Interview with Samira Mehta, author of Beyond Chrismukkah

Samira Mehta, whose book Beyond Chrismukkah: The Christian-Jewish Interfaith Family in the United States was published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2018, is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Albright College. She spoke with graduate intern Francesca Chubb-Confer over the phone in July 2018.

FCC: How did you become interested in the question of interfaith families and communities?

SM: Well, first, the study of religion was sort of an accidental thing for me. I went to a college that had distribution requirements, and in order to fulfill one of these, I took a course called “Patterns of Asian Religion.”  I thought, “I’m going to learn something about Hinduism, I’m going to make my family make sense to me!” It was something of a lark, but I loved the class. I loved thinking about theories of religion, about ethnography, and how people use religion to make meaning out of their worlds.

I grew up in an extremely devout Unitarian family.

FCC: Those two descriptors usually don’t go together!

SM: Right! I said that on purpose. What I mean by that is we went to church every single Sunday, my mother sang in the choir and was on the religious education committee, and my father was on the finance committee. But my father was an atheist and my mother an agnostic. Some cultural Hinduism was included in our upbringing, but the main thing was that my parents, particularly my mother, were passionately committed to engagement in the church community, what my mother would refer to as the “inspiring fellowship of the church,” and to the fundamental necessity of ethical conduct in the world. It wasn’t a life that had a sense of mystery in it though; those just weren’t the questions that we asked. And so here I was in college, learning about all of that stuff for the first time, and doing it through Hinduism, which was important to my extended family—I would see my aunt’s mother-in-law pray, or do puja, and I was aware that something was going on there that wasn’t going on in my immediate family. And so here was this class that was starting to explain this thing that I knew nothing about that was of central importance to people, and it was just fascinating.

FCC: Do you think your interest in interfaith families and communities was motivated by your personal background as you’ve described it, or was it something you came to academically?

SM: Both. I converted to Judaism when I was thirty years old. And I became very interested in questions about what happens when families and individuals are in tension with their religious communities, when they’re not in perfect alignment with those religious communities even though they aren’t prepared to walk away from them and continue to want things from them. Methodologically, it seemed to me that a lot of really interesting work in religious studies happened at the intersection of historical method and ethnographic method and I valued having a variety of methodologies available to me in my work. I solidified my research question concerning the tension between individual need, belief, and desire, and community standards and norms. Then I needed to find a setting for it.

One day, I went out to lunch with a colleague of mine, who at the time was a student priest. He told me a story about a family in his congregation. They had asked him about having their child confirmed in the Episcopal church, but they weren’t very active members of the church—their kid hadn’t gone to Sunday school or anything like that. My friend told me that the first time he was alone with this kid, he said, “My bar mitzvah was a real pain! Is this going to be like that? How much work is this going to be?” My colleague wanted to better understand what it meant for this family to have their child to both have a bar mitzvah and be confirmed in the Episcopal church. Why would they want both of those things? What did they think those things meant? He went looking for resources on interfaith families, and found that most of the material out there is prescriptive literature on childrearing, or it’s demographic material on the impact of interfaith families on, say, Jewish communal life or Jewish continuity. It is literature that asks why it is that people marry outside their faith, and begins with a sense that interfaith families have failed to be adequately dedicated to Judaism, rather than taking the perspective that religion may be important to you, but lots of other things are important too. You might fall in love with somebody with whom you share a love of the liberal arts, or the Red Sox, or following Phish around the country, and these things might be the cultural glue that holds you together. The fact that Judaism or Christianity are not dealbreakers doesn’t mean that they’re not important. I couldn’t find anything that addressed this. I was interested in people who did not think they were significantly different from their spouse until they were navigating things like child rearing. Since their religious beliefs led them to values that they shared, they weren’t necessarily worried about the differences at the outset.

FCC: The research for the book is impressively wide ranging. For example, you did ethnographic work and analyses of film and television and literature. Can you talk more about the process of research for this book? How did you decide where to start?

SM: I came up with the project during my years of coursework as a doctoral student. It began when I found all these advice manuals for interfaith families in the Emory library. I incorporated this popular literature into my research and I started wrangling information. Everyone thinks this is a super cool topic, as it turns out. People started sending me information once they knew the nature of my project. I was sent a New York Times article about an interfaith lesbian couple whose adopted Chinese daughter was having her bat mitzvah; a friend made sure I knew about the 1970s TV show “Bridget Loves Bernie.” People just gave me information. In the end, I thought, what are the stories I want to tell? I need to tell an institutional story, because that’s the backdrop and the context. I need to tell a pop culture story, since part of my argument is that there are things about the Jewish-Christian experience that are archetypal, that transfer onto other American interfaith marriages, because of their prevalence in the media. Eventually I realized there was simply more material than could ever be exhaustively treated.

