In honor of the annual observance of Transgender Day of Remembrance we are devoting space in our blog to posts about gender. Be sure to check out other stories of gender in our Jewish community including: “Transgender 101,” the personal reflections of two parents faced with the reality of gender roles at day care, a Tachlis of inclusion post entitled “How to Hire a Transgender Rabbi,” transgender ally-ship wisdom from the Torah’s patriarchs and matriarchs, and a father’s pride at being a dad to his transgender son.
In the days following Yom Kippur, I found myself wondering why we cannot just space out the holidays a little. Why does Sukkot follow so immediately after the consuming intensity of the High Holidays? While Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur offer ample opportunities to transform oneself and modify one’s less healthy behaviors from the past year, this year I returned immediately to my bad habit of binge TV watching, thanks to the arrival of Transparent.
I had been eagerly awaiting this TV series ever since Jill Soloway, the uber-Hipster Jew and screenwriter, released the pilot of this story of a Jewish family. The show’s witty banter, carefully developed characterizations, and clever plotting of familial drama drew me in. Finally, both the Jews I know fully realized for television, and an honest portrayal of transformation and its affect on one’s family and community.
What distinguished this show as uniquely captivating were the very present Jewish elements and themes. As I binged my way through episodes two and five between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and then in an even more accelerated pace after Yom Kippur, I finished season one just in time for Sukkot, starved for more.
Each of Transparent’s Pferffermans, a wholeheartedly Jewish family, strive to transform their lives, their relationships, and their selves through an exploration, re-creation and reformation of their personal histories. Their individual paths may diverge from my own, yet their hunger for connection, meaning, and teshuva feel very close to home.
Transparent provides ample relational drama and sexcapades in the vein of the millennially inspired Girls, but for an audience born before 1980. Beyond its often outlandish hipster quirkiness, Transparent’s greatest treasure is its title’s namesake, Maura Pfefferman, whose process of transition and revelation to her family, and herself, drives the narrative from the first episode.
Not merely a plot device, Maura’s revelation that the Mort—the man that her family, and the world, have always known—is and always has been a woman, provides the soulful impetus for the entire show’s transition from a quirky family comedy, to a deeply meaningful and enriching journey. With each episode, Maura becomes more fully visible to us. She transforms in her family’s eyes, and even our own eyes, from their beloved father Mort to the woman that she has always been.
The story of Maura’s gender identity begins long before we first meet the Pfeffermans, illustrated by carefully woven flashbacks and revelations. Very quickly and clearly, the show becomes transparent that Maura’s gender identity has long been transient, and nowhere near as permanent as it appeared to those even most close to her, who only knew her as the man, Mort. Maura’s joy and pain, discovered in bringing greater permanence to her more transient external self, delivers the show’s driving soul and spirit.
It is through Maura that we truly appreciate that healthy return to one’s primary state of being, in the true sense of teshuva, ferments out of the recognition and acceptance that one’s seemingly permanent structure are truly merely temporary structures, which are much more adaptable and flexible than we often perceive.
Fostering Trans Inclusion
For more than a decade I have been striving as an activist, educator, and rabbi to foster greater inclusion for those in our community whose journeys towards healthy transformation has been blocked because they are LGBT.
In Transparent and its Maura, I have found a worthy hero who calls out for us to care for her, understand her, and include all those who live within our lives and communities as transgender people.
Available research tells us that approximately 0.25%-2% of our population experiences some degree if gender dysphoria. Transgender people encounter a great deal of pain: to their psyche, to their relationships, and their lives.
Joy Ladin, a professor at Yeshiva University, elevated the conversation of the Jewish community when she came out as transgender. Her brilliant, poetic, and often painful book, Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders, paints a vivid picture of Joy’s journey of transformation, and the deeply Jewish path this journey became. Her announcement opened many doors for conversations about gender identity, and she has even served as consultant for LGBT inclusion and the creative team behind Transparent. (Editor’s note: If you haven’t read this book, carve out time to do so. It is one of the most honest and beautiful books you will ever read.)
For years I have worked with Keshet, and I hope to continue to change and grow with my community. We need to take every opportunity to align our religious and spiritual language. We need to support those who come out and provide them with the transformational power of Judaism to support their personal journeys. With Transgender Day of Remembrance only a few days away, we need to support a Jewish community that embraces people of all gender identities.
