Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Joshua Lesser looks to the holiday of Rosh Hashanah to find a more expansive vision of Judaism.
“Folks, in a moment we are going to hit the birth canal,” the leader of our spelunking trip chuckled. I felt the air thin as the 20 of us, mostly strangers, gasped at his description. Up ahead in the cave was a narrow tunnel that would require us to get on our bellies and contort and wriggle our bodies to make it through to the other side. Already muddy, I did not relish this part of the trek. I imagined spiders lurking in the dark. Taking deep breaths, I proceeded in line on hands and knees. Our headlamps provided little help as we moved forward, feeling the sides narrow. I imagined being trapped and buried under the earth. I heard the grunts and whimpers of those around me, straining to make it through, as we all lost any remaining sense of grace or composure.
My brief time in that cave is exactly how I feel about Leviticus, particularly when the texts of Leviticus are used to constrict Judaism and to squeeze people out of faith communities. I am frequently asked to speak about Judaism and homosexuality and how to reconcile Leviticus, its prohibitions, and its declarations of abominations. Recently I came to an important realization: using Leviticus as the starting point or the end game to talk about Judaism and homosexuality is a trap. By doing so, we buy in to a fundamentalist view that there is a narrow path to God and only a limited few can get there. Using Leviticus this way is to agree that Judaism is a religion of narrow laws that do not always have meaning, and that we have to contort and squeeze ourselves to make it through, often leaving our sense of dignity behind. I reject this Judaism because it is faith described as a weapon. I reject this kind of Judaism because it says blind allegiance to law is more important than people, and thus, misses the entire point of being Jewish.
Those who see Jewish law as an end in and of itself, and not as a means to a wider purpose, would subject us to a labyrinth of narrow places, with only the tool of a dimly lit headlight to look for cracks and fissures in order to breathe. Searching for breathing room in the legal loopholes is a stimulating intellectual exercise, but too often it can remove meaning and even God’s presence from the text. But the greater trap for us is to get completely caught up in railing against and rebelliously rejecting this Jewish way of living. Doing this we allow our “religion” to be reduced to what we don’t believe in, what angers us and what seems unfair. This may keep us out of the labyrinth, but it is not nurturing and does not support spiritual growth. It is a negation of faith, not an affirmation of God’s presence in our lives.
In January 2012, Keshet’s Director of Special Projects, Gregg Drinkwater, addressed audiences at Limmud Colorado, a conference dedicated to advancing new and innovative ideas in the context of Jewish learning. Below is an excerpt of a story Gregg shared about an Orthodox rabbi who recently came out as an ally of LGBT Jews. Gregg reminds us that while loving our neighbors is more important than judging them for whom they love, it’s still a big deal to hear that articulated in the Orthodox world.
Shmuly Yanklowitz, a liberal Orthodox rabbi in Los Angeles, recently wrote a blog post in which he recounted “coming out” during an interfaith panel discussion on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues. During the panel, he “[came] out of the closet … as an Orthodox rabbi who is a proud ally with those of LGBT orientation,” as he put it.
Friends of mine shared and debated Rabbi Yanklowitz’s essay in emails and on Facebook. In one such Facebook discussion, friends commented how glad they were to see an Orthodox rabbi speaking publicly as an ally of the LGBT community. One friend wrote: “davening in a shul with an Orthodox rabbi like [Rabbi Shmuly] has made Orthodox Judaism possible for me.”
Others, though, asked why this was so important. A Modern Orthodox rabbi saying he’s an ally of LGBT people? No big deal. It’s 2012 and this rabbi is only one among many Modern Orthodox colleagues (and entire armies of Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist rabbis) known as supporters of inclusion of LGBT Jews. Some critics noted that his panel discussion and subsequent blog post took place in Los Angeles – not a place known as a hotbed of anti-gay sentiment. Where were the rabbis speaking out as LGBT allies in Monsey, one friend asked? Other critics noted that Rabbi Yanklowitz’s short essay didn’t tackle the halakha of homosexuality, or offer specifics about what being an ally meant to him.
The most striking comment came from a friend-of-a-friend who dismissed Rabbi Yanklowitz’s statement because, he argued, it’s already the case that anti-LGBT behavior is no longer tolerated in Modern Orthodox communities. And, he continued, most Modern Orthodox Jews today believe that Leviticus 19:18 trumps Leviticus 18:22.
