A Father’s Pain: Andrew Solomon’s Interview with Peter Lanza by Judy Bolton-Fasman

On Dec. 14, 2012, 20-yearold Adam Lanza entered an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., and gunned down 20 children and six school workers. He had also committed matricide before he turned the gun on himself.

Although 28 people died that day in Connecticut, 26 is the symbolic number etched on every memorial commemorating the tragedy. It’s the number of times church bells tolled in its aftermath. It’s the number of stars affixed to the roof of the local firehouse. And it’s the number that President Barack Obama invoked on the first anniversary of the shootings.

After reading Andrew Solomon’s powerful interview with Peter Lanza – Adam’s father – in a recent issue of The New Yorker, there is no question in my mind that Lanza commemorates the number of victims at 26. “You can’t mourn for the little boy [Adam] once was. You can’t fool yourself,” he told Solomon.

It’s fitting that Lanza broke his media silence with Solomon who, among his many journalistic and literary accomplishments, has championed the joys and difficulties of parenthood. Last year I wrote about Solomon’s book “Far From the Tree” for this column. The book was an 11-year undertaking in which Solomon vividly portrayed children who were born or grew up in ways that their parents never expected. It included a chapter about parents whose children became criminals, focusing on the parents of Dylan Klebold. Klebold, along with his friend Eric Harris, killed 13 fellow students at Colorado’s Columbine High School in 1999.

Solomon’s portrayal of the Klebolds impressed Peter Lanza as fair and just, and when he was ready to talk, he reached out to Solomon. Lanza’s confidence in Solomon is well placed. Although the latter’s carefully reported piece directs a reader’s attention to the fact that things were amiss with Adam Lanza from an early age, he resists the temptation to regard Adam’s deterioration as foreshadowing the horror to come. Solomon further notes that the state’s attorney report found that the mental health professionals who treated Adam throughout his teen years did not predict his future criminal behavior. What strikes me in reading Solomon’s article is how hard Peter and Nancy Lanza tried to save their son, and how dangerous parenthood becomes when a child is as far gone as Adam was.

Adam’s anti-social behavior escalated in middle school and he was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome when he was 13. To be clear, Peter Lanza vehemently objects to any speculation that Asperger’s factored into Adam committing mass murder. “Asperger’s,” he told Solomon, “makes people unusual, but it doesn’t make them like this.”

Solomon similarly goes to great lengths to document that Asperger’s was not connected to Adam’s murderous rampage. “Violence by autistic people,” he explains, “is more commonly reactive than planned – triggered, for example, by an invasion of personal space. Studies of people with autism who have committed crimes suggest that at least half also suffer from an additional condition – from psychosis, in about 25 percent of cases.”

Among the other rumors swirling around the Lanzas was that Peter was an absent father. Nancy and Peter Lanza separated in 2003, when Adam was 9, and divorced in 2009. According to Solomon, the Lanzas were amicable when it came to Adam and his older brother. Peter saw his sons every weekend and, as four binders of printouts of emails from 2007 and 2008 suggest, was in constant contact with Nancy about Adam’s worsening condition.

Media reports noted that Nancy and Adam regularly went to the shooting range. Peter Lanza doesn’t overtly comment on the role that Nancy’s guns played in Adam’s psyche. Nor does he blame her, the custodial parent on the front lines, for Adam’s crimes. In that same forgiving spirit, Solomon observes that Adam overwhelmed Nancy and that her instinct was to indulge him.

“All parenting,” Solomon writes, “involves choosing between the day (why have another argument at dinner?) and the years (the child must learn to eat vegetables). Nancy’s errors seem to have been that she always focused on the day in a ceaseless quest to keep peace in the home she shared with the hypersensitive, controlling, increasingly hostile stranger who was her son.”

In the wake of the shootings, Peter Lanza has met with two of the victims’ families. But as Solomon reports, “The only reason that Peter was talking to anyone, including me, was to share information that might help other families or prevent another such event.” For his part, Peter says, “I want people to be afraid that this could happen to them.’”

