Note: An earlier version of this piece ran in the Huffington Post.
Yom Kippur starts tonight, with the moving and mournful Kol Nidre service, and I am grateful to belong to a radically inclusive community of interfaith families, families that will mark this High Holy Day together. As it happens, Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky welcomed a baby girl to their interfaith family, just a week ago today. As interfaith parents, they now face decisions about the religious affiliation and education of their interfaith child. Baby Charlotte arrived just after the autumnal equinox, when the nip in the air reminds us of the passage of time, and many interfaith families are making the annual decision about whether to affiliate with a church, a synagogue, or neither. Or both.
After touring colleges with my second and final child this spring break, I am suddenly aware that I am approaching the end of an era. Parenting has felt like an endless and all-consuming way of being for me, a role I took on with great joy in my thirties, after years as a journalist. In motherhood, I became a PTA President, a leader in our interfaith families community, the schools columnist for the town paper, and ultimately the author of a book on religion and parenting. I was the mom that other parents called for tips on negotiating the school system, or organizing an interfaith bar mitzvah, or finding the best music teachers.
Somehow, I am only just now realizing that this excellent 20-year adventure in mothering may turn out to be, if I am lucky, only a small fraction of a long life. My grandmother lived until 98, my father is working on Bach’s Goldberg Variations at 90, my mother plays the ukulele at 83. So my own period of day-to-day mothering may only fill a quarter, or a fifth, of my lifetime.
We celebrated Easter last year with our community of Christian and Jewish interfaith families. Our minister started off by pointing out that Easter is not in the Bible, and that our holiday traditions make reference to ancient goddesses, and the fertility rites of spring. She then gathered the children together and talked to them about the Buddhist metaphor of a cup of tea representing the comforting memories of life after the tea bag (or body) is gone. She’s not your typical minister.
Next, our rabbi gave an adult sermon about the themes of intimacy, transcendence and unity in the story of the resurrection of Jesus. Somehow, the idea of life beyond death, of renewal and regeneration, seemed completely universal to me as he spoke. As a Jew, I do not feel I need to believe in a messiah or a personal savior in order to celebrate these Easter messages. Our rabbi spent his career at Georgetown, knows his gospels, and has been called a “closet Catholic” by Catholic friends. And yet, he’s an erudite, dedicated and deeply spiritual Jew. He’s not your typical rabbi.
Recently, a Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregation in northern Michigan selected Rabbi Chava Bahle to serve as their new leader. While other rabbis have worked in UU congregations before, this is apparently the first time a rabbi will lead a UU community. I knew that Rabbi Chava has been on the forefront of clergy working with interfaith families. And as the Jewish author of a book from a UU publisher, I was particularly interested in hearing about Rabbi Chava’s journey so far, and her thoughts on leading a UU community.
Susan Katz Miller:I know your selection did not come out of the blue. Tell us about your history with this particular UU congregation.
Rabbi Chava Bahle: For both the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Grand Traverse (UUCGT) and for me, this was a relationship-based process. They were not seeking a rabbi “in general.” I have lived in northern Michigan for just over 20 years. Rev. Emmy Lou Belcher, the UUCGT’s first minister, is my dear friend. I got to know her community and its deep commitment to social justice and interfaith welcoming. I would often “guest preach” when Rev. Belcher and her successors were away or on vacation. The local Jewish congregation I founded and the UUCGT often worked side by side on issues of social justice. Over the 20 years of guest preaching and partnering in social justice work, the UUCGT and I formed an ongoing bond with each other.
Jewish Book Month, which originated in 1925 right here in Boston, ends tomorrow with the beginning of Hanukkah. We thought we'd commemorate the annual tradition with some never-too-late reading recommendations by a few of our authors. For more suggestions of Judaic titles to read during Hanukkah, or for any occasion, Beacon Presshas you covered.