Leviticus 18:22 famously forbids a man from “lying with a man as with a woman,” while 19:18 instructs each one of us to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” In his comments on Rabbi Yanklowitz’s blog post, this friend-of-a-friend seemed to be suggesting not only that “love your neighbor as yourself” is, as Rashi has noted, citing Rabbi Akiva, the “great principle of the Torah.” But he was also arguing that in today’s Modern Orthodox communities, it is understood that it is not our place to judge our LGBT brothers and sisters, and that we ought to show LGBT Jews the empathy and support we ourselves would expect in the face of our own struggles and challenges with Torah and halakha, whatever they may be.
As an advocate for inclusive communities, I have personally engaged with Jewish communities around LGBT issues all over the world. I’m not sure that I can agree with this well-meaning friend-of-a-friend’s expansive suggestion that we’ve moved beyond Leviticus 18:22. I hear regularly from Jews worldwide who are eagerly seeking the support of people like Rabbi Yanklowitz. LGBT Jews regularly share stories with Keshet of demeaning, hurtful, homophobic and transphobic comments from their rabbinic and communal leaders. Too many Orthodox rabbis still do give voice to anti-gay rhetoric, sometimes actively maligning LGBT people – more often passively refusing to speak out when hateful sentiments are shared in Jewish communities or the wider world. Too few members of Orthodox communities see or hear from community leaders like Rabbi Yanklowitz.
It is still noteworthy for an Orthodox rabbi to publicly and in print “come out” as an ally. Very few Orthodox rabbis have done so. Many Orthodox rabbis (and many more non-rabbinic Orthodox leaders) speak privately to LGBT folks as allies, or make statements in workshops or conference sessions, or are known in LGBT circles to be allies. But public statements that are “on the record” are indeed rare.
This published statement from Rabbi Yanklowitz might be seen by a struggling gay or transgender Orthodox teen, or a closeted Jewish adult, or the fearful parent of a lesbian daughter, and it might give them hope or comfort. Private conversations and “in-crowd” knowledge about who is and who isn’t an ally are great but they aren’t visible to the vast majority of LGBT Jews, their families and their friends – people who need the guidance, support and affirmation.
As much as we aspire to live in a world in which Leviticus 19:18 guides our every thought and every action, we aren’t there yet. Until then, yasher koach to Rabbi Yanklowitz!
In the course of our work to create and nurture welcoming, inclusive, Jewish communities, we have the privilege of working with incredibly diverse people, institutions, and communities. And yet, over the years of doing this work, we’ve come across a few different messages and responses time and time again. We’ve collected five common things we hear from well-intentioned communities trying to be welcoming, but who aren’t sure where or why to begin. If you see yourself in any of these, don’t fret! We’ve all been there, or somewhere similar, before. Below each common message is some of our thinking about how to deal with this situation in your community, and we’d love to hear from you if you have other ideas, or additional questions!
1. “We don’t have a need for this kind of training; we don’t have any gay or trans people in our community.”
There are LGBTQ people, our families, and our friends in Jewish communities of every denomination, affiliation, size, political persuasion, and in every state and province of North America. (Abroad, too!) Living in a world that repeatedly tells us to be less than our full selves, a world marred by homophobia and transphobia, many of us learn to search for the subtle clues and indicators that it is safe for us to come out. If we don’t see them, we may stay silent about who we are – or who our family members and loved ones are – or we may simply leave in search of another, safer community. Often, when communities are proactive about creating welcoming, inclusive safe environments for LGBTQ Jews and our allies, we show up in unexpected places! (Like next to you in services, at your neighbor’s house for a shiva call, in your son’s Hebrew High class, and on the bimah.)
2. “We already have a lesbian on staff/in the congregation/on a committee/who came to an event once – so we’re already welcoming!”
It can be easy to see one LGBTQ person joining your community, or taking on leadership, and mark it as a harbinger of successful inclusion work. And it’s probably true that you’re doing some things right! But it’s important not to tokenize the one or two out LGBTQ people in your community. Tokenization is when we expect people of a particular identity to be the only folks speaking about, raising issues related to, or advocating for the needs of people who share their identity. Queer people shouldn’t be the only people carrying the flag of LGBTQ inclusion in your community. Because sometimes that flag gets heavy, and they might need to set it down, or hand it off to someone else. It can be exhausting to constantly advocate for yourself and your needs, and if you’re doing all of that work on your own, it’s easy to burn out. So while it’s important to make sure that LGBTQ people are connected to, involved in, and informing the work your community is doing for LGBTQ inclusion, also be sure to check in and see if it’s what they want to be doing, and be diligent about working to recruit other allies who care about LGBTQ issues to help out, as well.
3. “It’s fine to be gay here, we just expect people not to make a big deal about it.”
