Sunday, December 20, 2009

Interfaith at Christmastime: The Beginning of a Dialogue

One of my motivations for starting a blog was to begin a dialogue — or at least a monologue in the form of essays — on matters that I think about often. One of the things that often on my mind is the nature of religious identity in a diverse society. For me, this means that I'm part of the interfaith community. (Yes, as the picture to the right indicates, we have a Hannukah menorah and we put up Christmas decorations. The photo is from last year, when the holidays coincided.) With Christmas coming up — a Christian holiday that also has important secular meanings in our world — I'd like to begin a discussion of what it means to be interfaith.

The Merriam-Webster definition of "interfaith" is conventional, in the sense of its emphasis on the involvement of people of different religious faiths. In many instances, it is accurate. A Google search for "interfaith dialogue" yields some 514,000 results , includling efforts to promote interfaith dialogue on post 9/11 relations between Islam and the rest of the world and the AIDS crisis. These are ad hoc discussions that bring together people of diverse religious backgrounds to find common understanding of the world's major problems.

While these efforts are important, focusing on the ecumenical elements of interfaith dialogue, I think, fails to account for the many people who are in my situation. Namely, that I'm a person who grew up in a Jewish family, married a Catholic, and who, while secure in my own faith wants to make sure that my children have, as they are developing and growing, the security that comes from both faiths without feeling like outsiders or freaks. My family is very fortunate to have found the Interfaith Families Project (IFFP), here in Washington. It's a community of several hundred families, which share the same interest that we have in raising our children with the perspective of both faiths. We're very lucky to have become part of this extraordinary group. We're even teaching a Sunday school class on the life of Jesus, which has been a wonderful experience so far.

This is a very complex topic and I won't handle it all in one post. After this introduction, I'll be writing next about how I came to be part of an interfaith family. I'll follow that up with a "This I Believe" posting. Finally, I'll be posing some questions about interfaith life.

But I want to begin with a few stories.

I'm about ten years old, driving with my grandparents to their beach apartment. I've never even thought about kissing a girl but my grandparents are telling me and my sister about how they'd like us to marry Jewish people. I totally understood where they were coming from but even then something sounded wrong to me about thinking I couldn't love or marry someone because they didn't share my faith...

...It's my first week of college. My floormate Will, hailing from rural Arkansas, is asking all of us if we're Jewish (about two thirds of us are) — what he means is if we keep kosher, because he wants to cook some jambalaya for us. We thank him and assure him that even though we are "members of the tribe," we can eat his dish. "Good!" he says. "Jambalaya, dude!"...

...I'm hanging out with a dear friend from high school and her parents. Her mom says that marrying someone who isn't Jewish is like letting Hitler win...

...April 28th, 2001: my beautiful bride Melissa and I exchange vows in a Catholic cathedral, under a huppah, with a rabbi and a priest officiating. Two-thirds of a good joke, I say. Also the foundation of a wonderful life together. How blessed we are...

...This past fall, I'm at a book launch event for a study of the expatriate Indian Jewish community living in Israel, and am talking with two women my grandmothers' age about being interfaith, and doing my best to raise my children with the best of both traditions. One says she's an atheist and could't imagine raising her children with any religion. The other purses her lips and clucks, seemingly amazed that a young person would try anything so stupid.

I'm not the first person who has tried to express what it's like to grow up interfaith. Susan Katz Miller, a fellow IFFP member, has a blog that explores these issues far more eloquently than I could. There are no right answers here. Few people have tried to do this, and many, particularly in older generations, can't imagine why one would try to "be both." I like to think that it's one of the greatest advantages of living in a society as diverse as ours. There is no longer a "gentleman's agreement" restricting Jewish enrollment in major universities, or Jewish hires in businesses or agencies. And if we choose, we can marry anyone we want, and be accepted into their families.

So let's begin the discussion. Next, how I came to this happy place.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Dance of the Sugarplum Interfaith Fellow

I have a confession to make. I love "The Nutcracker," the short ballet written (and some say, disavowed by) the great Russian composer Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky, which has in the last half-century become one of the hallmarks of the holiday season, especially in the United States. The music in it is so much a part of the popular ethos that it's been appropriated by TV commercials and even Duke Ellington. (The image at the right is the backdrop for the second act, set in the Land of the Sugarplum Fairy, from the original production.)

I've been thinking about Nutcracker a lot lately because it arouses a lot of emotions in people, ranging from warm feelings of winter afternoons gone by to "ugh, I hate it." For me, it's a touchstone experience because I see it through the eyes of someone who is "interfaith" -- a theme which I'd like to begin exploring in this blog.