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We’re grateful to Ayin Weaver for sharing a behind the scenes look at the inspiration for her debut novel, Bleed Through. Bleed Through follows 4 families through 200 years of their history.
The title Bleed Through, is a painting term and metaphor for the layers of discovery experienced by the main character. Being an artist myself, I created Rita’s talent, perceptions and imagination using my own artistic gifts and skills.
I began writing this novel many years ago after a particularly difficult break-up. I had grown up listening to Jewish stories told by my parents, who themselves were first-generation Americans. They spoke Yiddish and English at home where I learned from intonation, the nuances of a culture that was at a crossroads. I also learned some of the cornerstones of Judaism, not that my parents were religious—they were more culturally Jewish. But they lived a Tikkun Olam sensibility—through their world view and progressive activism. While I greatly appreciated the outlook they inspired, it was not enough for me.
As I reached adulthood I had feelings of being in the wrong body—after coming out I dated women some butch, some fem—never quite being able to figure out a comfortable sexual identity. I was unaware in the 1960’s of any possibility of living as a different gender. I cut my hair, wore boys clothes, drove a cab, painted houses—did whatever possible to feel comfortable in my skin. Later, I began to search for a deeper spiritual understanding to find the root of the pain I felt.
What transpired was a spiritual journey that lay beneath the surface of my confusion. Slowly over the years I came to understand a broader soul connection with people I met and began to accept myself as having both a feminine and masculine side. I was able to integrate these feelings through my politics, art, parenthood, teaching and intuitive abilities. I began to write poetry, short stories, write down my dreams as well as sculpt and paint more. The more I gave myself permission to be creative, the more joyful and intuitive I became. I read books on history, religion, spirituality, quantum physics, mysticism and alternative medicine, the latter bringing me to the study of Reiki. In 2003, after training for many years I became a 6th generation Usui Ryoho Reiki Master.
I used my healing training, dreams, art, and many books and research on spirituality and history (including African -American, Native American, Irish and Jewish history) to write Bleed Through. My intent was to tell a tale that highlights the absurdity of prejudice. In someways, I feel it is a simple story of love and courage—a bit like my own. But it is also a way of looking at the issue of gender identity, sexual orientation, sexism, racism and anti-Semitism that may have a positive impact, that says we are one, and that for me comes full circle to what I learned a long time ago—Tikkun Olam.
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Keshet is thrilled to have the inside scoop on the recently published The Boy’s Own Manual to Being a Proper Jew. Eli Glasman shared his inspiration for penning the work, and offered us a taste of the novel. Take a look!
My debut novel, The Boy’s Own Manual to Being a Proper Jew, is about, Yossi, a young gay teenager living in the Melbourne Orthodox Jewish community, as he comes to terms with his sexuality and learns to reconcile his religious beliefs with his sexual orientation.
I wrote the novel because someone very close to me has been in this situation. It was my love with this person, which made me feel frustrated by the implicit and often explicit homophobia within the Orthodox life. The laws against homosexuality was one of the major things which encouraged my movement away from the religious lifestyle.
When I started the novel, I was going through a period in my early twenties, which I think we all go through, where I was rethinking my upbringing with an adult perspective. This book was in large part a way for me to reconnect with Judaism in a way I’d not allowed myself to in the past.
Through Yossi, I could feel the love of Judaism and a belief in God, which I hadn’t felt since I was teenager. Yossi is far more passionate about religion than I was at his age, and I must say, that a lot of his love of Judaism rubbed off on me.
Check out this excerpt from The Boy’s Own Manual to Being a Proper Jew that author Eli Glasman has shared with us:
READING AN ARTICLE online from one of New York’s Jewish newspapers, I found an advertisement offering a Jewish alternative to homosexuality. I followed the link and read through everything the website had to say. The administrator of the website was a guy named Rabbi Pilcer. It took me three weeks to get up the courage to send him an email asking if I could speak with him.
He replied immediately, despite the time difference, saying that we could talk on Gmail chat. I double-clicked his name, wrote Are you there? and hugged myself as I waited for him to respond.
I’m here, he wrote back. What’s your name?
I drew in a deep breath, took the rubber band off my wrist and rubbed the tender welt that had formed on my skin. Flick the rubber band every time you have a sexual thought about another man, the website had advised. You’ll associate the pain with these thoughts and soon they will stop.
It hadn’t worked at all.
