Book Review: Darius the Great is Not Okay

We need to listen to the voices of kids from all sorts of interfaith families, not just Jewish and Christian families. Darius the Great is Not Okay, by Adib Khorram, is a poignant, lyrical, hilarious novel, with an unforgettable protagonist from a complex interfaith family. This award-winning 2018 Young Adult (YA) novel stars Darius Kellner, an American teenager who happens to have a Persian-American Zoroastrian mother, and a European-American secular humanist father. The novel centers on a summer when Darius goes for an extended visit with his grandparents in Iran. While there, he meets a boy who happens to be Baha’i.

Darius may seem, on some levels, like a universal YA protagonist: awkward, insecure, and struggling with the feeling that he is disappointing his parents. He’s a nerd who loves Star Trek and Tolkien, and hates gym class. As the plot progresses, he faces some of his demons and bullies, comes to understand his flawed parents better, and grows into a more confident young man.

But this coming-of-age narrative stands out for multiple reasons. The author, who himself experienced clinical depression as a teen, creates a nuanced portrait of a teen with inherited depression who benefits from anti-depressants. His depiction of Darius as he begins to realize he is attracted to another young man is subtle and poetic. And the exploration of Iranian religions and culture is compelling, especially to those of us who are religious history nerds.

Most relevant here, Darius will fascinate anyone who is an interfaith kid. The novel, while absolutely unique, echoes some of the themes of previous YA books with protagonists from interfaith families, going all the way back to Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret (1970), up through the more recent books My Basmati Bar Mitzvah, and Mira in the Present Tense and including the brand new All American Muslim Girl. But the closest parallel may be found in prize-winning poet Naomi Shihab Nye’s Habibi. As in Darius, the protagonist of Habibi is a US-born teen with one European-American parent and one immigrant parent, who goes abroad to stay with grandparents, explores cultural and religious heritage, and makes a close friend of another religion. (In the case of Habibi, a teenage girl goes to stay with her Palestinian Muslim grandmother, and meets a nice Jewish boy).

Whether we grow up in Jewish/Christian, Muslim/Christian, or Zoroastrian/atheist families, interfaith kids share some common experiences. Darius describes himself as a “Fractional Persian.” He worries about whether he is Persian enough. He wonders whether he has the right to claim a Persian identity in Iran while feeling marked by his Persian identity back in the U.S. And he feels cut off from claiming Zoroastrianism because it is patrilinial (a barrier familiar to interfaith kids from other religions with gender-based inheritance traditions, including Judaism and Islam).

Darius also expresses a longing for unity across religious boundaries, and an attraction to learning about religious history, qualities many interfaith kids in my research share. He fondly notes the social solidarity of Persians in exile, who “celebrated Nowruz and Chaharshanbeh Suri together in big parties, Baha’is and Muslims and Jews and Christians and Zoroastrians…” And while in Iran, he speaks to the beauty of the muezzin’s call to prayer, the wonder of the Assyrian statues in Persepolis, and the power of the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence. Darius may identify with his father’s secular humanism, but he is also deeply engaged with his own complex religious heritage, and the religious landscape around him.

Last month, news broke that Darius the Great is Not Okay will become a film. And fans are eagerly awaiting a sequel novel due out in the fall: Darius the Great Deserves Better. A lot of the excitement around the sequel has focused on Darius’s coming out journey (Korram tweeted that one of the titles they considered for the sequel was Darius the Great is Not Straight). But I hope the film, and the sequel, also make space for Darius to contemplate his complex spiritual and cultural identity, as part of an extended interfaith family.

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). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

The Interfaith Family Journal, for Everyone

Copies of The Interfaith Family Journal on a table.

A rabbi, a Baptist minister married to a Hindu, a Unitarian Universalist Muslim, and a Sikh and Muslim interfaith kid all…recommend a book. (Because not everyone walks into bars, and this book is all about inclusion). As you may have guessed by now, the book they recommend is The Interfaith Family Journal. And you can read their lovely endorsements on my author website here.

