About That Interfaith Tree-Topper

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Peace card by emma’s revolution

We put a tin Mexican star with eight colorful points on the top of our Christmas tree. This star refers to the star that led the Magi to find the baby Jesus, as the story is told in the gospel of Matthew. And from a Pagan perspective (on a tree with Pagan origins), the star as a winter Solstice theme makes sense to me because we are more aware of the brilliance of the stars on the longest of all nights.

But this year, the number of interfaith families putting a six-pointed star, the traditionally Jewish symbol known as the Star of David, on top of Christmas trees seems to have reached some kind of critical mass. Reporters have been calling me to ask about this kind of holiday mash-up, or “Chrismukkah” celebration. And lovely interfaith couples have been tweeting and emailing me to market their mixed-faith holiday greeting cards and ornaments.

My family does not celebrate Chrismukkah, but we are beginning to feel outnumbered. One year, I had a very public and feisty back-and-forth with a blogger who both misunderstood and objected to my family’s approach to the holidays. Our family doesn’t hang dreidels or top the tree with a Star of David. Our approach to being an interfaith family has been to seek to provide our children with literacy in both family religions, and respect for the integrity of each. That has meant teaching and celebrating the two religions separately, giving them each space, in order to honor their specific historical and cultural and theological meanings.

Every interfaith family has to find the pathway that works best for them. For some, that will mean choosing one religion and celebrating the “other” holidays only with grandparents. For our family, it means celebrating both, but in separate, traditional ways. But for what seems to be an increasing number of more-or-less purely secular interfaith families, it has come to mean the freedom to create mash-up celebrations.

As Samira Mehta, an academic with a forthcoming book on interfaith families recently explained to her local newspaper, “In the past 20 years, Chrismukkah has become increasingly public. First, it has grown because of the increasing secularization of society and the growing number of ‘nones’ (those not affiliated with any institutional church or synagogue), and secondly the growing acceptance of multiculturalism in our society.”

I am all for accepting multiculturalism, for seeing what is shared and universal in our families and our cultures, and for celebrating together the theme of hope for peaceful pluralism in a world troubled by intolerance and violence. That is why the first ornament I placed on our tree this year was a card from our friends Pat and Sandy (emma’s revolution) who wrote the moving Peace Salaam Shalom song after 9/11, and created a graphic representation of these three words. While my family does not celebrate a mash-up of religions, we do acknowledge that there are historical ties between the three sibling religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And now, with Islamophobic politicians spreading fear, is a good time to remember these ties.

After hanging the Peace card on our tree, I wanted to stop there–to have this be the only ornament this year, to lift up this crucial message. But then our kids arrived home from college on the Wrong Coast, and we wanted to trim the tree together as a family, and put up all the beloved ornaments. And so we did that. They understand that the desire for peace must be universal, but on our tree we hang Christmas ornaments. Because even though my family has been an interfaith family for two generations now, we want our children to understand the distinct religious cultures, and the specificity of a history that continues to both unite and divide us.

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.

Interfaith Identity at 50: The Art Car

For my fiftieth birthday, I began transforming my ancient minivan into an art car. I called on friends to drop by with any small, recycled, impermeable objects that could be glued onto my front hood. The inspiration came from my years living in Baltimore, where art cars are a tradition, celebrated at the American Visionary Art Museum, and in a parade at the suberb summer festival known as Artscape. I told my friend Rebecca, “In my second fifty years, I’m going to let all the beautiful, quirky stuff that was buried inside me rise to the surface and go on diplay on the hood of my car.” She laughed and sighed, “It wasn’t all that buried, Sue.” Fair enough.

Originally, I had no plan for the interfaith theme to infiltrate the art car project. It simply began to happen, based on the objects my friends offered up. My friend Ellen brought over a colorful cross. My friend Ann Marie contributed a chipped ceramic statue of the Virgin Mary. A plastic angel appeared, followed shortly by a tiny rubber fingerpuppet of the Hindu elephant god, Ganesh, and then, an orange dreidel. My friend Julia arrived with a jumble of alphabet beads and asked, “Guess what it spells?” The letters fell into place to reveal the answer: “On Being Both.”