I pocketed the rubber band and squeezed the bridge of my nose. I felt uncomfortable giving a stranger information about me, especially over the internet, but I had to know if there was something he could do.
Yossi, I replied.
Hello, Yossi. What’s on your mind?
I scratched the skin around my thumbnail. Maybe he wouldn’t be able to help, I thought. He was a rabbi, after all. What would he know about this? Although, I figured, just because he was a rabbi, it didn’t mean that he didn’t have another qualification. He could have been a psychologist or something as well.
The rubber band thing isn’t working, I wrote.
The curser blinked in the text box for a few seconds before Rabbi Pilcer entered his next sentence.
So, you believe you’re a homosexual.
I winced at the sight of the word ‘homosexual’. Maybe I shouldn’t be telling him this.
I leant forwards and rested my head on my hands, knotting my fingers into my mesh of curly hair, accidentally causing my Yarmulke to fall off and land on the keyboard. Feeling the air against my naked hair made me uneasy. I put my hand on my head while I picked up the Yarmulke and nestled it back into place.
Yossi? Are you there? the rabbi wrote.
I stared at his question for a few moments and then sighed. Even with the safety of distance and anonymity, I felt uncomfortable talking about it.
I closed the chat box and set my laptop to sleep. I then stood up from my desk and dragged my feet across the carpet to the other end of my room, building up static in my fingertips that was zapped out with a gentle prick as I touched the metal handle of my window and pulled it open.
From outside came the noise of traffic and chatter, and the smell of smog. We were positioned on Carlisle Street, the shopping strip of the Melbourne Jewish community, between a Jewish bookstore and a bakery.
I’d lived in this house my entire life. I belonged here. My place was amongst other Jews, keeping alive traditions that were centuries old. I couldn’t imagine a life where each day bled into the next with nothing more to punctuate existence but payday and a piss up on the weekend. A life with no God, no holy days, no prayers, no significance to food or clothing.
I rubbed my wrist again, feeling the slight lump on my skin. I knew that there was only sin in acting on my impulses, not simply in being the way I was. And yet, just having these terrible feelings made me feel like less of a Jew.
At that moment, a droning buzz broke into my thoughts. I turned to my desk to see my iPhone light up. I looked at the screen, rolled my eyes and walked out of my room and down the hall until I reached the front door. I opened it to find Menachem standing there with his phone at his ear.
‘Why don’t you just knock like a normal person?’ I asked.
‘This is more efficient,’ he replied, ending the call. ‘If I prank call you, I know you’ll be the one to answer the door.’
Menachem stepped inside and peeked down the hall towards the kitchen. I could hear my father in there. I figured Menachem was scared my father would see him here and tell his parents he’d been playing violent video games, which was, after all, the reason he’d come. All the public libraries were closed and his family was too religious to have internet in the house, so he had to come to mine to fulfill his gaming needs.
Menachem tiptoed into my room and I followed close behind.
As soon as the door was closed, he started a game of Grand Theft Auto. I didn’t like to watch those sorts of games, nor listen to them, so I made him play with the sound off.
For ages he sat hunched in front of my laptop, hardly talking, while I lay sprawled on my bed singing Jewish hymns into a handheld electric fan. I liked the way the spinning blades chopped my voice so that I sounded kind of mechanical.
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Last week on the blog, S. Bear Bergman of the Flamingo Rampant Book Club issued a call for children’s books that feature diverse LGBT families. He emphasized the need for books in which diversity itself isn’t the core issue of the plot. That is: “Let these people take trips! Let them have adventures, let them solve mysteries, let them celebrate things, let them worry about other things besides their identity–moving, new school, going to the dentist, any number of interesting childhood challenges that can be overcome.”
Well, Bear, you (and everyone else too!) are in luck: Your post comes just at the moment that author Dana Alison Levy introduces her debut novel for middle grade (ages 8-12) readers, The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher.
The family at the heart of The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher is made up of two dads, four adopted boys, and various pets. They’re Jewish and Christian and Hindu, white and African American and of Indian descent. They’re interested in soccer and ice hockey and turtles and imaginary friends. They have seriously mixed feelings about homework. And they’re constantly getting into a variety of hilarious scrapes.
Jill Ratzan caught up with Dana Alison Levy to ask her some questions about her book’s inclusion of same-sex parents, religious diversity, and zany humor.
The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher is being hailed as a contemporary take on the classic middle grade family story. What inspired you to modernize this familiar genre?
