Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and the Flood of 1942

Vintage postcard depicting our temple

On the first night of Hanukkah, I returned from my ancestral homeland, Honesdale, PA. This town, where my great-great grandparents are buried, lies in a deep valley in the foothills of the Poconos, at the confluence of the Lackawaxen River and Dyberry Creek. In Honesdale, we gather together from across the country every Thanksgiving. And on the night after Thanksgiving this year, we arrived at our teeny tiny ancestral temple for Shabbat prayers with my extended family, a mixed multitude of Jews and Christians and blood relatives and relatives-by-choice. This year, my young cousin Elizabeth led the prayers in the sanctuary where my father became a Bar Mitzvah.

Throughout our history, since my great-grandfather helped found Beth Israel congregation in 1849, we have often led services ourselves. Some weeks, in some years, rabbis drive over from New York City to lead Shabbat for us, but my family has been leading prayers on Fridays at our temple through four generations now. This week my cousin Liza, the current president of the congregation, arrived early and lit the electric yahrzeit (memorial) lights next to the names of all our family members–including my father and my (Episcopalian) mother–lighting up half the yarhrzeit plaques in the room. Once, this temple was thought to be the smallest in the world. We are small but historic, proud and persistent–the second-oldest synagogue in the country still occupied by the original congregation.

Earlier that day, I sat in the living room of the house my grandfather built for my grandmother in 1922, and listened as my son recorded his grandfather’s sister–still sharp and witty at 94–on his iPhone. Aunt Corinne told the story of the flood of 1942, when she was 14. It was a Friday night, and she went to temple with my grandparents and her little sister for the informal lay-led Shabbat prayers. Keep in mind that the temple is perched directly on the riverbank, just blocks downstream from the point where the Dyberry flows into the Lackawaxen.

No photo description available.
1941, The Swing Seven, Bill Katz (age 16) at the piano

Typically, in the 1930s and 40s, in winter, after 20 minutes of Shabbat prayers the whole congregation would go over to Honesdale High School for the weekly basketball game. My father’s band, The Swing Seven, would play for the dance after the game. But by 1942, my father had graduated and gone off to MIT. And it was May, not basketball season, and the waters were rising, so they all hurried home after the prayers, to the house ten blocks upstream, on Dyberry Creek.

At that point my grandfather, as he had before in past floods, somehow hoisted the Steinway grand piano up onto stacks of books, hoping to keep it above the water rising from the floorboards. My grandmother and aunts retreated to the second floor. But then, my grandmother realized her children might get hungry, and went back down to the kitchen to get them some bread from the pantry. As she entered the pantry, the waters whooshed the door closed behind her, and almost trapped her. But she was a very small person (we are a family of small people) and she was able to squeeze out and slosh her way back upstairs. Late that night, the floodwaters on the Lackawaxen peaked at 50,000 cubic feet per second, killing 26 people and destroying 75 homes in Honesdale. The flood washed out every bridge in town, as well as the prized 1933 stained glass windows in the temple.

At the house of my grandparents, my aunt watched from the landing of the stairs as the grand piano rose up and turtled, floating upside down in six feet of water in the living room. The next day, from the safety of the roof, she saw a rowboat glide down her street, with a neighbor distributing bread to those trapped on rooftops. And she saw planes buzzing overhead, photographing the flood from the air.

The phone lines were out, and no one could reach my father with news they were safe. Several states away, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, an MIT classmate asked him, “Hey Katz! What’s the name again of your little town in Pennsylvania again?” My father replied, “Honesdale!” And his classmate said, “Well it’s flooded and it’s on the front page of the paper. Look at this photo!”