No matter how vigorously Peter Lanza has looked for answers, there is only one chilling conclusion that he comes to: he wishes that his son had never been born. For the rest of us, we’re left wondering what we as parents would do if we were confronted with a child like Adam Lanza. There is no definitive explanation for what Adam did even as scientists analyze his DNA – just a haunting feeling that a parent’s responsibility can be both awe-inspiring and terrifying.

 

The New SAT by Judy Bolton-Fasman

When Adam saw the cover story of the New York Times Sunday Magazine a couple of weeks ago, he groaned, “Too late for me.” The headline that upset him, “The Story of the SAT Overhaul,” announced that a new version of the SAT was coming out in the spring of 2016.

Adam had just come off of taking the nearly four-hour exam the day before and he was not a happy camper. Ask Adam what he thinks of the SAT and he’ll happily give you an earful on the subject. “The SAT is quite possibly the worst way to gauge a student’s ability to perform at a college level,” he says. “The vocabulary is unnecessarily obscure, the reading analysis asks the most random questions, the writing section indoctrinates students to lose all sense of creativity and style and the essay is judging a student’s ability to write in a time limit not suitable for a well constructed paragraph.”

SAT
Of course, that’s one kid’s opinion, but I suspect many of his peers share it as well. It appears that the College Board has been listening too. For the second time in ten years the Board is thoroughly revising the way it tests college applicants. According to David Coleman, who took over as head of the College Board in 2012, the changes will go far in democratizing the test for all students.

In effect, Coleman is acknowledging the SAT’s dirty, open secret – families with access to wealth, education, a good school or all three have an unfair advantage when preparing for the test. The new SAT will be more aligned with what a college-bound senior should have learned in a common core curriculum. Before coming to the College Board, Coleman was a key figure in the development of the Common Core Standards. Those standards, with their emphasis on analytical thinking as well as key math and writing concepts, will be reflected in the new SAT. As it stands now, Coleman acknowledges the test is “disconnected” from the high school curriculum.

Some of Adam’s criticisms have been dealt with in the test that will be administered in 2016. The section that is currently labeled critical reading will merge with multiple choice writing questions from to form a new section called “evidence-based reading and writing.” Thankfully, current questions known as “sentence completion” will be jettisoned, addressing Adam’s complaint about defining “unnecessarily obscure” vocabulary.

The College Board will include more science, history and social studies questions for further analysis on the exam. New among those passages will be source documents from American luminaries like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The math section will focus more on data analysis, problem solving, algebra and topics touching on more advanced mathematics. As it stands now, calculators are allowed throughout the math sections, but they will be barred from certain portions in the future to determine math fluency.

The mandatory essay, an innovation of the 2005 SAT, will be optional in the future. Students will now have 50 minutes to analyze evidence as well as an author’s argument. Currently, test-takers have only 25 minutes to answer a prompt that doesn’t require them to verify facts or worry about accuracy.

The change that I am most excited about in this whole SAT business is that it has the potential to level the playing field when it comes to test preparation. Gaming the SAT is a $4.5 billion-a-year industry that preys on parents and kids alike. To end this madness (and yes, my kids took prep courses, so I got caught up in the frenzy too), Coleman has partnered with Khan Academy, which offers free online tutorials on myriad subjects ranging from literature to calculus.The academy was founded in 2006 by Sal Khan, 36, who left his job as a successful hedge-fund manager with the goal of bringing a world-class education to anyone with an internet connection. With that same can-do, egalitarian spirit, Khan Academy will offer its trademark free videos on preparing for the new SAT.

The new SAT will also hopefully make books like the newly published, The Perfect Score Project: Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT by Debbie Stier feel anachronistic. Stier is a suburban New York mom who decided that the only way to gain admission and win a scholarship to college for her B average son was to help him achieve a perfect 2400 on the current SAT. Thirty years earlier, Stier had done poorly on her own SAT exam, so in her quest to beef up her son’s academic profile she took the SAT as an adult – seven times in seven different test centers. She went to tutoring companies, engaged pricey private teachers and generally drove herself nuts. She didn’t achieve a perfect score – her verbal scores steadily improved but she never scored more than the mid-500s in math – but she learned a thing or two about the unfairness of the system along the way.