The institutional response to interfaith marriage in the 1970s and early 1980s was basically this: “For the love of God, people, don’t do it. But if you’re going to do it, pick a religion for the children.” I wanted to talk about that, and I also wanted to talk about, by contrast, the popular culture depiction of interfaith marriages as a way of breaking down ethnic barriers and moving into an American identity of being good, secular, post-ethnic, Protestant Americans. I wanted to explore what kind of conversations are born out of people trying to navigate between these two poles that got set up as the interfaith marriage rate rose. What kind of advice were people getting for the choices they might make, and how did they respond to that advice? How accurately did that advice reflect people’s experiences? What did they think of it?

I’ll tell you, people hated those advice manuals! All the couples that I talked to had read some portion of the advice manuals that I studied; many had read all of them and most of them wanted to spend a portion of our interview time complaining about them!

As for the topic of interfaith couples in popular culture, that could fill an entire book and so I got selective. And there are things that I am very sorry to have left out—like thirtysomething, which was, in someways, a portrayal that more accurately reflected the stories that real families told me. But it was not representative of media portrayals of interfaith families, and, in the end, I wanted to use the interviews to get at the experiences of “real” families.

FCC: Is there a possibility for a kind of feedback loop here? People see interfaith families depicted in a certain way on TV shows, and that in turn structures their understanding of what it means in their own relationships?

SM: I think that’s true—there is something of a feedback loop. But it is important to remember that many depictions of those families are in sitcoms and therefore are somewhat slapstick, and people recognize them as such. That doesn’t mean that the depictions don’t shape experience, but I wouldn’t want to suggest a one-to-one correlation or anything like that!

FCC: How did you go about finding your interview subjects?

SM: All hail the snowball sample! I engaged my existing networks, and worked with local congregations and organized religious communities in the places I was living. Most cities have a 70% interfaith marriage rate for non-Orthodox Jews, with the exception of New York City. Since I was trying to tell a national story about a national conversation, I did interviews and had conversations in four locations: the South, the Mid-Atlantic, the Midwest, and the West Coast. One of my case studies is drawn from each of those locations. Once I established a network in each place, those people would come up with more people for me to talk to, introducing me to their friends, and so on. Contacts came from interesting places. At my college reunion I realized that a large number of my former classmates were the children of interfaith marriage. So I talked to them, and they put me in touch with other people in turn. I worked in a Jewish museum and met people through there too. I snowball sampled my way through this segment of the world in which I lived.

While I say I did ethnographic work, it’s far more in the form of case studies and semi-structured interviews than participant observation. The reason for that is that I was working in my own community and social milieu—educated, middle class Americans. Also, I expected that the book would have crossover appeal—the people about whom I write might well have friends and family members who know them.  I wanted to be very clear to people when I was working and when I wasn’t working. If you’re at a cookout, and you start talking to somebody, and they find out what you’re working on and tell you some great stories, they may then realize that some of what they told you they actually don’t want someone writing down and publishing. I think people have the right to know when you’re working. Besides, you can’t really do participant observation with a family; the minute you’re a dinner guest in someone’s home, the family’s on company mode.

FCC: What does Chrismukkah mean? What does it mean for you, the author, as this hybrid category between religion and culture? What does it mean for the people among whom you conducted research, or as a broader American cultural symbol?

SM: I’ll answer in reverse order. I picked the word “Chrismukkah” for my book because in 2004 it was the Time magazine word of the year. It was a real buzzword for interfaith families. It came from the TV show “The OC,” as far as anyone can tell, where it was a kind of flip way of indicating that we’re secular Americans who don’t take religion very seriously. But for a lot of the people I studied, who opened their lives to me, that was not the depiction of their lives that they wanted to put forward. I called the book Beyond Chrismukkah because I wanted to move past the consumer quality of Chrismukkah to what the people I talked to wanted to tell me about what they valued in their traditions, whether that was salvation or history or social justice. Also, most of these families were very intentional about not blending their traditions into one thing as the word Chrismukkah implies.

FCC: Does anybody actually celebrate Chrismukkah?

SM: I won’t go so far as to say that nobody does. But for the most part, the interfaith families I spoke with were celebrating Christmas and Hanukkah at the same time only when the holidays fell at the same time. They were not intentionally fusing them, they were doing and experiencing them sequentially—and sometimes really intentionally keeping them separate and noting the differences. For me, part of the utility of the term is that I wanted to talk about the intersections of religion and culture and representation. When are you calling something religion, when are you calling something culture, and what are your strategic ends in making those choices? I wanted to talk about the role of consumerism and consumption in religious practice, and how these are inherent in both Christianity and Judaism, that are highlighted at the holidays, and not something that only affects interfaith families.

