Raising Interfaith Children: Search for Online Support

One of the goals of this blog is to support couples raising children with two religions. Based on the internet search terms people use to arrive here, I feel encouraged that people who are seeking reassurance and specific examples of success are finding their way to onbeingboth.com.

Some of the most common of these search terms include, not surprisingly, “raising interfaith children,” “raising children with two religions,” and “successful interfaith marriages.”

Other search terms document the fact that it is not only Jews and Christians who are intermarrying or claiming two religions these days. In the past month alone, people searching for information on how to celebrate the Muslim/Christian, Catholic/Buddhist, Muslim/Jewish, Hindu/Christian, Buddhist/Jewish and Muslim/Yoruba religions simultaneously, or raise children in both of these religions, all surfed here. Even though my own family grew from Jewish and Christian roots, I think many of the posts on educating children in two religions, and claiming an identity drawing on more than one religion, will be relevant to them. And I hope that these visitors discover the right-hand column of the main page of this blog, listing links to sites addressing many of these religious combinations.

Some search terms remind me that, while my interfaith families community experiences great joy and fulfillment on our interfaith pathway, many families still struggle with the disapproval of family and institutions when they intermarry. In the past month, people arrived at this blog searching for help with the terms “jewish parents giving up sons over interfaith marriage,” “opposition of interdenominational marriage,” and “jewish why gay marriage okay but not interfaith.”

Other online seekers this month asked the questions, “can you be jewish if you’re mixed race?” “can babies have a baptism and a bris,” “can my child be taught two religions,” and “can a child have two religions?” I hope they found the answers they were clearly seeking on this blog: yes, yes, yes and yes.

Mardi Gras and Carnival: Joyful Interfaith Syncretism

We have arrived at my favorite moment in what I think of as the syncretic calendar:  the cycle of celebrations around the world acknowledging that religions collide, intertwine, hybridize, just as human beings in interfaith families do. This moment is called Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Carnaval in Brazil, and Carnival in Haiti and many parts of the Catholic world. Pre-Lenten revelry has roots in Christian Europe, nourished by pre-Christian pagan traditions, and then by indigenous and African religions in the Americas. I find particular resonance in the inclusive nature of Carnival, a time for playing with and vaulting over traditional boundaries of gender, race, and religion.

Experiencing Carnaval in Brazil contributed to my own fluid religious identity. I was born into an interfaith Jewish/Christian family with roots in New Orleans, predisposed to noticing religious interplay. As a young adult, I spent three formative years in Senegal, a progressive Muslim country built on African religious traditions and Catholic colonial history. Then, as a young mother, I spent three crucial years in Brazil,  a progressive Catholic country built on African and Amerindian traditions.

Brazil’s population is just as wildly diverse as ours: indigenous cultures, Africans, Japanese farmers, Germans and Italians and Arabs, Jews who arrived with the first European explorers. The entire country (except for disapproving evangelical Protestant sects) feels the right to celebrate together during Carnaval.

The time of revelry comes to a peak this week with Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras), the day before Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. In Brazil, each day of this week entails a vast, complex, and region-specific universe of rituals, songs, dances, stories and costumes melding Catholicism, Yoruba rites from West Africa, and indigenous traditions. In my beloved city of Recife, there is a night of drumming, frevo dancing with umbrellas, spangled Afro-Brazilian Maracatu dancers clenching flowers in their teeth, masked revelers recalling the origins of Carnival in Europe.

Living in the cold (dare I say frigid?) north, we are deprived of Carnival, and I feel weltzschmertz, a world-sadness, when, instead, I am trapped in a March landscape of ice and dormant grey trees. On Fat Tuesday, our children go to school as if it were any other day (in Brazil they would have the week off). Perhaps on Ash Wednesday they notice ashes on the forehead of a Catholic friend or two, or perhaps not. Our culture seems only vaguely aware that Lent is upon us. I miss the warmth and daring of Carnival. I miss the feeling of a whole country celebrating together for a week, reveling in the joyful syncretism of Mardi Gras.

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.

Fela: On Being Yoruba, Christian, Muslim

Our family saw “Fela” on Broadway last weekend: a remarkable musical that depicts the life of Nigerian political dissident and Afro-Beat musician Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. With ears acutely tuned to interfaith themes by now, my 15 and 12-year-old children remarked on a climactic scene in which Fela evokes many gods, or God by many names, including Allah, and the Yoruba spirits such as Shango. “It was interesting, Mom, because he wasn’t just being politically correct by naming them all, he lived with them all,” one of the kids remarked.

The idea of “being both” has a long tradition in Africa, where Christianity and Islam joined but never completely supplanted original African religions. Fela, the son and grandson of Protestant ministers, wrote blistering critiques of the imported religions of the colonial oppressors.  As South African Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said “Let us pray.” We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.”  Fela grew up in a Nigeria wracked by war between Christians and Muslims in the state of Biafra; violence between Christians and Muslims continues in Nigeria today. Fela would sneak out of his parents’ middle-class Christian home to attend traditional Yoruba ceremonies, and he reclaimed and reformulated this African religion for himself, filtering it through his experiences with the American black pride movement, and then transmitting it to the world in his music.

Listening to the powerful evocations of Shango, Egungun and Yemeja in the Broadway show, it was hard to keep my mind off of Haiti, since these Yoruba spirits also live on, fused with Catholic saints, in Haitian Vodou. At the end of the play, Fela delivers his mother’s coffin to the Nigerian military to protest their attack on his compound, and the cast members file on stage carrying small coffins. It was my children who noticed that one coffin, presumably in the last two weeks since the earthquake, had been marked “Haiti.”

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.