I grew up adoring novels that I now know are called “middle grade” but I thought of as just kids books. Books like Elizabeth Enright’s Melendy Quartet, Sydney Taylor’s All of a Kind Family series, and of course Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books were among my favorites. I also loved the ones that had a little magic thrown in, like Half Magic and Magic by the Lake by Edward Eager. (My sister and I called them “Cheerios books” because we’d reread them again and again, usually while eating Cheerios out of the box.)
When I thought about writing the Fletchers, I wanted that same kind of story, but set in the world we live in now. And the world we live in has many more diverse types of families than ever before. Still, the core of the story is the same as these books written dozens of years ago: a loving family and the shenanigans and trials they go through in a year.
The boys in The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher struggle with various “issues” like whether or not to try out for the school play, how to approach a grumpy neighbor, and how to repair a damaged friendship. The fact that they have two dads is never itself an issue, though. What made you decide to take this perspective?
That’s a good question, and a hard one to answer. I guess in part I believe that kids, if they’re lucky (and the Fletcher kids are really lucky), get to live in a bubble for a while. In the bubble, they don’t have to pay a lot of attention to the big issues of society, be it race, or socioeconomic inequality, or sexual orientation. Nobody gets to stay in the bubble for long, but for this book at least, I wanted the Fletcher kids to have the luxury of taking their life for granted.
I worry about this element of the story, honestly. I know that our world is not colorblind, nor blind to differences in sexual orientation. Most kids like the Fletchers will, at some point, experience some challenging and hurtful moments related to these issues. I would hate for kids or parents to feel that, just because the book doesn’t focus on those moments, it erases those challenges. But I wanted to avoid writing an “issue” book and instead let the more universal and mundane hurts and conflicts rise in importance.
One of my hopes in focusing the story on the everyday challenges in the Fletchers’ school year is to normalize and universalize the experiences of a family that might look different on the outside. Hopefully I was able to do that without ignoring what makes them unique.
One of the Fletcher dads was raised Jewish (“bar mitzvahed and everything!”), while the other is Episcopalian. They want to honor these traditions while making sure that their sons’ African American and Hindu birth backgrounds are also recognized. The family loves creating holiday celebrations that can “belong . . . to everyone,” like hosting elaborate Halloween parties and leaving a plate of latkes for Santa Claus. Again, why did you choose to bring this aspect of interfaith families to your story?
This part of the book came pretty close to my life. I was raised Jewish, though not religious, and my husband comes from a Catholic background. Both of us have strong ties to our traditions, but neither feel that the organized religion quite represents us. So the question becomes: how can we maintain traditions and a sense of spirituality without organized religion? Many of our friends also struggle to answer this question with their families, merging different religious traditions into something new.
Like the Fletchers, we believe in marrying rituals and traditions from all faiths, melding them and shaping them to become our own. When writing the book I wanted to include the Hindu festival of Holi, which takes place in early spring and involves a massive color fight, and I also wanted to include Sukkot, which I think the Fletchers would really get behind (An outdoor house for all meals? Of course!). But I just ran out of room!
The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher is full of anecdotes of everyday family zaniness, including a series of Thanksgiving cooking mishaps, an ice rink surprise, and a memorable incident involving a sandwich, a dripping-wet cat, and a pair of underwear. Do you have a favorite Fletcher family moment?
I confess, the scene of Zeus the cat falling into the bathtub then racing around the house dripping wet while being chased by Frog [the youngest of the boys], wearing only his underwear and a cape, was one of my favorites to write. I will not speak to whether a version of this story happened in my household, but leave it up to the readers to wonder.
I hear that a sequel is in the works! What can you tell us about it?
Yes!! I’m so very delighted that I get to spend more time with the Fletchers! I am working on the sequel now, and it will come out in the spring of 2016 (In theory at least. Publishing works in mysterious ways). While I won’t say too much, I will say that we pick up pretty much where this book ends, with the Fletchers heading out to their beloved Rock Island for summer vacation. Rock Island is a place where time stands still, except this year, the boys must tackle some unexpected changes — on the island and even in themselves.
Dana Alison Levy was raised by pirates but escaped at a young age and went on to earn a degree in aeronautics and puppetry. Actually, that’s not true—she just likes to make things up. That’s why she always wanted to write books. She was born and raised in New England and studied English literature before going to graduate school for business. While there is value in all learning, had she known she would end up writing for a living, she might not have struggled through all those statistics and finance classes. You can find Dana online at www.danaalisonlevy.com or on Twitter and Facebook.