FCC: This book breaks new ground in the study of interracial interfaith American families. Can you say more about how race factored into your study?

SM: There’s increasing awareness, particularly in liberal Jewish communities, but I think probably across the board, that not all Jews are Ashkenazi Jews: that Judaism is a multiracial religion. That said, American Jewish life is usually presumed, rightly or wrongly, to be an Ashkenazi life, and most of the synagogues and Jewish communal organizations that one might affiliate with are largely organized by and for and populated by Ashkenazi Jews. That’s certainly who produced most of the literature about interfaith marriage. And while there is literature talking about how Jews have been historically located, in terms of race, Ashkenazi Jews are usually read as white in contemporary American society.

Most of that literature, coming largely out of the Reform Judaism movement, is really striving to create interfaith families where the children will eventually be able to blend more or less seamlessly into Jewish communal life. That’s the goal of that prescriptive literature. Very few want to go so far as to say that you may never share any piece of the non-Jewish family heritage with your children, but the concern is that you need them to know that Christmas is Grandma and Grandpa’s holiday—not our holiday. The hope is that when the grandparents are gone, Christmas will be gone too.

But among the interracial interfaith couples that I talked to, none of them thought that their children were going to be able to blend seamlessly into Ashkenazi Jewish life. No one ever looks at someone who is black and says, “you look so Jewish,” even though there are black Jews. There’s an idea of what it means to look Jewish, and that isn’t it. And these families understand (and their Jewish communities understand) that they will probably not ever be able to seamlessly blend into Jewish communal life.

Then there is the issue of who is the “minority” in the American cultural landscape. Part of the logic for Judaism “winning” in terms of which religion the interfaith couple will have at home is a perceived need to protect the minority tradition, which in the case of interfaith marriages is typically seen to be Judaism. But no self-respecting religiously and politically liberal Jew in the communities I was looking at is going to look their African-American or Latinx partner in the face and say, “I’m the one coming from a minority tradition.” They think of each person as being from a minority group—one racial, the other religious—but by and large, these folks saw the Jewish partner as white and the partner of color (in my case studies, also the post-Christian partner) as the one with minority status. I think there’s a concern in interfaith interracial relationships that if you exclude, say, Christianity from the home, you’re not just cutting out Christian religiosity in favor of Jewish religiosity: you are cutting out black culture in favor of white culture.

In the power dynamic of an interfaith interracial couple, there’s a little bit more purchase for Christianity. Everybody’s aware that their children are going to be read as minority people, not only in society at large, but within Judaism. In the Latinx family case study in the book, one of their kids is going to be able to pass in Jewish communities based on what she looks like, and the other may not. So the parents wonder if their children will have very different experiences of connection with the Jewish community, since their daughter looks like an Ashkenazi Jew and their son looks Latino. Interfaith interracial couples typically want their children to have pride in their African-American or Latinx heritage. And while of course there are ways of being both African-American and Latinx that are not deeply inflected with Christianity, Christianity does often play a major role in those cultures.

FCC: This book is really a provocation for future work to think about how we construct categories of religion, culture, and race. Who is your ideal audience for this book? Do you think it will be of interest outside the academy, to the kinds of families that you were working with, or to religious leaders?

SM: I very much hope that it will be of interest to scholars of American religions broadly, hopefully for the reasons you just mentioned: that it thinks a lot about constructions of religion, culture, race, and ethnicity in familial contexts. I also want the book to be of interest to non-academic readers, to all of the communities in which interfaith families live. I would love to see rabbis and ministers read this book, to have a better understanding of the people in their communities. I took care to write in a style that would be appealing and understandable to a non-academic audience, trying to pare down jargon without sacrificing detail or the complexity of the arguments. Soon I’ll be speaking at a college under the auspices of the chaplain’s office and the religious studies department, and I just got an email yesterday from a nearby synagogue that wanted me to come speak there. I’m really looking forward to doing that, because it’s extremely important to me that the questions I ask in this book grow out of the questions of religious leaders and communities that I respect and to be able to come up with answers that are helpful to those communities—even if they are not necessarily the answers that they wanted to hear!

FCC: What’s your next project?

SM: I’m working on a project about religion and contraception, tentatively titled God Bless the Pill. I’ll be looking at an archive that includes the records of Planned Parenthood. Fortunately (for me as a scholar) or unfortunately (for me as a human), it’s definitely a timely project.