Author photo: Stephanie Williams
Susan Katz Miller, author of Being Both, offers several titles that celebrate the diversity of interfaith life:
Mixed-Up Love by Jon M. Sweeney and Michal Woll is important as the first memoir written by a rabbi married to a Catholic. Jon and Rabbi Michal will appear on a panel with me in March at the Jewish Community Center in Silicon Valley. They tell their story in alternating voices, providing both perspectives, which reminded me of the classic pioneering joint memoir by interfaith couple Ned and Mary Rosenbaum, Celebrating Our Differences.
Reza Aslan’s newest book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, had already reached the bestseller list when a video clip of the author went viral this week. The religion scholar appeared on Fox news to explain his latest work, but the host repeatedly and outrageously questioned why a Muslim would be writing a book about Jesus.
Aslan–the acclaimed author of No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam–demonstrated extraordinary grace and patience on the show, explaining over and over that religion scholars write as academics, not as adherents. Buzzfeed asked if this was “The Most Embarrassing Interview that Fox News Has Ever Done?” Meanwhile, in the course of the interview, Aslan mentioned that his wife and mother are both Christians.
As it happens, I tell the story of this high-profile interfaith family in my book Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family. About a year ago, Aslan tweeted: “I’m in a blissful interfaith marriage with my Christian wife. We are raising our children to respect all faiths and choose 1 for themselves.” When I read that tweet, I contacted him, and he and his wife agreed to be interviewed for my book chapter entitled “Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists: The Next Interfaith Wave.”
Aslan’s wife Jessica Jackley is prominent in her own field, as the co-founder of Kiva, the pioneering microfinance non-profit. But Aslan’s engagement with Christianity did not begin with marriage. In Being Both, he describes his own journey as the child of a family of Iranian refugees who were “cultural Muslims,” to a period of evangelical Christian zeal beginning in high school (during which he converted his own mother to Christianity), to rediscovery of Islam while a student of religions.
One of my themes is how being part of an interfaith family can inspire deeper understanding of one’s own religion(s), in the religion of a partner, and ultimately in the religions of the world. In describing their courtship and marriage, Jackley, who comes from an evangelical Christian family, told me, “He knows the Bible better than I do. He’s writing a book right now on Jesus. He understood my life better than most Christians.” That book eventually became Zealot.
Aslan and Jackley are now raising their twin sons with the values shared by both family religions, and with stories from diverse traditions. “What we’re going to teach our kids is the values, the beliefs, the activism, the worldview,” Aslan told me. “And when it comes to the stories, we’ll give them all of them.”
Being Both includes more on the marriage of Aslan and Jackley, the reaction of their interfaith families, and how they are raising their sons. They are two, perhaps the most prominent two, out of the hundreds of people who entrusted me with their interfaith family stories. Aslan, who received an advanced copy, calls the book, “A gorgeous and inspiring testament to the power of love to not only transcend the divides of faith and tradition, but to bring faiths together and create wholly new traditions.”
In a regular feature titled “Ask Interfaith Mom,” I plan to tackle your questions about raising interfaith kids. Here’s a great question from a comment on a recent post about interfaith grandparents:
Question: In raising my son both, I realize his grandparents will not always like or support how we are bringing the two traditions together and I am interested in ways to present to them that they should always feel free to opt out of saying anything or doing anything they don’t really believe. Thanks for any guidance you have!
One of the most liberating aspects of choosing both family religions is that you give yourself permission to pass on to your children that which is meaningful to you, rather than a required system of beliefs and practices. And in making your own choices, you set a precedent that your children will have the right to opt into or out of any of these beliefs or practices.
Discussing this freedom with your parents (the grandparents) will help them to feel comfortable making their own choices about whether or not to participate in any ritual or prayer they might encounter when celebrating with your interfaith family. Ideally then, the idea that they have permission to participate, or not, would be integral and natural, and would not need to be announced in a formal manner.
