Seeing the Sacred in One Interfaith Family

Slowing Time, Barbara Mahany, photo Susan Katz Miller

 

Barbara Mahany describes her new book as a field guide to wonder. The essays in Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door at times bring to mind Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver, Anne Lamott, Karen Maezen Miller, Waldorf pedagogy, and mystics including Julian of Norwich. Mahany leads us through the cycle of seasons in the natural world, and in the life of a Christian and Jewish interfaith family. A former Chicago Tribune columnist (and former pediatric oncology nurse), Mahany writes as a parent, a naturalist, and a Catholic. Her voice—funny, humble, brave, affectionate—narrates this unusual volume, pulling together disparate elements into a moving whole, lovely in both form and content.

 

So, at the bottom of each page we find a running commentary of poetic field notes on the moon and other astronomical and agricultural changes through the year. Each section ends with a recipe, reflecting the spiritual and seasonal bounty (beginning and ending with winter, which gets two sections, and thus two recipes). And each season begins with notes acknowledging the agrarians roots of Jewish and Christian and secular holidays, and providing suggestions on how to infuse these celebrations with new meaning.

 

For example, I love this entry on the spring calendar, for a holiday with Pagan origins: May Day (May 1): Caretaker of Wonder Pledge: I will rescue broken flowers and ferry them to my windowsill infirmary, where I’ll apply remedies and potions, or simply watch them die away in peace.

 

In this one brief and surprising sentence, Mahany manages to avoid both the saccharine and the how-to, instead reflecting on the hard truths of the natural world, providing insight into her interactive and intentional approach to marking the seasons, and perhaps provoking us to join her in this novel contemplative activity.

 

For me, the fact that Mahany writes as a Catholic woman married to a Jewish man, raising children with both religions, provides an important key to experiencing Slowing Time. (For more on Mahany’s interfaith family story, listen here to her wonderful Holy Rascals interview with Rabbi Rami Shapiro). Often, I am asked if interfaith families celebrating both religions end up with a dry, intellectual approach, devoid of spirituality, as if we are studying the religions in a museum or academic course, comparing and contrasting, with all the sacred juice drained out.

 

These questions come from people who have never experienced life inside an interfaith family like Mahany’s. I like to say that we are religious maximalists, not minimalists, celebrating both, rather than nothing. Indirectly, quietly, without arguing or defending or setting out data (as I must do as an advocate and journalist), Mahany makes the case for the rich spiritual lives of interfaith families who intentionally immerse themselves in the earthly connections, and particularities, of these two sibling religions.

 

Or, as Mahany writes, while her family “encounters the Divine in the rituals and idioms of two faith traditions,” she finds that “the dual lenses refract and magnify both light and shadow, and that my sense of the sacred pulses throughout the year.” The sense of sacred pulses throughout this book, and throughout the lives of those of us who draw meaning and take inspiration from more than one ancestral religion. I am grateful to Mahany for her deep consideration of how this looks and works and feels for her, through many small moments, keenly observed.

 

Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller, available now in hardcover, paperback and eBook from Beacon Press. Please support local brick-and-mortar bookstores!

In Defense of (Interfaith) Christmas

Growing up as an exotic half-Jew in a New England town right out of Currier and Ives, the very public celebration of Christmas made sense to me demographically, culturally, and somehow, esthetically . If you have a town hall from 1847 with a white steeple overlooking a perfect town green, it is hard to resist stringing lights on the tallest spruce. And if you have a colonial tavern on the other side of the green, it only makes sense to gather the townsfolk to sing carols with a brass band in front of the tavern on Christmas Eve. I bundled up and participated every year, but not without a certain amount of worry, introspection, and selective silence on red-flag lyrics.

As an adult in the diverse global village, I acknowledge that public Christmas displays can cause alienation, and raise all kinds of questions about who funds them, whether we should have community Hanukkah and Diwali and Eid celebrations, or whether the depths of winter would be better with no outdoor lights or indoor greenery. The American population is shifting, Hindus and Muslims and Buddhists now live in my New England hometown, and we have not yet fully grappled with these very real issues. On the other hand, many “100% Jewish” people, like my friend, blogger Susan Fishman Orlins, defend their right as Americans to indulge in secular Christmas rituals.