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At Keshet we know how important it is to provide diverse resources for families. Last year we worked with author Elisabeth Kushner to create the first Jewish themed picture book featuring an LGBT family, The Purim Superhero. When we heard that S. Bear Bergman, Jewish educator, author, and storyteller, was creating an LGBTQ2S-themed book club, we knew we needed to learn more. Read on to get the scoop on the Flamingo Rampant Book Club, which features picture books for 4-8 year olds. Joining the book club means you’ll receive six books throughout the year. Bear is currently raising funding to support the project.
What was your inspiration for the Flamingo Rampant Book Club?
The truth is I was reading to Stanley, my four-year-old one night before bed. We had some new LGBTQ2S themed picture books, which my husband, who’s an expert on the topic, had ordered. These were out of print or from small publishers. Stanley asked if we could read the new books, and I said “sure, why not?” But every single one of them contained really difficult, extended descriptions of bullying. We read a couple, but eventually he looked at me and said, “I don’t want this anymore. I don’t like these bully stories.”
And all of a sudden I started thinking: “What are we sending our kids to bed with? What are the last images and stories that we’re offering them to carry into their dreams?”
The books we’d just read were fairly horrible–I mean, everything turned out all right in the end. But the descriptions of bullying we’re so substantial, they almost seemed like manuals for taunting, ostracization, and harassment. I’m a writer, and a lecturer; I do a lot of work around questions of gender and sexual orientation and I have for more than two decades. I am fortunate to be married to a guy who, among his many sterling personal qualities, is an expert on creating celebratory and inclusive classrooms for people of all genders and sexual orientations.
The books in the Flamingo Rampant Book Club include full stories of people of color written by people of color. Why was this important for you?
My family, which includes my chosen family, is fairly racially diverse and certainly diverse in terms of genders and sexual orientations. And my artistic community, ditto. We really wanted books that represented the world in which we actually live, and we also wanted to contribute positively to the experiences of families of color–especially LGBTQ2S families of color. At the moment, there are–as far as we know–only three or four books anywhere at all that feature lesbian or gay or bi or trans families that are anything other than white.
The industry average for representations of people of color in children’s books in 7%. To me, that’s a really shameful number. The prevailing wisdom within publishing directly mirrors the inequalities that already exist in our society–girls will read books about boys, but boys won’t read books about girls. Parents will buy books featuring white children or families for their Black, Indigenous, or Of-Color children, but white parents won’t buy books featuring Black, Indigenous, or Of-Color children or families for their white children. The result of all this is that the overwhelmingly majority of picture books center on white children; mostly boys.
So much of LGBTQ literature for kids focuses on stories of overcoming bullies and challenges centering on their (or their families) LGBTQ identity. The books in the Flamingo Rampant Book Club take a different approach–how has this shifted the narrative of the book club?
There are so many other things to talk about! That’s the thing that I find so bewildering. Let these people take trips! Let them have adventures, let them solve mysteries, let them celebrate things, let them worry about other things besides their identity–moving, new school, going to the dentist, any number of interesting childhood challenges that can be overcome. Flamingo Rampant Book Club’s mandate is positive representations. If people really feel that they urgently require a book that is about bullying in order to bring some realism, there are plenty of books for them already.
If a family isn’t LGBTQ, is this the right book club for them?
Absolutely. This book club is a good fit for any family regardless of sexual orientation, gender, family size or style, race, ethnicity that wants their children to grow up with positive messages about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, two-spirit, queerer, or gender-independent people. That’s all that’s required. Whether your family knows LGBTQ2S people or not, these books all center around a story. So there’s plenty to hold the attention of a young person, and plenty of opportunity to open up conversations about issues of gender or sexual orientation without it seeming abstract, or like it’s coming out of nowhere. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, who does a lot of work and writing around parenting and spirituality and was an early supporter of Flamingo Rampant’s first project, told us that her favorite thing about those books was that they gave her a way to talk to her children about gender roles that was based on something they had just positively experienced together.
