There’s a new player on the Jewish blog scene, and it’s not holding back. Jewrotica is a “pluralistic and sex-positive organization that explores the intersection of Judaism and sexuality through essays, literature, erotica, and in-person programming.” Keshet caught up with Sarah Tuttle-Singer, former social media outreach coordinator and current contributor, to ask about what it’s like to write for Jewrotica, and what the existence of this new site might mean for LGBT Jews.
You’re a writer for a variety of Jewish publications – in what ways (other than the very obvious one) is Jewrotica different?
I’m a big believer in authenticity – in “owning your sh*t.” In other words, if you’ve got something provocative to say, then say it boldly, and don’t cower behind cheap metaphor. Writing for Jewrotica is a literalization of this – because unlike publishing on Kveller and Times of Israel (two sites which I adore!) not only is the content I submit on Jewrotica potentially problematic, but explaining the article in the context of the site also invites a secondary conversation. (Just ask my dad.) Continue reading
I’ve always believed quite firmly that what is on our kids’ bookshelves, and what we, parents and children together, share at bedtime, makes them who they are. I was particularly excited to hear about the publication of a new children’s book, The Purim Superhero. This story of a little boy, and the Purim-costume dilemma he faces, along with the help of his fathers, feels like the children’s book I’ve been searching for a long time.
Books have fundamental power for our kids. Story time is a way to compellingly deliver the values we wish to instill in them. Books come alive, ideas flooding into minds, fueling connections and other ideas, feelings and sense memories. Expand the power of these books with the participation of a parent and children’s literature knows no bounds. And so I seek books that reflect and reinforce the reality and true diversity of my kids’ world, which we can share together. So, as I’ve written about in columns and blogs before, it’s always been important to me to have plenty of books about Jewish families and experiences. Then within that, we need winter scenes that involve palm trees and beach rather than snow, because, like other Jewish kids here in Florida, my kids don’t know from a white Chanukah and they do tashlich barefoot on the beach. Continue reading
They invented the term 100% trans Jewcore, and as Schmekel they are rocking our world! Keshet caught up with the members of the band – Lucian Kahn, Ricky Riot, Nogga Schwartz, and Simcha Halpert-Hanson – to talk about musical influences, what they’d love to see in the Jewish world, and what the heck “Jewcore” is, after all. We’re bringing you a longer post than usual, but you know what they say: one band, four Jews, lots and lots of opinions!
RR: “Jewcore” loosely refers to anything within the rock realm that has Jewish influences. It is a description that makes sense for us in this fortunate era of complicated genre classification. For me, the Jewish part of it is liturgical and other traditional tunes, and Israeli songs. As of a little more recently, I’ve been listening to klezmer bands, like the Klezmatics. The rock part of it is pretty eclectic. I listen to some classic rock, like the Doors and Jimi Hendrix, and as of more recently punk bands like the Dead Kennedys and Limp Wrist - yes I know, I got into punk way after the fact. I also like the Israeli riot grrrl bands Hamachshefot (The Witches) and Poliana Frank. The artists whom I would actually call influences though, meaning ones I have listened to long ago enough for them to be considered an influence, are the Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails, Sleater-Kinney, the Distillers, the Smiths, and They Might Be Giants. But oddly enough, I grew up on showtunes and most of my music collection consists of jazz.
SHH: I think we all collectively came up with the term “Jewcore” as a way to describe our sound to inquiring minds. Our community in Brooklyn has coined the term “Transcore” to refer to bands like ours that have all trans* members and sing about trans* experience, so we just took that to the Jew level. That asterisk, by the way, denotes that the word “trans” in this context does not just mean “transsexual” but all folks that identify under the “transgender” umbrella – there’s great information here. I use the term “Jewcore” to reflect the unlikely combination of Jewishness with punk rock, rap, or hardcore – like what Schmekel does or what our friends Yiddish Princess does or what Moshiach Oi or SoCalled does. When you think “Jewish music,” you don’t think the kind of sound that we or the other bands I mentioned make.
