A girl, her two moms, and the woman who created this now famous book
When Heather Has Two Mommies, a children’s book whose title character has lesbian parents, hit the bookshelves in 1989, its author, Lesléa Newman, did not expect too much. She had trouble getting a publisher and never imagined the book would ever see the light of day.
The book itself is a sweet story about a little girl named Heather. One of her moms is a doctor, the other, a carpenter, and together, they do the kinds of things all kids love to do with their families: hang out at the park on nice days, bake cookies on rainy days. Heather learns in school that families come in all shapes and sizes: some of her friends have step-parents, some have only one parent, and some have brothers and sisters. To those of us (like this blogger) who grew up in a post-Heather world, it can feel a little strange that this charming child caused such an uproar.
This groundbreaking book just celebrated its 23rd birthday!
LGBT-inclusive children’s books published since Heather’s debut owe a debt of gratitude to Lesléa Newman for paving the way. (See our earlier post about the first Jewish children’s book with gay characters, The Purim Superhero, that was just published this month.) Indeed, Heather Has Two Mommies has had a permanent effect on children’s literature, for all its ongoing controversy – and that controversy has had an effect on its author: “All the protest against Heather Has Two Mommies inspired me to become an activist…. My work in the world is to do tikkun olam, to repair the world, make the world a safer place for others, and I take that very seriously.”
Listen to Lesléa Newman share how Heather Has Two Mommies came to be.
Lesléa is the author of more than sixty books for readers of all ages including picture books, middle-grade and young adult novels, poetry collections, and short story collections. Her latest book, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepherd, came out this past September. You can see a video preview here, and read more about the book here. For her work, Lesléa was honored by Keshet as an LGBT Jewish Hero.
Torah Queery: A Queer Take on the Weekly Torah Portion
Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Rabbi Seth Goren revisits the commandment to be fruitful and multiply, and what Judaism demonstrates about families of choice.
The giving of the Ten Commandments is a vividly spectacular event. The combination of lightening, thunder, smoke, and blaring horns at Mount Sinai echo and flash across time, setting the perfect backdrop for the divine enunciation of Aseret HaDibrot (as they are called in rabbinic texts).
But Jewish tradition teaches that the First Commandment given in the Bible appears not in this week’s Parshat Yitro, but all the way back in Genesis 1:28. After their creation, the first human beings are commanded to “be fruitful and multiply.” Continue reading
There’s acid rock, blues rock, glam rock, punk rock, and about 100 more variations of good ol’ rock and roll. But readers, there is also Jewish Rock!
Jewish Rock Radio is streaming a series of six online interactive concerts, and each concert benefits a great Jewish organization. We’re grateful that two of the concerts will directly benefit Keshet’s work for a fully inclusive Jewish community. You can catch Billy Jonas on January 30th and Naomi Less on February 6th, both at 8:30 EST. Pay what you can and listen to a great 30 minute concert.
Meet Billy Jonas
“I am so excited to be able to support Keshet in all their endeavors! I believe that music is a vehicle for opening the heart and the mind — and in the journey towards creating a world that accepts and embraces people of all sexual orientations and persuasions, open hearts and open minds are what we need the most.”
When Billy Jonas hits the stage, all bets are off. Is it a musical conversation? A sonic celebration? At a Billy Jonas show, the ensemble is…everyone. A “neo-tribal hootenanny” with a generous dose of audience participation, a Billy Jonas concert mixes conventional instruments (guitar, bass, marimba) with homemade creations (using buckets and barrels, keys and cans, bells and body percussion). The big-tent festival quality of Billy’s music facilitates connection and community while fostering inspiration and, most importantly, fun! Watch Billy Jonas perform his song “One” at a live show.
Meet Naomi Less
“I passionately advocate for the full legal rights for LGBT citizens and believe those with privileges are morally compelled to advocate for those who do not have them. I promote the mission of Keshet by producing music that tackles issues of LGBT inclusion and leading workshops that help educators and parents address, not evade, sexuality and gender. I’m super proud that the curriculum I co-created with Dr. Shira D Epstein,”Addressing Evaded Issues in Jewish Education,” is now a core part of Keshet’s own Training Curriculum!”