For my own children, we have chosen a pathway that minimizes the conflict over celebrating Christmas. The decision to raise them with both Judaism and Christianity means we can fully immerse ourselves in Christmas, without having to weigh and analyze each ritual and each ornament on the tree for hidden religious meaning. We don’t get hung up on whether the tree is a pagan symbol or refers somehow to the cross. We don’t get hung up on how angels figure in Jewish theology. We don’t get hung up on which carols feature Jesus, and which ones stick to sleighbells in the snow. As an interfaith child, and someone fascinated by the evolution of religious culture, I find all these questions interesting and worthy of mulling, preferably over a glass of mulled wine. But I do not have to work through them before tiptoeing into each holiday event with my husband and children. In educating our children about both religions, we have pledged to go as deep and wide into Christmas (and Hanukkah) as we can manage, con brio, stopping only just short of exhausting ourselves in the process.

Yesterday, my daughter went to the Best Buddies holiday party afterschool, and helped a girl with Down’s syndrome make a Christmas card, and reassured her when the Grinch yelled at his little dog Max. I am thankful that she did not have to feel conflicted about participating. And tonight, in our house, we will put on Nat King Cole and lift each ornament from its nest, and attempt to balance the white birds and tiny copper cookpots on each branch of the waiting tree. I am thankful that I do not have to feel conflicted about this annual moment of peace and joy. This Sunday, the last Sunday of Advent, all four members of our family will be part of the choir for the service of lessons and carols at our Interfaith Families Project. I am profoundly thankful that we do not have to feel conflicted about that. And on Christmas, we will share a roast beast with my pioneering interfaith parents, and all my siblings and their children: the Jewish grandchildren, the Catholic grandchildren, and the interfaith grandchildren. And we will know in the wisdom of our hearts, that deeper unity in which family transcends all boundaries.

 

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

Yom Kippur in Our Interfaith Family

 

I cannot quite let go of Yom Kippur yet. As happens in many years, my introspection on this Day of Awe was deep enough to have changed me, at least for now. I want to keep the sense of the new year, the desire to improve, as long as possible. I want to remember the benefits of unplugging, stepping back, tunneling inside my own head. And while many would (mis)characterize the observance of our interfaith families as somehow “light” on the invisible scale used to weigh Jewish practice, this Holy Day was utterly fulfilling for me.

First of all, I was pleased that my entire family (my Christian husband, both my interfaith teens) decided to fast together this year. For my thirteen-year-old son, this was his first time, and it served as reassurance to this Jewish mother that he is, indeed, coming of age, and that he, does, indeed, take pride in his Jewish identity, no matter what kind of ceremony or Bar Mitzvah we might end up creating to mark this transition.

In some years, I have found fasting alone to be difficult, especially if I did not have the luxury (living abroad in cities without synagogues, or as a mother of young children) of day-long services. This year, my fast was easier due to the solidarity provided by a whole family chorus of rumbling tummies, and to the accountability provided by many sets of sympathetic eyes when passing through the kitchen.

We met up with our interfaith families community for a final hour of prayer and repentance, led by our teen group, and to break the fast together. The service started with a moment of creative chaos. Luckily, being an interfaith “project,” we posess well-oiled flexibility. In this case, the staff person from the Unitarian church did not show up to let us in the doors. So, seeing as it was a gorgeous fall day, we all unloaded the folding soccer-mom chairs from our minivans and set up on the lovely deck under the trees, prepared to hold an outdoor Yom Kippur. Quite a few community members independently came up with some version of this wry metaphor: we may be marginalized as interfaith families, locked out, but we will persist in celebrating Yom Kippur anyway. It was a totally unscripted and unanticipated moment of interfaith community bonding.

In the end, we got into the sanctuary at the last moment (setting off an alarm, which added to the chaos). After a moment of centering, the service finally began. At the apex, a Jewish dad from our community, Bob, chanted the Kol Nidre, one of the central, haunting prayers of Yom Kippur. The gorgeous, resonant, minor melody floated over and through us three times, each time louder, each time with deeper emotion. In those moments, there was nothing “light” about our observance of this day. No professional cantor could have sung more soulfully.

The closing moment of the service was provided by my young friend Cheney. Cheney has autism, and he also has a mystical affinity for Judaism. He was given a shofar at his Bar Mitzvah (at which, yes, he did chant his Torah portion).  So at Yom Kippur, my sixteen-year-old daughter, who has been friends with Cheney since she was born, had the honor of calling out the final Tekiah Gedolah to mark the end of the Yom Kippur fast. And Cheney, looking radiant and positively rabbinical with a full beard on his teenage chin, stood in front of his congregation and blew a perfect, long note on his shofar. I plan to hang onto the echo of that note for as long as possible. I am thinking it will carry me all the way to next year.