When the waters subsided, and the phones finally got reconnected, my grandfather called Steinway to report four grand pianos owned by different family members in town, all submerged in the Honesdale flood. Steinway declared them beyond repair, and my grandparents began a search for a new piano. As my aunt recounted this story, sitting in the living room of her childhood home, we all looked over at the replacement Steinway. The temple made the practical decision to replace the destroyed stained glass windows with plain glass. My aunts got sent away to a relative in the countryside for weeks while my grandparents cleaned and repaired the house. And eventually two dams were built–on the Lackawaxen and the Dyberry–to prevent another deadly flood.

I realized this week, in that temple sanctuary, and in the living room of the house of my grandparents, and at the Thanksgiving meal where we entertained ourselves with a fashion parade of Katz pajamas, that we were taking risks this year. Last year, we did not gather at all. This year, we made a fraught decision to gather in spite of the pandemic, fully vaccinated and with testing and masks, because one can only go so long without family. Each year is precious, because each year we remember together the new marriages and deaths, and listen to stories from our elders, stories that may be lost.

This year, because of the alignment of the sun and moon and the secular calendar, we just missed celebrating Hanukkah together. By the time Hanukkah arrived on Sunday night, we had all gone home–to San Francisco, New York, Boston, and Washington DC. As I lit the first candle in our window, alone with my husband and our pandemic puppy, I thought about miracles.

I thought about the connections between the Hanukkah miracle of light in the darkness, of the miracle of tenacity in hostile environments, of escape from narrow places, of self-sufficiency, of adversity as the mother of innovation, of physical and emotional repair. I thought about the miracle of diversity that enriches our given and chosen interfaith families. And I thought about how objects become imbued with history, with spiritual resonance. Sometimes a Steinway is lost, and we feel desperate to replace it. Sometimes stained glass windows are lost, and plain glass just makes more sense. Sometimes a temple is ransacked, and all it takes is a little oil to persist with rituals that heal and bind.

I have trouble letting go of the stories from each generation, the objects left behind. And that is how I found myself yesterday driving away from Honesdale, over the mountains, in a car filled with a rotary telephone, a hatbox, vintage Pyrex, embroidered linens, and photographs, desperate to preserve family history from the floodwaters of time. Inevitably I know that some precious objects, and some stories, will be lost, and some will be passed down. And I feel a sense of gratitude that my son wanted both my aunt’s words recorded on his iPhone, and that rusted enamel colander with the missing handle.

This year’s first night of Hanukkah, photo Susan Katz Miller

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.

Shabbat with Interfaith Families: Going Deep, Across Generations

On Friday, our family of four attended a potluck Shabbat. To the casual onlooker, our modern American Jewish ritual would have appeared to be very similar to any other potluck Shabbat in America. Eight families gathered, toting sesame noodles, baked chicken, salad, brownies. Led by a dynamic young dad who celebrates Shabbat every week with his wife and three young children, we sang blessings over the candles, the wine, the challah. Then we recited the blessings over our children. I reached up to place one hand on my willowy daughter’s head, and thought about how she will turn eighteen in a few weeks. I reached my other hand out to my son’s head: he turns fifteen today. And then we sang a song to welcome the Sabbath.

As in most Shabbat potluck gatherings, some of us know more of the blessings than others, and some of us, old and young, are still learning them, mumbling and stumbling along. Some of us were relieved when a song shifted into a verse of clapping and nigun–the repetitive, wordless syllables used to inspire mystical ecstasy–since “dai dai dai” makes it easy for anyone to sing along.

What made this Shabbat gathering different, as always in our community, is the simple fact that we are all interfaith families educating our children in two religions. This means that families can immerse themselves in the rituals, without feeling they are being judged about whether they are Jewish enough. The non-Jewish partners can delve as deeply as they want into Jewish practice, without worrying over whether anyone expects them to abandon their own religious practice, or convert, or refrain from passing their own traditions on to their children.

Our hosts, a woman who considered the rabbinate until she intermarried, and a man of Irish/Italian Catholic background, made everyone feel at home. (Well, some felt more comfortable than others when their son brought out his baby python.) But in general, there was romping on the trampoline, a jam on bass and congas, discussion of school politics, and sharing of our different religious experiences. Children and adults were forced to interact socially across age differences. It was all very, very good.