And new this week, for the growing number of people who do not identify as religious, interfaith and Secular Humanist speaker and activist Miranda Hovemeyer gave The Interfaith Family Journal its latest five-star review:

My husband and I are both non-religious. I am a Secular Humanist and he identifies as Atheist, but we both grew up in households where there was some kind of religious practice. The book contains so much material that we can use ourselves to talk about our family and non-religious identification now, as well as how we grew up, and what we want for any future children we may have.

In my last blog post, I explained why two family members (spouses, partners, a parent and teen child, a guardian and a family mentor, etc) need two copies of The Interfaith Family Journal to go through the five-week process together. But just a week later, I am actually rethinking that proclamation. My readers have convinced me to recant.

What has perhaps surprised me the most, since the publication of the book just a few weeks ago, is the number of people who say they are finding The Interfaith Family Journal useful, as individuals. From the start, I knew this book would help clergy and therapists in counseling congregants and clients. But I had not anticipated that a friend who leads community engagement and diversity trainings with parents and children would find the book inspiring, and plan to use it in her work in the community, even though religion is not the topic of her work. In another case, a reviewer noted that while the book is an “amazing tool” for interfaith families,“one can also use it as a personal workbook to dig deeper into one’s most cherished but unarticulated commitments.”

It honestly had not occurred to me, until I started getting this feedback from readers, that individuals, even individuals who may not see themselves as part of an interfaith family, would benefit from the Journal. Now I am realizing that for some couples, one partner may be more interested in working through the issues of their religious and spiritual and cultural history, and will find support in the writing prompts and activities in the Journal, even if the other partner has no interest in the topic. But more broadly, any person, regardless of their family connections, could find the Journal useful in discerning how their family background, present beliefs, and dreams for the future are interwoven.

Whether you consider yourself part of an interfaith family or not, come out and tell us about your religious, spiritual or secular journey, or just gather ideas and inspiration, next week in DC at the Northeast Neighborhood Library, on Wednesday June 5th at 7pm. There will be copies of The Interfaith Family Journal for sale and signing. You might just need one for, well, anyone and everyone.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of The Interfaith Family Journal (2019), and Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2013). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

The Interfaith Family Journal: Why You Need Two

The Interfaith Family Journal is available now. And as with any book launch, there’s a lot going on:

As I am out and about, explaining this new book to the world, one of the questions I get most frequently is:

Wait, what? I need two copies of this book to do this process with my partner?

In short, yes. The Interfaith Family Journal takes you through a process of delving deep into your background and current beliefs and practices, and making a plan based on your dreams for the future. And in order to engage in this process with a family member or friend/mentor (spouse, partner, older child, or a Journal partner you choose for this process), you will each need a copy of the book. That’s because you write in your Journal, and then trade books to read what your Journal partner has written, and then engage in conversation and activities based on that interactive process. So if you are giving the Journal as an engagement or wedding gift, I recommend giving two copies. (The price of two Journals, I will point out, is going to be far, far less than a single hour of online coaching with me or anyone else, or a therapy session with a counselor, or one date night. Although you might want to do all of those things as well).

So does everyone who buys this book need two copies?

Well, no. I want to get this book into the hands of every clergy member in the country and around the world. And every therapist and counselor. And every Student Life professional in colleges and universities. These professionals only need one copy, in order to read the book (it takes less than an hour) and understand the power of The Interfaith Family Journal as a resource and tool for them. So if you want to help all interfaith families everywhere, give a copy to your favorite clergy person, or your favorite therapist or counselor. And then let them take it from there, to use the book with clients or congregants, to support more families, and support more love.

Journalist Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith families speaker, consultant, and coach, and author of The Interfaith Family Journal (2019), and Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family (2013). Follow her on twitter @susankatzmiller.

The Interfaith Family Journal: It Takes a Village

The Interfaith Family Journal

The publication date for The Interfaith Family Journal is less just a month away!

On March 31st, you can hold in your hands an interactive book designed to support interfaith families including Atheists, Buddhists, Christians, Daoists, Ethiopian Orthodox…the whole alphabet of religions and worldviews.

