture.
  6. Consider the Passover Liturgy. The haggadah, the booklet of prayers and songs and reflections to guide the seder service and meal, has myriad versions, including placing the Exodus story in conversation with civil rights, the plight of refugees, or LGBTQ+ experiences. Many families create their own haggadot, drawing on multiple sources. For a Jewish and Muslim interfaith family seder, you might want to take a look at this 2019 haggadah including Muslim prayers and readings from the Qur’an, created by and for Jewish and Muslim women holding a seder together with the Sisterhood of Salaam-Shalom.
  7. Adapt the Easter Menu. When Easter falls during Passover, look for ways to make Easter easier for Jewish family members avoiding leavened bread. For breakfast, we like to make matzoh brei (eggs scrambled with matzoh) instead of the traditional Easter pancakes—the savory protein dish offsets the sugar rush of Easter candy. And at Easter dinner, my interfaith family serves lamb, a Passover tradition in many Sephardic homes, rather than ham. (Be aware that there is a big debate about whether and what kind of lamb you can eat at Passover). Avoiding ham reduces the culinary dissonance for both Jews and Muslims in interfaith families.
  8. Try Not to Stress. Attempting to reenact every single family Passover and Easter and Ramadan tradition in one night may cause parents and children to melt down like Peeps in the microwave. Every family, whether monofaith or interfaith, instinctively curates the family traditions they want to preserve, and sets aside others. So, for instance, as much as I loved the idea of my mother’s traditional Easter cake made in the shape of a lamb, my family now skips this tradition. I don’t love cake made from matzoh meal, and the idea of cutting into a lamb cake would not amuse my vegan daughter now. Our preferred dessert for the weekend is matzoh toffee brittle.

As always, creating successful interfaith family holidays depends on putting yourself in the shoes of others, clear communication, and flexibility. If a strategy works for you, try to tune out the self-proclaimed experts telling you that you are doing it wrong, that your innovations are inauthentic, or that you have to do it all. Remember that all religious traditions change over time: they cannot be pinned down like desiccated butterfly specimens in a museum case. Be confident in the knowledge that the different ways to celebrate together are as numerous as the leaves of spring grass.

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.

Spring Interfaith Holidays 2022

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

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

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

This year, spring holidays kick off tomorrow with the convergence of Mardi Gras (Shrove Tuesday) and Maha Shivaratri. And, head’s up for all my Jewish and Christian interfaith families: 2022 is one of those years when the first night of Passover falls on Good Friday.

Below, I list some of the highlights of the dense schedule of spring holidays in March and April (for a more complete list go here). Note the ancient connections many of these holidays have to the spring equinox, and often, to each other. Religions and cultures are not static, but change in response to neighboring religions and cultures, just as we change and grow through our interconnections in interfaith families.

March 1, Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras). For Roman Catholics and some Protestants, this day marks the end of feasting before the beginning of fasting for Lent. Shrove Tuesday is the finale of Carnival (Shrovetide), with notable multi-day celebrations in Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago, New Orleans, Venice, and some Protestant regions. Carnival may have many historical ties to the pre-Christian celebrations of the return of the sun.

March 1, Maha Shivaratri, a major Hindu festival honoring Lord Shiva and his marriage to the Parvati (Shakti), combining their energies. The celebration includes staying up all night to meditate, chant, and dance, in the darkest season.

March 2, Ash Wednesday, for Roman Catholics and some Protestants, marking the start of Lent. Lent is a period of prayer and penance in commemoration of Jesus’s 40 days in the desert, and in preparation for Easter. Many practitioners make a Lenten sacrifice, giving up a specific luxury food (chocolate, all sweets, alcohol) during Lent.

March 17, Purim. Jewish commemoration of the Biblical story of Esther in ancient Persia, celebrated with costumed reenactments (Purim spiels), three-cornered pastry (hamantaschen), carnival games, drinking, and charity. Some believe Esther is connected to the ancient fertility goddess Ishtar, and there may be a historical connection between Norooz and Purim.

