Can You Really Be Both? A Review of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family by Susan Katz Miller
The Children Question
When Fred and I are share our Saffron Cross story at book readings and speaking engagements, the most popular question we receive is: “What about kids?” As a Christian-Hindu couple, how would we choose to raise children? With one religion? Two religions? No religion?
We reply to this question gingerly, because the layers are complicated. One, we are not parents—and no one wants parenting advice from folks who do not have children. Two—we prefer to look to the interfaith heroes who’ve been there, done that—and who can offer both experience of what works well and what’s challenging.
Pioneering the Way
Two years ago, when I was beginning to blog more on interfaith topics and even contemplate the proposal for Saffron Cross, I “met” Susan Katz Miller on Twitter.
In the age of interfaith families, social media is an especially valuable tool. As new partners navigate their faith combinations, they can easily look to those who’ve pioneered the way. It takes only a simple Google search to discover that 2013 has been the year of interfaith marriage: from Naomi Schaefer Riley’s research in ‘Til Faith Do Us Part to Mixed-Up Love with Jon M. Sweeney and Michal Woll, to our own Saffron Cross, here comes another must-read: Being Both.
What’s most unique about Susan Katz Miller’s interfaith perspective is that she is a both an interfaith child and an interfaith parent. Her mother is an Episcopalian; her father is Jewish. Susan was raised in the Reform Judaism tradition and is of a generation that is now beginning to see the long-term (positive) effects on children of the earliest interfaith marriages in the United States. After all, fifty years ago in the South, an interfaith marriage was “when a Baptist married a Presbyterian,” so says our 88-year-old Binkley Baptist Church Pastor Emeritus, Dr. Robert Seymour.
Susan’s life experience, her research, and writing bring to the forefront what current and future familiar configurations will look like: partners with two religions who insist that both/and is preferred over either/or.
Journey to Belonging
Being Both begins with Susan’s religious journey—from being secretly baptized in the kitchen sink by her concerned Christian mother and receiving a second and third clandestine baptism by an equally anxious grandmother and aunt. Baptism notwithstanding, Susan was raised Jewish by both her mother and father—a socially, culturally, and religiously strenuous decision given the matrilineal nature of Judaism.
Susan encountered those who told her she simply “wasn’t Jewish.”
“I knew I was different from my Sunday School classmates” and held a “subconscious insecurity about trying to ‘pass’ as a real Jew.”
Then Susan married Paul, global traveler and Episcopalian. Together they lived in many parts of the world and the international stage gave her space to “consider religion without feeling pressure from American society to label myself.”
When they returned to the US in 1997 with their two small children, Susan longed for her children to “understand their Christian heritage” while having “a positive relationship with Judaism.”
Some might speculate, “but how’s that possible?” In a country where we gravitate toward tidy labels, most parents—like Susan’s mother and father—make difficult choices toward an either/or faith proposition, not a both/and.
But Susan and Paul chose both/and. They settled in a suburb of Washington, D.C., and attended the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington (IFFP), where both Judaism and Christianity were offered in equal parts under the leadership of both a rabbi and pastor. Fifteen years after joining IFFP, Katz Miller still describes it as “a euphoria of belonging.”
An Essential Guide
Being Both is not simply the personal story of Katz Miller’s Jewish-Christian journey. Susan explores the grassroots movement of interfaith communities and assesses the myths and benefits of raising children in two religions. From testimonials of parents to children and clergy who “attest to the inspiring nature of working with interfaith families,” Katz Miller has done her due diligence in exploring the interfaith family movement from all angles.
Susan even covers the practical: what about baptism, bris, baby-welcoming, dual-faith education, and all coming of age traditions?
She suggests that enthusiasm for “being both” could and should begin at the beginning: “with gusto, drawing on all the Jewish and Christian rituals and liturgy in our family tree.” The readers gets the sense that for Katz Miller and other members of the IFFP, all infancy, childhood, and teenage religious milestones would be met with this same level of eagerness.
Eighty percent of the interfaith children Katz Miller interviewed who’ve grown up with both traditions overwhelmingly site it as an advantage. The remaining twenty percent simply say it was neither an advantage nor disadvantage. One interfaith adolescent explains: “I feel the coupling of faiths has given me unique avenues to God.”
While Being Both is rightfully focused on Jewish-Christian families, Katz Miller doesn’t neglect the next “wave” of interfaith configurations: Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists. She devotes an entire chapter to exploring the stories, celebrations, and challenges of those families.
Stepping Across Boundaries
Katz Miller writes that interfaith families quite literally “step across religious boundaries to pioneer a new life.” These families “refuse to get back inside neat religious identity boxes” and instead embrace an “open spirit and proclivity for crossing borders and making connections.” But Katz Miller isn’t just calling interfaith families to be isolated to their particular communities; she claims they have a “role in reducing religious intolerance and promoting religious peace.”
My favorite bit: like Katz Miller, Fred and I hadn’t anticipated how embracing two religions would “create joy, not simply compromise.” This is the essence of Being Both: while the rest of the world may insist that choosing either/or limits confusion and keeps religious purity, ”being both” lifts us to a higher place of understanding. Susan describes it as “going beyond embrace of the other to actually embody the other.”
I highly recommend this book for all partners seeking to bridge multiple religious, spiritual, or moral frameworks within one family. This book is particularly pertinent for families with children who are discerning and weighing the questions and benefits of both/and.
Being Both also includes an extensive list of resources as well as an index, making it an essential guidebook. After a thoughtful reading, I think most will agree that exploring the “being both” option far outweighs the historical anxieties that families of previous generations faced in making the hard-and-fast decision of choosing one religion over another.
Reverend Heather Kirk-Davidoff, a clergyperson interviewed by Katz Miller, captured it best: “I don’t think religion is about resolution, or answers. Religion provokes searching and questioning.”
Being Both encourages us all to search, question, and grow together. After all, we can be both.