The Journal draws on decades of personal experience, surveys of hundreds of interfaith family members, years of facilitating workshops and coaching couples around the world, and conversations with all of you in person and online. Interfaith families helped to test drive the manuscript, spending hours working through the questions and exercises. Your feedback helped create a more perfect Journal. And your first reactions were humbling:

  • caused me to think deeply about why I think something or why a certain tradition is important to me
  • allowed self-reflection, helped us focus on issues in manageable segments, and encouraged us to really listen to each other’s viewpoint
  • helped us understand how we envision expressing our faiths to both ourselves and each other
  • invited us to have a conversation instead of leading us to choose a side.
  • had the feel of an unbiased, safe, non-judgmental couples’ counseling workshop

The test drivers thought the questions and exercises in the Journal were…

  • very helpful in determining what parts of our religious background are spiritually based vs culturally based, which was invaluable for us
  • a good mix of practical and deep
  • helpful because they covered so much ground and approached issues from a number of angles
  • a great tool for periodically checking in on growth or development in the course of the interfaith relationship (and especially during times of change, such as welcoming a child)

Different test drivers found different parts of the Journal particularly valuable, whether it was the interactive questions at the start of each chapter, the framework for talking about celebrations of life and death, the exercises designed to engage with extended family, or the creative family activities at the end of each chapter.

  • Something about answering a high number of questions in relatively quick succession felt very productive.
  • The Journal led to us calling our parents and grandparents to talk about their religious lives growing up. It was quite fascinating
  • We had never talked about death as it pertains to our religions. This section opened us up to that conversation for the first time.
  • We loved the creative sections. We were huge fans of the religions ancestry tree exercise. That is one that we plan on doing again when our children are old enough to participate.

This is the moment to pre-order copies for yourself and your interfaith family members, and to let friends and family know about the book by sending them a link to this page. My goal with this book has always been to help as many interfaith families as I can, around the country and the world, and I need your help to reach them.

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.

New Year’s Interfaith Gratitude: 9 Shout-Outs

Being Both Car Magnet

In this New Year, at the start of 2015, I want to try to thank everyone who supported Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family in 2014, the first full year since publication and the year of the paperback launch. In particular, I want to thank the following (overlapping) nine communities for engaging with interfaith families celebrating more than one religion:

1. Jewish Communities. When I began work on Being Both ten years ago, almost no one in Jewish leadership wanted to acknowledge families providing interfaith education to interfaith children. But this year, I was invited to explain Being Both in more than one synagogue and Jewish Community Center and in multiple Jewish media outlets. And I became one of the respondents for the Jewish Daily Forward‘s interfaith advice column. I also had the privilege of addressing two groups of rabbis (in Chicago and Maryland), who listened intently, asked hard questions, and I hope went away understanding how Jewish communities could benefit from engaging with the 25% of Jews in interfaith marriages who have chosen to raise children in both family religions. One rabbi told me, “Fifty percent of the interfaith couples I marry now say they plan to do both. Your book represents the reality we are facing–we are only just beginning to figure out how to grapple with this.”

2. Unitarian-Universalist (UU) Communities. I was so very fortunate to be published by Beacon Press, a venerable non-profit press promoting “freedom of speech and thought; diversity, religious pluralism, and anti-racism; and respect for diversity in all areas of life.” Not everyone realizes that Beacon Press is affiliated with the Unitarian-Universalist Association (UUA). I often say that no other press, religious or commercial, was brave enough to publish my book. Historically, many interfaith families have found community in UU congregations, and this year, I began speaking at UU communities. I look forward to attending the UU General Assembly in Portland, Oregon, next June.

3. Muslim and Hindu allies. While Being Both is primarily about Jewish and Christian interfaith families, it also includes Muslims and Hindus in interfaith marriages, and I hope it will be helpful to people of all religions, going forward. This year, I have really enjoyed interacting with interfaith activists of many religions and worldviews on Twitter, and at conferences. Specifically, I want to shout out here to those who have engaged with or reviewed Being Both, including Muslim interfaith parent Reza Aslan, Hindu interfaith spouse Fred Eaker, Shailaja Rao who advocates for Hindu/Muslim couples and other interfaith families in Asia, and several Muslimah interfaith activists who posted Being Both reviews or features.