In terms of influences, I love bands that think outside of the genre-box that they’re categorized in, like Against Me!, the Dresden Dolls, Modest Mouse, and Tool. I think it’s artists like those – that play with genre and keep genre flexible, that produce really interesting and ever-relevant sounds.
NS: I don’t know who came up with the term “Jewcore.” I have referenced our sound as queercore, transcore, and “yidcore.” Lucian has used the term Schtickrock to describe us as well. I guess it doesn’t matter what you call it really. Our music is influenced by a large catalog from punk to polka, klezmer, and even some good ole rock and roll. Our lyrics talk about our experience as queer, trans* Jews. I would say that that more or less can define some aspect of “Jewcore.” My personal influences come from classic rock and lots of punk and ska, I could list some here but it hurts my head to think of all the bands and musicians I pull from.
Can we talk for a moment about the infamous matza photo shoot with Amos Mac? What was that like? What were the responses – in general and, you know, from your mothers?
LTK: Dirty jokes are the matzoh meal that holds my family together, so even my grandma laughed at the pictures. Actually, she’s a psychologist and used to be a sex educator back in the ‘70s, so it’s hard to shock her with something as innocuous as a bunch of half-naked Jews covered in unleavened bread. As for the rest of the world, I was surprised that some of our fans interpreted those pictures as sexy. In fact, The Advocate called us sexy and reprinted one of the matzoh shots. Personally, I was going for ridiculous. Is sex really a viable option when there are dry crumbs involved?
RR: I’m sure my parents have seen these pictures but we never mentioned them. Honestly they do scare me a little because my other career is teaching, so I just hope they don’t get into the wrong hands. But hey, you live once; how many people can say they posed naked for an international magazine with matzohs?
NS: I felt like a schnitzel by the end of that shoot. Before we did the matzoh photo, we took a photo of Ricky pouring wine into my mouth and I got covered in it. Then we rolled around in matzoh… plus the lights, I was ready to be served. On the plus side, my boyfriend really enjoys the picture.
SHH: I have to admit I was pushing a lot of my boundaries posing for that shoot – there were more than a few moments with that picture in particular in which I felt, exposure-wise, like I was at the gyno. We all sang Echad Mi Yodeah [Who Knows One, a traditional Passover song] for most of that photo, to loosen up (of course). The shoot was in a massive warehouse with dividers between studios, so the entire first floor heard us singing about knowing one G-d, two tablets, etc. It was a unifying moment for me with the band — being stark naked on the floor with matzoh shards, singing about HaShem.
I’ve heard you’ve been upset after certain interviews that focus more on your bodies then your music. Do you get tired of educating the public on gender issues?
LTK: To be honest, at this point I just find it boring, which is actually a privilege. I’ve been pretty much done with physical transition for over two years, and I’ve been with the same boyfriend for almost as long, so I don’t have to think about the fact of my trans body on a daily basis anymore. It still comes up in random ways, such as dealing with doctors or bureaucratic paperwork, but since I’ve mostly come to peace with my body, I don’t feel like talking about it all the time. I’m definitely at a different place now than I was when I wrote the lyrics for the “Queers On Rye” album.
RR: Yes. I get tired of it both with the public as a performer, and as a regular person. I also happen to occasionally do some educating at LGBT Jewish retreats and I don’t mind educating in a time and place where that is the intended goal. I just don’t like being asked about my body in a casual social setting, or when press is more interested in our transitions than our music.
NS: The focus that many non-trans people put on trans and gender non-conforming bodies is sometimes overwhelming. As Ricky said, when there is a time and a place, sure we can talk about it. We are people also and do other stuff. In this case we are a band that performs and plays music about many subjects besides our bodies.
This happens, unfortunately, within the queer community as well as out in the general public.
I recognize that I will forever have to qualify myself to people who have never before met a trans* person and that until olam haba [the world to come] becomes olam hazeh [this world], educating will be a fact of life, but I am especially tired of teaching specifically transmen about why I’m not one of them and qualifying the existence of genderqueer as a separate gender. It’s really disheartening to me that so many trans* people have internalized the sexism and binary mentality that made it difficult for them to realize themselves to begin with.
