When Joe Biden picked Kamala Harris as his running-mate yesterday, he created the possibility of the first interfaith kid in an interfaith marriage in the White House. ““I grew up going to a black Baptist Church and a Hindu temple,” Harris told the Los Angeles Times. And at her marriage to Jewish husband, attorney Douglas Emhoff, they included both a flower garland from the Hindu wedding tradition, and breaking a glass from the Jewish tradition. So a self-identified Baptist with a Hindu mother and a Jewish husband may be headed to the White House (inshallah). We can only hope this helps to normalize the rich religious complexity many of us now embody personally, and in our families.
Kamala’s mother, Shyamala Gopalan, a Tamil immigrant from India, met her father Donald Harris, a Black immigrant from Jamaica, when they were both doctoral students at UC Berkeley. They gave both their daughters Sanskrit names, to reenforce their connection to Hindu culture–Kamala means lotus, and is a form of the goddess Lakshmi. Their mother, a cancer researcher, also took Kamala and her sister Maya back to Madras to spend time with their Hindu family. Donald Harris became a Stanford economics professor. The couple took their young girls to civil rights demonstrations, but divorced when the girls were still small. Harris has described how they were part of the Black community in their Oakland, California, neighborhood, even after her parents divorced.
Harris chose Howard University, and pledged the powerful Black sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha,. She is close to her Jewish stepchildren and in-laws, and did a hilarious but affectionate impression of her Jewish mother-in-law. She’s also close to her husband’s ex-wife, Kerstin, who hails from Minnesota (I don’t see any published account of Kerstin’s maiden name or religious upbringing). The stepkids call Kamala “Momala,” and Harris has written that “We sometimes joke that our modern family is almost a little too functional.”
It’s worth noting that another interfaith kid, Maya Rudolph, played Kamala Harris in an Emmy-nominated series of appearances in the Saturday Night Live primary campaign skits. Rudolph’s dad is an Ashkenazi Jew; her mother was Black singer Minnie Ripperton. A lot of folks (I suspect including Kamala Harris) are looking forward to Rudolph reprising that role in this election season.
This morning, it was interesting to see The New York Times describing Kamala Harris with many of the phrases and images that were used for Barack Obama (another interfaith kid): “shaped by life in two worlds,” “without ever feeling entirely anchored to either,” “difficult to pin down,” and “by virtue of her identity, not like any other.” The language referred to insider/outsider political status, but also, clearly echoes her complex racial and religious heritage.
Going forward, I look forward to the time when language that telegraphs discomfort with racial and religious ambiguity wanes. I look forward to more people with rich and complex heritage and multiple religious claims and practices rising to prominence, and speaking to the benefits, not just the challenges, of our experiences.
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.