4. Atheist and secular humanist allies. Marriages between religious and nonreligious people are a growing cohort. I share the perspective with many humanist writers that it is possible and even beneficial to expose children to more than one religion and worldview, realizing that all children grow up to make their own decisions about belief and affiliation. This year, I particularly appreciated interactions with Humanistic Rabbi Adam Chalom, Faithiest author Chris Stedman, and In Faith and In Doubt author Dale McGowan. I look forward to speaking in the coming year at Ethical Society, Sunday Assembly, Humanistic Jewish, and college organizations such as the Secular Student Alliance, about the overlapping experiences of humanists and people from interfaith families.

5. My home, greater Washington DC. I am so grateful to live in a book-loving city, the kind of city that hosted a packed Being Both launch event at Politics & Prose. I’m also grateful to live in a city where families who want interfaith education for their interfaith children have the support of the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington. Coming up this year in greater DC, look for a talk in March at the venerable Bethesda Writer’s Center. There’s always space on the calendar for local talks, so contact me if your DC-area university, community, or book group wants to host a Being Both event.

6. The great city of New York. The birthplace of the original Interfaith Community for interfaith families, New York has supported this movement, and Being Both, from the beginning. In March, I’ll be in The City for panels at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park, and at Union Theological Seminary uptown. Be sure to check the susankatzmiller.com event page for updates.

7. The great city of Chicago. My trip to Chicago this year to celebrate Being Both with the Interfaith Family School and The Union School for Interfaith Families strengthened my bonds with the other major city providing interfaith education for interfaith children. In Chicagoland, I also loved interacting with Rabbi Ari Moffic and interfaithfamily.com, with David Dault and the Things Not Seen podcast, and with Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation.

8. The great state of California. On the West Coast, I loved reconnecting with the founders of the original interfaith families community in the Bay Area including Oscar Rosenbloom and Alicia Torre, meeting the staff at the charming Book Passage in Marin, catching up with longtime friend and author Julia Flynn Siler, and interacting with  interfaithfamily.com San Francisco, the Silicon Valley JCC, and Claremont School of Theology friends who study complex religious identity. On January 10th, I’ll be back in Claremont CA to speak at Claremont Lincoln University. Join me!

9. And finally, to my extended interfaith family, including my husband, my two interfaith kids, my pioneering interfaith parents, and my siblings, in-laws, nieces, nephews and cousins, whether Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Quaker, Buddhist, atheist, or all, or none, of the above. Thank you, once again, for demonstrating what a big, loving, interfaith family can be.

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Listen, Include, Engage: Progress for Interfaith Families

 

My parents, interfaith family pioneers, still kicking and strumming at 83 and 89
My parents, interfaith family pioneers, still kicking and strumming at 83 and 89

 

A couple of years back, the venerable Jewish Daily Forward published a blogpost in the form of a letter attacking my family for celebrating Christmas. I waited several days before responding. Meanwhile, readers and bloggers rushed in to decry the “snide” “condescending” “offensive” “anti-interfaith family” tone of the original post. One wrote that it “paints a scary picture for interfaith families in the Jewish community.”

But in the six months since the publication of Being Both, I have witnessed a different picture emerging. I have been honored to give talks sponsored by synagogues, Hillels, Jewish Community Centers, and a group of rabbis. I was invited onto an interfaith family task force by my local Jewish Federation. And The Forward chose my beloved rabbi, Harold M. White, the Jewish Spiritual leader of my interfaith families community, when I nominated him as one of the most inspiring rabbis in America for 2014.

Granted, progress comes in fits and starts. Sometimes a leader from a synagogue discussion group calls asking me to speak: these congregants are worried about intermarried children and grandchildren who are often “doing nothing.” They wonder if “doing both” might not be a richer experience for their grandchildren, and a better bet for Jewish continuity. Whenever I receive one of these invitations, I have to ask if they have checked with the rabbi. More than once, I have received a call back from a frustrated and embarrassed congregant dis-inviting me, and explaining that the rabbi sees my mission as counter to the mission of institutional Judaism.

