Passover, Easter, Oy! Interfaith debate on HuffPost…

Yesterday, my debut column went up on Huffington Post.  The debate in the comment section has been lively, to say the least, with disgruntled atheists, disgruntled Christians, disgruntled Jews, and disgruntled Pagans all weighing in. It is hard to encompass, in a single post, the entire philosophy of interfaith families communities. At Huffington Post, I will continue over time to present my perspective as a member of an interfaith community, as an interfaith child, and as an interfaith parent who has chosen to educate my children about two religions. Please join the conversation there! At the same time, no worries, I will continue to post at On Being Both.

The most urgent need is explaining to the world, again and again, that we are not attempting to mix two religions together, but to recognize and celebrate the differences. I think the terms “Interfaith Passover” and “Interfaith Easter” cue assumptions that we are creating mash-up celebrations, even though I stated otherwise. I explained this most recently, here, in my “Interfaith Purim” post. Purim is Purim. Passover is Passover. Easter is Easter. We celebrate these holidays together as an interfaith community, because we are a community, and because the experience of celebrating together as interfaith families is powerful. But the liturgy, the traditions, the contents of the celebrations may well be more traditional than you would find in some “monofaith” communities.

Please read my Passover and Easter post at HuffPost, and join me in explaining why we do what we do: become my HuffPost “fan,” click “like” on the article, and most importantly, post a comment and join the discussion there. To engender greater acceptance, we need to stick our necks out of the happy interfaith bubble we have created, and engage with the world at large.

 

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

Obama, Christian not Muslim: An Interfaith Perspective

 

A growing number of Americans, currently 18%, believe President Barack Obama is a Muslim. I have been mulling over the interfaith perspectives on this disturbing new statistic from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Here are some of my thoughts:

1. Obama is, in fact, a Christian/Muslim interfaith child, both by birth and through childhood experience. I identify with him because I see all of the positive interfaith traits in him: peace-making, bridge-building, the ability to see all sides of an issue.  But interfaith children have the right to choose their own labels, as I point out in the Bill of Rights for Interfaith People. Obama has chosen Christianity, and went through the appropriate rituals to officially join a Christian denomination. That makes him a Christian, period.

2. Barack Hussein Obama is stuck with a name that sounds Muslim. Interfaith children with Jewish last names who are raised as Christians, or choose Christianity, will empathize with the President in his predicament, as will many other interfaith children who live with the cognitive dissonance of an ethnic last name that differs from their religious label. No matter what our religious beliefs or practices or choices, a segment of society will continue to judge us by our names, our noses, our hair, our skin color, accent or parentage. This is deeply frustrating.

3. Interfaith children (and converts) have to try harder. We have to perform more rituals, loudly proclaim our religious institutional affiliations, show up for formal worship, be holier and more kosher than thou, in order to convince others of our religious authenticity. This is of course unfair, and supremely annoying. Obama, burned by his enthusiasm for the “wrong” church in Chicago, tried to protect himself (and guard his family’s privacy) by not affiliating with a church in Washington. Now this strategy is backfiring.

4. Many folks, nostalgic for the (mythological) monochromatic simplicity of a white Christian America, still cannot accept Obama, despite electing him.  We are tribal, and personal religious evolution or family complexity is too subtle for many folks. Or they may understand Obama’s religion perfectly well, but simply choose to pretend to misunderstand him for political reasons.

5. Confusion is in the eye of the beholder. Often, it is not the interfaith children who are confused. Obama is not confused: he knows that he has chosen Christianity. Society is flummoxed by his complex background, appearance, behavior. The survey “shows a general uncertainty and confusion about the president’s religion,” said Alan Cooperman, associate director of research with the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. We are binary beings; we have trouble “getting” complexity.