It’s impossible to define Naomi Less. She’s a songwriter, an activist, a rocker, a worship leader, an educator, and much more! Naomi is the founder of Jewish Chicks Rock and Jewish Kids Rock, as well as a Storahtelling founding company member and Director of Education and Training. Naomi builds Jewish rock programs across the U.S. that encourage the next generation of voices to speak out and be heard. She tours worldwide with her band, sharing music from her album, “The Real Me,” a tour through her own personal wrestling with self-worth, religion, and being oneself! Watch Naomi Less perform “What You Give.”
Don’t miss these two amazing concerts!
“I have friends I can be Jewish with, and friends I can be queer with, but I’ve never had a space to be both Jewish and queer.”
– Shelby, 16
“I feel really isolated at my high school… it’s good to come to a place like this and finally feel like I’m part of a community.”
– Frankie, 18
“Being in a place where so many of us share the same labels means we can shed them at the door – Here, I don’t have to be the Jewish kid, or the gay kid; I can just be myself.”
– Sky, 18
Sentiments such as these were common at the Jewish LGBTQ and Ally Teen Leadership Retreat in early January, a joint project of Keshet and the Isabella Freedman Center, with support from the UJA Federation – and the second ever event of its kind. The weekend was a follow-up to the first LGBTQ Teen and Ally Shabbaton in August, when about a dozen LGBTQ Jewish teens and allies met for the first time to share their stories and make new friends. This winter, those teens, along with some new additions to the group, came together not only to create new memories as a now inseparable group of friends, but also to develop their leadership skills. They also came together to begin to plan and design a future event that will attract close to 100 Jewish LGBTQ teens and allies, to create and connect a critical mass of change makers for the queer Jewish teen community.
Judaism is the great religion of welcome. The root of our faith is modeled on the actions of our forefathers and foremothers who set the groundwork for the foundational nature of Jewish life. Abraham, the archetype for all future Jewish generations, was fundamentally a person of chesed, kindness. One of the enduring images we have of Abraham is the picture of his tent open from all sides ushering and welcoming in visitors even when he was physically not well. Abraham though imparted to us not only the value of welcoming but instructed us on how to implement it.
The Torah shares with us the lengths to which Abraham went to make his visitors feel at home and indeed to transform the relationship of host-visitor into one of equal partnership and respect. Genesis 18:1-8 records Abraham insisting that his three unexpected visitors stay for a while and the subsequent rush that he and his household underwent to prepare an elaborate meal for them. It was Abraham’s intent to make his home, which was the model for the way of life he was introducing to the world, maximally inclusive and welcoming. Continue reading
Even in a society that is making progress on LGBT issues, as demonstrated by the victories for marriage equality in the recent election, it’s incredibly challenging to be an LGBTQ youth. From our series “Jewish LGBTQ Youth Voices”:
When I heard that there was going to be a workshop on “De-stigmatizing Stealth” at the Keshet LGBTQ youth Shabbaton, I was a bit skeptical.
As a trans* person who had done an extensive amount of thinking and research on the issue of being stealth, I was sure there was nothing anyone could say that would make me lessen my opposition to the practice of trans* people living in their preferred gender roles full time, and not telling people that they were assigned a different gender at birth. (A note on terminology: These days there isn’t just one type of transgender body or identity. Some people are transgender, transexual, bigender, a-gender, genderqueer, etc. The trans-asterisk is used as a way of recognizing and respecting this diversity, while still keeping a condensed title for the community as a whole.) The topic is a heated one both in trans* and queer communities and in the larger culture. On one hand, I understood the desire to be stealth. If you are a trans* identified person who has gone through so much to transition, and you acknowledge that you are and have always been, say, female, then why would you want to keep coming out all the time, and permanently call attention to your gender identity and choices?
