I grew up in the first small, significant wave of American children born to intermarried Jewish and Christian parents. Many of us have Jewish fathers who joined the service during World War II, came back home with radically expanded horizons, and married Christian women. My father, who was stationed in the South Pacific as a teenager during that war, was the first in his family to marry a non-Jew. In the previous generation, there had been family members who died single rather than brave the social consequences of intermarrying.
Growing up, I didn’t know any other interfaith children except my own siblings, and we quietly passed as Jews in suburban Boston. Our Reform synagogue accepted my family-many synagogues did so, even prior to the official ruling on "patrilineal descent" by the Reform rabbinate in 1983. In 1976, I was even allowed to "have a Bat Mitzvah" as we said in those days. Because intermarriage was still relatively rare, no assimilation alarm bells were going off yet, and my family did not cause any real controversy.
Then I went off to college and met Reform, Orthodox and Conservative students, including Chabad proselytizers, who told me I wasn’t Jewish at all. A Conservative Jew I dated told me his parents would "rather have him marry a falasha." Jewish institutions, facing the increase in intermarriage, began to panic and push furniture up against the doors that wouldn’t stay shut, alienating interfaith couples and children. As my religious identity shattered, I groped for a way to put it back together into a new mosaic. Since there were no blogs or websites yet, no books yet written on interfaith children, I cast about for guidance or models. And I found that guidance in the mixed race movement.
In 2000, the US Census allowed Americans to check more than one race box for the first time. In making this historic change, they cited the work of psychologist Maria P. P. Root. Root is perhaps best-know for her "Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Race," a powerful manifesto. The first time I came across this Bill of Rights, I felt an electric current run through me. As my mind translated each line from "mixed race" to "interfaith," I realized that Root had unwittingly articulated exactly what I wanted to say about my own interfaith identity.
Recently, I wrote to Root and asked for her permission to publish my adaptation of her Bill of Rights. I put in italics the only words I changed. She immediately responded in the affirmative, writing, "You are right. It works beautifully."
Bill of Rights for Interfaith People
I HAVE THE RIGHT… Not to justify my existence in this world. Not to keep the religions separate within me. Not to justify my religious legitimacy. Not to be responsible for people’s discomfort with my religious ambiguity.
I HAVE THE RIGHT… To identify myself differently than strangers expect me to identify. To identify myself differently than how my parents identify me. To identify myself differently than my brothers and sisters. To identify myself differently in different situations.
I HAVE THE RIGHT… To create a vocabulary to communicate about being interfaith. To change my identity over my lifetime–and more than once. To have loyalties and identification with more than one group of people. To freely choose whom I befriend and love.
(Adapted by Susan Katz Miller, with permission, from the Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Race, copyright Maria P.P. Root, PhD, 1993, 1994)