Interfaith Couples: No Longer Odd

Last Sunday,  I found myself serving as an après-theater panelist at that lively downtown institution, the DCJCC (Washington DC’s Jewish Community Center). Having spent much of my adult life as a sort of Jewish outlaw, wandering in the wilderness through two generations of intermarriage, I experienced both an illicit thrill and a sense of homecoming when I saw my bio on the DCJCC’s website.

Theater J at the DCJCC produced an affectionate and sophisticated revival of Neil Simon’s 1965 play “The Odd Couple.” Sitting between my husband and my rabbi in Theater J’s jewel-box theater, all three of us were snorting with laughter. I grew up watching “The Odd Couple”  television series in the 1970s, which wasn’t bad for television. But at Theater J, a perfect cast delivered each perfect line with perfect timing.

Then at the end of the show, I got to climb onstage and sit on the couch used by Oscar and Felix, alongside the other panelists: my husband, my two best rabbi friends, a Unitarian minister married to a Jewish woman, a Jewish woman married to a Hindu man, and a lesbian woman raised Jewish with a partner raised Catholic. Rabbi Tamara Miller organized the panel around the question of whether intermarried couples are “Odd Couples” in our society today.

Each of us answered, “no.” Collectively, as gay couples, interfaith couples, interracial couples, step-parents and adoptive parents, we don’t feel odd in 2010, at least not in our urban, progressive corner of the world. In fact, we have the chutzpah to feel we represent the norm. Rabbi Harold White suggested that rather than use the negative term “odd,” we define ourselves positively as in relationship with the “other,” keeping in mind that kadosh in Hebrew means both “holy” and “other.”

Theater J prides itself on pushing artistic and cultural boundaries, so “The Odd Couple” constitutes relatively tame fare for them. The next show to open there will be “Oy Vey in a Manger” starring the drag queens known as the Kinsey Sicks. By reflecting “The Odd Couple” through an interfaith lens, (in fact, by appearing on a panel at a JCC in the first place), I tried to provide a bit of controversy yesterday, though the audience was small. As I have often noted, many Jewish institutions find interfaith issues even more fraught than gay and lesbian issues: there are certainly rabbis performing gay marriages who will not perform interfaith marriages.

After my visit to the DCJCC this week–the first, I hope, of many–I was filled with cautious hope that some progressive Jewish institutions are finally beginning to acknowledge that those of us raising interfaith children really do want to stay connected to Judaism, despite our stubborn insistence on teaching our children about Christianity. During intermission at the play, I asked my rabbi if he would officiate at my son’s Bar Mitzvah. His reply: “Of course.” Perhaps it is slightly, well, odd, for a child with only one Jewish grandparent to plan a Bar Mitzvah. If anyone wants to argue that it is somehow bad for the Jews for my son to learn the Sabbath prayers, bring it on!

Blessing of the Interfaith Babies

April showers bring May flowers, blue robin’s eggs, newborn lambs and foals. Even though human babies are born throughout the year, it seems appropriate somehow that our interfaith community welcomes new babies as a group in the spring. Our minister and rabbi work together to bless these tiniest and newest members of our community.

Our interfaith ceremony is neither traditionally Jewish nor traditionally Christian, nor is it meant to supplant the ceremonies of either tradition. Many of our interfaith babies have had a Bris, a Naming Ceremony (for Jewish girls), a Baptism, an individual interfaith Baby Welcoming Ceremony, or more than one of the above. This group ceremony specifically welcomes all of these babies, no matter what religious label their parents have chosen for them, into our interfaith community, and in so doing, recognizes that they share a bond. Our baby-blessing ceremony does include elements of both Christian and Jewish traditions, so if that makes you uncomfortable, stop reading here.

Last Sunday, we began, as we do must Sundays, by reading our interfaith responsive reading, affirming our sense of community. Then we recited the Lord’s Prayer and the Shema, the central prayers of each tradition represented by our families. Next, four community members held up a tallit, a Jewish prayer shawl, and the babies and parents crowded underneath it, echoing the ritual of the wedding chuppah. Our rabbi led us in reciting the Shehecheyanu, the Jewish prayer of thanks for reaching any milestone or holiday or new experience.