Interfaith Families, on Rosh Hashanah

At the Farmer’s Market on Sunday, I bought Jonagold apples to eat with honey, to celebrate the sweetness of the Jewish New Year this week. Then, yesterday, a Washington Post reporter came by to photograph our family with the apples, for a Rosh Hashanah story.

Here on the Mason-Dixon line, at the end of the hottest summer on record, I had to search to find local apples because peach and plum season is just starting to wind down, and apple season is only just beginning. This made me nostalgic for the Rosh Hashanahs of my childhood in New England, when we would go apple-picking as a family right after services every year. My sister and I wore cardigans over our holiday dresses, and the crisp air signaled the ready crop of northern apples–our favorites were McIntoshes and Macouns, both hard to come by in the south.

This time of year, I have often missed the ease of celebrating the Jewish New Year as part of a Jewish congregation. When I was growing up, we belonged to a synagogue, and so we automatically got tickets to services each year. My idea of a proper Reform Jewish service is inevitably based on that lush High Holiday choir of my childhood, salted with hired professionals and led by a brilliant organist, performing the Rosh Hashanah liturgy in sophisticated arrangements.

As an adult interfaith child married to an Episcopalian, raising children with both Judaism and Christianity, I have had to work harder to access Rosh Hashanah. Over the years, we have had backyard celebrations for the “birthday of the world,” including leaving a cake out for the urban critters. We have gone to the local creek with friends for private and impromptu Tashlich rituals, throwing bread into the running water to symbolize casting off all that we did wrong in the past year. Like many families, I took my kids to the free kid services at a local temple until they were really too old for the chaos and simplistic explanations of the holiday. And for many years, I bought expensive tickets to other people’s adult services. Or I flew “home” to celebrate with my parents, in the synagogue of my youth.

Meanwhile, our interfaith community would celebrate Rosh Hashanah a little bit ahead of the actual holiday, in order to encourage families to go to synagogues on the actual date. All of these ways of celebrating have been satisfying, in different ways.

But this year, for the first time in the history of our interfaith families community, we will celebrate the actual eve and day of Rosh Hashanah together as a community. Like an apple ripening just in time for the New Year, our community has ripened to the point where we feel the pull to be together, rather than splintering our community on this day and leaving families to cast about for tickets. We have our beloved rabbi finally available to lead the services after his recent retirement from the Georgetown chaplaincy, we have an operatic cantor, and we will have both evening and morning services.

My husband and I have both served on the Board of our interfaith community. Because this is our community, the one we have helped to build together, my husband and I will sit together at the services, knowing that we truly belong, and have equal standing there, no matter what our religious backgrounds. Recently, I was asked by a new Jewish blog to contribute a tip for interfaith families celebrating Rosh Hashanah, and I wrote about the importance of couples sitting through High Holiday services together.

The ideal, of course, is to have the whole family, not just the couple, sitting together. I am hoping that my teens are old enough and musically-sophisticated enough to appreciate a mezzo soprano. I hope they are going to appreciate being in the heart of the community they grew up in, as we listen to the ancient call of the the shofar. I often write of how sounds and smells and tastes trigger what we call spiritual experience.  In the varied history of my personal Rosh Hashanahs, I have never seen a child, nor an adult, who could resist thrilling to the blast of the ram’s horn, nor the sweet-tart taste of honey on apple. The sound should be more thrilling, the taste even sweeter this year, as we celebrate with other interfaith families.

Interfaith Coming of Age: Group Ceremony

I have taught every grade level from kindergarten through high school. But my favorite students are middle schoolers: just opening to the world, still tender, but surging with energy. Adolescence is a threshold, a liminal state, a state of being both child and adult, and I am inordinately attracted to the liminal, to bothness.

Yesterday, we celebrated our annual group Coming of Age ceremony at the Interfaith Families Project (IFFP) with songs and blessings for the eighth-graders completing our dual-faith religious education program. During this gathering, each of the teens gave a speech or presented a project, bravely baring their adolescent souls and musing on topics both intimate and philosophical: the unconditional love of pets, the  power of music, exclusion and inclusion, the intertwining of two faiths, kindness, the shadow of the Holocaust, the existence or non-existence of God.

