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.


  1. Hi Adam, hope this finally works and lets me leave a comment.
    Just to say you have a nice blog here, very well written and very interesting.
    Keep it up! x

  2. Thanks! I'm trying to keep it interesting and have lots of thoughts to share--but no time yet to write them down. Hopefully that will come soon!

  3. Adam--

    This is a great post, certainly as eloquent as anything I write. When I started my blog, I assumed there were lots of interfaith family members out there blogging, and I was looking forward to interacting with them. I was suprised to find there really aren't any, so I hope you keep blogging on this topic! Thanks for the mention,

    Susan Katz Miller

  4. Thanks, Susan--really appreciate your feedback and your reading my blog! A fellow Twitterer just sent me a fascinating post on a Jewish-Chinese family, which I'll share here as well. Happy New Year!