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

March 18, Holi. Hindu commemoration of the arrival of spring and love, celebrated with bonfires, throwing powdered color pigments and water on each other, music, feasting, forgiving debts, repairing relationships, and visiting. Popular even with non-Hindus in South Asia, and increasingly (and not without controversy over appropriation) throughout the world.

March 18-20, Hola Mohalla. Sikh celebration including processions, ceremonial battles, poetry reading, and music. There is a historical connection between the Hindu festival of Holi, and Hola Mohalla.

March 20, Spring Equinox. Ostara, ModernPagan/Wiccan commemoration of the spring equinox and Eostre, the Saxon lunar goddess of fertility. Celebrated with planting of seeds and nature walks. Possible historical connections between Eostre/Esther/Ishtar, and between Easter, Passover, and Norooz.

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

March 30, Magha Puja Day. Buddhist commemoration of Buddha delivering the principles of Buddhism, on the full moon. Celebrated in Southeast Asia with temple visits, processions, and good works.

April 3, start of the month-long daytime fast for Ramadan in Islam, commemorating the revelation of the Qu’ran. Muslim holidays are on a lunar calendar, so move through the seasons over time.

April 14, Mahavir Janma Kalyanak, the Jain holiday celebrating the birth of Lord Mahavir with temple visits, charity, rallies promoting non-violence and veganism, and running events.

April 14, Viasakhi, the Sikh New Year and harvest celebration marking the founding of the Khalsa order, a group of highly devout warrior-saints founded by Guru Gobind Singh. The holiday is marked by parades, community service, music (kirtans), and visits to the gurdwara.

April 14, Maundy Thursday. Protestant and Roman Catholic commemoration of The Last Supper. There may (or may not) be a historical connection between The Last Supper and the Passover seder.

April 15, Good Friday. Protestant and Roman Catholic commemoration of the Crucifixion of Jesus, with church services and fasting.

Sundown on April 15 to April 23, Passover (Pesach), Jewish commemoration of the flight from Egypt described in the book of Exodus. Primarily a home-based celebration with one or more festive Seder meals of ritual foods, songs, and prayer. As with Easter, Passover incorporates (presumably pre-Judaic pagan) spring equinox fertility symbolism (eggs, spring greens).

April 17, Easter. Protestant and Roman Catholic commemoration of the Resurrection of Jesus, celebrated with church services, family dinners, and baskets of candy for children. Fertility imagery including bunnies and eggs may, or may not, have a historical connection to pre-Christian rituals and the spring equinox.

April 24, Orthodox Easter (or Pascha) in many of the Orthodox Christian traditions using the Julian rather than Gregorian calendar, including Bulgaria, Cyprus, Ethiopia, Greece, Lebanon, Macedonia, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine, as well as millions of people in North America. Many of these cultures include a feast of lamb (connected historically to Passover) and hard-boiled eggs (possibly connected to more ancient fertility traditions).

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

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

Spring Interfaith Holidays 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spring Interfaith Holidays 2020

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

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

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

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

Feb 21, Mahashivaratri, the Hindu festival honoring Lord Shiva, includes staying up all night to meditate, chant, and dance, in the darkest season. Check out the twitter hashtag #DontYawnTillDawn.

Feb 25, Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras). For Roman Catholics and some Protestants, this day marks the end of feasting before the beginning of fasting for Lent. Shrove Tuesday is the finale of Carnival (Shrovetide), with notable multi-day celebrations in Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago, New Orleans, Venice, and some Protestant regions. Carnival may have many historical ties to the pre-Christian celebrations of the return of the sun.

Feb 26, Ash Wednesday marks the start of Lent, the period of fasting before Easter, for Roman Catholics and some Protestants.

March 9, Magha Puja Day. Buddhist commemoration of Buddha delivering the principles of Buddhism, on the full moon. Celebrated in Southeast Asia with temple visits, processions, and good works.