And yet, everywhere I do speak, I see the religious landscape shifting, with extended families and religious institutions far more willing now to support interfaith couples and children, even when they must “share” them with another religion. And that means that interfaith families have many more good options for finding community than they did a generation ago, whether that community is Jewish, Christian, Unitarian-Universalist, secular humanist, or (like my own Interfaith Families Project) intentionally interfaith.

Just this spring, I realized once again how far we have all come when The Forward, the same media outlet that published that scathing letter addressed to me two years ago, asked me to join the roster of experts for their new interfaith relationship advice column, The Seesaw. The expert panel includes an Orthodox Jew living in Israel, a Christian spouse, and Rabbi James Ponet (Chelsea Clinton’s rabbi). I am the only panel member raising children with any formal religious education beyond Judaism.

If I were to design my own roster of experts to give advice to interfaith families, I would of course choose people raising children on many different religious and non-religious pathways. But given the chance to represent something other than the “you must raise kids exclusively Jewish” perspective,  I said yes. The comment section on The Seesaw is at times filled with sarcasm and intolerance, and at least one of my fellow respondents regularly despairs over my responses. But over all, I enjoy seeing how the respondents reflect diverse Jewish viewpoints, often displaying a deep sensitivity to the nuances and complexity of interfaith family life.

I advocate for the Jewish community (and all religious communities) to engage with, rather than exclude, parents who expose their children to more than one family religion. Given that Pew Research has found that 25% of intermarried Jews are raising children with more than one religion, the logic of including rather than spurning these families seems very compelling to me, even when viewed through the lens of preserving Jewish institutions. And this spring, I see a flowering of support for the idea of providing Jewish content to all families who want it, creating meaningful Jewish experiences for them, and allowing children to grow Jewish roots, even if they are putting down roots in more than one family tradition.

I celebrated my birthday this week, in my childhood home, with my pioneering interfaith parents (who are 83 and almost 90). It seemed like a fitting moment to look back on an exhilarating six months of public interfaith conversations. If you are in the Washington DC area, I hope you will join me for my final interfaith talk of the season, at the MLK branch of the DC public library this Wednesday at 7:30pm.

And if you haven’t been able to get to a live Being Both talk, you can watch two new videos. One is a webinar posted by Religions for Peace USA, in which I chat with Aaron Stauffer of Religions for Peace USA, and adult interfaith child Samantha Gonzalez-Block. The other is a video of an event at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs at Georgetown University, in which I appeared with Georgetown’s Erika Seamon, author of the excellent academic book, Interfaith Marriage in America. Erika’s history of interfaith marriage at the beginning of the program is fascinating, and don’t miss our lively Q&A with students and faculty at the end.

I already have plans for talks in Chicago and New York next fall. Let me know if your community wants to be included in either of those visits, or if you want to host a talk elsewhere in the country. I look forward to a conversation that will continue with all of you, growing deeper and wider and more complex, next year, and into the years ahead.

 

 

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

 

 

Breakthrough! Interfaith Families, Interfaith Engagement

Dali Museum, Figueres, Spain, photo by Susan Katz Miller

For years now, I have been advocating for interfaith families to be included in interfaith activism and conversation. Since 9/11, an inspiring interfaith movement has been growing, including interfaith activism on campuses. And just in the past couple of years, atheists and agnostics and secular humanists have been welcomed by many of these interfaith organizations, in recognition of the growth of these communities, and the idea that you do not have to have a faith to want to join the interfaith movement. All of this is good—very, very good.

But for those of us from interfaith families, the new focus on interfaith activism has raised two tricky (and intertwined) issues. The first challenge is linguistic. Interfaith families have always used the word “interfaith” to describe who we are. The pioneering intermarriage of my parents occurred in 1960. And since at least the 1980s, some of us have been raising interfaith children with both religions, and some of those children use “interfaith” as an identity label. So the word “interfaith” is being used both at a macro level to describe engagement between people of different faiths, and on a micro level to describe, well, engagement and marriage and identity in interfaith families. I don’t know if we should have or could have had different terminology to distinguish these two phenomena, but we don’t.