One middle-aged potlucker surprised me when he admitted he had never been to a Shabbat in a family home before, having been raised as a secular Jew. I thought about the children in our interfaith community, and the efforts we are making, as parents, to preserve this most important Jewish holiday of all, to give our children the gift of Shabbat. Growing up as a Reform Jew, we rarely celebrated Shabbat in our home: I do not remember my parents laying hands on our heads and blessing us. As an interfaith community, we are often accused of watering down religious practice. And yet, in some of our interfaith families, I have seen a love of Judaism revive, and the depth of Jewish ritual and knowledge intensify, across the generations. We are going deep on our own schedule, on our own terms, in our radically-inclusive way. We are going deep while simultaneously allowing our children to learn about Christianity. But we are going deep.

Aunt Babette’s Cook Book: “Easter” Passover Dishes

As the week of both Passover and Easter approaches, interfaith parents may become as frantic or frenzied as children hunting for the afikomen, or for Easter eggs. On top of juggling the theological issues, we face the practical challenge of preparing more than one traditional family meal, and trying to squeeze in all of the foodways (dying the eggs, rolling the matzoh balls) that create sensory memories and transmit a sense of heritage to our children.

I returned to my Jewish grandmother’s house this week (she died in 1994 but we have kept her house), attended the Shabbat service at our tiny Temple Beth Israel (in Honesdale PA) to celebrate my cousin Bill’s 90th birthday, and spent time with my parents (now 80 and 87) looking through old family photos and cookbooks. My Jewish family is religious, but also Classical Reform, which means they love Torah, but see little reason to preserve every one of the hundreds of cultural restrictions that set Jews apart. My grandmother, raised in Louisville by a Rabbi and his Jewish wife from New Orleans, left behind handwritten recipes for baked ham, and creole shrimp.

Last year, I published Grandma’s recipe for southern-style charoset, made with pecans, oranges and bananas. This year, in her kitchen, I found a leather-bound 1889 third edition of Aunt Babette’s Cook Book, a hugely popular guidebook for Jewish housewives, published by the Bloch Publishing Company in Cincinnati. Edward Bloch’s sister was married to the greatest pioneer of Reform Judaism in America, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise.

Aunt Babette’s is not a kosher cookbook by any stretch of the imagination. The recipe for Lobster Salad reads: “If you wish to have it extra nice mix in last a cupful of whipped cream.” I am a New England girl who loves her lobster in drawn butter, but some ancient tribal part of my soul does recoil at the idea of lobster slathered in whipped cream.

So what makes Aunt Babette’s a Jewish cookbook at all? Many of the German recipes (zviebel platz, leberknadel, wiener studenten kipfel) could presumably be found in German Catholic, German Lutheran, and German Jewish homes. The suggested menu for Friday supper gives no culinary hint of the Sabbath: speckled trout, potatoes, pistachio ice cream.

Ironically, all of the specifically-Jewish recipes are found in the chapter entitled “Easter Dishes,” which does not address the Christian Easter at all, but instead begins with a section on “How to Set the Table for the Service of the “Sedar” on the eve of Pesach or Passover.” Here we find what I believe is the only word printed in Hebrew in this book: חֲרֽוֹסֶת (charoset), in the midst of a careful description of each ritual food needed for the Sedar plate, though there is no reference to their religious meanings. In fact, the last line of this paragraph reads “In some families hard-boiled eggs are distributed after the sedar (Easter eggs).”

The purposeful cross-labeling of Passover as Easter here is fascinating to me, especially after reading the hundreds of comments on my post last week, in which I advised interfaith families on celebrating both Easter and Passover, but keeping them separate. Reading Babette’s book made me think I am in fact keeping them more separate than some of my Jewish ancestors did. My readers noted that in many languages, the word for Easter and Passover is the same–a variation on “pascal.” However, I have to wonder if this cookbook does not reflect both assimilation, and a desire to diffuse the anti-Semitism of the time by educating curious Christian housewives who might browse through the book about the connections and similarities between the holidays, despite their huge theological differences.