March 10, Holi. Hindu commemoration of the arrival of spring and love, celebrated with bonfires, throwing powdered color pigments and water on each other, music, feasting, forgiving debts, repairing relationships, and visiting. Popular even with non-Hindus in South Asia, and increasingly (and not without controversy over appropriation) throughout the world.

March 10, Purim. Jewish commemoration of the Biblical story of Esther in ancient Persia, celebrated with costumed reenactments, three-cornered pastry (hamantaschen) that may reference the ancient fertility goddess Ishtar, drinking, and charity. There may be a historical connection between Norooz and Purim.

March 10, Hola Mohalla. Sikh celebration including processions, mock battles, poetry reading, music. There is a historical connection between Hinduism’s Holi and Hola Mohalla.

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

March 20. Spring Equinox. Ostara, ModernPagan/Wiccan commemoration of the spring equinox and Eostre, the Saxon lunar goddess of fertility. Celebrated with planting of seeds and nature walks. Possible historical connections between Eostre, Easter, Passover, and Norooz.

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

April 9, Maundy Thursday. Protestant and Roman Catholic commemoration of The Last Supper. There may (or may not) be a historical connection between The Last Supper and the Passover seder.

April 10, Good Friday. Protestant and Roman Catholic commemoration of the Crucifixion of Jesus, with church services and fasting.

April 12, Easter. Protestant and Roman Catholic commemoration of the Resurrection of Jesus, celebrated with church services, family dinners, and baskets of candy for children. Fertility imagery including bunnies and eggs may, or may not, have a historical connection to pre-Christian rituals and the spring equinox.

Sundown on April 8 to April 15, Passover (Pesach), Jewish commemoration of the flight from Egypt described in the book of Exodus. Primarily a home-based celebration with one or more festive Seder meals of ritual foods, songs, and prayer. As with Easter, Passover incorporates (presumably pre-Judaic pagan) spring equinox fertility symbolism (eggs, spring greens).

April 19, Orthodox Easter (or Pascha) in many of the Orthodox Christian traditions using the Julian rather than Gregorian calendar, including Bulgaria, Cyprus, Ethiopia, Greece, Lebanon, Macedonia, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine, as well as millions of people in North America. Many of these cultures include a feast of lamb (connected historically to Passover) and hard-boiled eggs (connected to more ancient fertility traditions).

April 24, start of the month-long daytime fast for Ramadan in Islam, commemorating the revelation of the Qu’ran. Muslim holidays are on a lunar calendar, so move through the seasons over time.

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

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

Interfaith Ramadan: Jewish and Christian Meets Muslim

Beads I collected in Senegal, Mauritania and Mali.      Photo: Susan Katz Miller
Beads collected in Senegal, Mauritania, Mali and Benin. Photo: Susan Katz Miller

One of the great joys of writing Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family has been the opportunity to develop relationships with interfaith activists who are Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist, and more. While acknowledging our differences, we tend to share a belief that love can prevail over hate, and that life is richer and fuller with all of us in conversation, and working together.

My personal response to the continuing religious violence in the world is to transcend boundaries with love. As someone with a Jewish (and interfaith) identity, I seek out the progressive and feminist Muslim community in particular, mainly through the miracle of Twitter. Some of my favorite Muslim interfaith activists on Twitter include @ImtheQ, @MuslimahMontage, @MelodyFoxAhmed, @HindMakki, @NajeebaSyeed, @HiddenHeartFilm, @ChrisMusForum, @IslamicChaplain, @PearlBLawrence, @Ingrid Mattson, @EbooPatel, and @SaritaAgerman.

This is the month of Ramadan, and many of these interfaith activists have created great projects (including #RamadanReads and @TheBigIftar) to complement the introspection and community-building of this period of fasting. Sarah Ager (@SaritaAgerman), is a preacher’s kid and a convert to Islam who describes herself as a “postmodern Anglo-Muslim” and writes a blog called “A Hotchpotch Hijabi in Italy.” For Ramadan, she publishes an entire month’s worth of reflections from Muslims, and everyone else, on Ramadan, in a project called #InterfaithRamadan, and then tweets it out under @InterfaithRam.

