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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The Fourth of July is one of those official summer milestones. No matter what part of the country you’re from, there’s some uniformity to the celebrations. There are picnics! Firework displays! Patriotism—waving flags and full on American flag outfits.
To be honest, it’s not my favorite holiday. There’s a sense of machismo to it that doesn’t resonate with me or my lifestyle. I like a good display of pride, but I react to the loud booms of fireworks by cowering, not standing taller. Truth be told, I was hard pressed to reflect on Independence Day in a light that made sense for the Keshet blog and community. But when I sat down to really think about it, I was struck by the parallels between the Fourth of July and the recent progress made in LGBTQ equality. Both are centered on two hard to miss themes: freedom and community.
Which makes me wonder, can a case actually be made for July Fourth as an LGBTQ Jewish holiday? Let’s break it down.
Just two months ago we celebrated the 10 year anniversary of legal same-sex marriage in Massachusetts. It makes sense that Massachusetts, home to Paul Revere’s midnight ride, the (original) tea party of the Boston Harbor, and the shot heard around the world, would be the place for same sex marriage to originate.
And, the fight for our freedom has taken root and spread. Currently, 19 States—plus the District of Columbia—protect the rights of their citizens with legal, same-sex marriage. And here’s what those numbers mean:
- Nearly 44% of the U.S. population lives in a state with the freedom to marry for same-sex couples.
- Over 46% of the U.S. population lives in a state with either marriage or a broad legal status such as civil union or domestic partnership.
- Over 48% of the U.S. population lives in a state that provides some form of protections for gay couples.
We’re fighting for freedom and for progress, and this is seen not just in our government, but in synagogues across the country as Jewish individuals lead the charge for equality. There is still a long way to go, but the Jewish community has truly begun taking concrete steps towards inclusion. And with that change comes an independence from outdated ways of looking at gender or sexual orientation.
From block parties, to family gatherings, to the idea of country, the Fourth of July is about community. And community isn’t just about where you live; it’s about a sense of belonging. Community is central to the identity of many LGBTQ Jews. Community often comes in the form of chosen families, or from synagogues and institutions that support LGBTQ Jews. Community isn’t something that’s taken for granted by most LGBTQ Jews. Over the month of June we heard stories about LGBTQ pride from countless individuals, and with those stories came mentions of communities—both supportive and otherwise. Communities play a huge role in being comfortable with our identities. And, just as we celebrate the entirety of our American community on the Fourth of July, it’s important to celebrate the way our communities push us to be better people and comfort us when we struggle.
So, there you have it. My argument that July 4th isn’t just about blind patriotism—it’s also about appreciating our many varieties of freedom and the communities that make us strong.
When Adina wanted to come out to her family four years ago, Passover seder was the obvious opportunity. Adina grew up in a vibrant Jewish family with a rabbi and Jewish educator for parents, and so it wasn’t simply that everyone would be gathered together, but more so that seder presented an invitation to teach words of Torah to frame her coming out. For Adina, Passover represented some of Judaism’s most important principles, and the call to retell the story of our own liberation resonated with her experiences as a queer person. As she reflected, “it is our hope as queers that our voices will be heard by those we love; those we need to help us usher in a more just world. It is easy to make this plea and hope some divine being will hear us and solve it. It is easy to be part of a movement or campaign or political tag line. It is harder to look around our table and hold the hand of the one sitting next to us and cry out with that person. God only took us out of Egypt upon hearing our voice.”
We’ve asked Adina to share her Torah with all of us this year. We hope this family haggadah supplement will offer everyone gathered around your Seder table the opportunity to consider how you may pursue justice and liberation for LGBTQ people.
And you will answer and say before Adonai your God, “My father was a wandering Aramean. He descended to Egypt and resided there in small numbers. He became a nation–great, powerful and numerous. The Egyptians treated us badly. They persecuted us and put us under hard labor. We cried out to Adonai, the God of our ancestors. God heard our voice. God saw our persecution, our toil and our oppression. God took us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, with awesome power, signs and wonders. God brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land of milk and honey. Now I have brought the first fruits of this soil, which you, God, gave me.” (Deut. 26:5-10)
When we return to the story of Peasch (or Passover) year after year, our maggid (story), we return to a reminder of from where we have come. Our parent wandered. Our ancestor searched for a place to call home; out of which we emerged as a nation and a community. As Jews, we are blessed with a tradition that teaches us to stretch what it means to be family and on all days of the year to welcome the orphan, the widow, and the stranger. The lesson is especially salient on Pesach, as we open our doors and invite all who are hungry to come and eat. Food, however, may not be the only nourishment our bodies and souls are craving.