Both holidays do share the symbolism of the egg, or the circle of life, and renewal in spring, and many of my Huffington Post readers are debating these questions: Did Christians borrow the egg from Passover? Did Pagan egg symbolism predate Judeo-Christian eggs, and get incorporated into both, separately or in succession? Did the Easter egg hunt evolve from the hunt for leavened bread crumbs prior to Passover?

Aunt Babette goes on to give a dozen recipes for funky-retro Passover dishes, including matzoh kloesse (balls) with prune filling, and raisin wine. I was thrilled to find one dish my grandmother made for us when we visited her for Pesach each year, not because I don’t know how to make it (she taught me herself), but because it explained Grandma’s name for the dish: ueberschlagene (“overturned”) matzoh, known to most Jewish families as matzoh brei. I never understood why my grandmother used a different name for this dish. I realize now that she grew up with the German name (shared by Aunt Babette), rather than the Yiddish. Her father, the rabbi, had been a German teacher in the public schools. Anyway, it is a long and colorful name, for a simple seasonal treat that combines eggs, with all of their varied meanings, and matzoh.

Ueberschlagene Matzos

Beat up a dozen eggs, very light; add salt and soak the matzos in the beaten egg. (It is much better to soak the matzos in milk first, then in the beaten egg.) In the meantime heat a quantity of goose oil in a spider*; dip each piece of matzos in the eggs before laying in the spider; fry a light brown on both sides; lay on a large platter and sprinkle with a mixture of sugar, cinnnamon and grated peel of a lemon; the more eggs used the richer they will be. Delicious.

* spider=cast iron frying pan, originally with three legs

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 Bar Mitzvah: A Planning Report

We are an interfaith family, but in many respects, we are preparing for a “typical” Bar Mitvah. I am busy figuring out how to whittle the gargantuan guest list to fit the intimate space and the vision of a meaningful day with the people who truly know and love my son. I am working with the caterer on a menu free of crabcakes and Smtihfield ham (not easy in the Chesapeake watershed). Do we need a photographer? Do we need flowers?

Meanwhile, my son has mastered chanting the blessings for before and after the reading of the Torah. He’s working on learning his Torah portion (called a parsha) and on some of the other central prayers he will lead in this Shabbat service. And he is thinking about the meaning of his parsha, discussing it with rabbis and mentors, and figuring out what he will say about it in the speech known as a D’var Torah. All very traditional tasks.

But at the same time, we are very mindful of the fact that Jews are a minority in our community of friends, and in my son’s family tree. And we want to convey the fact that my son is transitioning into adulthood at the heart of an interfaith community, the community we chose when he was still an infant. So we are designing a service and a program that will explain every element of the ceremony, every prayer and ritual, instead of using a standard prayer book. The intent is to be as welcoming, inclusive, personalized and comprehensible as possible.

When we say the Sh’ma, we will explain the central role of this prayer in Judaism. When we say the Shehechiyanu, we will explain how this prayer is used to celebrate reaching any joyous occasion (even a meshugganah interfaith Bar Mitzvah!). When my son says the V’ahavtah, we will not only include the English translation (“Thou shalt love the Lord…”) but we will explain that this is the prayer from Deuteronomy found on the scroll in every mezuzah, (which will also mean explaining, “What’s a mezuzah?”).

And we will point out the words in the V’ahavtah, “thou shalt teach them diligently to thy children,” because that is the point, or at least one of the points, of gathering our family and friends as our son comes of age. My father married a Christian, but he made sure I learned this prayer. I married a Christian, but I made sure my children learned this prayer. Our family may be wild and woolly, patrilineal renegades, motley, mixed, outside the box, beyond the pale. Some think we are sadly mistaken. And yet we are serious, willing to put time and considerable effort into the religious education of our children. We strive to be diligent.

