A retired kosher butcher, his young lesbian writing teacher, and a letter from the heart: Lesléa Newman’s short story, “A Letter to Harvey Milk,” has moved readers for over two decades—and now it hits Broadway! With songs like “What A Shanda” (listen here – click on the “music” tab), the show debuts at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, July 23-28, with music by Laura Kramer, lyrics by Ellen Schwartz and book by Jerry James.
We caught up with Lesléa to get the back story about how her short story became such a universal symbol, how it became a stage sensation, and what’s next for both it and her.
Learn more about Harvey Milk and Lesléa Newman, including behind the scenes photos, at lgbtjewishheroes.org.
It’s wonderful that a short story you published in 1988, as a letter to a public figure killed a decade before that, retains such resonance. What is it about Harvey Milk that still captures our imaginations and our hearts?
Harvey Milk was completely human. He was smart, kind, funny, honest, strong, vulnerable, and brave. He took many risks, and always did things with a sense of humor. He made himself very accessible – he was someone people felt they could sit down and talk with over a cup of coffee. Plus he was OUT at a time when there could be (and often were) grave consequences for that. I think many of us who didn’t know him personally still felt a sense of personal loss when he was taken from us in such a terrible way. With each new victory for the GLBT Civil Rights Movement (the recent ruling that DOMA is unconstitutional, President endorsing gay marriage, etc.) I often wonder, “What would Harvey Milk think of that?” Or, “What a shame that Harvey Milk didn’t live long enough to see that.” He lives on in our hearts and minds. He was a pioneer, and he deserves the status of hero.
At the same time that “A Letter to Harvey Milk” is fiercely Jewish, it emphasizes strongly how universal the man’s appeal was. In the musical, this is represented in lines like “You don’t have to be a Jew to love a bagel, or gay to love a leader who is gay.” How Jewish is the story of Harvey Milk? Versus how universal? What’s it like working with that tension?
“A Letter to Harvey Milk” was written out of the experience of being Jewish and gay, and it is about the human experience. Maya Angelou once said, “I speak to the black experience but I am always talking about the human experience.” I feel similarly about being a Jewish lesbian and writing about the human experience. If one’s characters are portrayed as fully human, anyone can relate to them, even when coming from a different background. Perhaps especially when coming from a different background.
“A Letter to Harvey Milk” went from fiction published in Lilith magazine to the titular short story in a collection, and now to musical on stage in New York City. What’s it like to shepherd a work through such changes? Does the message change with the medium at all? Does it reach a different audience?
The story was also performed as a one person show all over the world (including Israel and Germany), made into a short film by Yariv Kohn which was shown at many Jewish film festivals, read on the radio by Carl Reiner as part of a series produced by KCRW Santa Monica and hosted by Leonard Nimoy entitled “Jewish Stories: from the Old World to the New” and turned into a teleplay shown on Canadian Public TV which won a Gemini (the Canadian equivalent of an Emmy). I gave each project’s creative team full artistic freedom, and I am happy to say that all of them stayed very true to the original story, augmenting it with their vision and talent. The story has taken on a life of its own, and I am very grateful that it has reached such a wide audience because of that.
You’re quite famous as an author of children’s literature. What’s the relationship between writing work for kids and stories like “A Letter for Harvey Milk,” which is for an older audience?
As far as I’m concerned, writing is writing. I don’t sit down and say, “I’m going to write for kids today” or “I’m going to write for teens today” or “I’m going to write for adults today.” I just start moving the pen across the page (yes, I still write with a Bic pen and a spiral notebook!) and see what happens. Then once a project begins to take shape, I stick with that piece of work until it’s finished. As the writer Gene Fowler so famously said, I go back to “staring at a piece of paper until three drops of blood appear on my forehead.”
After this incredible journey, what’s next for “A Letter to Harvey Milk”? What’s next for how we in the queer Jewish community relate to his memory?
Next stop, Broadway! (from my mouth to G-d’s ears)
The show is really incredible, with 18 (note that auspicious number) funny, touching, sad, inspiring, and original songs, and I hope it gets the attention it deserves. And Harvey’s dream and vision lives on through the Harvey Milk Foundation. The Foundation, through Harvey’s dream for a just tomorrow, envisions governments that celebrate the rich and universally empowering diversity of humanity, where all individuals – gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, racial and ethnic minorities, the elderly, the young, the disabled – all who had been excluded can fully participate in all societal rights without exception.
And what’s next for Lesléa Newman?
On September 25, 2012 (erev Yom Kippur) my book, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard will be released by Candlewick Press. The book explores the impact of Matthew Shepard’s murder upon the world in a cycle of 68 poems that are fictitious monologues written from many points of view including the silent witnesses of the crime: the fence Matt was tied to, the moon that looked down upon him, the deer that kept him company all through the night. My hope is that the book will inspire readers to erase hate and replace it with understanding, compassion, and love.