Sarah had noticed some of my blog posts on my positive experiences with Islam (perhaps here, here, or here), and invited me to write a piece for #InterfaithRamadan this year. I started with a scene from my book, and then had a new epiphany about how growing up in an interfaith family prepared me to encounter those with other religions. (UPDATE: Sarah’s blog is gone from the internet, but my post is preserved here).

Interfaith Ramadan: Jewish and Christian Meets Muslim

I moved to Dakar, Senegal, just three days after getting married in 1987. When our plane landed on the other side of the Atlantic, I stepped into a new role as a Jewish girl from an interfaith family, married to a Protestant working for a Catholic organization, in a predominantly Muslim country.

Growing up in a small New England town, everyone I knew seemed to fall neatly into one of two religious boxes labeled Christian (the religious majority) or Jewish (the tiny religious minority). But on a deeper level, as the child of an interfaith marriage, this strict binary always felt forced. I knew that the religious world, and my own identity, had to be more complex.

In Senegal, I was immersed in a rich, interfaith mix. Many Senegalese ethnic groups celebrate indigenous African religious traditions predating the 11th century arrival of Islam in Senegal, often alongside or intertwined with Sufi Islam or Catholicism. My background as an interfaith child, absorbing two different religious systems from birth, gave me a framework for thinking about religious pluralism and fueled my desire to understand Senegalese religious practice. And I believe it predisposed me to embrace the interwoven religions of Senegal, as intricate and elaborate as the geometric patterns of West African textiles.

For those three years in the late 1980s, I was the only American journalist living in Senegal, covering everything from the conflict between Senegal and Mauritania, to a locust invasion, to cultural pieces for The New York Times. Few Senegalese I encountered had ever met a Jew: some had never heard of Judaism. I was proud to represent my people, explaining Jewish beliefs and culture to new friends, and to curious shopkeepers and taxi-drivers. I felt welcomed–as an American, as a Jew, as a person–in the Senegalese spirit of teranga (hospitality) wherever I went. But I had few opportunities to practice Judaism with any sort of community.

Instead, we were immersed in a vibrant interfaith world created through waves of conquest and colonialism, and the fusion of cultures. The President at the time, Abdou Diouf, was a Muslim married to a Catholic. In front of our apartment, around the corner from a mosque and across from a Protestant church, every Friday the street filled with faithful Muslims in prayer. We participated in the wedding of a white American friend from a Christian background to a Muslim Senegalese woman. And in the far south of the country, the Casamance, we attended traditional Jola ceremonies.

In Dakar, a bustling center of commerce, and a crossroads of black African, Arab and European cultures, I appreciated how the Muslim obligation to give to the poor created human connections in the midst of harsh urban realities. The streets of Dakar drew the poorest of the poor, many with bodies compromised by leprosy or polio. But because of the tradition of giving alms, the people who begged formed an integral and respected part of society, and we developed relationships with the regulars on the sidewalks of our neighborhood. In her tragicomic novel The Beggar’s Strike, Senegalese writer Aminata Sow Fall depicted the social disruption that occurs when the beggars refuse to accept alms. (The novel was turned into a 2000 film, Battu, by Malian filmmaker Cheikh Oumar Sissoko).

In Dakar, the rhythm of Muslim prayer also softened the frenetic urban hustle. When the muezzins called from minarets across the city, everything slowed to a moment out of time: a stillness to remind us that we were living on the edge of the Sahel and ultimately the Sahara–a region of Sufis stretching from Dakar to Timbuktu and beyond. And those of us from Christian and Jewish and traditional African religious backgrounds would pause as well, out of respect, but also relishing that stop-time reflection.

At Ramadan, this effect, of contemplation, of submitting to the heat and grandeur of Africa, was drawn out for an entire month. During the day, abstaining from food and water, many Senegalese returned to the customs of village life, putting work aside, sitting in the shade of mango trees together, waiting for the cool of sunset. And after the iftar meal to break the fast, nothing tasted better than attaya: tiny glasses of sweet and astringent green gunpowder tea, poured with ceremony from a daring height to achieve the right foam.