But of course, it may take time for extended family members to reach this state of appreciation. Grandparents who have spent a lifetime in a “monofaith” environment, and who may still feel sadness over the fact that their grandchildren will not be raised exclusively in their own religion, cannot always be expected to jump into interfaith practice with enthusiasm. What I can tell you is that many who have started out reluctant or even upset over the idea of an interfaith upbringing, over time have come to appreciate the way extended interfaith families are able to share spiritual inspiration, religious history, and cultures.
However, everyone in an interfaith family (or for that matter, living in our religiously pluralistic society) is going to have moments, often when visiting a more traditional place of worship, when they may want to opt out of participating in a prayer or ritual. Let’s get to some challenging specifics: for instance, taking communion at church. In some churches, the ritual of taking communion becomes a public declaration around who has the right to participate. In such a setting, it would be important to reassure interfaith family members in advance (whether a grandparent, spouse, or interfaith child) that it is fine to remain seated in the pew, and not go up to take communion. Explain that even some Christians abstain from communion at certain times or in certain places, for their own personal reasons, or because not every Christian denomination invites all Christians from other denominations to participate. While those who choose not to take communion may feel like they are sticking out by staying seated, in theory no one should ask them why they remained in the pew.
When you design an interfaith family celebration, this is your opportunity to make the rituals and prayers as inclusive as possible. Ideally, such a celebration would be so welcoming that no one would feel the need to abstain. Sometimes, this means recasting a prayer or ritual to be more radically inclusive, and explicitly inviting all to participate. Personally, I have seen Jewish people (and even a rabbi) take communion at a super-progressive Christian service in which the communion ritual was presented as a metaphorical table where all share food and drink together, based on the Jewish rituals of blessing over bread and wine, regardless of religious institutional membership or beliefs.
To take another example from the other side of the aisle, the bris, or Jewish ritual circumcision for baby boys, can be difficult for non-Jewish family members. Honestly, it is difficult for many Jewish people too, some of whom now oppose circumcision and have designed baby-welcoming ceremonies that do not involve cutting. It’s important to share all the different viewpoints on this ritual with non-Jewish family. I do understand why some interfaith families choose to have a bris, and the deep meaning it has for some Jewish family members. But I don’t think anyone (Jewish or otherwise) should feel required to attend the ceremony. And it would be important to communicate this permission to participate, or not, to everyone in the extended family as early as possible to avoid misunderstandings. Both the new grandparents and their intermarried children must make an extra effort to empathize with each other at this vulnerable moment around birth: the new parents must try hard to accept and not resent family members who choose not to participate, and family must try hard to accept and not resent the choice of the new parents to honor (or conversely, to move away from) such an ancient ritual.
Sometimes, grandparents may surprise you with their willingness to participate, and cross theological boundaries. For instance, I was worried about how my Jewish father would react to hearing his interfaith grandchildren say a traditional Christian prayer such as the Lord’s Prayer in our interfaith community Gathering. To my surprise, I saw my father reciting the prayer along with his grandchildren, and discovered that he said this prayer in his public school classroom everyday, growing up in the 1930s. Since the prayer does not mention Jesus, my father did not even realize until much later that this is officially a Christian prayer. As an adult interfaith child who was raised Jewish, my own appreciation of the Lord’s Prayer is heightened by the knowledge that many scholars have pointed out the parallels between the language in the Lord’s Prayer and the Kaddish and other central Jewish prayers. So a moment I had anticipated as possibly problematic became an opportunity for interesting theological discussion with my parents.
What experiences have you had in including interfaith grandparents? Or, what is your perspective as an interfaith grandparent? And what questions do you have for “Ask Interfaith Mom”?
Susan Katz Miller is both an interfaith child and an interfaith parent. Her book on raising children with two religions, based on hundreds of survey responses and interviews, will be published by Beacon Press in 2013. You can find her interfaith essays at interfaithfamily.com and on NPR’s All Things Considered. She served as an expert on interfaith children at national conferences, and has chaired the Board of the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington DC, the interfaith group with the largest religious education program in the country. She is a former reporter forNewsweek and New Scientistmagazines, and her work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Discover, Science, and many other publications.