Can you discuss the queer Jewish music scene? Where can people go to find new bands and artists?
RR: The Shondes, Athens Boys Choir, Y-Love, Isle of Klezbos, Metropolitan Klezmer, Yiddish Princess, Gay Panic, GLTR PNCH (pronounced “Glitter Punch”), and Evan Greer are all great artists to check out. And I’m sure I could name more if you give me some time. Some of those are queer and Jewish, some just queer, some just Jewish. Where to go is wherever they are playing.
NS: There is an amazing NYC/Brooklyn queer and queer Jewish music scene. Multiple nights a week one can find a venue playing rad music .
SHH: I feel really lucky to live in New York City and be inside what I consider the pulse of queer Jewish music. The big names in klezmer — the Yiddishist scene in general tends to feel pretty queer — are all here playing in synagogue basements and concert venues around the city. A lot of Jews For Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) events, like their annual Purimschpiel, bring in queer Yiddishist artists and klezmorim. As far as how to find out about new bands and artists, I’ve found Facebook groups an immensely helpful tool to get to know my community and all the innovation happening in it. Currently, I belong to Young Jewish Brooklyn, Brooklyn Jews, Thursday Night Chulent, Trans* and Judaism, and Punk Jews and all of these groups in one way or another have turned me onto artists and musicians I hadn’t previously heard of touring both across the country and around NYC.
I’d love to get more personal about what being a part of Schmekel means to you – to be making music as part of a Jewish gender non-conforming group.
LTK: If we’re getting personal, to me being part of Schmekel means having three siblings to rock out, celebrate the holidays, get through hard times, go on road trips, and joke around with. Schmekel is home to me, which is probably not a sentence that a lot of people have uttered.
RR: This didn’t start out as a political statement, but Jewish trans visibility is certainly important. Mostly, I like making the kinds of music I like and singing from a queer perspective at the same time. And also everything Lucian said.
NS: Ditto to what Ricky and Lucian said. I am not actually a musician at all… I picked up the bass for the first time in 10 years to get to make music with these folks. Ricky and I were in a band when we were 17. It kinda sucked in that awesome high school garage band way. I continued to always want to be a rockstar… but never thought of pursuing it, till Schmekel happened.
SHH: Schmekel to me has been an experience of pushing myself to take my art and my identity in two presently disparate groups seriously. It has been a process of coming together with three other people with varying degrees of shared experiences in the Jewish world and in the trans* world and working together to build bridges with each other and others around us. It’s been an amazing opportunity to have come to such a family space with this band and to have seen the fruit of that relationship be a Yeshayahu-worthy vision of Jewish unity across religious convictions and personal identities.
Given, amongst all of you, your many and varied experiences of inclusion and exclusion in Jewish community: what would you like rabbis, teachers, and other leaders, to know?
NS: Hold the judgement. It is the purpose of people in leadership positions to help facilitate a supportive environment and assist those in search of a relationship with community and G-d. It is not their, or any other person’s, place to judge or dictate how one should pursue their path. Leaders and teachers and rabbis are there to present halacha, discuss, assist, and support. Not to shut down, excommunicate or pressure an individual in any specific direction. Also, take the time to educate yourself: it is hard to self-advocate all the time. When someone is coming to you, they are probably coming for support and guidance, and it is worth it to be in the know about what the community needs are to better help.
RR: That gender is complicated. I would love for rabbis to read some gender theory books and talk to queer and trans people and the doctors and therapists who deal with us, and formulate an informed opinion about how they want to define gender. There is a movement of acknowledging gender in Judaism as a social category and not just a biological one among halakhically committed Jews, and that movement also has insightful things to say that I would love for other rabbis to check out. Let’s face it, our existence presents a challenge to their observance. It also presents a choice to either take the easy route and dismiss our experiences and insist that our queer and trans identities aren’t real, or do the work that it takes to keep us Jewish and to keep us safe and emotionally healthy. They don’t need to compromise their religious practice, but the Jewish thing to do would be to learn about our experiences and respect us as human beings. I would like for teachers to know that teachers often gender-police their students without being aware of it, and it is damaging. I encourage them too to educate themselves about the experiences of their queer and trans students.