I also got the following email recently from a friend, who had just received it from their friend:
Do you remember the book you gave [our daughter]–The Adventures of Tulip, Birthday Wish Fairy about Transgender children? We had a friend visit who is trans and we read the book to [our daughter] so she could better understand who [our friend] is. [Our daughter] got very excited after I read the book to her, saying ” so [our friend] used to be a girl and now he is a boy” I said yes and then she said very happily: “so that means Fairies are real” That’s life with a four-year-old.
What has surprised you during this process?
Honestly, I have been surprised at how many people have marginalized this series as something that would only be of interest to LGBTQ2S parents and families. Of course, it’s lovely to have affirming books to show our children that represent our family and family like ours. But my kid sees positive images of families like ours every day-he lives in one! Think about the child who doesn’t get any specifically positive images of LGBTQ2S families. That kid is left with whatever filters through from media, and whatever kids say on the playground. I hope progressive, feminist parents will also recognize this book series a powerful tool for positive change in their families, schools, libraries and so on.
What’s next for you and for the Flamingo Rampant Book Club?
Well, the next 20 days will be devoted to getting enough people to sign-up that we can make this project happen. If 450 families don’t sign up for subscriptions, or if we don’t get the equivalent in funding, then there will be no books for anyone. So right now, I’m hustling to make sure we get the most media exposure that we can manage to make sure that the message reaches as far as I can get it to reach. After that, a nice nap. And after that, I’ll be doing some dates with the Jewish Book Council this year to various Jewish Book Festivals across the United States, continuing to perform and lecture at universities and festivals, trying to figure out the kindergarten drop off and pick up schedule, and trying to make some progress on my novel.
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Pride is not automatic.
It is not thrust upon us
like responsibility on a new parent,
nor handed to us
on a silver platter.
Rather, it is found.
Bubbling in the depths of our soul.
It grows like the first buds of spring
hindered by the weather
but strong none the less
until it blooms into a full flower.
Why am I proud?
I was proud to be queer
when I first came out
and finally felt myself telling the truth
after a lifetime of lies
as if I had finally brought freedom to myself
instead of shying away
from the life I could live.
I was proud to be queer
when my younger brother came into my room
and said, “Alex, when did you know you weren’t straight”
and after a discussion on my bed
left by saying
“Well, it doesn’t matter”
“I don’t know yet if I’m straight or not.”
I was proud to be queer
when a friend messaged me on Facebook
and trusted me with their biggest secret
“I think I’m bi”
and gave me insight into their life
that no one else knew.
I was proud to be queer
when DOMA and Prop 8 were repealed
and I sat with my friends
and cheered for a victory
that was finally mine
A victory that mattered in my life
A victory not only for me
but for everyone.
But more than just queer
I’m proud to be Jewish
I’m proud to have a community
that welcome me in my entirety
that doesn’t care who I love as long as I love my culture.
I was proud to be a queer Jew
when we discussed homosexuality in a Torah studies class
and the entire class agreed
that the Torah is not an excuse to discriminate.
And I am proud to be a queer Jew.
I am proud of the life I live
I am proud of the voice I’ve been given
I am proud of the fear I have destroyed
And I am proud to be me
in the purest, truest form
I am proud to be me.
Next week marks the holiday of Shavuot. This holiday, which is celebrated seven weeks after Passover, marks the giving of the Torah. For a wide variety of reasons, Shavuot is celebrated by eating dairy. One reason I’ve heard is because having the Torah is as sweet as milk and honey. I’ve also heard that upon receiving the Torah the dietary laws of kosher became immediately clear –and the only dishes around were dairy dishes.
Regardless of the rational behind it, eating a whole lot of dairy has become the common practice for celebrating Shavuot. To celebrate the occasion I gathered a group of friends to try baking a rainbow cheesecake. Too often the LGBT experience isn’t accounted for in the Jewish community so what better way to introduce the idea of inclusion than by bringing some literal rainbows to the table?
To start things off we found a recipe for tie-dye cheesecake from the Disney Chef. Here’s what you’ll need to get started:
- 1 package red velvet cake mix (plus ingredients to make it)
- 1 1/2 lb. cream cheese
- 1 1/3 cup sugar
- 5 large eggs
- 16 oz sour cream
- 1/4 cup flour
- 2 tsp vanilla
- 2 tsp lemon juice
- food coloring in primary colors to make red, orange, yellow, green, teal, and purple.
After it’s mixed, pour 1/3 of the red velvet cake batter into a 9 inch springform pan. Then, go ahead and bake it according to the directions on the box. You can also make cupcakes with the rest of the batter, so nothing goes to waste.