The second issue is that official interfaith conversations between representatives of different religious institutions have not always welcomed interfaith families and those with interfaith or dual-faith or multifaith identity. We represent a blurring of boundaries, and that ambiguity can sometimes make people uncomfortable.  And yet, people from interfaith families have skills to contribute to interfaith conversations and programs. We practice the art of communicating across religious divides, day and night, throughout our marriages, or throughout our lifetimes if we are born into interfaith families.

This week, I felt like I witnessed a breakthrough. I was invited by interfaith activist Sana Saeed to co-sponsor a twitter chat, alongside a group of interfaith organizers, leading up to a DC Young Adult Faith Leaders Summit tomorrow, organized by Faith in Action DC.  (Note: You can follow the Summit on twitter at #DCFaith). I started to buzz with excitement when I saw that the Summit will include people who “belong to traditional religious institutions, have multiple affiliations, no affiliations, or are somewhere in-between.” In other words, the summit is inclusive, on a whole new level.

In the twitter chat, I dove in and asked two questions: What can people from interfaith families, or who claim more than one religion, bring to interfaith activism and conversation? And, what are the challenges of including people with dual-faith or multiple-faith identities in interfaith conversation?

It was thrilling to read the responses from people who work full-time on interfaith engagement. Usra Ghazi of the Interfaith Youth Core tweeted that “interfaith families are like religiously diverse communities: great places for interfaith literacy.” Bud Heckman of Religions for Peace USA agreed that people from interfaith families bring their “lived daily experience” to the conversation, “But also assumptions/positions that are threatening to ‘single faith’ others. Benefit & barrier.”

And so, on to those challenges. Ghazi tweeted that interfaith conversations “tend to put people in a box. You can’t do that with ‘seekers’ and multi-faith identities.” InterfaithYouthCore responded that people with dual-faith or multifaith identities challenge “the norm that certain faiths are exclusive of others.” Faith in Action DC confided that, while organizing tomorrow’s Summit, they had the “challenge of placing multifaith participants. Which group are they in? So we created “Multi” category! #simple!” I am not sure everyone will find it that simple. But this chat felt like the beginning of a beautiful, and radically inclusive, conversation.

(Note: Some twitter abbreviations have been expanded in this post, to ensure greater comprehension by those over 30)

Atheist, Plays Well With Others…

Most of us are consumed with the election today. It also happens to be the publication date of a boundary-defying and yet somehow sweetly patriotic memoir from my publisher, Beacon Press, entitled Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. While still in his 20s, Chris Stedman has written a brave and moving account of how he became an evangelical Christian, realized he was gay, left Christianity for atheism, and now devotes himself to interfaith dialogue with religious people.

Faithiest will appeal to many interfaith families, as an intimate chronicle of an “atypical” religious (and non-religious) formation, illuminating the intertwining influences of family and society on religious identity. Stedman quotes my favorite Buddhist thinker, Thic Nhat Han: “If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors.” For those of us who are heirs to two or more family religions, this statement has deep resonance.

Stedman seems to have written one of the very first memoirs by anyone in his generation. So I was fascinated to note that the idea of being raised with both religions appears early on, and in a positive light. Stedman writes of his childhood friendship with a neighborhood girl who “…celebrated Hanukkah and Christmas, Passover and Easter, and maintained practices from both traditions…” He goes on to describe his own brief infatuation with Judaism as a result of this encounter.

A longing for community drives Stedman, as a tween, to a Christian youth group. The tension between evangelical Christianity and being gay eventually drives him away. But after he becomes an atheist, that same longing for community alienates him from the strident, anti-religious “New Atheism,” and eventually sends him into the arms of the kinder and gentler community of secular humanists.

Secular humanism has long provided a safe haven for interfaith families who agree to put aside the question of God. So Stedman’s description of his discovery of the benefits of humanism will interest many secular interfaith families.

More broadly, those of us in the movement to educate our children in both family religions find ourselves arrayed across the entire religious and non-religious spectrum: religious, spiritual but not religious, skeptics, agnostics, atheists.

Whether we identify with no religion, two religions, or many religions, those of us in interfaith families who do not belong to a synagogue or church find ourselves grouped with Stedman by demographers as part of the fast-growing “religious nones,” the statistical category for those without religious affiliation. As “religious nones,” we are a complex, rich, and varied group on the rise, just beginning to discover each other, and I am very pleased to share this space with a mensch like Chris Stedman.