While lovingly applying the cross to my car, I thought back to the 1980s, when Madonna made giant cross pendants a pop culture statement. As a young woman who was raised Jewish, I did not think it was seemly for me to participate in this glam punk trend. It made sense to me that Madonna, raised Catholic and saddled with a religious name, could get away with appropriating, twisting, or paying hommage to the cross in this way. She also wore a star of David alongside her cross at times. (She later discovered Kabbalah, though it rankles many Jewish leaders when celebrities (or others) study Kabbalah without committing to Judaism.)

I still would probably never wear a cross by itself: I would not leave out my (prominent? dominant?) Jewish side this way. But on my birthday, a minister friend created for me a necklace with a dozen tiny religious charms: a kiddush cup, a matzoh, a menorah, a cross, “JC” (Jesus Christ? Jewish/Christian?). I wore the necklace to my son’s graduation from interfaith Sunday School, safe in the heart of my interfaith community. I don’t know if I would wear it just anywhere: it will probably flummox people. But it does represent me, and our family.

Meanwhile, I am somehow not only comfortable with all the religious symbols affixed to my car, I am getting a huge creative kick out of recombining them into an optimistic and inclusive art project. The religions theme is subtle, woven through the mosaic, alongside other motifs emerging organically (peace, the cast-off toys from our growing children, art for the sake of art). But though I did not set out with this intention, I see now that my religious interior–complex, colorful, joyous, open to interpretation, simultaneously familiar and incrutable–now has an exterior manifestation, on the hood of my car. If you see my “Bothmobile” at a traffic light, honk for harmony.

The Star and the Cross: High Holy Days

I was in heaven on Rosh Hashanah. My heaven consists of sitting with my entire nuclear family (my Episcopalian husband and both our teenage children), surrounded by interfaith families, listening to our beloved Rabbi lead us through evening and morning services featuring ancient, traditional chants, sixties folk songs and a pinch of Catholicism.

Okay, so it took me a few minutes to adjust to the fact that the first-ever Rosh Hashanah services created by our Interfaith Families Project took place in the sanctuary of a local church, with a huge wooden cross looming behind our little Torah in its home-made traveling ark.

As we walked in and looked up, my teenage daughter was a little bit freaked out. I had not warned her. Waiting for services to begin, we talked about what it would have looked like if they had draped cloth over the cross (disrespectful, and perhaps calling even more attention to the hidden object). We talked about our Rabbi’s defense of the crucifix hanging in Georgetown classrooms, and his understanding of the cross as a universal symbol of suffering. We talked about the particular and very warm relationship between our interfaith community and this very progressive church. And we talked about the fact that many Christian congregations in America share their sanctuaries with young Jewish communities, communities that cannot afford synagogues yet. Someday, we hope the Interfaith Families Project will have its own spiritual space, with neutral or balanced symbology.  In the meantime, I am glad we could borrow this soaring sanctuary: as a spiritual space, it had a lot of advantages over the high school auditoriums rented by many Jewish communities for High Holy Day services.

Eventually, we all settled into the pew, and our focus shifted to the primal call of the shofar, the familiar chanting of Avinu Malkeinu, the singing of “Turn, Turn, Turn” and “Morning Has Broken.” My 13-year-old son whispered to me, “Did Cat Stevens write that before or after he became a Muslim?” After the service, we shared honeycake with hundreds of people from interfaith families from across the Washington area. I had a chance to remind my son that “Turn, Turn, Turn” is taken directly from Ecclesiastes (my daughter knows this fact). And that Cat Stevens adapted “Morning Has Broken” from a Christian hymn, before he became a Muslim. And we talked about why including a version of the peace prayer by Saint Francis in the service seemed daring but also strangely appropriate in the midst of the peace-filled liturgy for the first morning of Rosh Hashanah.

Later, I thought again of my own reaction to the cross as a backdrop for the Torah reading, the blowing of the shofar. I do not usually like to use the world “tolerance” when writing about interfaith relations and interfaith families. Tolerance seems to imply something difficult, irritating, costly. I prefer to stress appreciation, cross-pollination, embrace.

But in this case, tolerance felt like the right word. I would not have chosen to have it there, but that cross symbolized, for me, my own ability to tolerate, and even support, all the members of an extended interfaith family, an interfaith community, an interfaith world. If we are to live together in peace, we must tolerate each other’s symbols, even when they make us uncomfortable: the cross on the wall, the star in the window, the crescent moon in the heart of the city.

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