 5. How sad that being Muslim in America is still so frightening. I spent last week, the first week of Ramadan, in a cabin in the mountains in West Virginia, close to the stars and the elegant new moon, imagining my Muslim friends around the world in happy iftar (break-fast) celebrations. I was off-line for that week, and blissfully unaware of the Pew poll at first, not to mention the increasing tension over the proposed Islamic cultural center near ground zero in New York. Coming back to the media, to politics, to the on-line world, was hard.

Roger Williams, My Bat Mitzvah, and the “Lively Experiment”

 

Sometimes I feel like such an interfaith rebel, I want to run away into the wilderness and start my own colony–a place where people can define their own religious identities as they please. Roger Williams did exactly that back in 1636, when he created the colony that became Rhode Island.

Williams arrived in the Massachusetts Bay colony as a Puritan in 1631, fleeing religious oppression by the Church of England. But his restless spiritual quest, and his vision of complete separation of church and state, led him to bounce from Plymouth to Salem, leave the Puritans and found the first Baptist church in the Americas, and ultimately, to break from any and all religious institutions. In 1635, the Puritans convicted him of sedition and heresy for his “diverse, new and dangerous opinions.”

Williams fled south on foot through the winter snow and threw himself on the mercy of American Indian sachems, who harbored and supported him. Williams learned the Naragansett language (he already spoke French, Dutch, Latin and Hebrew), and eventually wrote the first English book on an American Indian tongue (in 1640, but still in print today). He also defended the rights of Indians to compensation for their lands, and attempted (without sucess) to prevent the slavery of Africans in his visionary colony. Ultimately, the colony Williams founded on the idea of religious freedom and pluralism became the refuge of famed religious dissident Anne Hutchinson and the anabaptists, Quakers, Jews, and any others who chafed under Puritan law.

Last week, I drove into Providence to deliver my teenage daughter to a summer college program, and as the elegant white marble dome of the Rhode Island state capitol rose into view above the city, my thoughts returned to Roger Williams. The dome rests on an inscription from the 1663 charter from England’s King Charles II granting Williams the right “To hold forth a lively experiment that a most flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained with full liberty in religious concernments.”

As a Bostonian Jew steeped in colonial history, and an interfaith child drawn to “out of the box” religious ideas, I discovered Roger Williams early on. In 1973, as part of my Bat Mitzvah preparation, I visited and wrote a research report on the oldest synagogue in America, the Touro Synagoge, built in Rhode Island in 1763. The synagogue was built by the descendants of fifteen Sephardic Jewish families who heard of Williams and his “lively experiement” and came to Rhode Island in 1658 seeking the opportunity to freely practice their religion.

More than 350 years after Williams ran off to join the Naragansetts, we are still struggling to protect and strengthen what he named the “wall of separation” between church and state. Just this week, I read an interesting perspective on the topic from that very thoughtful Pagan blog, The Wild Hunt. Meanwhile, the progressive Jewish world is filled this morning with expressions of relief that Israel has at least postponed a bill that would put more power into the hands of ultra-Orthodox rabbis to regulate who is considered Jewish under state law.

Five years after my Bat Mitzvah, I ended up moving from Boston to Providence for college. As students exploring our new city, my friends and I would often frolic through Prospect Park, where the statue of Roger Williams overlooks Providence, his hand suspended in the air, blessing the “lively experiment” he created. At the time, I thought it was hilarious when friends scaled the statue to place a yo-yo hanging on a string from the statue’s oustretched hand. Now, in my sentimental middle-age, this prank seems shockingly irreverent. In building communities to welcome and provide refuge to interfaith families, we have few guides and heroes. Roger Williams is surely one of them.

 

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

Schlepping into the Interfaith New Year

As the decade drew to a close yesterday, we dragged through the final hours of our annual odyssey through six states: an epic quest to make sure our children get to see their three grandparents, ten aunts and uncles, and assorted cousins during winter vacation. We travel by ancient minivan, praying that it holds together as we push the battered contraption past 107,000 miles. (I’m waiting for a hybrid minivan, which does not yet exist in this country, though they’ve had them in Japan for a decade.)