As for Adam, he says that SAT has too much power in teenagers’ lives. He’s doubtful whether a new version can come close to reigning in that power. He may be right. Yet after all is said and done, most college admissions officers note that grades, not SAT scores, are the best predictors of success in college.

In Memory of the Children by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Roee Grutman, Karen Douglas and Katie Stack: These are the names of the three Newton high school students who took their lives in the past four months.

What is happening to our children? Is the pressure so unbearable that they see suicide as the only alternative in their lives? And where is that pressure coming from? School, home, the playing field? Are their feelings of despair so deeply internalized that we, their parents, only see the usual adolescent angst? I don’t have answers – only deep sadness and raw fear.

There are always statistics to pair with any tragedy. In the case of teen suicide, the statistics are particularly sobering. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention report that for youths between the ages of 10 and 24, suicide is the third-leading cause of death. It results in about 4,600 lives lost each year.

Deaths from youth suicide are only part of the story. According to the CDC, more young people survive suicide attempts than actually die. A nationwide survey of youth in 9th through 12th grades, both in public and private schools, found that 16 percent of students reported seriously considering suicide, 13 percent reported creating a plan and 8 percent reported trying to take their own lives in the 12 months preceding the survey. There are also about 157,000 youth between the ages of 10 and 24 who receive medical care for selfinflicted injuries at emergency rooms across the country each year.

One of the more recent and visible projects addressing teen suicide has been the Internet-based “It Gets Better.” Founded by gay activist Dan Savage and his husband, the enterprise began as a response to the high suicide rate among LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) youth by featuring gay adults in videos communicating that life improves as kids grow up. The campaign was so successful that there is a dedicated website with more than 50,000 videos made by adults of all sexual orientations encouraging kids to work through hard times because life always gets better.

Efrem Epstein knows about weathering tough times. As an adult, Epstein came out the other end of a severe depression and in gratitude for his recovery volunteered with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. In 2009 he was invited to participate in World Suicide Prevention Day, where he saw a number of diverse organizations present programs in their communities in support of suicide prevention. It was a light-bulb moment for Epstein, who realized that there was no Jewish organization dedicated to working on suicide prevention. “I knew I needed to create an organization with Jewish nuances in mind,” Epstein said in a recent interview. The result was the creation of Elijah’s Journey, so named for the prophet Elijah who asked God to take his life after a trying time. In response, G-d told Elijah to take a 40-day journey to rethink his life.

This is one of the text studies that Epstein teaches in synagogue groups, Limmud classes and Hillel programs. He says, “Developing text studies and programs using a Jewish lens opens up the lines of communication about suicide.” In his presentations, Epstein also points to Numbers 11 in which an overwhelmed Moses asks G-d to end his life. G-d advises Moses to surround himself with 70 elders who can share his burdens with him.

In addition to offering Jewish wisdom on the subject, Epstein notes, “These texts highlight the fact that suicide is not new. Biblical characters had suicidal feelings and it is becoming a lot less taboo in the Jewish community to talk about it. Part of the challenge that Elijah’s Journey has had has been to get the word out there. The issue has not been on the Jewish community’s radar. There are 1 million suicide attempts every year resulting in 40,000 actual suicides. But we have worked with synagogues of all denominations to convince the Jewish community that it is a critical issue for the community.”

To introduce its mission into homes, Elijah’s Journey is working on a document for Passover that families can read at their Seder when they open the door for Elijah. “We’re hoping that we can incorporate thinking about suicide prevention into the Seder ceremony,” says Epstein. There also plans to develop information for visiting the shiva house of someone lost to suicide.

For now, though, I’d like to take a moment to say the Mourner’s Kaddish for Roee Grutman, Karen Douglas and Katie Stack. May G-d comfort the families and friends who loved these young people among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem, and the entire world.