Next comes more mixing. Set your electronic mixer to low and beat the cream cheese until light and fluffy.
Add sugar, a little at a time, and beat until creamy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well.
Add flour, vanilla, lemon juice, and sour cream and mix.
Next divide the batter evenly into 6 bowls. Use food coloring to create your colors of the rainbow.
Next, spoon the colored batter over the red velvet cake (which should still be in the springform.) You can either try to layer the colors, or create a mosaic of colors when you spoon the batter onto the cake. Leave 3/4 inch of space (at least) between the top of the batter and the top of the pan.
If you’ve gone with the mosaic pattern (like we did) and you want to create a tie-dye effect (like we wanted to), use a toothpick to slightly swirl the batter.
Place in the middle of the top rack of the oven and bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes.
An important thing to know about the baking process — it will take a while. After the initial baking time of an hour and 15 minutes has passed, prop open the oven door and leave the cake in the warmed oven for an additional hour. After that hour has passed, remove from the oven and allow it to cool to room temperature. After that, you’re still not ready to eat it. Refrigerate the creation for at least 12, but ideally 24, hours. Then…. enjoy!
In October 2013, when I bought my tickets to see Cher’s Dressed to Kill tour, which would be playing down the street from my house in the then-distant future of May 2014, my mother asked with mock hurt in her voice why I hadn’t invited her to see the show with me.
At the time, I thought it was a bit of a ridiculous request. Although my mother had taken me to my earliest concerts in my pre-teen days, I couldn’t really envision her enjoying a stadium show at age 67. I imagined the show would be unbearably loud for her, and over the last couple of years, her health had slipped, and she just seemed too frail for that kind of environment. Plus, what interest did my mom have in the electronic dance diva that Cher has become in the most recent evolution of her career?
At the same time, I remembered a long-forgotten moment my mother and I had shared when I was in high school. My mother had been my synagogue’s youth director, and USY was my number one activity, so we spent a lot of time together. While most teenagers might have bristled at having their mothers present in these settings, I never let the presence of my mother get in the way of my teenage shenanigans, whether that meant sneaking out of my room at a convention to surreptitiously hook up, dressing in a costume that was little more than underwear for a trip to see the Rocky Horror Picture Show, or, as I just remembered—playing Cher to my mother’s Sonny Bono for a lip sync contest in the basement of my synagogue. (Our “I Got You Babe” brought the house down. Sadly, this predated the YouTube era, and I’m not even sure if photographs were taken.) This same comfort and closeness served us well in my adulthood, and many of my friends from Keshet remember my parents marching with us in the Pride Parade in matching Keshet t-shirts.
My mom passed away at the end of December, and although she had been in declining health, her death was a shock. Judaism’s mourning rituals provide a gradual plan for coping, setting out an eleven-month process for children who’ve lost a parent that balances the need for solitude and grief with the need to stay connected to community.
One profound way our tradition makes this period distinct is by removing the mourner from “public joy,” meaning someone who has suffered a loss typically avoids parties (including weddings and b’nai mitzvah), theaters and cinemas, and concerts. As with many Jewish customs, there are loopholes, particularly if your line of work requires you to participate in these kinds of events: a wedding photographer, for example, isn’t expected to stop working for the year. As someone who’s semi-professionally involved in the theater, I knew I’d need to figure out what felt right in that arena for me. I gave away some tickets, made an extra effort to ensure that shows I saw were directly related to projects I was working on, and so forth.
The Cher concert was months away. I had time to figure it out. But I knew that I couldn’t miss it—not because I cared so much about Cher, but because it was one of the few things coming up in my life that I had shared with my mom in the last months of hers.
Going to the concert wasn’t the easiest choice I’ve made. My section was filled with women who reminded me of my mother, and the number of times Cher herself mentioned her age—one year older than my mom—kept bringing my mom to the forefront of my mind. But at the same time, enjoying the songs that had been part of the bond between my mother and me reinforced in a visceral way how I remain connected to my mother even though she’s gone. And of course, Cher’s stock in trade is songs about surviving and moving forward despite loss. And even thought I know she meant it in a different way than I heard it that night, Cher helped me believe in life after love.
