Interfaith Zoom Life in Pandemic Times

I have always loved February. My parents had their interfaith wedding in a blizzard on February 13th. So I love the deep February snow when it comes. And I love the chocolate hearts, since the first day for my parents as a married interfaith couple was Valentine’s Day, a day devoted to love. During the six years of my life when I lived on the equator in Senegal and Brazil, I missed the snow (and Valentine’s Day). But in the Brazil years, the joy of Carnaval in February was the highlight of the cultural calendar, and a peak life experience for me, creating a new layer of love for February.

This year, February feels grey and icy cold indeed, as our isolation from each other goes on, and on. We are marking our first pandemic February, closing in on a full year living with masks, and distancing, and the loss of almost 2.5 million lives to COVID-19 worldwide (and almost half a million lives in the US). All of us are mourning. All of us are traumatized. And I wonder at times whether it is relevant, or appropriate, to carry on with my work making space for interfaith families and interfaith identities, or any other kind of “non-essential” work.

But the light is returning, more people are getting vaccinated, and we have hope that we will emerge eventually into a new normal. The story of my parents teaches me that love, combined with persistence and empathy, is essential. And so, I still get joy from supporting interfaith couples and families. So here is an update on what I’ve been up to during these pandemic times.

My work with interfaith families now takes place entirely on zoom, podcasts, telephone, and the internet, which has created the ability to support people anywhere, in any time zone. I have acted as a resource this year for undergraduate students, graduate students, and divinity students, all studying interfaith families, on several countries. This gives me great hope that there will be more academic literature soon, telling the diverse stories of interfaith families, across the globe.

I can zoom into religious studies classrooms anywhere now, without the travel expense. I am honored to be the guest this week, talking about interfaith families and interfaith identities, on Array of Faith. I am interviewed on this podcast by J. Dana Trent, who wrote The Saffron Cross, a book describing her own Christian and Hindu interfaith marriage. Now she has taken pandemic classroom guests to the next level. For the students in her Introduction to World Religions course, she and her husband created the Array of Faith podcast to host speakers with various religious identities.

And in honor of Valentine’s Day this week, I was invited back to State of Belief, the long-running radio show hosted by Rev. Welton Gaddy and the Interfaith Alliance. You can hear me there this week, chatting about interfaith love, interfaith families, and what has changed since I last appeared on the show eight years ago. Welton hosts the show from Monroe, Louisiana, which is one of the towns my rabbi great-grandfather served as he made his way up and down the Mississippi in the 19th century.

Another highlight of my professional year in the pandemic was a zoom keynote at The Guibord Center in LA, in conjunction with an expert on mixed race families, in which we addressed the intersection of these two rich and complex worlds. There is a significant overlap of interfaith families, interracial families, and LGBTQ+ families, and I hope to engage more with these synergies, going forward.

Meanwhile, the support networks I created online have become a refuge, where we can engage with each other without masks or fear of contagion. For interfaith families practicing two religions (any two or more religions or secular identities), join the private Network of Interfaith Family Groups (NIFG) on facebook. And for adult interfaith kids, I recently started up the People of Interfaith Family Heritage private group on facebook. More on that project soon!

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.

My Easter with Christians, Jews and Muslims

Easter Bonnet

We celebrated Easter this year with our community of Christian and Jewish interfaith families. Our minister started off by pointing out that Easter is not in the Bible, and that our holiday traditions make reference to ancient goddesses, and the fertility rites of spring. She then gathered the children together and talked to them about the Buddhist metaphor of a cup of tea representing the comforting memories of life after the tea bag (or body) is gone. She’s not your typical minister.

Next, our rabbi gave an adult sermon about the themes of intimacy, transcendence and unity in the story of the resurrection of Jesus. Somehow, the idea of life beyond death, of renewal and regeneration, seemed completely universal to me as he spoke. As a Jew, I do not feel I need to believe in a messiah or a personal savior in order to celebrate these Easter messages. Our rabbi spent his career at Georgetown, knows his gospels, and has been called a “closet Catholic” by Catholic friends. And yet, he’s an erudite, dedicated and deeply spiritual Jew. He’s not your typical rabbi.