After almost two decades of raising interfaith children with two religions, I realize I am about to be laid off from my parenting job. I must content myself with the idea that my husband and I have done all we could to educate our kids in both family religions: Judaism and Christianity. The controversial pathway we chose long ago has served us well. Now, it will be up to these new young interfaith adults we produced to decide whether or not to continue to tell their own stories. And I will be stuck chronicling the experience of interfaith empty-nesters.
So, Hanukkah feels strange and slightly melancholy this year, with our firstborn away at college. With only one teenager left at home, I declared the official end to kids hunting for little Hanukkah gifts hidden under sofa cushions and behind bookcases. My son was fine with this. Adults rarely give each other Hanukkah gifts in my extended family, and he is well on his way to becoming an adult. But as it turns out, I did not actually have the authority to make this abrupt and unilateral proclamation. Just because I represent the Jewish side in our interfaith family does not make me the boss of Hanukkah.
So after we lit candles and said blessings and sang “Rock of Ages” on the second night, my (Christian) husband surprised me by saying he had hidden little Hanukkah gifts for me and our son. I was touched, and irrationally excited: I hadn’t hunted for a present since I was a kid and my (Christian) mom instituted this Hanukkah tradition in our family.
My bemused son and I quickly located the little tissue paper packets–in a clay pot on the mantel, and on the windowsill behind the curtains. They turned out to be utterly fabulous, completely cheesy blinking LED Hanukkah pins–a menorah and a dreidel. I wore them both at a Hanukkah party the next night.
So my husband created a moment of role-reversal comedy (mom acting like a kid and receiving a goofy “kid” present). At the same time, he distracted us all from missing our college girl. And he paid sweet tribute to the interfaith family created when we got married 25 years ago, and to the tradition instituted by my pioneering interfaith parents, who are still happily married after more than 50 years. Such small gestures, combining tradition and innovation, respect and humor, bind interfaith families together.
Katz Miller is both an interfaith child and an interfaith parent. Her book on raising children with two religions, based on hundreds of survey responses and interviews, will be published by Beacon Press in 2013. You can find her interfaith essays at interfaithfamily.com and on NPR’s All Things Considered. She served as an expert on interfaith children at national conferences, and has chaired the Board of the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington DC, the interfaith group with the largest religious education program in the country. She is a former reporter for Newsweek and New Scientistmagazines, and her work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Discover, Science, and many other publications.
the East Coast is still reeling from Hurricane Sandy, I could not let the
season of All Saints and All Souls go
by without note. And I wanted to describe how our community of interfaith families celebrated
the life of Saint Francis of Assisi, who had his feast day recently.
Neither our rabbi nor our minister (who
was raised as a Baptist) grew up celebrating the lives of the saints, and yet
they co-officiated at this recent Gathering. About half
of the Christians in our interfaith families community were raised Catholic,
and we embrace Saint Francis as an interfaith peacemaker.
On the morning of our celebration, a
simple wooden statue of the saint, with a bird balanced in his palm, stood at
the front of the room. So, before a word was even uttered, some of us were
working through interfaith issues. Such “graven images” present a challenge for some
Jews (and Muslims) who grew up with only abstract religious art, based
on Biblical and Qur’anic injunctions against idolatry. But for me,
contemplating an image of a saint, while learning about his or her life and
spiritual practice, is not the same thing as praying “to” or worshipping a
As patron saint of animals and the
environment, and as a man born wealthy who gave up all his worldly goods, Saint
Francis holds tremendous appeal across the religious divides. Both Catholics
and Anglicans (and thus Episcopalians) celebrate his feast day with a blessing
of the animals, when parishioners actually bring animals to church. I find this
idea tremendously appealing, perhaps because it breaches the usual human/animal
divide, inviting nature into the sanctuary.