 

Interfaith Love for Pink Martini

It’s easy to gripe about holiday music.  A dearth of good Hanukkah tunes. Too many cheesy strings. Novelty songs about reindeer and snowmen. Bob Dylan dredging up material from school assemblies of yore.

My approach has been to stick with the classics: brass quintets, lush classical choirs, Nat King Cole, Mel Torme. But now that I have teenagers, I must try to stay relevant. So I made an impulse purchase a couple of weeks ago at the counter of guess-which-coffee-franchise, and bought Joy to the World by a “little orchestra” based in Portland, Oregon.

Oh, Pink Martini! How do I love thee? Let me count the ways:

1. Such visual taste! Your pale pink packaging, as comely as a cupcake, with cut-out skyline featuring a church and a mosque, and only the most subtle of references to the complementary colors of red and green.

2. Such musical taste! Spare jazz guitar and trombone, glorious harmonies, a slide guitar, a cello, an accordion, a mandolin.

3. Such intellect! The duo fronting Pink Martini, classically-trained pianist Thomas Lauderdale and singer China Forbes, met as Harvard undergraduates. Joy to the World features songs and verses sung in Ukrainian, Japanese, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Hebrew, Ladino and Arabic. Oh, and NPR White House correspondent Ari Shapiro sings (astoundingly well) on both of the Jewish-themed songs.

4. Such cosmopolitan sophistication! Rhythms from Afrobeat to Brazilian samba revive songs I thought I never wanted to hear again (“We Three Kings,” “Auld Lang Syne”). And Forbes’s sultry, smoky lounge sound makes new such classics as “White Christmas” and “Santa Baby.”

5. Such leaping across boundaries! Forbes is half African-American and half European-American. Bothness! My theme! Just like an interfaith child, she embodies the future, recombines cultures. Nimbly avoiding the “let’s throw in one lame Hanukkah song” tradition, Pink Martini does justice to Flory Jagoda’s Sephardic tango of a Hanukkah song, “Ocho Candelikas,” and a gorgeous contemporary setting of part of the Amidah, a central Shabbat prayer (out of place? who cares?). And how many holiday albums attempt to move beyond dialogue to trialogue? In an inspired oblique reference to all three Abrahamic faiths, Joy to the World features poetic Arabic verses on two songs, including “Silent Night.”

6. Such historical hipsterism! In interviews, Thomas Lauderdale admires the golden age of Christmas music written between 1940 and 1965. Joy to the World includes definitive renditions of two of my guiltiest secret pleasures from that era, “The Little Drummer Boy” and “Do You Hear What I Hear.” Who knew that the latter song was a plea for peace written in response to the Cuban Missile Crisis? And if you just cannot bear “The Little Drummer Boy” again, well, you’re missing something.

Pink Martini will broadcast live this evening on Prairie Home Companion. Garrison Keillor got all crotchity last year on the subject of Christmas songs, I know. But how many holiday albums truly reflect the joy of our global, cross-cultural, interfaith world? Tune in, bliss out, enjoy the glow of Pink Martini.

 

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.

Interfaith Teens: Staying Engaged

This weekend, my thirteen-year-old son officially began his Coming of Age (COA) year by going whitewater rafting on the Potomac River. The trip fosters bonding among the teens and other “COA kids” from the Interfaith Families Project (IFFP). I suppose this kind of rowdy, outdoor adventure kicks off the year in all sorts of teen groups–Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or secular humanist. What makes this trip unique is the fact that these particular kids are coming of age surrounded by and supported by other interfaith teens.

Most religious institutions struggle with keeping teenagers engaged. After formal religious school ends, parents ease up on attendance, and it can be tough to compete for time with the AP classes, the high school sports programs, the college searches. But in our family, our kids know better than to take our interfaith community for granted. They know that many interfaith kids do not have such a community nearby. And they know that both of their parents have dedicated a lot of time and thought to building and maintaining this community for them.