In addition to the Lord of the Dance and older traditional Easter hymns, we sang Bob Marley’s One Love. Then, we had a pancake breakfast that included matzoh brei (matzoh fried in eggs) for those of us who aren’t eating leavening until the end of Passover. This type of radical culinary inclusion is the norm in an interfaith families community. And it is part of what makes this community so comfortable, and so precious, for me.

After our Easter morning with Christians and Jews, I made a quick change out of my pastel dress and Easter bonnet and into a bold print Senegalese outfit, in order to join a community of Catholics and Muslims for our second Easter event of the day, a gathering of the local Catholic Senegalese association. We had the great fortune to be invited to this event by two Senegalese-American friends, one Catholic and one Muslim, who are cousins from an interfaith family, and who know that my husband and I crave Senegalese food and company ever since our years in Dakar. Intermarriage between Muslims and Catholics is not uncommon in Senegal. In fact, both of the Muslim Presidents of Senegal I interviewed as a journalist (Abdou Diouf and Abdoulaye Wade) had Catholic wives.

What struck me at this Easter feast, and touched me deeply, was the way the Catholics made sure to accommodate the dietary restrictions of Muslim family members and friends. All of the main dishes featured mutton or chicken, rather than ham, and the one dish with pork in it was carefully labelled. Our Muslim friend reminded us how people of all religions in Senegal share another local culinary tradition on Good Friday: ngalax, a dessert made from peanut butter, vanilla, sugar, and the fruit of the baobab tree, served with raisins over millet couscous. Typically, Catholics make the dish on Good Friday and deliver it to neighbors, friends and family of all religions, just as Muslims in Senegal share the mutton from the Tabaski (or Eid al-Adha) feast with neighbors of all religions.

I often use the Passover dish of charoset as a metaphor for my interfaith family: a mix of nuts, fruits, spices and wine, with flavors melding over time. Now I have a sweet new metaphor: the nuts and fruits and grain of ngalax, bonding interfaith families, neighborhoods, and countries.

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.

Mardi Gras and Carnival: Joyful Interfaith Syncretism

We have arrived at my favorite moment in what I think of as the syncretic calendar:  the cycle of celebrations around the world acknowledging that religions collide, intertwine, hybridize, just as human beings in interfaith families do. This moment is called Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Carnaval in Brazil, and Carnival in Haiti and many parts of the Catholic world. Pre-Lenten revelry has roots in Christian Europe, nourished by pre-Christian pagan traditions, and then by indigenous and African religions in the Americas. I find particular resonance in the inclusive nature of Carnival, a time for playing with and vaulting over traditional boundaries of gender, race, and religion.

Experiencing Carnaval in Brazil contributed to my own fluid religious identity. I was born into an interfaith Jewish/Christian family with roots in New Orleans, predisposed to noticing religious interplay. As a young adult, I spent three formative years in Senegal, a progressive Muslim country built on African religious traditions and Catholic colonial history. Then, as a young mother, I spent three crucial years in Brazil,  a progressive Catholic country built on African and Amerindian traditions.

Brazil’s population is just as wildly diverse as ours: indigenous cultures, Africans, Japanese farmers, Germans and Italians and Arabs, Jews who arrived with the first European explorers. The entire country (except for disapproving evangelical Protestant sects) feels the right to celebrate together during Carnaval.

The time of revelry comes to a peak this week with Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras), the day before Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. In Brazil, each day of this week entails a vast, complex, and region-specific universe of rituals, songs, dances, stories and costumes melding Catholicism, Yoruba rites from West Africa, and indigenous traditions. In my beloved city of Recife, there is a night of drumming, frevo dancing with umbrellas, spangled Afro-Brazilian Maracatu dancers clenching flowers in their teeth, masked revelers recalling the origins of Carnival in Europe.

Living in the cold (dare I say frigid?) north, we are deprived of Carnival, and I feel weltzschmertz, a world-sadness, when, instead, I am trapped in a March landscape of ice and dormant grey trees. On Fat Tuesday, our children go to school as if it were any other day (in Brazil they would have the week off). Perhaps on Ash Wednesday they notice ashes on the forehead of a Catholic friend or two, or perhaps not. Our culture seems only vaguely aware that Lent is upon us. I miss the warmth and daring of Carnival. I miss the feeling of a whole country celebrating together for a week, reveling in the joyful syncretism of Mardi Gras.