The life of Saint Francis has inspired
many popular works of music and art. Franco Zefferelli’s 1972 film Brother
Sun, Sister Moon depicted Francis as a sort of flower
child, with a soundtrack of sweet songs by Donovan.
My favorite Saint Francis film is the less sentimental and rather surreal and
even inscrutable Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Uccellacci
e uccellini (or The
Hawks and the Sparrows) a mystical political fable with a talking
At our celebration, we sang the
Catholic hymn “Make Me an Instrument of Peace,” based on the Prayer of Saint
Francis. The prayer has inspired many composers and has many tunes. I love
this version by a
rabbi and a Franciscan monk who harmonize. As our group sang (a different
tune), I noticed that our house interfaith band that week included a Jewish
keyboard player from England, a Jewish doumbek player from Morocco, and two
Jewish singers. It’s not that we’re converting to Catholicism. All of us feel
inspired by Francis, and enriched as members of interfaith families, and as
individuals who yearn for peace, by spending a morning devoted to learning
about his life.
At this time of year, a blizzard of articles about the so-called December Dilemma swirls up like snowflakes rising from the floor of a snowglobe. Every year, I take calls from journalists looking to, perhaps, shake things up: to dramatize what they are sure must be a conflict between Christmas and Hanukkah, and between interfaith parents. And yet, having chosen to fully educate our children about both family religions, the dilemma essentially disappears and December becomes primarily a delight. We celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas, with all of the trimmings, and seek to help our children to understand the religious meanings of both holidays.
Our pathway is controversial: not every interfaith couple can or should choose both religions for their children. For many families, choosing one religion makes sense, and there is a vast literature out there to help these families negotiate the holiday season. But in our local community of more than 100 interfaith families, we believe that both Christian and Jewish stories and rituals can be inspirational, are essential to literacy in Western culture, and are part of the heritage of our children.
So as Hanukkah and Christmas approach once again, here are eight reasons (some weighty and some as light as tinsel) why my interfaith family celebrates both holidays:
1. To get right to the main point, I see no theological conflict between Judaism and acknowledging the birth of a Jewish spiritual seeker who stood up for the poor and oppressed and changed the course of history (that would be Jesus). If you want to argue that Judaism and Christianity are incompatible, Easter presents more of a dilemma.
2. Generations of Jews in America grew up celebrating what they considered to be a secular Christmas. Some of these same people now turn around and tell interfaith families they shouldn't exchange Christmas presents or carve a roast beast. For my perspective, this is ironic.
3. My family believes our interfaith children should be allowed to experience the major holidays represented by both sides of our family. You could even argue that forbidding the Christmas tree only makes it more desirable.
4. Christmas trees, Yule logs, holly and mistletoe are apparently pagan pre-Christian European traditionsanyway, absorbed into the modern celebration of Christmas. I want my children to acknowledge the origins of these ancient customs, not simply write them off as "secular."
5. On Hanukkah and Christmas, the shared theme of the miracle of light (whether from a guiding star or oil that burned for eight nights) is probably not a coincidence. Both traditions function to ward off the dark of the winter solstice. This synchronicity, and the evidence that religions co-evolve, influence each other, and respond to the same human needs, provides a key moment of identity integration for interfaith children.
7. The Christian partner in an interfaith marriage may experience holiday blues if prohibited from experiencing beloved family traditions such as singing carols and baking gingerbread. Children do not benefit from having depressed parents.
8. Children thrive on ritual, and on a feeling that their parents are equal partners in the family culture. My children love the ritual of lighting Hanukkah candles, and they love the ritual of tree-trimming. We do not mix these rituals together. We do not hang dreidels on our tree or stuff gelt in our stockings. We are not creating a new religion. We are simply sharing with our children each of the separate traditions into which they were born.