The trek up and down the interstate is grueling, the kids sleep on cots and couches and floors, and yet our itinerary is the same each year. We fantasize about skiing in Vermont, or going to the Caribbean, or just staying home and nesting as a nuclear family. But every year, we coax our cringing dog into the crate in the back of the van, and set off. The pull of family is stronger than the pull of adventure, or comfort, or convenience, or, really, rationality.

Why do we do this to ourselves? My husband and I both happen to hail from pathologically close families: we would rather be with our own siblings than with just about anyone else. But more to the point here, as an interfaith family committed to raising our children with two religions, we are barred by religious institutions from joining both a synagogue and a church.  And yet the urge to belong is powerful. So our primary allegiance is to an extended family bridging Judaism and Christianity, and family provides essential context and support. For my children to feel at home in either religion, they must see and hear and smell the familial connections to each religion. And that means being with family for as many of these holidays as we can muster.

Okay, so New Year’s Eve is not a religious holiday, per se. But in a year when Hanukkah fell during the school year, we stretched the Christmas trip to encompass a final gathering with my husband’s extended clan. We could have gone home earlier to celebrate New Year’s with friends, but instead we hooted at a marvelous slide show depicting four generations of the Miller clan, and joined three generations dancing to 70s music in a crowded family room.

My twelve-year-old does not remember any decade except the “oughts.” (When I made a remark to that effect last night, some middle-aged cut-up shouted that many of us don’t remember any decade except the “oughts.”) It was a tough decade–politically, environmentally, economically–and one that many of us are glad to see end.

But during this decade, we also saw a transition I have been waiting for all of my life: the arrival of the “both/and” zeitgeist. We have a biracial, interfaith President. We finally have a census that allows people to check more than one box for race. We have a tidal wave of interfaith children who will forge new religious pathways, new spiritual communities, new cultural hybrids. And we have an expanding network of family ties, as fine and strong as threads from a silkworm, weaving together more and more families from across the globe, from every race and religion.

So in this new decade, more and more of us will do the work of building and maintaining these family networks, across cultural lines and theological lines and state lines. I just hope this is also the decade when we get those hybrid minivans, so that we can schlep around, patching and strengthening our webs, without feeling so guilty about the mileage.

Thoughts On This, the Last Night of Hanukkah

Tonight is the last night of Hanukkah, and my obsessive side is very satisfied to discover that I have exactly the right number of leftover candles accumulated over the past several years to fill our Hanukkah menorah. Each package of Hanukkah candles comes with exactly the right number to get you through the holiday. But in practice, at our house, each year we celebrate one or two nights at the homes of other families, and don’t light our own, so the extra candles roll around in my tea cupboard. This year, in deference to the economy and the state of the planet, we used the assorted candles left behind from past years. The mismatched theme seemed to fit our family:  jazzy and colorful, if a little untidy.

Hanukkah was appropriately low-key this year. We gave our teenagers glow-in-the-dark Silly Putty one night, and fuzzy pyjama pants another night. My husband contributed some cool light-up “party rats” that you clip on the end of each finger “for night blogging.” I’ll have to borrow those.

On one night, instead of giving the kids gifts, we made a donation to our friends who run FairVote, a group trying to upgrade American democracy by getting rid of the electoral college. This is a political cause my teens understand and support. Another night, we gave our Hanukkah donation to the winter Special Olympics, the charity designated by my son’s ski club this season.

Perhaps because this is my first Hanukkah in the blogosphere, I have been reading a lot (some of it disturbing, wise, funny) about the multiple meanings of Hanukkah. I realize that by emphasizing the “light in darkness” theme, I risk being accused of watering down or avoiding the historical and political origins of the holiday because I’m a half-educated half-Jew. Or worse, I could be accused of “settling for” the theme Hanukkah shares with Christmas and the solstice as part of a least-common-denominator homogenization, rather than wrestling with the distinctive and sometimes difficult meanings that are unique to Hanukkah.