Mourner’s Kaddish

Yitgadal veyitkadash shemey raba

Be’alma di vera chir’utey

Veyamlich malchutey

Bechayeychon u’veyomeychon

U’vechayey di’chol beit yisrael

Ba’agala u’vizman kariv ve’imru amein Yehey sh’mey raba mevorach le’alam u’le’almey almaya

Yitbarach ve’yishtabach ve’yitpa’ar ve’yitromam ve’yitnasey

Ve’yit’hadar ve’yit’aleh ve’yit’halal

She’mey d’kud’sha b’rich hu

Le’eyla min kol birchata ve’shirata tushbechata ve’nechemata

Da’amiran be’alma ve’imru amein

Yehey sh’lama raba min shemaya ve’chayim

Aleynu ve’al kol yisrael ve’imru amen

O’seh shalom bimromav

Hu ya’aseh shalom aleynu ve’al kol yisrael

Ve’imru amein

Magnified and sanctified be Your name, O G-d, throughout the world, which You have created according to Your will. May Your sovereignty be accepted in our own days, in our lives, and in the life of all the House of Israel, speedily and soon, and let us say, Amen.

May Your great name be blessed for ever and ever.

Exalted and honored, adored and acclaimed be Your name, O Holy One. Blessed are You, whose glory transcends all praises, songs and blessings voiced in the world, and let us say, Amen.

Grant abundant peace and life to us and to all Israel, and let us say, Amen.

May You who establish peace in the heavens, grant peace to us, to Israel, and to all the earth, and let us say, Amen.

Hey Jude by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Fifty years ago the Beatles came to America and told gaggles of screaming teenage girls, “I wanna hold your hand.” But I first heard the song at my uncle’s wedding in 1967. I was the six year-old flower girl with the plastic daisy crown that wanted to dance all night because the Beatles told me that, “Yeah, you got that something.” When my uncle and I twisted and shouted all the way to the ground, I was the little girl who was certain that she twisted “so fine.”

 Beatles

The gray suitcase record player that my uncle and my new aunt gave me for my birthday came with a 45 RPM record with Yellow Submarine on Side A and Eleanor Rigby on Side B. I played Yellow Submarine over and over, dancing and spinning and dizzying myself into black star-flecked space. “We all live in a yellow submarine.” But I also lived at 1735 Asylum Avenue in West Hartford, Connecticut, where my much older father had altogether different and old-fashioned taste in music.

Dad cued up Gilbert & Sullivan operettas, Straus waltzes and John Philip Sousa marches on the gleaming hi-fi console in the living room. On random Sundays, particularly in the summer, he marched my brother and sister and me around the house to the rhythm of Sousa’s brassy, piccolo-inflected music. Over the blare of tubas and trumpets, my father conducted us as we waved small American flags. Dad, the standard bearer of our patriotism, carried a large flag with only forty-eight stars.

Dad kept the car radio in the ’65 aquamarine Chevy Malibu tuned to WRCH, the station that claimed to play “rich music.” Neither classical nor popular, WRCH broadcast the cascading string music of Ray Coniff and Henry Mancini. Pop music occasionally poked through my father’s repertoire. He bought me 45 RPMs of  “The Ballad of the Green Beret” and “Winchester Cathedral.” I listened to the former with the reverence of taking in a prayer that I didn’t quite understand. The latter was a goofy vaudevillian tune with sliding whistles and muted trumpets.

My young Cuban mother sang Guantanamera, the de facto anthem of Cuban ex-pats the world over, morning, noon and night. Before I discovered the Beatles, the Cuban crooner Beny Moré was the closest I came to dancing to rock ‘n’ roll. On cold Connecticut afternoons, my mother played Beny’s music. “Soy Guajiro,” Beny sang. I was a peasant too. I mixed uneasily with my father’s refined second generation Jewish-American family.

In those days my homesick mother danced in place as if she were afraid to move even further away from Havana. The pleated gold Ed Sullivan Show-style curtains gave our beige and brown living room theatricality. I pretended to be the lead singer of Beny’s orchestra. I also imagined the Beatles one and only Hartford performance, taking place at 1735 Asylum. The Fab Four would sing a rendition of “Love Me Do” that would harmonize with the audience’s teenage screeching.