Our minister, Julia Jarvis, reminded us all that the community is still there to support these teenagers as they emerge into adulthood. She charged the adults: “You are a container that holds them right now, like the glass holds the wine.” And our rabbi, Harold White, addressed the teens: “You now assume responsibility to become a part of a community. This is not a graduation from IFFP, it’s becoming a more integral part of it.”

The rabbi recalled his own Bar Mitzvah, 65 years ago, in the midst of World War II. Both his older brothers were fighting in the Pacific at the time, and his portion from Isaiah included the very relevant, “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation.” The rabbi went on to list all the wars he has lived through in the intervening decades and told the interfaith teens: “Your challenge for the future is to be ambassadors of peace.”

Then, each teen came up to speak. The first made liberal reference to his influences in the Christian, Jewish and secular worlds, citing Martin Luther King, the Sermon on the Mount, Mother Teresa, Anne Frank, Shakespeare, and the Torah. His summation: “both religions have a lot to teach the world.” Another concluded: “I don’t have the answers but now I have a better idea of what the questions are.” A third had the community listen to mixed-race musician Michael Franti‘s anguished peace anthem “Hey World.” Said the interfaith teen, “What if you lived life as a kind person in one religion, and then died and found out you should have been a Catholic?…If life is all about choosing the right God, then life has a few flaws.”

Then, together, we celebrated the shared ethical heart of Jewish and Christian traditions. The rabbi chanted the Ten Commandments from a torah that survived the Holocaust. The reverend read the words of Jesus on the greatest commandment, from the Gospel of Mark. And then Rob Liebreich, one of our marvelous Coming of Age teachers (a Jewish man married to a Catholic woman with two young children born into our community) reenacted Rabbi Hillel reciting the essence of the Torah while hopping on one foot.

Rob and his co-teacher Joan Bellsey spent the past year shepherding these students through individual community service projects, white-water rafting, the Holocaust Museum, planning a fundraiser for Haiti, and a solo wilderness excursion. Rob described the Coming of Age program as creating “voices that understand they have power to express what they feel…this is what we nurture.” And he added that these very young and very thoughtful adults “have faith. It may not be the faith you want them to have, but it’s theirs.”

I suspect that for many of our children raised in two worlds, whether or not they settle into the practice of a single religion, drawing on both sides of their identity will continue to provide energy to fuel their bridge-building activities. As it does for Michael Franti, and for Barack Obama. For me, as for many of these emerging adults in the vigorous hybrid generation, choosing is not the issue; the issue is explaining to the world the vital essence of bothness.

Interfaith Spirituality: Earth Day

In celebration of Earth Day, my interfaith family got swept up in a spiritual experience beyond religious labels. I seek out such moments for my family, in order to complement my children’s education in Judaism and Christianity. The careful balance of two religions, the prescription to question and delineate, holds a risk that we will remain on the surface, at a distance, skeptical academics. As much as I appreciate this intellectual approach, I also want my children to have the opportunity for full emotional and sensory immersion: for letting go.

And so it was that my husband, my teenage daughter and I found ourselves in a community chorus of 125 people on Friday night, singing a “Song of the Earth” program to an audience of over 1000 people in the glorious acoustics and architecture of Strathmore Hall. I often write about how moments we call spiritual, or mystical, or simply happy, are usually triggered by some combination of art, music and nature. At Strathmore on Friday, we had all three. The program centered around poems by Kentucky farmer and activist Wendell Berry, set to music by folk composer Malcolm Dalglish. Malcolm led us on hammered dulcimer, and the chorus backed traditional Japanese dancers, Irish step dancers, and Appalachian clog dancers, as well as percussionists, a fiddler, a cellist and a bagpiper. Like my interfaith family, the program was joyously eclectic and inclusive, with dissonance sharpening the senses, and contrasting layers yielding surprise and delight.

Singing six-part harmony in the midst of a huge choir creates a pulsing in the air: sympathetic, sensual, full-body resonance. My daughter stood next to me, at times following, at times leading me through the challenging music. At one point, she moved away from me to the front of the stage with a dozen singers, to perform a sign-language interpretation of a fragment from Berry’s poem “Rising.”  I was acutely aware that she is preparing to set out into the world; that we may never sing together like this again:

The earth opened in the spring,

Opens in all springs.