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.

Tuned to the “Bothness” Frequency

As I write this morning, I’m also watching the Wold Cup match between Japan and Cameroon. I was living in West Africa in 1990 when Cameroon emerged as the first African team to make it to the quarter-finals. I became a lifelong soccer fan in those moments when the entire continent would go silent, huddled around televisions powered by car batteries, and then cheer in unison at each goal.

Why am I writing about soccer? Because no matter what I’m doing, I seem to be inadvertently tuned in to a frequency broadcasting the growing “bothness” of our world. Just now, I heard the announcers mention that one of the Ghanaian players is half-German. He’s both. And one of the Japanese players was born in the soccer-obsessed nation of Brazil. He’s both too. Increasingly, we’re all on the bothness spectrum, whether through intermarriage, immigration, adoption or simply through choosing to ally ourselves in new ways, through purposeful. global recombination.

Also this week, I tuned in to the “bothness frequency” when Diane Ives and Jon Lickerman, my fellow members of the Interfaith Families Project, got a letter published in the Washington Post testifying to the strength of interfaith marriages and families supported by our community and to the exuberant “bothness” of their son.

And also this week, I attended the Network of Spiritual Progressives conference in Washington, and tuned in to the bothness frequency as I heard speaker after speaker testify to the importance of “breaking down boundaries,” “crossing borders” and “embracing the other.” While not everyone engaged in interfaith dialogue likes to acknowledge this, interfaith families walk this walk every day. The proliferation of official interfaith conferences and organizations creates a constant hum on the bothness frequency, even though many do not (want to) understand what they hear this way.

Earlier this month, the bothness frequency came in loud and clear as I read the bewildered response of a Jewish blogger to Orthodox Rabbi Brad Hirschfeld’s realistic and open-hearted acknowledgement of families raising their children with both religions. The blogger notes with discomfort the Rabbi’s “relaxed attitude towards syncretism,” as if all religions were not, by nature and throughout history, inherently syncretic. The fact is that more and more members of the clergy are beginning to understand that interfaith communities are not going away, and may even have some merit.

Finally, one of my favorite bloggers, MaNishtana, wrote a powerful post this week about his own bothness: he is an African-American, and a Jew. His words reflect and amplify and resonate for all of us who are both, in all of our many ways of being both. He’s broadcasting loud and clear on the bothness frequency. Check it out.

Ten Things I Love About Islam

I spent three formative years living in Senegal, a stable democratic country that is more than 90% Muslim. I emerged with a deep appreciation of Islam, and I believe my experiences as an interfaith child helped me to be open to forming these positive impressions. My friend Surabhi commented on my blog post “Ten Things I Love About Christianity” that there are probably ten things we love about each religion we come to know. So I was inspired to write a personal and somewhat random list for the third of the three Abrahamic faiths.