By the end of his memoir, Stedman finds twin interwoven missions–convincing interfaith activists to welcome atheists, and convincing atheists to engage in interfaith activism, and join college campus groups (such as Eboo Patel’s Interfaith Youth Core) in performing community service together.

Stedman and others have achieved notable success in making a place for secularists, alongside Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and others, at the interfaith roundtable. But is there a place at that table for intermarried people or interfaith children claiming our ties to more than one religion? Or is our presence so disturbing, our blurred boundaries so threatening, that we are left off the guest list?

The dogma of interfaith dialogue has long been that you cannot engage with the “other” unless and until you have a strong and singular religious identity. Stedman successfully makes the case that the non-religious should be exempt from this requirement. I am making the case that those who marry into or are born into a state of interfaithness should also be exempt, and welcomed as people with unique qualifications for interfaith dialogue.

Stedman writes, “Interfaith dialogue strives to usher in religious pluralism, and it is realized primarily through the personal stories of its practitioners.” Members of interfaith families in general, and adult interfaith children in particular, want to tell their stories, whether they currently identify with one, two, many or no religions. As people who engage deeply with the “other” on a daily basis, whether that “other” is a spouse or partner or sibling or parent or a part of our own being, we bring unique skills and perspectives to more formal interfaith encounters. We want to be part of the quest for greater interfaith understanding and an end to religious violence, through interfaith education. As members of interfaith families, we are already on that quest, whether or not our role is recognized by those from monofaith backgrounds. I am hoping that those of us from interfaith families can be as convincing as Chris Stedman in articulating our desire to be included in the movement for interfaith cooperation.

Successful Interfaith Marriage: Anne and Danny

When a family chooses a religious identity, each family member has a unique response based on background, expectations, and personality. Today, I post the thoughts of Anne Stewart, a long-time Sunday School teacher in our Interfaith Families Project (IFFP). Her husband, Danny Weiss, arrived at IFFP deeply sceptical, and quickly became Chair of the Board. Anne speaks to the benefits, and the drawbacks, of choosing the interfaith pathway for themselves, and for their two daughters, who are now 12 and 15 years old.

Religious Background

I was raised in a Vatican II-era Catholic Church in Pittsburgh in which social justice work in the community was the primary concern of the parish.  I went to Catholic school through the fifth grade, and to a Catholic women’s college.  My father was raised Protestant, and he did not attend church with us.  He did, however, go to a Catholic college, and was pretty comfortable with the traditions. My parents were married in the Catholic Church, but they had to stand “outside the altar” because my father was Protestant.  Both of my grandparents accepted that their children were marrying “outside the faith” in part because they were all in the same neighborhood/social class.

Danny was raised in a culturally Jewish household that celebrated all the major Jewish holidays–Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, Chanukah and Passover–at home, not in a temple.  They did not belong to a temple and  did not attend religious school.  They had a secular Christmas celebration during which they exchanged presents, but they did not have a tree. He grew up overhearing a lot of talk from one side of his family about “Goyem this…” and “Goyem that…”, which Danny interpreted as disparaging of non-Jews.

Interfaith Marriage

We became a couple in 1988 and married in 1992.  Our first serious discussion of religious identity as a couple came with the planning of the wedding.  I insisted that we be married under some greater authority than the State, but had no preference about a rabbi, priest, or both. When Danny and I first became a couple in 1988, Danny was living in the home of Reverend William Sloane Coffin, and his wife Randy. Bill Coffin was an old and close friend of Danny’s mom. It became obvious that the Weiss family, including Danny, would feel most comfortable with Bill doing the wedding.  In our first meeting with Bill, Danny asked that Bill not use the word “God” in our ceremony.  I strongly disagreed, as that was the point of having a person of the cloth. Bill was used to this sort of thing, and said. “Danny, my boy, you’ll get over it.”  Coffin was a hero to my liberal family, so that was an easy compromise.  To this day, I believe that the presence of Bill Coffin in Danny’s life played a pivotal role in my trusting that Danny would “come around” to being okay with religion in our lives.