My mother also loved Nancy Sinatra singing, “These Boots Were Made for Walking.” Mom had a sleek shiny pair of black and brown boots that fit her like a second skin. She’d hum the song as I helped her pull off the boots. And I believed that, “One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you.”

The Beatles, though, were mine alone.

recordplayer

Before I packed up the gray suitcase record player forever, I played the one 45 single that the Beatles wrote just for me. “Hey Jude, don’t carry the world upon your shoulders.” But I did. Images of the Vietnam War mingled with my parents’ domestic feuding. The women’s movement helped my mother go back to graduate school to wage her own War of Independence. And I was on the verge of growing into a sulking, moody teenager. But that was okay according to the Beatles. “For well you know that it’s a fool who plays it cool by making his world a little colder.”

Sunrise, Sunset: A Son Rises

These days I shade my eyes and look into the distance from my almost empty nest, remembering not only the “firsts” my children did, but also the last moments of actively parenting kids who were once wholly dependent on me.

As I write this on a snowy Wednesday, I go back to the moments when snow days guaranteed me snuggling time with my Anna and Adam. They’d flop into my bed and I would luxuriate in how small they were – small enough so that three of us had room to spare in my king-size bed. Adam is a young man and Anna is away in college. The empty bed feels gigantic.

Time blurs from the first time Adam and Anna tentatively rode away on bicycles to the first time they sat behind the wheel of a car. It whips by from the time I could carry my kids to the moment that Adam gives me his arm so I don’t slip on the ice. Adam’s childhood effectively ended for me the first time he wrested a shovel from my hand and cleaned up the walk in half the time I could have done it. It dawned on me that my son was physically stronger than I was as I watched him heave piles of wet snow so effortlessly.

My son shaves his face. My daughter catches a ride back to school with someone I don’t know. Adam navigates his way downtown on the T. Anna calls the doctor to refill her prescription. These were things that I used to do for them. When that first tooth fell out, I played the tooth fairy and slipped a dollar bill under their pillows when I was sure they were deeply asleep. I miss tucking them in at night. I miss reading to them. What was the last book I read to them? What was the first “grownup” book they read to lull themselves to sleep?

Once, I knew everything about my children – from their sleep habits to their favorite foods. Now I stand on the periphery watching them change and grapple with adulthood. I’ve witnessed Anna’s heart break. In these last years Adam has shot up 11 inches straight into manhood. My children are building their own identities; I hope Ken and I gave them a solid foundation.

Which brings me to Adam. A couple of months ago, I was reading the paper on a Saturday morning, debating whether I should go to synagogue or catch an early movie. Adam was up uncharacteristically early. He always sleeps through a weekend morning. But I could tell there was something on his mind. That particular day, Ken slept uncharacteristically late. It was just my boy and me, and I noted his strong jaw line, the soft stubble on his face. I saw so much of Ken and me in him. He was on his way to becoming the gentlest of men, just like his father.

Ken finally came downstairs. Adam suddenly stood in front of us and said he needed to say something. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “What is it, buddy?” Ken asked. “I’m gay,” said my son. “And we adore you,” I replied.

My children know that there is nothing that they can say or do that will make me stop loving them. My children also know that claiming their identities is a cause for celebration in our house. Just last summer, Ken’s brother Glen married his longtime partner Roger in a beautiful ceremony on a perfect summer evening. His wedding picture takes its place on my mother-in-law’s shelf among the photographs of his two brothers and their brides.

I learned a lot from my in-laws about having a gay child. When Glen came out, they immediately found support at PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). PFLAG was founded in 1972 by a mother who simply wanted to support her gay son publicly. My in-laws quickly found their footing at PFLAG meetings and were dismayed at the stories they heard from gay children rejected because of who they were.

It demonstrates how far we have come as a society that Ken and I feel we don’t need a rudimentary education in having a gay child. Adam is one of the only boys in his all-male school that is out and his friends and teachers have been notably supportive of him. His rabbis have told him how beloved he is at temple and how they support his choice to love whom he wishes.