When we recall our slavery in Egypt, so too are we called to notice the oppression in our midst, the Egyptians of our day treat those who are LGBTQ harshly. Those in our LGBTQ community suffer from higher than average rates of abuse, homelessness, harassment, and violence. For some of us, just walking down the street poses a threat to safety that others never need consider. None of us are exempt from being in the role of Egyptian. We may believe we have just cause for persecuting those who are different, we may do so without intent to harm, and we may do so with our silence. Yet our story teaches that it is our responsibility to recognize oppression and cry out for justice. The Torah teaches us that as human beings we are created b’tzelem elohim–in the image of God. The divine spark is in each one of us, and we each have the power to hear those who cry out and witness their pain, to extend our hands and stretch out our arms to those who are still in a narrow place. Some years it might be us, or the people we love, who need those open arms and a strong hand.
Jewish people living in the United States today are in many ways living in a time of milk and honey. While we have our individual and collective struggles and hardships, as a people we are not under the threat our ancestors once lived with. We have a responsibility to use this land, this time and space that we are in, to make fruit from this soil. We honor our tradition and history by standing on the side of justice and fighting for space at the table for the LGBTQ people in our lives and in our communities. For all who are hungry will come and eat on this night with us: the stranger, the friend, and those whose hunger will be sated not by food, but by love, acceptance, justice, and equality in our homes, synagogues, and the world at large.
*Hebrew translates to “My ancestor was a wandering Aramean.”
Growing up, Passover was always my favorite holiday. Not only did Passover provide me with an eight day vacation from my Jewish day school, it also was an opportunity for my family to get together and celebrate the holiday. It probably didn’t hurt that we were also most likely the only family on Long Island that actually enjoyed eating matzah.
My first Passover in college and away from home was horrible. Although I was able to go home for the two seders, it became clear to me that what I truly loved about Passover was the opportunity for my entire family to be home together and take a break from our normal day-to-day schedule for eight days, yet I was spending the majority of the holiday at school. By Passover of my sophomore year, this issue was exacerbated by my new vegetarian diet, which left me hating Passover even more.
However, by my junior year, Passover started having a different meaning to me. That year, I began identifying as a humanistic Jew and started thinking about each Jewish holiday’s significance to me, as a queer humanistic Jew. Before, Passover had been important to me because it was an opportunity for me to spend time with my family for eight days. However, I had never really engaged in what Passover, the holiday and story, actually mean to me. Now when I think of Passover, I think about overcoming oppression. Because that’s ultimately what the Passover story comes down to: an oppressed and enslaved people overcoming obstacles and being led to freedom.
As a queer individual, this narrative especially resonated with me. We live in a world where queer people are oppressed: by a heteronormative society that erases our existence, by laws that dictate that we are lesser than our heterosexual peers, and—at times—even by ourselves and our own internalized homophobia. However, unlike the People of Israel in biblical times, we cannot wait for plagues or a super natural being to free us from our oppression; we must be our own saviors.
Since Passover of last year, we have made significant gains for LGBTQ Equality. In June of last year, the Supreme Court struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act and Prop 8 was finally put to rest. In addition, nine states welcomed marriage equality in 2013. While there are reasons to celebrate, there is still a lot more that needs to be done.
The People of Israel’s departure from Israel did not signify equality and freedom for all. Women were still less equal then men and slavery was still condoned by the Torah. Not everyone who was granted freedom when they left Israel received the same amount of freedom. As we gather to celebrate the story of Passover, it is important that we celebrate the successes of the last year. At the same time, however, it is important that we recognize who is benefiting the most from these successes and who still has the farthest to go. The transgender rights movement is still lagging significantly behind the LGB equality movement. The same summer that parts of DOMA were struck down, key parts of the Voting Rights Act were also struck down. And women, on top of many other obstacles, continue to earn significantly less than their male counterparts.
The fact of the matter is, all issues are queer issues. We cannot fight for queer equality without fighting for trans equality and racial equality. As long as females and people with disabilities are oppressed, so too will segments of the queer population be oppressed. As Passover comes and goes, let us pledge to not just fight for the issues that the mainstream LGBTQ movement has prioritized but for equality for all. In just the past year, we have managed to overcome and break down several oppressive institutions, but we cannot stop until all people, regardless of identity, are truly equal in this country.