Try substituting “Jewish” in for “gay” in the above sentence. “It’s fine to be Jewish here, we just expect people not to make a big deal about it.” Hearing that would probably rub most Jews – and hopefully most of our allies – the wrong way! Does that mean we can’t talk about Hanukkah? Does it mean we aren’t allowed to daven mincha if we can’t find a secluded, hidden space? Does that mean we shouldn’t be too loud, or serve too much food, or have a nose that is bigger than yours, or in any other way too closely jive with your painful, damaging stereotypes about who Jews are and what we do?
What we hear when we hear phrases like that is that the people saying them are less interested in actually seeing and understanding the complex shapes and diverse realities of our lives as LGBTQ people than they are in appearing inclusive and welcoming to a disinterested outsider. How should we judge what it means to “make a big deal about it”? Often this kind of language is used to police our behavior so as to limit the risk that we discomfit others in the community by being our full selves. This means that we have to second-guess our rights to an authentic gender presentation, public displays of affection, talking about our partners and families, naming our identities, or otherwise ever giving hint to the full realities of our lives. This equation often gives a great deal of weight to the comfort and ease of straight people in a community, and is largely missing a consideration of the inherent risks in living in a homophobic and heteronormative environment – namely pain, fear, rejection, isolation, shame, and both emotional and physical violence.
4. “Well, we don’t talk about sex here/with the kids at this age, so I don’t think this discussion would be appropriate.”
Queer people’s lives are about more than sex, and to talk about LGBQ* people doesn’t necessarily mean talking about sex at all. The perception that LGBQ people are always talking about sex when we talk about our identities is usually rooted in heteronormativity, and an inability to see LGBQ people as vibrantly complex human beings seeking meaningful connections and relationships in many of the same varied ways that straight people do.
Sometimes people ask: “Well then, how do you describe being gay to a nine year old?” Probably if you asked everyone at Keshet, you’d get a different answer, but here’s one possible conversation you could have:
Adult: You know how your parents really love each other, and how they really love you?
Adult: They probably like to show you and tell you that they love you, and that they love each other, all the time, right?
Kid: Yeah! Sometimes my dad puts me on his shoulders so I can touch the trees because I love trees and he loves me! And my ima kisses my knees when I fall down and sings me songs at night because she loves me! Sometimes they kiss each other and cook dinner for each other because they love each other.
Adult: That’s so great! Isn’t it awesome to show the people we love that we love them? You know, as you grow up, you’ll probably love a lot of people, which is really nice! Some people find one person that they fall in love with for the rest of their lives, which is pretty exciting for them.
Kid: That sounds neat.
Adult: Yeah, it is. Have you heard the word gay before? Sometimes boys fall in love with boys, and sometimes girls fall in love with girls and when that happens, they might call themselves gay. It’s a word that people use to describe themselves if they love people of the same gender. Also, sometimes people fall in love with people regardless of their gender. What’s most important is that people who love each other are kind and caring toward each other, like your parents are to each other and to you.
There’s lots of ways to talk about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer people without talking about sex, when we remember that our sexual orientation can describe the orientation of our mental, emotional, and physical attractions to people.
But also, LGBTQ people do have sex, and that’s a totally normal part of human sexuality. So when you are having conversations about sex (with adolescents, teens, or adults), it’s really important that LGBQ people’s experiences, needs, and sexual health is included and reflected. There are a lot of excellent resources and tools our there for LGBTQ comprehensive sex-education. Here are a few to start with:
- Sacred Choices, the Union for Reform Judaism’s sex-ed curriculum
- Planned Parenthood has a very large list of comprehensive sexual education curricula and resources, available here.
- Our Whole Lives sex-ed curriculum, developed by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ
5. “Well, we don’t let the boys wear the Esther costume on Purim because they’re just preschoolers, it would confuse the other students and we don’t want them to be bullied.”
Children begin to hear and absorb cultural messages about appropriate gender roles at a very young age, and they simultaneously express gender variance at a very young age. It can be easy to presume that other children will react the way many adults in our world react to seeing gender variance: with fear, hostility, ridicule, or violence. And yet, when we model a response to gender diversity that is safe, encouraging, and accepting, children follow suit.