But as I always saw it, trans* people have a responsibility to come out to people and live openly as trans* people. I was sure that this second option – not being stealth, but rather always coming out – was the moral high road. It was our responsibility to bring visibility to an incredibly underrepresented minority. The importance of continually coming out seemed an extra burden assigned to one the day they decided to start using their preferred pronouns, but it was a burden I felt was necessary. The idea of “de-stigmatizing” stealth made me a little suspicious.
In the workshop, we were led through an activity where we imagined ourselves in two scenarios: one speaking with our friend’s grandmother, and the other a club or organization at our high school interviewing us for membership. In both situations we were supposed to think of three responses to the other person saying “So, tell me a bit about yourself.” We discussed what parts of our identity we disclosed and what parts we didn’t. This, of course, prompted the question, “Why?” Why not tell the other participant in the conversation that you were queer, or that you were Jewish, or anything else for that matter? The answers varied. Some based their decision off the listener, deciding what to put forward based on the other person’s age, relation to them, politics, and the like. Others said that it just didn’t come up, or that it wasn’t something that was in the forefront of their mind. There was a real diversity of responses.
Everyone has their own reason for being stealth. It’s not just that coming out is hard/awkward, sometimes it’s dangerous, sometimes it’s just not that relevant to the conversation. Whatever the reason, I realized that no one should have to disclose their full biological history (or any other kind) to someone whose business it just isn’t. I was changing my mind, softening towards the idea that maybe being aggressively out, as opposed to stealth, wasn’t necessarily a responsibility or requirement, but wasn’t being out still the “right” thing to do?
Gender-Stealth, Religion-Stealth: My First “Aha!” Moment.
Later I was talking with a friend about how I no longer desire to be “out” as a convert to Judaism either. That is not to say that I want to stop being identified as Jewish – I want to stop being described as a different and, to some minds, lesser-than Jew. I was tired of explaining the story of why and how I “decided to become Jewish.” I was tired of biting my tongue when I wanted to say that I never had to become Jewish, because Jewish is what my soul has been all along. I grew weary of being looked upon with judgmental eyes and fielding questions about my Jewish knowledge and observance, as if it was some sort of pop quiz to prove my Jewishness.
I was tired of all eyes watching how I dressed, spoke, carried myself, all breaths held as they searched for signs that there was some deceptive disconnect between who I said I was, and who I actually was, who I used to be. I knew I’d fail if I didn’t meet some stereotype. I was ashamed that I began to question myself and allowed these questions to slowly chip away how valid I felt in my identity. I was comfortable in my own skin, and didn’t feel like “convert” was a necessary labeling. I didn’t feel a need to highlight the differences between myself and my peers; I’d rather just focus on the similarities.
And at the end of the day, my background is nobody’s business. It doesn’t affect them and shouldn’t affect how they relate to me. I had already gone through a transformative process to have the powers that be legitimize my identity; I didn’t need anyone else’s validation (and I no longer needed to hear “I would’ve never known,” or, “You don’t look like a ______.”)
In the face of all these complaints, I realized what I had to do. I had to try on being a “stealth convert.”
Was I betraying my roots, erasing my history, being selfish?
I’m not sure. I don’t think so, though. Maybe not every person needs to know that I wasn’t “born and/or raised Jewish.” But if I were to encounter a person considering conversion, and wondering what the process is like or how it feels to come out on the other side, I would tell them my story. For those I didn’t choose to disclose to, it wouldn’t make me a liar, poser, or “trap.”
Replace every reference in the above paragraph regarding my own Jewishness/“convert” with “Transgender;” “other Jews” with “queer community;” and “Gentile” with “cisgender.” Now you can join me in a groan over how silly I was being attaching stigma to my trans* brothers, sisters, people who choose to be stealth, instead of continually coming out.
I’m not sure how final my decision is on the matter of being stealth, either as a trans* guy or as a “convert” to Judaism; but in the mean time I’ll choose who I want to or don’t want to disclose to, and I certainly will not waste any of my time judging those that choose to keep that part of their lives private.