SSH: I would like Jewish leaders to know that kol yisroel arevim zebazeh [all Jews are responsible for one another] applies to all Jews everywhere and that “Jew,” thank G-d, comes in many profoundly different manifestations — all of them Torah sanctified. Education — Trans* 101 workshops, learning about queer sexuality, patriarchal oppression as well as how gender is a mutable idea rather than a static fact — has to be a priority to understand each other. HaShem put us all together as Am Yisrael — the idea that the mere existence of one Jew invalidates the existence of another is not a productive way to bring about the messianic era and will only deter the healing that klal yisrael [the entire Jewish community] was created to bring about for the world.
You can catch Schmekel at:
Werk Those Pecs: Valentine’s Edition
Saturday, February 16th, 2013
SlateNY, 54 W. 21st St.
Doors at 9pm
A benefit for Werk Those Pecs, an organization dedicated to raising trans visibility by funding gender-affirming surgery, supporting queer businesses, and showcasing queer artists.
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.
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!
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):
Talking to Joy Ladin is like speaking with your favorite professor from college — the one who wove words in a way that was simply magical, who would drop bits of wisdom into a conversation that you wouldn’t even notice until days later, when you remember them suddenly. She is clearly an incredible teacher.
And that makes sense, because Joy is that professor for plenty of students at the Stern College for Women, part of New York’s Yeshiva University. Joy made headlines in 2007 when she became the first out transgender professor at an Orthodox institution.
She is the David and Ruth Gottesman Professor of English at Yeshiva University. And lucky for us, she also joined Keshet’s board this spring. You can see Joy speak at a number of upcoming engagements, including at the Yale Hillel on September 11, 2012. (Exact time and location will soon be posted here.)
Through the Door of Life is a remarkable, soul-baring memoir. You chose a title that immediately lets people know that your story is a Jewish one. For anyone who hasn’t read your book yet, can you explain briefly how Judaism structured your “journey between genders”?
I grew up as a trans kid in hiding, but I also grew up as what my rabbi, Jill Hammer, calls a “feral Jew.” I was very drawn to Judaism, but my family wasn’t religious. It was very freeing, actually. I didn’t have anyone else’s version of Judaism to push against, so I could make it up as I went along, and not feel like I was bound to those Bronze Age laws.
It was the portrayal of God in the Torah that really grabbed me. God is an alien — in the sci-fi sense — and I felt like an alien. God has trouble communicating, and is very lonely, and has no real body and that’s how I felt, as a kid. So much of holiness is about how people relate to one another. The core of Judaism is this longing for contact with humanity despite all of the obstacles that our bodies put in the way.
In a profound way, Judaism gave me a language to express my longing to relate to other people.
It’s not a stretch to call it an Internet sensation — a gorgeous music video about two (same-sex) swans who want to get married by a previously unknown band that’s now garnered well over 100,000 views on YouTube. Did we mention that the swans in question — along with everything else in the video — are shadow puppets? And that the video is a call for equal marriage rights? And that the (straight) talented musicians who put it together, including Jewish day school educated lead singer Gil Kline, are still in college?
Gil Kline of Bye June chatted with Keshet about their hit, “Shades of Purple”.
The shadow puppetry in this video is beautiful. What was behind the use of animals for this video? It made a number of things come to mind – swans mate for life, and at the end, it sort of feels like Noah’s Ark.
Aren’t they great? Before we came to the idea of using shadow puppets, though, we still knew we wanted to portray swans and ducks. We were thinking about the fable about the ugly duckling — how it’s only others’ perceptions that make him ugly. The video portrays many different kinds of animals, though, and that’s a metaphor for human diversity. If we can accept one another as different, we don’t need to judge each other so much.
The puppets, though — that was a lot of work! We’re a small group, so when we decided to go with this artistic vision, we knew that it was going to be tons of hours. It actually took a few months to film and edit. And some hand cramping!