According to education theorist Rudine Simms Bishop, fiction should serve as both a mirror and a window. That is, books should both reflect the realities of their readers’ lived experiences and allow readers to see inside the thoughts and feelings of others. In this spirit, here are some of my favorite contemporary young adult (YA) books—that is, books for teen readers—that feature LGBTQ and Jewish themes.
In “Princes” in David Levithan’s short story collection How They Met, and Other Stories (Knopf, 2008), 17-year-old Jon’s parents are hesitant about letting him invite the super-hot Graham to his brother Jeremy’s upcoming Bar Mitzvah. But Jeremy insists that everyone should be able to bring the date of their choice. Like all of David Levithan’s writing, this story is sweet, romantic, and a lot of fun.
In Believe by Sarah Aronson (Carolrhoda Lab/Lerner, 2013), teenage Janine, an aspiring fashion designer, survived a Jerusalem suicide bombing that killed both her parents. When a preacher from her past appears in her small Pennsylvania town, Janine and her lesbian aunt, a former officer in the Israeli army, are forced to redefine who they are and who they want to be.
Don’t forget to check out small independent presses! Grunge Gods and Graveyards by Kimberly G. Giarratano, coming in June 2014 from Red Adept, is the story of a girl and a ghost set against the backdrop of the 1996 music scene. While Lainey’s helping her ghostly crush Danny discover the identity of his murderer, she’s also coming to terms with her Jewish roots and her best friend’s unexpected love interest.
Starglass by Phoebe North (Simon & Schuster, 2013) takes place in a secular Jewish dystopia in outer space. (Yes, really.) Growing up on the spacecraft Asherah, Terra has never known anything other than the rigid rules of her society . . . until she stumbles on something that changes everything. Characters juggle love (gay and straight), friendship, and emerging adult responsibilities in a futuristic world where well-known Hebrew words and expressions have subtly shifted meanings. A sequel, Starbreak, will be released in July.
Numerous other YA books feature Jewish themes and minor characters who identify as LGBTQ, including Forgive Me Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick (Little, Brown, 2013), Intentions by Deborah Heiligman (Knopf, 2012), and the older If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson (Putnam, 1998).
If you’re a Jewish LGBTQ teenager, you can see your own priorities, challenges, and triumphs mirrored in these terrific YA books. If you’re not, they provide a window for learning about diverse identities and experiences.
After the fun we had with Rainbow Hamantaschen, it seemed like the gauntlet had been thrown. At the Keshet office we began to wonder: would it be possible to find some way to make a rainbow food for each major holiday? The challenge was on. The brainstorming began. Would it be matzah ball soup, with each matzah ball a different color? A rainbow of gefilte fish? A mix of dips and spreads in ever color imaginable?
Even though Passover is a holiday already pretty full of traditions and ritual, I thought it would be okay to try something new. So, I turned to my friend Stephanie, and together we came up with Rainbow Chocolate Covered Matzah.
The goal was simple: take a plain ol’ piece of matzah and jazz it up, rainbow style. With that in mind, we created our recipe, one that was well within the dietary restrictions of Passover, while still allowing for a little rainbow fun.
So, here’s what you’ll need:
- Six 1/2 cups of white chocolate chips (a 1/2 cup for each color created),
- A box of matzah,
- A small splash of milk (as needed for drizzle consistency) per color,
- A box of food coloring,
- A spoon for the drizzling and/or a basting brush for painting,
- & a small sauce pan to melt the chocolate.
Your first step is to place the first 1/2 cup of white chocolate in a small sauce pan over a low heat. You’ll want to stir pretty constantly, because you don’t want the chocolate to burn. While you’re stirring splash in a little milk- just enough to help give the chocolate that proper drizzle feel.
Once you’re feeling good and melted, add food coloring to the chocolate for your first batch of color. The amount of food coloring is up to you, just be sure to make it bright!
To transfer the colored chocolate to the matzah, we went with two different rainbow-ing techniques: the Jackson Pollock drizzle and the more solid stripe technique. For the drizzle, you’ll simply use a spoon to start covering the matzah in your own crazy pattern.
For stripes, use a basting brush to slowly paint on a solid strip of color. Once you’ve got your red color on (whether it be stripes, drizzled, or both) repeat the process with each color of the rainbow.
We weren’t honestly sure which technique would prove successful—or if we’d end up with a big ol’ mess on our hands. However, they both turned out pretty fantastic.
So go ahead and give our Rainbow Matzah a try! It’s as delicious as it is fun to make. Send us photos of your process and finished product!