One of the most powerful messages an adult can send to a young person is that they have the safety and security to take risks, including taking a risk with their gender. Gender play and exploration is a very natural and healthy part of a young child’s life and growth. While many children who experiment with gender at a young age never express a gender variant identity, for those children who eventually grow into a gender identity that is different from the sex they were assigned at birth, early messages of acceptance can be profoundly empowering
What would it take for your community to be safe enough for young people to take risks with their gender? What could happen if the next time Josh reaches for the Esther costume, instead of being told “remember Josh, boys dress up as Mordechai or King A,” Josh was instead told “remember Josh, it’s important to share. We only have one Esther costume, and Rachel, Zach, and Ariel all want to dress up as Esther too”?
*There are a lot of intersections in inclusion work between issues relating to sexual orientation and gender identity, but they aren’t identical. When it comes to sex, and assumptions about people based on whom we think they have sex with and how they have that sex, we’re often talking about gay, lesbian, bisexual, and queer people. Some lesbian, gay, bi, and queer people are also trans, but those are two distinct facets of their identities. In responding to this fear of talking about sex when we talk about gay people, we focused on issues of homophobia, and the stigmas facing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer people’s experiences with sex. So we’ve left off the T in our acronym for this response. Not because trans people don’t matter – but in fact the opposite, because it’s important not to conflate gender diversity with sexual orientation, or transphobia with homophobia. When we do that, trans people’s experiences get lost and collapsed into homophobia, and we all lose out.
Looking for a day school that offers materials listing “Parent 1/Parent 2” instead of “Mother/Father”?
Want to find a synagogue that offers all-gender or non-gendered bathrooms?
Seeking a JCC with LGBT events on the calendar?
Keshet’s new Equality Guide is a user-friendly database connecting LGBT Jews and their loved ones to inclusive institutions and clergy across the country. Already, over 700 synagogues, camps, JCCs, rabbis and cantors have listed themselves.
But we know there are more of you out there—just as we know that there are plenty of people already looking for an institution near them. So we invite you to come peruse, search, look around, and keep us in mind. Plus, please make sure that the inclusive institutions in your life get added to the Guide! Just click here to get started.
Plus, we’re always looking to add more information, making the guide a stronger and better resource all the time. So if you’re proud of the fact that your campus Hillel has out LGBT staff, if you’re a rabbi who would love to perform same-sex kiddushin, if your synagogue has programming for LGBT Jews—please let us know!
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.
Each week Jews read sections of the Torah, known as parshiyot, inspiring endless examination year after year. Each week we we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Dr. David Shneer, one of the editors of Torah Queeries, examines Parashat Devarim, which deals with the retelling of the Exodus story.
“Ale ha-devarim asher diber moshe el col yisrael be-ever hayarden…” (These are the words that Moses said to all of Israel on the other side of the Jordan).
In this week’s Torah portion the Israelites and the now very elderly Moses have reached the Jordan River, the physical and metaphorical boundary between before and after, between wandering in the desert and being a Jewish nation, between a generation marked by the scars of slavery, to one that only knows slavery as memory told through the stories of the community’s elders-what some people in the context of the Holocaust would call the “2nd generation.” “Devarim” or “words,” the portion that opens Deuteronomy, the last book of the Torah, has Moses recounting a history of the Jews’ experiences over the past 40 years, a history of miracles, no doubt, but also a history of struggle, failure, and disappointment.
Why dwell on such a depressing history? Moses tells “all of Israel” the story of their Exodus from Egypt, the gaining of the commandments and the many struggles of their sojourn in the desert. It is not a glorious history, but it is, nonetheless, the history of this people. In some ways this is Moses’ tsavuah, or “ethical will,” to his community. As the elder, he has the responsibility to tell the Israelites their own story.
The ability to recount a history shows that a community has reached maturity. It shows that a community has, in fact, become a community. It is the birth of a collective memory, often retold by elders as oral history, and these collective memories include the painful recollections of struggle and loss. But delineating the hardships of a nascent community is one of the key ways of defining a community. These words are spoken to “all of Israel” suggesting that as much as it might be a series of acts, rituals, places, and people that define the community, it is also a series of words, stories, and memories that unite the Jewish people. The word “devarim” also means “things” in modern Hebrew, reminding us that words can become tangible. In some ways, words can mark and define our world more concretely than inanimate objects.
Moses’ retelling of the relatively grim history of 40 years of wandering (get a GPS, Moses) is a way of showing that the Israelites have literally and metaphorically arrived. In his speech, Moses spends quite a bit of time on the geographic details of where “all of Israel” finds itself at the moment of telling and also where they have been. The portion opens, “These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel, on the other side of the Jordan, concerning the Wilderness, concerning the Aravah, opposite the Sea of Reeds, between Paran and Tophel, and Laban, and Hazerot, and Di-zahab; eleven days from Horeb, by way of Mount Seir to Kadesh-barnea.” It’s a pretty long list of obscure places and landmarks of the history of this community. They have a history, a history of struggle, failure and disappointment, but nonetheless a 40-year history rooted in time and place.
