It was one of those classic hypothetical conversations—you know the type—where a dating couple tries to figure out if they’ll be compatible for the long haul. It started when my future husband asked me, somewhat nervously, “If we had kids someday, would you be okay with me teaching them Buddhist meditation? Like my dad did for me?”“Of course,” I said. “Why not?” He seemed relieved and, I think, a little surprised to hear it.
That was several years ago. Now we’re married, and while kids are still very much a future hypothetical, the question of interreligious family life is coming more and more to the fore. I answered my husband’s question quickly, without realizing that it might be difficult. I still do not doubt that raising a child in both religions can—and should—be done. But how will we go about it? As a cradle Christian myself, I have few good models at hand.
Which is one of the reasons I was excited to read Susan Katz Miller’s new book Being Both. The book is subtitled “Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family,” but its main focus is on the children of interfaith marriages—how it is possible to raise them in both parents’ traditions rather than choosing one or the other. More specifically, it focuses on children from Jewish-Christian homes.
Miller herself identifies as “a Jew who celebrates [her] interfaithness.” Her family history spans multiple generations of interfaith identity: both she and her children grew up with both Jewish and Christian parents. Miller uses her story as a springboard to talk about other families who are making the choice to raise children in both Judaism and Christianity. She also profiles the religious communities that are springing up as part of this commitment to teach and practice both traditions.
The idea of raising children in two religions at once can be quite controversial. Will kids raised with both religions be confused? Will they receive only a watered-down version of each faith? Why can’t parents just pick one and be done with it? Miller does not shy away from the debates but rather confronts those assumptions through stories. She tells stories from her own life and from her children’s lives—how they navigated such fraught moments as baptisms and bar mitzvahs.
She also surveys a wide range of interfaith family members, including teens and young adults who went through Jewish-Christian interfaith education programs. These interfaith kids speak up about their own experience of being raised “both.” The kids in her stories may express brief moments of confusion or regret, but mostly they are proud to be interfaith. They are fiercely protective of their right to embrace all parts of their family and identity, not just some. They are knowledgeable about both faiths and very engaged in their own spirituality. In short, they resemble many of us who come to interfaith in one single tradition—learning about multiple religions strengthens, rather than weakens, their own sense of identity.
I very much appreciated Miller’s discussion of ritual moments in one’s religious life, with one chapter on baby welcoming ceremonies (including baptism, brit milah, and baby-naming) and coming of age for teens (including confirmation and bar/bat mitzvahs). Rituals can be moments where the rubber really meets the road in terms of religious and community observance. Miller provides many models for navigating these moments. These include a fully interfaith ceremony that includes both Jewish and Christian elements, as well as a case for performing two separate rituals with education and support from both Jewish and Christian family and community members.
While the book deals almost exclusively with children of Jewish and Christian heritage, the final chapter briefly profiles several interfaith families with different roots (Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist). Somewhat selfishly, I wish this section was longer, since I am looking for models to raise a Buddhist-Christian family. But I understand Miller’s choice; not only does the Jewish-Christian model reflect her own family, it is easily the largest group of intermarriages in the United States. The Jewish-Christian programs of interfaith education and community are also the most robust.
I may wish that there was an already-built Buddhist-Christian education program for my future kids to attend. But Miller’s book gets me dreaming about what an interreligious education can mean for my own children down the line. For readers who may not be in interfaith families themselves, Being Both is still a compelling read, providing a window into a fascinating segment of American religious diversity.
I received a review copy of this book from State of Formation.
*To see the post that the author of Being Both wrote for State of Formation, click here.