“Sunrise, sunset, swiftly fly the years … I don’t remember growing older; when did they?” goes the old song. God willing, my daughter will make a life with a man she loves and so will my son. And each day that they mature, I love them more than ever.

One Stitch at a Time: Anne Lamott’s Homespun Theology by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Anne Lamott is one of my rabbis. I know Ms. Lamott is not Jewish, but over the years she has crafted a homespun theology that is kind and wise and downright sensible.

In her latest book, “Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair,” Lamott tells readers we live “stitch by stitch, when we’re lucky. If you fixate on the big picture, the whole shebang, the overview, you miss the stitching.”

Stitches
Hope, meaning and repair are in the details of life.When I was younger, I used to fixate on the big picture and get overwhelmed. Here is what I tell my children when they start to get anxious: Take life in 10-minute increments. It will give you the time to notice the fine, intricate parts that create a life.

Lamott’s book is also a response to the first anniversary of the shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn. To that end, Lamott does not hesitate to tell her readers that life is grim, the world is a mess and, quoting the writer Barry Lopez, “[all] that is holding us together is stories and compassion.”

A number of years ago, I was at a school meeting in which the principal asked what we, as parents, hoped that our children would get out of Jewish day school. We went around the room and most parents said that they hoped their children would be happy and satisfied with their lives. I love the sentiment, but I don’t want my children to be happy and satisfied all the time. How will they help to repair the world if the never get fed up with the poverty, hunger, racism and all of the other maladies plaguing our world? I want my children to be compassionate, and then I want them to be even more compassionate. But coupled with that, I want them to be optimistic. In my mind, an optimist doesn’t close her eyes and wave away the bad and the ugly in an “everything is going to be all right” way. That feels empty to me. An optimist takes Lamott’s stitches and makes something of them. “You have to keep taking the next necessary stitch, and the next one, and the next,” she writes. “Without stitches, you just have rags.” That’s the kind of belief in the power of good that I’m taking about.

And God bless Anne Lamott for bringing up the overly sensitive child. I want to say this as clearly as possible: There is no such thing as being overly sensitive. I know what I’m talking about. People call me overly sensitive all the time. The overly sensitive child is the fifth child in the Passover Seder. Nobody says it better than Lamott when she writes, “Almost everybody worth his or her salt was a mess and has been an overly sensitive child. Almost everyone had at one time or another been exposed to the world as flawed and human. And that it was good, for the development of character and empathy, for growth of the spirit.”

When Anna was little, she told me that she couldn’t stand it when people were angry with her. My guess is she felt misunderstood when a friend or a parent berated her. As the overly sensitive child grows up, she never quite gets over the events that made her sad in childhood.

And then there is the quandary of what you say to people when they ask you how you are. You don’t want to open a dam of feeling and possible sadness, so you say you’re fine even though your child may not be faring well in school or your elderly parent is having trouble remembering your name. Things are so perfunctory in our society. But like the great teacher and spiritual counselor that she is, Lamott’s good news on the subject is that “if you don’t seal up your heart with caulking compound, and instead stay permeable, people stay alive inside of you, and maybe outside of you too, forever.”

When I said the Kaddish for my father eleven years ago, I was determined to keep him alive in my heart by not missing a day of prayer. Sometimes I brought my kids to minyan in their pajamas. There was Adam shuffling around the chapel in his Scooby-Doo slippers. Anna sometimes participated in the service with her friend Jackie, whose mother was also mourning her father at the same time I was. We called them the “Ashrei” girls because they opened the evening service with the ubiquitous Psalm of David.They were overly sensitive children in training.

Like this startling world of ours,children don’t always grow up the way you expect them to. Love and beauty have infinite forms. Once again, I summon Anne Lamott to explain “that we are shadow and light. …We are raised to be bright and shiny, but there is meaning in the acceptance of our dusky and dappled side, and also in defiance.”