Then we read from Genesis of the promise to Abraham to make his descendants as numerous as grains of sand on the shore. These interfaith children are indeed descendants of Abraham, and part of my personal goal for my interfaith children is for them to know and remember this fact, above and beyond all the debates over “Who is a Jew?”

Next, our minister touched each baby’s eyes, ears, nose and mouth with a daisy and led us in a Unitarian blessing of children. A couple of the fussier babies went quiet at the tickle of the petals.

Bless our children’s minds with intelligence and wisdom

Bless their eyes so they will see great vistas

Bless their nose with delicious and fragrant aromas

Bless their mouth for the enjoyments of tasting and talking

Bless their hearts with deep love and a strong stady beat

Bless their arms for embracing friendship and love

Bless their feet so they will carry them happily through their days.

When these young families returned to their seats, they each clutched a daisy–a small reminder that their new interfaith child will be not just tolerated, or grudgingly accepted, or allowed to participate with qualifications, but fully welcomed and nurtured by our community as a creation as perfect as any flower.

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.

Identity Labels: Interfaith, Multifaith, Dual-faith, Bifaithful, Cross-cultural?

Is “interfaith” the best word to describe my family, and my community of families? Recently, a reader of this blog  wrote in, expressing ambivalence about the term, and proposing an alternative:  “I sometimes wonder about the term “inter”faith, which to me seems to imply stuck between two faiths, like someone in a boat stuck between two islands. I am wondering if “multi”faith might work better, at least for my family.”

Well, first of all, whatever works for your family, works for your family! I absolutely endorse the right of interfaith children, and interfaith families, to self-identify, create their own labels, as described in the Bill of Rights for Interfaith People. Claiming a label is a powerful act of self-definition and empowerment for any group that has been marginalized. And yes, interfaith people and families have been marginalized.

I, too, have mixed feelings (pun intended) about the interfaith label, though primarily because the term is in wide use to express something very different: dialogue between religious institutions or representatives determined to keep rigid, impermeable boundaries between them. For interfaith families, osmosis across “cell walls” not only happens, it is often the defining, and joyfully positive, characteristic of our religious or cultural identity.

I can also empathize with those who are uncomfortable with the emphasis on “faith” in interfaith. Often, these folks are secular, atheist or agnostic Jews, since Judaism puts more emphasis on ritual practice and less on credo. Christians sometimes struggle when they encounter practicing, atheist Jews, though this is a common paradoxical state. (There is a parallel, growing cohort of secular Christians who acknowledge Christianity as their formative religious culture but might be equally uncomfortable with talk of “faith.”) Those squirmy with the whole faith concept (I count myself here) might gravitate towards “cross-cultural” or “multicultural” as labels, though these terms are already in wide use with other (distracting) connotations. And they do not express the reality that in many interfaith families, faith of one sort or another does play a role.

On the other hand, I do not share the reader’s discomfort with “inter” as a chosen Latin prefix. My community, the Interfaith Families Project, uses a Venn diagram to represent the interlocking rings of Judaism and Christianity. The central, overlapping “inter” space is not an empty ocean between two islands, but the most vibrant and full part of the metaphor: the place where Judaism and Christianity share history, theology, ritual, and ethical grounding.

I worry that the concern over being “stuck between two islands” stems from immersion in the dismal soup of interfaith family portrayals in literature and on the internet. Most of these negative images are created through a process funded or influenced by religious institutions that are anti-intermarriage, or anti-interfaith-families, or anti-interfaith-families-raising-kids-with-both.

Well, but, what’s wrong with “multifaith?” Nothing, except that to my ear, “multifaith” strongly connotes more than two religions. The word does reflect the reality of a small but growing cohort of interfaith kids (those with, say, one Jewish grandparent, two Christian grandparents, and one Hindu grandparent). On the other hand, it seems to invite the all-too-frequent criticisms of “mile wide, inch deep” religious education. Teaching more than two religions with depth and meaning is a daunting task, though one that is admirably tackled by Unitarians, and Baha’i.