A few weeks ago a recipe started making rounds on the Internet. Not just any recipe, but a recipe for hamantaschen with rainbows. I’m no baker, but I knew I needed to give these a shot. Truthfully, I’ve never really been that excited about hamantaschen. I stay silent when debates about the best of Jewish food turn to the cookie. Yet, I appreciate the symbolism and the history behind the pastry. These triangle shaped cookies represent the villain of the Purim story, Haman. I’m a little fuzzy on the details, but the way I remember the story it has something to do with Haman being pretty uncool towards the Jews, and Esther and Mordechai saving the day. Because of all of that, we eat pastries that resemble the tricornered hat Haman wore.
Well, if we’re going to be celebrating a holiday where someone saves the day by standing up and declaring their hidden identity, it seemed like celebrating with rainbows made sense. I’m an amateur in the kitchen, so I figured if I was going to do this, we could take this adventure together.
I knew Kitchen Tested’s recipe was the only one out there suggesting rainbows, but as a pretty basic baker, I thought I’d start someplace easier. I went with with JewishBoston claimed to be “The Easiest Hamentashen Recipe on the Internet.”
- 4 eggs
- 1 cup oil
- 1 1/4 cup sugar
- 2 teaspoons vanilla
- 3 teaspoons baking powder
- 5 1/2 to 6 cups flour
- 1-2 small jars baked good filling (apricot, prune, cherry, poppyseed, etc.)
Before we get too much further, I’m going to go on the record here—we will be using chocolate chips as filling. This isn’t up for debate. If there is an opportunity to bake with chocolate, in the Rozensky family, we take it.
Because we’re going to be making these rainbow style, you’ll also need food coloring. Gel-based food coloring is your best bet for making bright colors and not making the dough too sticky.
To make the dough, you’ll want to first mix together eggs, oil, sugar, and vanilla. I borrowed a friends standing mixer, which I recommend, if only for the fact that you feel very important using such a fancy kitchen implement. After your eggs, oil, sugar, and vanilla are properly mixed up- add the baking powder and flour.
Next, you’re going to separate the dough into six sections. While wearing rubber gloves, knead food coloring into each of the sections of dough.
I wore a Wonder Woman apron while baking, which I recommend if you’re feeling less than confident about your abilities. Getting the food coloring uniformly into the dough took the longest in the process. It was also the messiest part, since no matter what I did I seemed to contaminate the colors. I just stuck with my mantra (“This is just for fun. Rainbows are for fun.”) and I managed to make it through.
The next step was to roll out each individual section, and to stack them in a 9″ x 4″ pan. Midway through the baking process I realized I didn’t have a rolling pin, but managed to do just fine by substituting in a can of tomato soup.
After I created the amazing rainbow loaf, it was time to put the dough in the freezer for a half hour.
For the next step, you cut a narrow (1/8 inch thick) slice of dough. I completely own the fact that I was beyond amazed that the dough seemed to look the way it was supposed to look. To make your hammentaschen, you’ll want to use a cup or a circle cookie cutter to cut a circle in the middle of the dough.
Next up, you’ll put your choice of filling in the center of the circle, and fold the sides up into a triangle shape.
Bake the Hammentaschen for 15 minutes at 350 degrees, and you’ll end up with a fantastic rainbow way to celebrate Purim.
Let me be the first to wish you a Happy Purim from Keshet! If you’re in the Bay Area, be sure to check out the Gender Schmear: our Bay Area LGBTQ Purim party. And, if you find yourself celebrating Purim with a few rainbows, be sure to send us your photos!
This gift guide is specially tailored to lovers of rainbow pride, Judaism, and the lucky individuals who live the intersection of both. We’ve got everything from silly to serious. Take a look!
Hail your rainbow pride every time you walk through the door with this beautiful Metal and Glass Rainbow Mezuzah ($39.99).
The Purim Superhero ($7.16) is a children’s book about Purim that just happens to feature a two-dad family. We love how unremarkable that fact of little Nate’s life is. Oh, and it’s a really cute story involving an alien costume.
Sport your pride with this LGBT pendant, Rainbow Ray Star of David Necklace ($15.99). Makes a great gift.