Being Both: Susan Katz Miller’s Interfaith Journey by Judy Bolton-Fasman

It has been more than a decade since my children entered Jewish day school. Our choice was the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston and I don’t regret a minute of their education there. But in the beginning Ken and I paused over the fine print of the application that asked us to confirm that our children had a Jewish mother or were converted in a mikveh—a ritual bath. A part of us felt that any child with a Jewish parent—mother or father—who sought out a Jewish education should have one. But we are also temple-going Conservative Jews who support matrilineal descent. It was a conundrum—one that after all these years I haven’t fully worked out.

I’ve had this discussion many times with my good friend Susan Katz Miller. Sue grew up Jewish with a Jewish father and an Episcopalian mother. The Jewish community frequently misunderstood her patrilineality and often made her feel like an outsider. Although she had a bat mitzvah and attended Hebrew school, she steered clear of a Hillel in college that made her feel unwelcomed. She married her Episcopalian husband in an out-of-the box interfaith ceremony that was almost unheard of twenty-five years ago.

In her new book, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, Sue chronicles her experiences as a Jewish interfaith child as well as the bold move to bring up her children with both Jewish and Christian traditions. She and her husband are part of an interfaith community called the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington. Sister organizations exist in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Through IFFP, Sue and her husband have sent their children to Sunday School and celebrated Jewish and Christian holidays with their interfaith community.

1202_being-both

 

Over the last decade, I’ve watched Sue grow in her commitment to Judaism in ways that I did not always fully appreciate. And in the end what Sue and her family are doing may not be so bad for the Jews. After all, her children are religiously knowledgeable citizens of the world. Their Jewishness flows from just one Jewish grandparent, yet Judaism gets equal time at the Katz Miller household. As Sue writes in the introduction to her book:

 

“Some of us are audacious enough to believe that raising children with both religions is actually good for the Jews (and good for the Christians or any other faith or denomination represented in marriage. The children in these pages have grown up to be Christians who are uncommonly knowledgeable about and comfortable with Jews, or Jews who are adept at working with and understanding Christians. Or they continue to claim both religions and serve as bridges between the two. I see all these possible outcomes as positive.”

 

 

I do too until my bias for rearing children in one religion comes into play. Like me, Sue and her community are invested in Judaism’s survival. She writes that, “Interfaith families who choose both [religions] for their children do feel concern for the survival of Judaism in the world. But many of us also feel that we are ‘making a Jewish choice’ by giving our children access to both cultures, rather than choosing nothing, choosing only Christianity, or choosing a third religion.” But for me it’s not only about demographics; it’s about raising literate Jews committed to Judaism alone. I see that commitment as the ultimate survival tactic.

 

As much support as there is for Jewish continuity at IFFP, there is also the Jesus factor to consider when it comes to embracing Judaism and Christianity. As a Jew who went to a Catholic high school, I’ve thought a lot about the role of Jesus in Jewish history and his place in my Jewish pantheon. Sue unambiguously declares that she sees Jesus as a teacher, not as a personal savior. She describes herself as “a Jew who celebrates interfaithness.” She also reports that her children’s formal religious curriculum presents Jesus as a Jew who lived 2000 years ago. The class explores Jewish history until the birth of Jesus. Jesus’ teachings are examined in a Jewish context and also presented as a critique of the Judaism of his time.

 

But it’s a sixth grade interfaith education syllabus in Chicago that forthrightly asks the question that is on my mind:

 

 

“How can we teach this material and not sound like the evangelical group Jews for Jesus? We answer these questions with a very Jewish approach focused on the importance of learning history, a foundation of any good Jewish education. As many of our sister and brother Catholics have discovered, understanding the Jewishness of Jesus is key to a much deeper understanding of his wisdom and ministry—an understanding that we have experienced through out marriages with Jewish partners.”

 

I appreciate the sensitivity to Judaism in Sue’s interfaith world. I’d go as far as to argue that she has a very Jewish approach to interfaith education and celebrations. Am I comfortable with everything she’s doing? Not always. It’s similar to the discomfort I felt when I read the fine print all those years ago on Schechter’s school application. But embracing two religions pushes my boundaries even further. And yet, I love that Sue’s kids claim their Judaism, patrilineal or otherwise. And I love that my friend has written an important, thought-provoking book for Jews and Christians, and interfaith families.