I am wrestling though. For instance, we have guests coming to celebrate with us tonight, so I printed out copies of the three English verses of Ma’oz Tzur as written out in gorgeous script years ago by my Episcopalian mother. (Note:  rather sad that children cannot read cursive any more). This hymn has its origins in the 13th century, and it appeals to me because it seems to fulfill a requirement for ritual storytelling, and it emphasizes the theme of religious freedom, which appeals to me as a religious renegade.

My family sings all three verses, because that’s the way we’ve done it for generations, and because it is somehow pleasurable to rub up against the difficulties of the text, like worrying a loose tooth with your tongue.  We sing “and thy word broke their sword,” even though none of us believe that the almighty, if he/she exists, takes sides in (dubious) military battles. We sing “priests approved in suffering” even though it triggers uncomfortable associations with the victim mentality. And we even sing “children of the martyr race” in the final verse, even though it conjures up the deeply problematic “chosen people” issues, and the martyr complex, and the persistently pernicious idea that Judaism is a race (or even ethnicity).

Someone has written a new, more politically-correct lyric to replace that last one..subbing in “children of the wanderers.” One year, I gently suggested this change, but my father, never a big change advocate, was staunchly opposed. So I have retreated to singing, and wrestling with, the old lyric. For one more night. And then it’s on to wrestling with Christmas.

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.

Pew National Poll Finally Discovers Americans “Being Both”

Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore

Confirmation that those of us “being both” are not some crazy fringe, not outliers, in fact we’re in the vanguard, came from the Pew Research Center this week in a new poll entitled “Many Americans Mix Multiple Faiths.” Our interfaith families community even got mentioned in a front-page article in USA Today, reporting on the new poll. Though that article emphasized the more sensational aspects of the poll, such as the fact that Christianity often coexists with New Age practices.

But what thrilled me was the finding that 24% of Americans attend religious services of more than one faith—and this excludes socially-required attendance such as the weddings, Bar Mitzvahs or funerals of friends. They also found that as many as 12% of the people they interviewed participate in the services of three different faiths. For years, I have fought for the idea that being both is possible, and positive. Now we have proof that it’s also popular!

On closer inspection, most of these people are not attending churches and mosques, or synagogues and cathedrals. The researchers categorized different Christian denominations as different “faiths” for the purposes of this study. So for the most part, they’re talking about a Lutheran who also frequents a Methodist church. However, the poll did find that, for instance, five percent of Catholics regularly attend synagogues. That’s a lot of folks doing something that religious institutions have told us repeatedly that we cannot and should not do.

Clearly, interfaith marriages have something to do with breaking down these religious barriers, though credit also goes to the spiritual searching and free-floating open-mindedness in the culture. And a nod of thanks to aging hippies returning to religion but continuing to resist institutions.

The study did look specifically at interfaith families, and found that people in mixed marriages who did attend services at least once a year were more likely than those not in mixed marriages to attend services from more than one faith (40% versus 30%)

Now, if I can find an agent and publisher who understand that this is the new zeitgeist, that a book about fitting into more than one category is marketable, I’d be in business. It’s the marketing part that scares them, though it shouldn’t.

Today, I was listening to an interview with musician Rickie Lee Jones on public radio. (When asked about Biblical imagery in her songs, she said, “I like Jesus…I don’t like Christian religions.” So she’s one of our aging hippie allies.) When asked about how the press had responded to some of her work straddling genres, she gave a concise defense of musical bothness. For me, her words are more than metaphor: “It’s very difficult to market somebody who’s that and also that. We really would prefer you were just that, because it’s really hard to get someone to buy it if you’re both those things, but I am both those things.” Which is why “On Being Both” has appeal beyond interfaith families: our entire culture is engaged with bothness in this moment.