I miss living in a Ramadan culture. And I miss the simultaneously sweet and bitter taste of those shot glasses of hot tea on a hot African night. I miss it so much that once, years later, on a one-hour stopover in the Dakar airport on the way from Washington to a conference in Cameroon, I dashed into the airport and found a Senegalese customs official with a tea tray, and begged for a glass of attaya. And of course, in the spirit of teranga, he shared his tea with me.

I have had the good luck to live on three continents, building an identity from many strands of both heritage and experience. Even though my Dakar years were long ago now, I still feel the impulse to say “inshallah” when I speak of the future, “alhamdoulillah” when I speak of the past. And in the present, I celebrate projects such as #interfaithramadan, and The Big Iftar in the UK, as opportunities to realize all that can be positive about our complex religious world.

Susan Katz Miller is the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Familyand The Interfaith Family Journal. She works as an interfaith families consultant, speaker, and coach. Follow her on twitter @SusanKatzMiller.

September, Ramadan, and a Half-and-Half Poem

September arrived this week, and my children are now back in school. Here in the Washington area, as well as in New York, the uncanny blue skies of September take on an eerie video quality as we all remember that morning of September 11th, 2001. I had just dropped my daughter at the elementary-school bus stop, and I held my son’s little hand as we walked home. A neighbor in the street told me the first tower had been hit, and to go home and turn on the television. I watched as the second tower crumpled, and then turned it off, trying to guard my preschooler from the traumatic images, while frantically attempting to make contact with all of our New York family members. By the time my daughter got home from school, one of her classmates had lost his mother as a plane hit the Pentagon. And all of us were in shock.

This year, 9/11 arrives in the midst of the Jewish High Holidays, and alongside the Eid al-Fitr, the celebration marking the end of Ramadan. I am a very lucky Jew who happened to have a positive and formative experience in a Muslim country. Thinking back on the joyous Eids I celebrated with friends and neighbors while living in the democratic West African country of Senegal, it is painful to try to imagine the fear and depression associated with being Muslim in America at this moment.

For solace, I turned this week to a fellow interfaith child, great American poet Naomi Shihab Nye. I discovered Nye in a PBS poetry series hosted by Bill Moyers, which I used in class when I was teaching high school English in Brazil. Daughter of a Palestinian father and an American mother, Nye published an entire book of poetry in response to 9/11, with the evocative title 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East. The book was chosen as a National Book Award finalist. One of the poems, entitled “Half-and-Half” begins like this:

You can’t be, says a Palestinian Christian

on the first feast day after Ramadan.

So, half-and-half and half-and-half.

He sells glass. He knows about broken bits,

chips. If you love Jesus you can’t love

anyone else. Says he.

With the repetition of the phrase half-and-half, Nye caresses and owns the words used by others to belittle and condemn our interfaithness. “Says he.” Harrumph. In the wake of 9/11, Nye has written extensively in prose as well as poetry about her response as an Arab-American, and about her love for her Muslim grandmother and extended family in Palestine. Nye acknowledges her own mixed roots, but is driven to write primarly about her Palestinian family, to stand up for them in times of duress. I understand this–many of us who are interfaith Jewish children choose to stand with the Jews when we feel the Jews need us most.

As September 11th approaches, anger and pain stalk us all. We must all take a deep breath, read poetry (Nye’s suggestion), look into the eyes of the people in our communities. We must all understand that our lives are connected across political and religious boundaries now. Those of us who embody the liminal, who bridge cultures, have a duty to seek each other out, to affirm that interfaith love exists and that interfaith children are a sign of hope. One stanza of Nye’s poem “Half-and-Half” ends with these words: “…I press my lips to every exception.” On September 11th, I will press my lips to my own two children, exceptional embodiments of the love that can exist between people of different religions, even in a troubled world. As part of my resolutions for the Jewish New Year, I vow to seek out the other exceptions in our midst–religious, racial, linguistic, all of them–to explore what we have in common.

 

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.

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