So yesterday, my 16-year-old daughter woke up and spent her last morning of summer, her last day before starting her junior year, singing Hinay Mah Tov and even dancing with me under a spreading oak tree at our first IFFP Gathering of the year. Some folks traveled up to an hour to celebrate the start of the year with other interfaith families. This pull, the desire to be with those who fully share our interfaith experience, is strong indeed.

During the hour-long Gathering, my daughter did whisper at times with a friend, and crammed in a little bit of last-minute summer Spanish homework. But she also smiled over at me during favorite songs and at moments when a phrase or thought resonated with her. She may have been half-listening, but she was also continuing to soak up good stuff, including the sense of support from a multigenerational community, and intellectual content including a reflection on the pre-Judaic origins of the Sabbath among the ancient Sumerians.

After the Gathering, a hundred interfaith families potlucked together, and silkscreened gorgeous T-shirts in rainbow colors with our logo: the Venn diagram that represents our interlocking religions. A couple of teens helped with the silkscreening. The teens also met briefly under a tree about the Yom Kippur service they will lead next month. Then my daughter went to a planning meeting with the two dads (one Jewish, one Christian) who will teach the kindergarten class in our interfaith Sunday School this year. They are new to the classroom, and she is the old-timer now in her third year as a teen assistant, advising on which craft projects will be successful, and classroom management.

This year, my son will join his big sister in giving back to our community. On the Sunday mornings when the Coming of Age class does not meet (because sometimes it meets in the evenings, to make it more exciting), he will wake up anyway, and accompany the rest of the family to IFFP. There, he will work in the nursery, following in his sister’s footsteps, being a cool interfaith teen role model. Both my children have a lot of competition for their time: heavy academic workloads, and active social lives. But they also understand how lucky we are to live in this time and place, pioneering an interfaith community.

Interfaith Family Shabbat: Essential Warmth

Recently, I hosted a potluck Shabbat, inviting three other interfaith families from our community. Gathered around the glow of the candles, I discovered once again the essential energy, warmth, illumination I gain from being with “my people”–the interfaith tribe. Collectively, that night, our ancestors included a rabbi from New Orleans, an Episcopal bishop, an Irish Jewish violinist from Dublin, Italian New York Catholics, and a Cuban Santeria priestess.

For our children, it was a chance to experience together the blessings over the wine, the challah and the candles without fear of looking foolish if they got something “wrong.” Our interfaith Sunday School teaches Hebrew literacy and essential Jewish prayers. But I also believe the intent of the Sabbath–the desire to break from the everyday and create a contemplative moment and sense of community–has much greater importance than the ritual details.

Earlier this year, an interfaith child I know felt humiliated when, after struggling with a book of flimsy matches, she lit one Shabbat candle with the flame from the other, and a rabbi who was present grimaced and stated that it isn’t done this way. I know, I know, a ritual isn’t a ritual unless it is performed the same way each time. But rituals evolve, and every Jew of every denomination must pick and choose the rituals to follow from the list of 613 commandments, many of which are so anachronistic as to appear surreal. In fact, lighting the Shabbat candles does not even rate a mention in the 613 commandments: it turns out to be a relatively recent ritual by Jewish standards (less than a thousand years), created by marvelous Jewish women. Furthermore,  lighting one Shabbat candle with the other is permitted according to some rabbis. We could probably stage a debate with a panel of rabbis to discuss the question.

I love the lively Talmudic tradition of questioning everything, but there is a time and place for this sort of semantic and intellectual wrestling, and a time and a place to be in the spiritual moment, focusing on the fire and not the matches. As an interfaith person who has often been excluded by Jewish clergy and institutions, I am highly attuned to the fact that such small incidents of being corrected or rebuffed can play a magnified role in the identity and affiliation choices made by interfaith people.