  1. Ethnic Inclusivity. Muslims don’t think of themselves as a tribe. Indonesia, Mali, Jordan—three Muslim countries, three different races. I am inspired by Malcolm X’s 1964 “Letter from Mecca,” in which he begins to overcome his own antipathy to white people when he sees Muslims of all colors praying together
  2. Humility in Worship. When we lived in Dakar, our apartment balcony looked out on a street that was filled each Friday with the faithful bowed down in prayer. Businessmen in European suits and embroidered African robes, and the lowliest street sweepers in rags, all would roll out their mats side by side in the street and kneel down together.
  3. The Sound of the Muezzin. President Obama remarked on the evocative sound of the call to prayer. We used to spend weekends on the Senegalese island of Goree, where our friend Harriet had a house with a rooftop terrace covered with Mauritanian leather pillows. We would lounge up there, drinking tea right under the megaphone on the mosque next door. Each time the call went out across the island, it moved and thrilled me.
  4. Islamic Design. In Islam, the prohibition against making figurative art evolved into gorgeous calligraphy, and murals and tiles in intricate patterns tied to the rich history of Arab geometry, algebra and astronomy.
  5. Islamic Architecture. I remember the silhouette of a splendid minaret against a huge orange moon rising from the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Dakar. And the ancient mud mosques of Djenne, in Mali, are worth the endless bus ride from Bamako. Magnificent, like dip-drop castles by way of Gaudi, each spire topped by an ostrich egg.
  6. Sufi Dancing. I’m a sucker for a circle dance. For all my half-Jewish ambivalence about Israel, I adore Israeli dancing, and Greek dancing too. The Sufi zikr, ecstatic chanting and dancing, has developed a tremendous following in the United States and Europe. Some Westerners seek to divorce Sufism from Islam, and to avoid the Muslim label. I like to credit Islam with giving birth to a practice that has such universal appeal.
  7. Senegalese Music. The Islamic brotherhoods of Senegal have inspired music appreciated around the world. I groove to the Muslim references in songs by Toure Kunda, Baaba Maal, Youssou N’Dour, and anything by the deeply spiritual Cheikh Lo.
  8. Rumi. The ever-popular thirteenth-century Persian poet and Sufi mystic, widely appreciated for his ecumenical philosophy, was nonetheless a devout Muslim.
  9. Hagar. Mother of Abraham’s son Ishmael, and thus the matriarch of Islam, Hagar was exiled in the desert, but survived and prevailed. Israeli peace activists who advocate for a two-state solution in the Middle East now cite her as inspiration. Charlotte Gordon’s fascinating new book revolves around Hagar’s central role in the founding of the three Abrahamic faiths.
  10. Jesus the Prophet. I’m not the first to realize that the Muslim view of Jesus–that he was one in a line of prophets descended from Abraham–could actually fit into my Jewish (or at least Jewish/Christian) world view. As an interfaith child, I look for these opportunities for a personal “meeting of the three faiths.”

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

Children of Abraham

Sue in Senegal, 1980s

In 1987, I got married, quit my job as a Newsweek reporter, and moved to the West African country of Senegal. I had to forge a new identity as a nice half-Jewish girl, married to a Protestant boy, working for a Catholic organization, in a Muslim country. The word “interfaith” had always implied Jewish and Christian to me. Now I found myself immersed in a moderate, thriving democratic culture with a Muslim president, Abdou Diouf, who was married to a Catholic. My world view expanded radically, and I began to see the world through three religious filters instead of two.

The full realization that Islam and Judaism are siblings came to me in dramatic fashion soon after arriving in Senegal. In the celebration known in West Africa as Tabaski (the Eid al-Adha to Muslims around the world), families sacrifice a ram to commemorate the story in which God asked Abraham to bind his son, but then provided a ram to sacrifice instead. Sound familiar? To Jews, the son was Isaac, Sarah’s son. Muslims believe it was Ishmael, Hagar’s son. Jews read this story from the Torah each autumn on the Jewish New Year—Rosh Hashanah.

On both holidays, we seek forgiveness. In synagogues, we say that God will forgive us for sins against God, but only our fellow human beings can forgive us for sins against them. We say this, and every year we intend to go out and actually ask forgiveness, but how many of us follow through?

On my first Tabaski, in the home of a Senegalese schoolteacher,  friends and neighbors dropped by throughout the day. Our host explained, “God forgives sins against God, but these visitors come to ask us for forgiveness for sins against them.”  I was humbled by and envious of the sincerity, the personal action, the deep communal bonding going on before my eyes. Somehow, this essential part of the forgiveness ritual had disappeared from the American suburban Reform Judaism of my youth.

Since 9/11, many Americans are attempting to include the growing American Muslim population in a “trialogue” to replace the old interfaith dialogue between Christians and Jews. We acknowledge that these three faiths share a history, that we are all “children of Abraham.” As the Jewish Days of Awe approach this year, I think again of the possibilities for reconciliation between the children of Abraham. American Jews and Christians now live side by side with Muslims–we go to school together, even marry each other. The day of reconciliation, an awesome day indeed, will be hastened as we all overcome our ignorance through personal experience.

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.