So if the family in question wants to embrace “multifaith” as their label, perhaps because they share more than two faiths, I cannot possibly object. In the end, for me, the strongest reason for sticking with “interfaith family” and “interfaith child” is a practical one: the relatively long history of using “interfaith” in this context, and the ability to google-search whatever resources and literature are available on the topic.

But also, I happen to have positive associations with “interfaith.” The linguistic harmonics include intersect, interweave, interlace, interdependent, interact and intercourse. Oh, and intertwine! (A word I have to stop myself from intertwining into each blog post.) Anyway, all good stuff. And none of it really works with “multi” as a prefix (multisect, multiweave, multilace, multidependent, multiact, multicourse, multitwine?). Though I suspect those lively words may evolve at some point in the near future, and I welcome them, as I welcome future multifaith families.

 

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 @beingboth.

Interfaith Identity: More Than One Box

Little Boxes, photo Aimee Helen MillerMost interfaith Jewish/Christian children share a set of pivotal moments, epiphanies that help to forge our interfaith identities. These realizations well up in response to confrontation with the following facts:

  • Hitler targeted interfaith children as well as full-blooded Jews.
  • Hitler did not make a distinction between matrilineal and patrilineal half-Jews.
  • Many Jews (sadly, even Reform Jews) do not recognize patrilineal Jews.
  • Israel does not recognize patrilineal Jews or allow interfaith marriage.
  • Standardized forms do not allow us to check more than one religion box.

The shared experience of confronting these facts marks each of us with a sense of common interfaith identity which transcends our adult choices about affiliation. I think of Maine’s Senator William Cohen, who studied for a Bar Mitzvah but was then informed that he couldn’t have one because he was patrilineal. For Cohen, that epiphany was a turning point: he later became a Unitarian.

In contrast, being forced to check one religion box on a standardized form does not seem like a big deal. But just yesterday, my 15-year-old daughter had this experience for the first time, and it made an impression on her. She was taking the PSAT at high school, the first of the college admission tests, and the information they gather to match colleges with potential applicants apparently includes religion.

“It had Episcopalian. It had Jewish. But I wasn’t allowed to check both.  I could have checked “none” but that isn’t right,” she reported. “None” would indeed be all wrong for a child who has studied Hebrew, learned the stories of the Hebrew and Christian bibles, can recite prayers from both traditions, and now gets up early every Sunday morning to teach interfaith Sunday School.

So she checked the box that said, in essence, “none of your business.” A wise choice for many reasons. But it certainly made her think about her interfaith status. She reported, “Mom, they were trying to force me into one little box, just like you’re always writing about…”  I felt gratified that for a moment she understood my obsession with the interfaith topic. And I felt a strengthened bond with her, a fellow member of the growing interfaith clan.

“So Why Aren’t You a Unitarian?”

I love Unitarians! Some of my best friends are Unitarians! I grew up in New England, where Unitarians are very active, widely respected, part of the cultural norm. When the Unitarian Church in our town studied Judaism each year, my father, the local nice Jewish guy, would put on a Passover seder for them. And I am grateful that what has become the Unitarian Universalist (referred to as “UU”) Association has provided a home for countless wandering interfaith families.

I am aware of the lively debate on whether Unitarians are more “post-Christian” than Christian. I know that the Christian flavor of any given UU congregation varies greatly from church to church. And I also know that interfaith families have brought an active “Jewish UU” subculture to many of these churches. But still, it is a church, and some Jewish parents of interfaith children have trouble getting beyond that. Me, I feel comfortable, even inspired, in many UU churches.

But it is unlikely that a church (or synagogue) of any stripe will ever provide what I have now: an entire community of interfaith families on a journey together, an entire Sunday School filled with interfaith children dedicated to exploring both sides of their heritage. And we are dedicated to delving as deeply as we can into both the Jewish and Christian traditions. So, for instance, our program teaches the Hebrew alphabet and has a rabbi on the staff, which is not likely to happen in a UU Church.

My family is one of over a million interfaith Jewish/non-Jewish families in America now, and that number is growing by 40,000 new families each year. We need all the options to stay open for us. We need Jewish institutions to welcome us. We need churches to notice and try to understand us. And we need to continue to develop new models of how to be true to ourselves and give our children access to their rich inheritance.