Some Jewish institutions have made impressive strides in welcoming and including interfaith families. Years ago, I wrote an essay explaining why I believe that, in spite of such progress, there is still a need for interfaith family communities, independent of Jewish institutions. More than ever, I stand by that position. I do not believe the complex identity of interfaith children will be “solved” when Jewish institutions evolve, or when Jewish outreach workers notice the needs of interfaith people. My own goal is to expand access to the unique benefits of celebrating Shabbat with a group composed entirely of interfaith families. In those moments, as we lift up the challah, no one is judging us. Everyone has the right to be there: no one is questioning whether our Judaism is matrilineal or patrilineal, whether our rituals adequately prove our Judaism, or whether we are sufficiently suppressing the Christianity in our families. Every interfaith family is welcome at this Shabbat table: the result feels unique, powerful, and necessary.

Deep Pause: Interfaith Sabbath

We are blanketed now in three feet of snow, the outside world has become muffled and distant, and we are forced into a pause one could describe as an extended Shabbat. On the first night of the storm, which happened to be Friday, we had a spontaneous music jam with close friends who walked and skied to our house to play saxophone, ukulele, guitar and viola. On the second night, still without power,  our family huddled by the fireplace, in a pile of pillows and blankets, with the dog, the cat and the guinea pig all snuggled with us for warmth. With no internet or television, my daughter read out loud from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, not exactly the “good book,” but indeed a very good and thought-provoking book that she happens to be reading for 10th grade English. The entire experience was restorative (until it got too darned cold, at which point we moved to a friend’s house).

I was lucky to have many moments like this one in my childhood, growing up in a happy interfaith family. But we  rarely performed the specific rituals of the formal Jewish Sabbath. We went faithfully to religious school every week at our Reform Temple, and we celebrated Passover and the High Holy Days, but Friday nights were pretty secular–devoted to school or social events. My mother, raised Episcopalian, did everything she could to raise us as Jews. But the 1960s and 70s were an assimilated period in Reform Judaism–rather dry, without the joy and juice of the Renewal or Chasidic movements. None of our Jewish friends seemed to celebrate the Sabbath very often, either. It probably didn’t help that we lived in a very Protestant little New England town, filled with white steeples and dominated by a Puritan anathema for displays of emotion or exoticism.

My children, though we are raising them in an interfaith community and not exclusively as Jews, have grown up celebrating Shabbat rituals more frequently than I did. And as often as not, it is my husband who reminds us to light the candles and say blessings on Friday. My husband, who grew up as an acolyte in the Episcopalian church. My husband, who offered to agree to raise our children as Jews.

Instead, I found and embraced the  interfaith spiritual home I had sought all of my life. And my husband followed where I went, helping to pioneer this new pathway, even stepping onto the Board of the Interfaith Families Project after I stepped down as a Board Chair. We are deeply committed, together, and our children see this and it helps to water their deep roots in this radical interfaith soil. And it also helps that our interfaith community, along with many Jewish and Christian communities these days, infuses song, spirituality and even mysticism into old rituals.

So on Friday nights, my daughter is happy to put to use the silver Kiddush cup and candlesticks that she received for her interfaith Coming of Age ceremony when she turned thirteen. My 12-year-old son shows off his mastery of the prayer over the fruit of the vine. Together, we sing the English/Hebrew “camp” version of the blessing over the challah: “Hamotzi Lechem Min Ha’aretz, We give thanks to God for bread. Our voices raise in song together, as our joyful prayer is said: Baruch atah adonai, eloheinu melech ha’olam. Hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz. Amen.”

While  this version of the blessing seemed hokey at first, I like the fact that it incorporates the English, so that if we have non-Jewish visitors, they understand the meaning of the prayer without having to wait for the translation. In our interfaith community, this version feels more inclusive of the Christian spouses, and of the children who are just beginning to learn Jewish rituals, because of the way it weaves in the context.