I Brake for Poetry

I am wary of the schmaltzy universalism that sometimes pervades the world of multifaith encounters. In our interfaith families community, we strive to preserve and hold the funky particularities of Judaism and Christianity, even when this leads to dissonance, instead of dwelling always in the safer zone of overlapping interfaith values.

But recently, my husband came home with a poem that found its way through my defensive cynicism. Peace activist Christopher Matthias wrote the poem to read at an interfaith conference on corporate responsibility. I love that his poem contains both timeless religious imagery, and more angular modern references. Chris works for an order of Roman Catholic nuns. So I thought I better write for permission to post the poem, warning him that this blog takes the radical position of advocating raising children with two religions. He wrote back, “I would be more apprehensive to share permission if your blog were not radical.”  So here’s the poem.

THIS, HOLY THIS

Nothing.

Silence.

Like the breath held.

Pregnant.

Ready to. Ready to. Ready to flare forth!

Om………………..

The sound of creation vibrating all life from the center

Like the vibrating lips of the aborigine through the didgeridoo

Telling the story of how THIS, HOLY THIS arrived and flows in tones of hydrogen and light.

We are learning your name as it is spelled out.

Creation. Life. Our God.

We hear you underwater;

In the wind;

In the bells;

In each other.

We have known your loving kindness:

Our mothers’ affection;

Our fathers’ embrace.

We are spelling out your name life by life, life after life;

Our holy charge to play our part—to dot an “eye”

As the desert fathers and mothers searched for home.

As Buddha touched a sacred moment under the Bodhi tree;

As Ganesh first swung the trunk of his newly given pachyderm head;

As Samson pushed apart the pillars—blind—shamed—but loved by you;

As the Sufi poet spins himself to ecstasy,

As Rumi found the words:

If anyone wants to know what “spirit” is,
or what “God’s fragrance” means,
lean your head toward him or her.
Keep your face there close. Like this.

As Peter stepped out on the water;

As the medicine wheel is painted on the regalia of a dancer, dancing for his honor, for his people’s honor, for the love of you…

As the sisters took off their habits after centuries;

As they struggle to be just as much your church as their brothers;

As two pines from Lebanon were nailed together

to suspend a man from Nazareth until he exhaled no more.

As sinners and saints ate bread,

Drank malt liquor,

Told jokes bother clean and dirty.

As wars erupted,

As fish ate fish ate fish;

As Mary said her “Yes!”

As Joseph Dreamed;

As Moses held out his arms;

As Miriam played her trick;

As people threw snickers wrappers in garbage cans;

As beads crossed the devotee’s fingers;

As children were conceived;

As children were not born;

As morning came;

As icicles melted;

As peace was sought with picket signs, hunger strikes, songs and letters,

As Gandhi placed calloused feet one in front of the other;

As gossip spread;

As Shakespeare crossed out words he didn’t like;

As mountains fell;

As we have doubted our place in all of this;

As the grandparent died;

As we forgot the beauty of difference;

As the young man died;

As we found ourselves in our opponents;

As the sister from Seattle died;

As we threw our heads back and laughed at ourselves;

As memories were lost;

As a lover proposed;

As oranges were blessed;

As papers were filed;

As curses were spoken;

As those who are on the same team fought instead of yielding, forgiving, and renewing their commitments to each other.

As they passed through it—beginning again, and again, and again.

As fields were planted;

As poison filled the ocean;

As millions died in genocides;

As stories of beauty saved, changed, and vindicated lives;

As atheists made sacred the time of one life.

As miners never emerged from the belly of the earth;

As wind turned chimes—revealing the harmony of the two sides of this touching the two sides of that.

As the nautilus grows and grows, echoing the shape of the universe;

As we ask you to be with us as we speak our part of your name

Day by day

Choice by choice

Forgiveness by forgiveness

Voice by voice

Coast by coast

Bite by bite

Child by child

Love by love by love by love by love by love.