This video is a lovely call for equal rights for LGBT folks. What sparked this project?
I wrote the song for friends of mine in the LGBT community. It just upsets me — they’re such wonderful people, and they can’t express themselves or their love. Sometimes, they can’t walk down the street holding hands. That’s just ridiculous. And on top of that, we have politicians making decisions in areas of people’s lives where they just have no business.
When your swans head off to get married, the building they approach has a crescent, a cross, and a Jewish star. What’s your Jewish connection?
Yeah, we wanted to incorporate all major world religions. All faiths, all people need to accept people in the LGBT community. And some people use religion to oppress others, but sometimes it’s the sign of when we’re embraced, too.
As for me, my parents immigrated to Israel when they were young, met in the Air Force, and, when I was little, moved us all back to the U.S. I grew up going to day school, and I’ve always been interested in people of many different faiths.
I’m not very religiously observant, but I definitely have a strong Jewish identity, and I definitely understand that religion and religious identity can be powerful.
What’s next for Bye June?
Well, we’re still in college, so we have to wait before we can do any real tours. And you know musicians, we’re always working on the next song, so that’s on our plates right now.
You know, we got a ton of feedback on “Shades of Purple.” Lots of people left comments on the video thanking us, and recently, what with the vote on same-sex marriage here in Maryland, there’s been a lot of debate. Not all of it has been nice. There’s been plenty of hostility to our ideas but I think it’s always good when people are able to speak to one another. If we contribute to that, I’m glad.
Watch “Shades of Purple” and let us know what you think!
It’s summertime, and the days are long —what better time to catch up a little on your reading? Writer Chanel Dubofsky has pulled together a quick list of great queer Jewish books for a lazy afternoon. What could be better? Enjoy!
The Delicious Reliables:
Odd Girl Out, Ann Bannon
I found a copy of Odd Girl Out one afternoon at the Brookline Booksmith for three dollars and by midnight, I’d read the whole thing. The relationship between Laura and Beth is melodramatic in the way of all relationships in which one or both parties is sheltered and/or confused and/or being pressured to be heterosexual. The book is a commentary on the sexual status and expectations of women in the 1960s, in addition to being some juicy pulp fiction. Get a copy with one of the salacious covers and read it in public.
Good Enough to Eat, Lesléa Newman
There are two things that make especially beautiful gifts — vegetable bouquets and a book that will make you think about everything differently. I read this book in college, and by that, I mean, I read it everywhere I went in college, including during class. It’s honest, snarky and complicated, exactly what a book about bodies, food, coming out to yourself, and being 25 years old should be. Lesléa is also one of Keshet’s LGBT Jewish Heroes—a role model for all of us.
New on the Scene:
Here Come the Brides: Reflections of Lesbian Love and Marriage, Ed. by Audrey Bilger and Michelle Kort
Two weeks ago, a very important friend of mine got married. At his tisch [traditional wedding "table," where guests gather for some sort of teaching] beforehand, he read excerpts from the Massachusetts Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage, reflecting on the importance of marriage as an institution, a stabilizing force and a civil right. When I came home from the wedding, I started reading Here Come the Brides, and instantly, the complexity, joy and pain that comes with the conversation about marriage in general, and marriage and queerness specifically, rose to the surface again. Bilger and Kort have collected voices that wrestle boldly with what it means to want to be married, to not be able to be married, to not want to be married, and to not know how you feel. It’s hard, brave, and deeply necessary.
God Versus Gay: The Religious Case for Marriage Equality, Jay Michaelson
I heard Jay Michaelson on public radio recently and almost all of the folks who bothered to call in to the show excelled at homophobia, thereby proving how necessary this book is. Michaelson’s argument is that the Bible doesn’t actually prohibit homosexuality, and that this whole idea that of G-d and religion being against gay folks and gayness is a fallacy. This book is important even if you don’t really happen to put much stock in religion or religious texts, or you don’t know what you think. It’s crucial to have fluency in the language of religion, and to understand what the arguments are, if you’re invested in justice and equality.
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.