Even when it’s not Friday night, we try to pause before a meal with friends or family to acknowledge the communion of breaking bread together. Feeling thankful in this sense does not require a creed or dogma; it does not require a belief in God at all. Sometimes, a few words of thanks to our guests for being there is all that is needed. Or sometimes, we use a “grace” we learned at Appalachian folk dance camp. It sounds Buddhist to me: if anyone knows its origins, let me know. It is sung to a jaunty little tune, which can be sung in a round, and the words are: “Thank you for this food, this glorious, glorious food–and the animals, and the vegetables, and the minerals, that make it possible.”

As the snow continues to fall here, we pause to appreciate warmth, electricity, food and friends. Nature is reminding us to stop, unplug, experience the power of the blizzard, and take a deep breath of the frosted air.

Ten Things I Love About Judaism

Kiddush Cup, photo Susan Katz Miller

Three out of four of my children’s grandparents grew up as Christians. So why am I insisting on raising my children with Judaism as well as Christianity? The philosophical, political and psychological reasons recur as themes throughout this blog. But since I recently posted the Christian stuff I love, I thought I should also list some of the things, big and small, I love about Judaism:

  1. The Music. Leonard Bernstein and George Gershwin,  the Klezmatics and Shlomo Carlebach, Regina Spektor and Matisyahu. I feel a kinesthetic rush of communal joy when dancing in a circle, singing ancient, minor melodies.
  2. The Middle East Connection. Even though Israel is deeply problematic for interfaith families, I feel the pull of the Mediterranean. I belly dance, I pine for my estranged Arab sisters, I hold eggplants over the burners of my stove to make baba ghanoush from scratch.
  3. Hebrew. It’s diabolically difficult, but exposing our children to it makes their neurons sprout, right? Personally, I enjoyed puzzling it out as a child. The idea is that Hebrew will stimulate their potential for both math and mysticism.
  4. Feasting. I’m not just talking about Ashkenazi deli food here, though I admit to eating chopped liver straight out of the container, like peanut butter. I’m talking about the way food is central to Jewish practice. The sensuality of the perfumes and textures and rituals surrounding food—bitter herbs and haroset, the Tu Bishvat seder and the braided challah.  Food to Jews is both sacred symbol (thus food for the intellect), and primal earthly delight.
  5. Bibliophilia. As the publishing industry collapses in on itself like a dying star, Jews will be the last to forsake investigative reporting, editing, newsprint, reading books. I suppose it’s because the Torah is so central to Jewish practice. I intend to stand with my people and be the last one to cancel my newspaper subscriptions.
  6. Tikkun Olam. Every religion stresses community service. It’s one of the most defensible aspects of religion. But I find particularly evocative and mysterious the Kabbalistic concept of a broken world that needs to be put back together, the impulse to gather and fit together the shards of a shattered vessel. Although the original story ends with the termination of the material world: kind of a downer.
  7. Thirst for Justice. From Jewish support for civil rights in the twentieth century, to Jewish lawyers working pro bono on LGBT equality cases today, the thirst for justice creates good in our world. Is it the ancient memory of slavery? The recent memory of deadly persecution? It doesn’t matter why, it’s a good thing.
  8. Minority Empathy. On a related note, it builds character to grow up as an outsider in America: to empathize with other minority groups, to cultivate the stance of critical, thoughtful observer. To stand out is to invite discrimination, but to withstand discrimination is to become stronger.
  9. Compatibility with Atheism. I love a religion that includes a significant contingent of practicing adherents who don’t even believe in God. Personally, I’m agnostic. But I find very appealing the idea that ritual, a sense of community, even spirituality, can all be accessed by doubters and even rowdy nay-sayers.
  10. Shabbat. Turn off your cellphone, log off facebook, say no to the essential meeting. Sit and eat with family. Give thanks for light, and wine and bread. Sing, and smell the spices. All children crave this peace: Christian children, Jewish children, interfaith children.

ALSO READ: Ten Things I Love About Islam

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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