Choosing a Religious Community

As a married couple, we went to a few masses at Georgetown and to our local church.  For me, they were too white and upper-class, so that was that.  We went to a service at one temple because Danny had a connection to a rabbi there and I went to check out another one.  I didn’t like the Reform synagogues—too much like Protestant churches, or something.  Danny did not really feel comfortable in a synagogue, anyway. I saw an ad in a paper for IFFP, and decided we would check it out.  When we got there, we saw our pediatrician, which gave us the feeling that it wasn’t “weird.”  I think Danny may have chatted with a kindred sceptic. It was Danny who felt comfortable.  I could be comfortable anywhere, so this was a big plus that he liked the guys he talked to there.

Benefits and Drawbacks of Choosing Both

The Benefits seem obvious—you live in a bigger world, you learn more, you understand more, you discuss/debate more.  All things we both like, that suit our personalities.

Drawbacks—what we are/do is really hard to explain; no helpful vocabulary (we are NOT Unitarian); we are a minority; our children are “different” from their observant Catholic or observant Jewish friends—there is no getting around this one—they have the burden of explaining; they get told things like:  You can’t be Jewish because your mother isn’t; You can’t take Communion (but they do); You don’t really know Hebrew, right?  In the end, telling someone you belong to an interfaith congregation is either a conversation starter or a conversation stopper.  On average, I would say that it is a conversation stopper if I am talking to someone who is Jewish.

Family Responses

My extended family is progressive/liberal thinking, so our choice has not been an issue.  I think the fact that my Irish Grandfather married a Hungarian and that my Catholic Mom married a Protestant were helpful in all of this. Danny is a special person—everyone loved him from Day 1, so that helped.  My extended family was thrilled to come to our older daughter’s Bat Mitzvah.  It has been an added benefit that Rabbi White is from Georgetown (a Jesuit university).

Danny’s family has had a harder time with Danny being in any religious community, particularly his mom, who was raised atheist. In recent years, Danny’s dad has thanked me for bringing Jewish learning into the family. It was very moving that Danny’s dad participated in our daughter’s Bat Mitzvah—he hired a tutor for himself to learn the Torah Reading. I believe strongly that without IFFP, Danny would not have found a comfortable place to develop a religious identity.

Identity of the Children

Our older daughter has stated that she is glad she can “count herself as Jewish” when she is with Jewish kids.  When asked why she feels she can, she says it is because she had the Bat Mitzvah. She hated IFFP, because of the touchy-feely nature of the program/gatherings. But she loved the Bat Mitzvah process she went through with a close friend from IFFP. She may have been better-off in a traditional Sunday school/church/synagogue setting—she is not a person who likes to stand out or be different.

Our younger daughter is a more naturally spiritual soul.  She does not mind IFFP, and sees herself as both. However, the rituals that you get in a Mass, or maybe even in an Orthodox Jewish service, are probably something that she would like more. She would have liked to know more about angels, mystery, etc. She loves to go to Mass with my Pittsburgh family—the candles, the smells… It concerns me how quick she likes to say that Jesus did not really rise from the dead.  I have to coach her about being more sensitive about this topic. I believe both my children are missing a sense of wonder, mystery, overall “Godness” that I had growing up in the Catholic Church.  This is a loss, and they may get it on their own someday, but I think it is harder as an adult.

The Secrets of Successful Interfaith Marriage

I hear a lot of people say that the way interfaith marriage works is through acceptance.  In our marriage, I would say that each of us has embraced the other’s traditions.  I mean really enjoyed them, learned about them, got excited about them, looked forward to them and then shared them.   I have loved all the cooking I’ve done for Jewish holidays—and inviting people who may have never celebrated them.  My mother’s 70th birthday was over Passover—we had a formal Passover dinner as part of the weekend celebration.  Danny loves to go to the Christmas Eve Service, the tree, the crèche, all of it.  So I think the “secret” is that you remember why you married the person—to expand your life, to make your world bigger. That has given us the rich opportunity to learn more about the religious traditions we grew up with, and then learn about each other’s, and then create more traditions together. Danny and I and our children have a more spiritually fulfilling life as a result.

 

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.