So my friends, I submit this article anonymously. A way of affirming and embracing that being stealth, in any context, is an intensely personal choice and should be respected (even if you don’t necessarily agree). Maybe one day I’ll reveal my identity, maybe I won’t, but either way it is my journey and I intend to take control of it.
LGBTQ Jewish youth: Let us know if you’d like to write for the Keshet blog! We want to feature your voices as you explore your experiences, speak your minds, and challenge your communities to be more inclusive. You can read a previous post in the “Jewish LGBTQ Youth Voices” series on “Senior Year: APs, College Prep, and Coming Out in My Orthodox High School.”
Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Amy Soule explains how coming out might be our very first, and perhaps greatest, mitzvah.
Milk may have been designed as a secular movie but if you recall one of its (in)famous lines, you might also be reminded of God’s commandment to the Children of Israel before the final plague was visited on the Egyptians: “Come out, come out, wherever you are.”
Exodus 12:21-23 gives our ancestors their first collective mitzvah. They are asked to slaughter a sheep and smear its blood on the lintels of their home to ensure their homes will be protected when the Angel of Death appears.
The world’s first LGBT inclusive Jewish children’s book in English has arrived!
Published by Kar-Ben Publishing, an award-winning publisher of Jewish children’s books, The Purim Superhero is the sweet story of a boy named Nate who has a Purim dilemma: he loves aliens and really wants to wear an alien costume for Purim, but his friends are all dressing as superheroes, and he wants to fit in. With the help of his two dads, he makes a surprising decision.
Elisabeth will be reading from her brand new book on February 3 in Berkeley at one of our book release parties. If you’re interested in holding a book release party for The Purim Superhero in your area, Keshet can help! You’ll find a Do It Yourself Guide and other resources here. Plus, you can buy your copy of The Purim Superhero online from Keshet or Kar-Ben (e-versions too!) today!
The Purim Superhero parties are happening across the country (parties will be added to the Keshet website as they are scheduled):
“Integrating all of the disparate parts”
Welcome to our fourth installment of “Queer Clergy in Action,” spotlighting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rabbis and cantors. This behind-the-scenes look at queer clergy covers both those who have paved the way and up-and-coming trailblazers.
Coming out can be really difficult and it can be especially risky for those who are, or aspire to be, clergy. Nonetheless, this vanguard has helped open up the Jewish world, and we’re very proud to shine an extra light on their work, their ideas, and their stories. You can also read the first three posts in this series, about Rabbi Steve Greenberg, Rabbi Reuben Zellman, and Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum.
Rabbi Denise Eger was one of the first out gay rabbis ordained, receiving her ordination from Hebrew Union College in 1988. Since 1992, she has served as rabbi at Congregation Kol Ami, a community she helped found, which is dedicated to serving the LGBT and wider Jewish community in West Hollywood, CA. She is a founding member of the Religion and Faith Council of the Human Rights Campaign. In 2009, Rabbi Eger became both the first woman and the first gay rabbi to be president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. We caught up with Rabbi Eger about her work, her inspiration, and an exciting new role for her. Continue reading
Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Jay Michaelson looks to LGBT Jewish liberation as a demonstration of Judaism’s fundamental commitment to life.
The exodus from Egypt has symbolized the movement from servitude to freedom for generations. Whether for African-American slaves or for our own gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender elders, the story resonates far beyond its Israelite particularity to any struggle for liberation.
There is another aspect to yetziat mitzraim (the Exodus from Egypt), though, beyond the move from bondage to freedom. After all, as many Jewish scholars have noted, freedom is the beginning of the Israelite quest, not the end of it. The parting of the Red Sea is a cinematic moment, but it is not the climactic one: the real point of the story comes at Mount Sinai. Egypt is the womb, and the Red Sea is the birth canal — but it is at Sinai where our people comes of age and begins its forty-year adolescence. (Only upon entering the land of Israel can it be said to have attained adulthood.) Continue reading