Following an ancient tradition, Torah Queeries ($23.40) brings together some of the world’s leading rabbis, scholars, and writers to interpret the Torah through a queer lens. This incredibly rich collection unites the voices of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and straight-allied writers, including some of the most central figures in contemporary American Judaism.
Keep Your Wives Away from Them: Orthodox Women, Unorthodox Desires ($12.50) gives voice to genderqueer Jewish women tell the stories of their coming out or being closeted, living double lives or struggling to maintain an integrated “single life” in relationship to traditional Judaism.
A Queer and Pleasant Danger ($13.13) tells the true story of a nice Jewish boy who joins the Church of Scientology, and leaves 12 years later to become the lovely lady she is today, Kate Bornstein.
Milk ($6.79) is a biographical film based on the life of gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk–the first openly gay person elected to public office in California.
We hope these picks help you narrow down your gift search for yourself, your family, and your friends!
How Jewish is the Hebrew Calendar? When we use a Hebrew word to identify a period of time, we may believe that we are making a more authentically Jewish choice. However, like so many words and concepts in ancient Judaism, the name “Tammuz” typifies the syncretic past of our people, fused together from various traditions.
We learn in the Book of Ezekiel:
“And God brought me to the entrance at the Gate of the House of the Lord which was at the north; and there were there women sitting, bewailing the Tammuz.” (8:14)
Why were the women bewailing “the Tammuz”? They were weeping, at least in part, because “the Tammuz” is not only a Hebrew month, but also the name of a pagan deity revered by some Jews in Babylon. The Jewish people had once again gone astray, and would pay dearly for their spiritual infidelities. In Nissan, we celebrated our liberation with Passover, and now in Tammuz we come to understand the risks inherent in the freedom to choose.
According to Jewish Law it is the practice to refrain from getting married between Passover and Shavuot – until Lag B’Omer (Shulchan Aruch 493:1). It is recorded that this practice serves as a memorial for the students of Rabbi Akiva who perished during this period of time. Their deaths came to an end (or at least a break) on Lag B’Omer. But, why did the students of Rabbi Akiva die? And why would we mourn their death by refraining from getting married?
Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of disciples from Gabbata to Antipatris; and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect. The world remained desolate until Rabbi Akiva came to our Masters in the South and taught the Torah to them. These were Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yose, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua; and it was they who revived the Torah at that time. A Tanna taught: “All of them died between Passover and Shavuot.” (Yevamot 62b) Continue reading
[Below is the full text of the insert. You can also download a pdf version to bring to your seder table.]
Every year, Jews gather at seder tables around the world to remember, retell, and reconnect with the story of our collective redemption. Passover compels us to ask ourselves how we are moving out of Mitzrayim, the narrow straits of oppression and brokenness that still mar our world, and toward liberation in our lives today. As mothers, fathers, parents, and family members of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) Jews, we are inspired by our tradition’s story to strive for LGBTQ recognition, freedom, and acceptance.
Allies can have a powerful voice in that struggle, supporting LGBTQ people in their coming out process and helping others to understand the importance of justice, fairness, acceptance, and mutual respect for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. The role of allies is critical to the work of creating a Jewish community that is inclusive, safe, and supports all Jewish children, teens, and adults to be fully themselves.
At Passover, it is the family’s responsibility to retell the story, to inspire each new generation to accept the task of living out our values, of remembering that we were once strangers, and therein find an obligation to those on the margins of our own societies. As gay and straight parents and family members of LGBTQ children, we invite you to join us in considering our role in assuring LGBTQ liberation for generations to come.
The connection between the Passover story and LGBTQ liberation is easy. Too easy. A group of people suffer under oppressors for hundreds of years and, thanks to a charismatic leader and a little perseverance, they are delivered amid clap and thunder, free at last to live their own lives. And indeed the Passover story has served as a prototype for liberation narratives for ages, not just in an LGBTQ context. It’s a story of underdog triumph that we Americans love. Our culture has embraced this Biblical tale with an almost unprecedented tenacity, and Americans who haven’t the slightest clue what the “books of Moses” are can at least summarize the book of Exodus for you. And can anyone read the line, “Let my people go!” without hearing Paul Robeson’s rumbling baritone?
But we’ve got the story all wrong. I’ve been saying this for years, poo-pooing people’s feel-good glow of freedom during this season, but no one wants to listen to a curmudgeon during Pesach.