Nameless,

Ancient, many-lived

We reach through the ages with the seed.

Wendell Berry’s poetry did not strike me at first as overtly Christian. In a key essay in which he struggles with the relationship between Christianity and environmentalism, Berry writes of his own religious identification: “I have a considerable debt myself to Buddhism and Buddhists. But there is an enormous number of people, and I am one of them, whose native religion, for better or worse, is Christianity. We were born to it; we began to learn about it before we became conscious; it is, whatever we think of it, an intimate belonging of our being; it informs our consciousness, our language, and our dreams.”

For better or worse, my children have two native religions. As I seek to nurture a positive sense of Christianity in my children, and in all children, I eagerly claim Wendell Berry as a favorite writer inspired by his Christian roots. I reach through the ages to plant seeds of Jewish and Christian appreciation in my children, so that they can scamper to the treetops of both religions, swing from the branches, close their eyes and harmonize.

Haiti: Interfaith Syncretism, Symbiosis

Today, in the “On Religion” column in the New York Times,  Samuel G. Freedman finally points out that Haitian Vodou is a legitimate, important and much-misunderstood religion. And yet, Freedman’s copy editors persist in using the spelling “voodoo,” not only refusing to recognize it with the capitalization they give to any other world religion (Buddhism, Hinduism), but maintaining the Americanized spelling associated with Hollywood horror movies, rather than one of the more phonetically-accurate spellings (Vodou, or Vodun)  more true to the French-inflected pronunciation in Haitian Creole.

But returning, as I always do, to the subject of celebrating two religions: Freedman explains that “between 50 and 95 percent of Haitians practice at least elements of voodoo, often in conjunction with Catholicism.” He does not clarify that this wide range reflects a  shift in recent decades. Haiti was once nearly 100 percent Catholic, with the majority also practicing Vodou. But Protestant churches have made inroads in Haiti (and throughout the Catholic world), and Protestant clergy are less willing to tolerate the involvement of their adherents with Vodou. When I lived in northeastern Brazil in the 1990s, I saw the same shift occurring: “believers” (fundamentalist Protestants) did not participate in the Catholic and African celebration of  Carnaval (and did not drink, dance, or wear pants if they were women). This fact had a felicitous personal consequence for me when we lived in northeastern Brazil: our Protestant babysitter was available and willing to work for us while my husband and I went out and “played” throughout Carnaval.

American news reports on Haiti have almost always focused on misery, and Americans may not realize that in Haiti, Catholics celebrate  Carnival in the days before Lent,  just as Catholics in Brazil, New Orleans and Europe do. In Europe, Carnival evolved when the Catholic church absorbed Ancient Roman festivals, and those European pre-Christian elements followed colonists to the Americas, mixing with African and indigenous American rituals to create New World Carnivals.

In my recent essay on celebrating both Catholicism and Vodou, I referred to the intertwining of the African and Catholic pantheon of saints and spirits as “syncretism.” Freedman avoids using this word, perhaps because the Catholic church discourages syncretism, with its implication of  two religions in dynamic equilibrium. On the other hand, the Catholic church has envisioned and encouraged a dance between Catholicism and local cultures, a process referred to as “inculturation,” in order to deliver Catholic teachings in diverse settings. Inculturation signals respect for cultural differences but also for the boundaries between them. Syncretism threatens those boundaries.

Freedman evades the dangerous implications of the word “syncretism” by referring instead to a “Catholicism in symbiosis with voodoo, a Catholicism in which saints are conflated with African deities.” The word “conflates” implies that the superimposition, the equation of saints and African spirits is mistaken, or negative. Symbiosis, again, implies that two entities remain separate. But I suspect that for many Haitians, Catholicism and Vodou coexist in a marriage so intimate that they are “as one.” Freedman interviewed Vodou priest and religion professor Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, who compared Haitians to those Japanese who perform both Shinto and Buddhist rituals and “see no contradiction or mutual exclusivity.”

Meanwhile, those of us practicing both Christian and Jewish rituals await recognition of our much-misunderstood pathway. Judaism and Christianity have different cultures and rituals, worth highlighting, specifying, preserving. But at the same time, I do not fear allowing the two religions to coexist in my community, my family, my brain and body: personally, after a lifetime of contemplating this conundrum, I see no contradiction or mutual exclusivity.