In June 2002, Queer Jews came out in a big way. A collection of essays, memoirs and cultural analysis co-edited by Caryn Aviv and David Shneer, the volume explored everything from queer parenting to trans issues in traditionally gendered Jewish spaces to the creating of new rituals (including the ever-popular Queer Naked Seder). As part of a larger canon of queer Jewish writings, which first appeared on the literary scene in the early 1980s, Queer Jews marked an evolution in the form, as authors went beyond exploring their own stories to consider the impact queer Jews have on the larger Jewish community, and on Judaism itself.
Ten years since its publication, Keshet caught up with Dr. Caryn Aviv, Posen Lecturer in Secular Jewish Culture at the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Denver, author of three books and numerous academic and journalistic articles.
Since Queer Jews first came out, there have been many changes for LGBTQ Jews—legalized same-sex marriage in several states, the ordination of out gay Conservative rabbis, etc. If you were to reissue the book now, what would you want to see included? What change or changes do you think have been the most significant?
If we were going to reissue the book now, I think the most important thing to include would be a resource guide for rituals that queer Jews have created for marriages, for baby namings, that sort of thing. I’d love something like Ritualwell.org, but specifically for queer Jews. I’d even love to have one online, as a companion to the book.
I think it would be wonderful to include a piece on “Tales from the Front in the Battle for Marriage Equality.” I don’t want to lose people’s stories and memories, especially since those encompass both the legislative battles, but also the fights to change or update values within our own communities; I think it’s vital that those be collected somehow, that we create an archive of these for history.
You know, the whole idea of marking time through the anniversaries of books is really interesting. We just passed the 10th anniversary of Lesbian Rabbis [published in 2001], and that’s something that jumps out at me. We’ve now got a critical mass of queer clergy who are really visible. I think a piece—really you could write a whole book!—with perspectives on assuming positions of power would be a wonderful reflection.
If we were going to do it over, I’d love to include the voices of kids with queer parents, along with those of queer elders. Those are two sets of voices we really didn’t delve into in Queer Jews, and I’m fascinated by them. For kids, it’s this idea of, how did these multiple identities — being Jewish, and not necessarily queer themselves, but having this different point of view — how did that influence who they grew up to be? And the issue of queer elders is one I think about a lot these days. We have all of these established facilities for Jewish elders, and there are queer residents in them, but we have no programming specifically for them. I’d love to see a celebration of this group, and I’d love to get some of their voices published.
Speaking of Lesbian Rabbis, many of the essays in Queer Jews reference Twice Blessed, a seminal collection of pieces about being lesbian or gay and Jewish, published in 1989. Do you think Queer Jews now occupies a similar place in the queer Jewish canon? You must hear from people who use your book all the time–what has the feedback been like in the course of the last decade?
Well, let me give you this anecdote by way of an answer: I just got a $50 royalty check for Queer Jews in the mail the other day — and honestly, most of the time I can’t believe it’s still in print and people are still buying it. Who would have imagined, in 1989 when Twice Blessed came out, that there would be such a thing as a queer Jewish canon? Now I have a whole bookshelf!
I feel grateful and blessed to be part of a group that includes volumes like The Tribe of Dina, Nice Jewish Girls and Twice Blessed. They represent the first generation of authors and activists trying to integrate and deal with their Jewish and gay identities. We were influenced by them, of course, but we were also influenced by ACT UP and Heeb magazine — a little more in-your-face, edgier. Queer Jews, like those books that came before it, was of an era, and it used a particular generational lens.
I imagine that the volumes that will follow ours will stand on our shoulders the way we stood on our predecessors’.
What’s on your queer Jewish reading list like now?
To be totally honest, I’m preparing to enter rabbinical school through the Aleph program, so my reading list is a little less radical and a little more Rashi, right now. I must say, though, since I’m reading and writing about the Torah so much, I’ve been happily rereading my copy of Torah Queeries [edited by Keshet staff member Gregg Drinkwater, Rabbi Joshua Lesser, and David Shneer]. It’s a wonderful resource.
In another ten years, what do you think we’ll be talking about in the queer Jewish world?
Let me say this – I’d love to see Keshet go out of business. I mean that in the nicest way possible, of course. What I mean is that I’d love to see the mission of full inclusion fulfilled, that queer Jews are essentially a non-issue, because we’re so pervasively accepted, not because anyone is invisible.
I have no idea whether marriage equality will be settled federally. I think the most we can hope for is that the law catches up to where people are socially.
I’m a parent, so of course I’m also very interested in the visibility of queer parenting, and more conversation about the various ways that queer people parent. I’d love to see kid’s literature and Young Adult lit that nonchalantly incorporate queer families.
I really don’t know what we’ll be talking about, but I’m excited to see it!