By interfaith, I don't mean "ecumenical" -- in other words, including people of many faiths in dialogue, particularly with issues that are important in modern society. These days we often hear about interfaith approaches to healthcare, or AIDS, or the war on terrorism. I mean something that I and many other families have direct experience with: the work involved in creating a family in which one spouse is of one faith (usually Christian), another spouse is of another faith (often Jewish), and the children, it is hoped, grow up with at least an appreciation for both.

"Nutcracker" resonates for me here because my experience with is is very much interfaith. I grew up Jewish, in a family that was, on the one hand, very assimilated. We didn't keep kosher or go to synagogue regularly. But Christmas was often an isolating time in our house, in the sense that we didn't participate in any of the secular elements of the season. To this day, some in my immediate family are openly hostile to the holiday, resisting going to Christmas parties or dinners if invited, turning of holiday music when it plays on the radio, and so on. A recent blog posting by the JCC here in Washington talked about one parent's ambivalence about "Nutcracker."

My mom, who still takes ballet class, first took me to the ballet when I was about five to see "The Nutcracker." If I hadn't wimped out at the last minute, I would have been in my elementary school's talent show as a kindergartener dancing around to soldier music from the first act. This year, I bought a copy of the wonderful ABT production with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland to play for my daughter, who is the same age that I was when I first saw it.

To my mind, "Nutcracker" is wonderful. It's a story that only begins with a Christmas party, but that deals more with the imagination and joy inherent in childhood. A little girl dreams that her toy nutcracker comes to life and takes her to a magical land. That's it. It's based on a short story by the German writer ETA Hoffman, brought to life by a Russian composer, and now part of the cultural zeitgeist of postmodern America. So when I approach it it's not as a Jew, or as a Jew married to a Catholic, but as a human being of one particular background living in a diverse, modern society. The joy in watching this little ballet comes from the dancing, and the music, and reliving the joy I felt seeing it for the first time in seeing my daughter do the same thing.

I'll explore in later postings what exactly being interfaith means to me -- but for the time being, it's back to dancing with the sugarplum fairy.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Toward a More Grateful Afghan People?

I wasn't able to watch President Obama's speech on Afghanistan on Tuesday, but I heard much about it the following day and have been thinking about whether we are doing the right thing. I pulled out something I haven't looked at in a while. It's a Soviet campaign medal from their war in Afghanistan that I picked up from a Moscow street vendor back in 1992.

The reverse, in a master stroke of overestimated gratitude, reads "From the Grateful Afghan People" in Russian and Arabic.

Holding this medal again made me wonder about whether we're doing the right thing here. So in the tradition begun by Peter King in his football column, here are a few"things I think I think."
  • The Santayana "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" conundrum. I can't help but be reminded that a number of empires have gone into Afghanistan thinking that it will be easy going, only to be bogged down. It was true for the "Great Game" fought in central Asia, it was true for the nine years the Soviets spent in Afghanistan, and it is true for the (at least) ten years that we will have spent in Afghanistan by the time our troops stop leaving.
  • Afghanistan was envisioned as a short war, but it oviously did not turn out that way. The chief reason for this was that our forces were moved from Afghanistan to support the Bush/Cheney war on Iraq. If we had the resources on the ground in 2003, this war may well have been over long before now. So it is at the very least not helpful, and at the most a continuation of the Bush administration's pathological lying, lack of accountability, and refusal to admit complete and utter failure for people like Dick Cheney critizize Obama on this, particularly for their perception that domestic politics is driving the decision. This from a group that won the2004 election by branding any opponent of the Iraq war an al Quaeda sympathizer. I think that the new Obama strategy is sound, I'm glad that there is a sense of what success looks like, and I'm glad that the plan includes a set of guardrails to guide withdrawal. I hope that people remember the kind of support that Bush received at the beginning of this war. At least he got the benefit of the doubt that he was doing the right thing. Let's remember that as we think about our current Commander in Chief, who is infinitely more intellectually engaged in his Presidency, and is much better served by his civilian staff, than his predecessor.
  • Afghanistan is only a piece of the puzzle. It is naive to think that by winning the war in Afghanistan that we thereby pacify Iran, stabilize Pakistan and decouple the political influence of the Middle East with our almost complete dependence on them for our energy needs. But I agree with my graduate school professor David Rothkopf that it's folly to underestimate the complexity of the raft of issues of which Afghanistan is only a part.
So that's what I believe about where things are in Afghanistan at the moment. Only time will tell if the result is a truly grateful Afghan people or another shiny medal. I'll look forward to seeing what comments are made on this posting--maybe they can be the basis for a future conversation.