National and communal histories almost always have mythic origins and battles to be overcome, and they are peppered with important names, dates and places that create time and space for the community. Moses, the elder, is not just passing on Israelite history. He is, like elders in other communities, creating that history. This opening portion of Deuteronomy shows the importance of both historical text (the first four books of the Torah) and oral history (the fifth book) to communal identity. Text alone is not enough.
This desire to have communal histories, defined by both a key set of texts and stories, in other words, by both history and memory, has reshaped the way history is taught in the United States today. Since the 1960s, new kinds of histories, particular histories, have been added to the curricula at universities, and sometimes in high schools, junior highs and even elementary schools. We now have African American history, women’s history, queer history, and others. At my university, I teach a class called “Queer in America, Now and Then,” a history and sociology course that takes Moses’ challenge seriously and blends history and memory to create a narrative of a particular community.
Each of these histories needs both the texts and the memories of their respective communities to carve out particular communal identities. Some historians have criticized this trend in history, calling it the splintering of history, the destruction of a history common to all Americans. Some of my colleagues claim that “queer history” is too much about identity and not enough about history. “Do you have to be queer to take your class, David?” I have been asked on more than one occasion. Such questions force us to reflect on the purpose of telling history. Some historians might say it is simply “to know the facts,” but as we’ve seen, it can also be about creating community.
So then we can go back to Moses and ask why Moses was telling “all of Israel” the story of the desert. He suggests that the primary purpose of history and memory is the making of community, and that one needs both history and memory, both text and voice, to create collective memories of events, places and people.
In lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities, there are too few elders recounting our stories, too few elders creating those collective memories that help define a queer community. Perhaps it is because many of our elders are too quiet or too afraid to speak; more likely it is because “kol qvirim,” or “all of queerdom,” is not interested in hearing. Lucky for Moses that God didn’t give the Israelites a choice. They weren’t asked if they wanted to hear their own history or not. And so Deuteronomy, which comes from the Greek for “second telling” or “retelling,” reminds us that communities need oral history and memory before they can pass over the Jordan, even if those who pass on that history do not cross along with them.
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.
This summer, Chaplain Linda Sue Friedman was installed as President of the Jewish Federation of New Mexico — the first time an out lesbian will hold the position of Federation president. Friedman, who joined the New Mexico Jewish community in 1999, when she moved from Wisconsin, has received the woman of valor award from Hadassah for her outstanding contributions to Jewish community. She is a member of the Lion of Judah society of women and recently received the MOVE (Mayors Outstanding Volunteer Award) from the city of Albuquerque for her work with Jewish Family Service (JFS). Keshet chatted with Friedman about her decades of work with the Jewish community, how being out is — and isn’t — a big deal to the people she works with, and why it’s important to claim your stake.
I’m curious about how you came to this historic position — being the first out lesbian Federation president. Were you always out? Were you ever afraid that coming out would limit your work in the Jewish community?
I’ve been involved with the Jewish community for years and years. I used to be married to a man, and I was very active with my local Federation even before I got divorced. By the time I got involved with my partner — it’s our seventh anniversary soon! — it was a little difficult for some people who’d known me in the context of my marriage to adjust. It was actually my turn to be president, but some people said it would be too much for the community, having a lesbian Federation president.
When the position opened up again for this year I just reminded people, hey — it’s my turn. And everybody basically looked at each other and said, yeah, it is.
I think part of my easy acceptance has just been that I wear so many hats in the community — as a chaplain, working with Jewish Family Service of New Mexico, as an advocate for our hevra kadisha — that I’m not just identifiable by my gay hat.
But have you encountered barriers in your work as a gay Jew?
Honestly? No. So many people who I work with knew me before I came out, which probably helps.
What is the Federation like vis-à-vis inclusion?
We think we’re pretty diversity-open — and we’re working on engaging trans people right now. The community itself is pretty welcoming to trans folks — they’re a part of local congregations, and I’m always fascinated by how many trans folks are active and vocal in our hevra kadisha work. I was excited to hear about trans issues at a recent Jewish funerals conference, because it actually is a huge issue — making sure a hevra kadisha is designed around the gender you identify as.
Our JFS office makes a point to post queer-friendly signs, we’ve got other gay employees at Federation, and we give money to the local GLBT film festival.
Really, though, I think you can most see how our community operates in this: when I first came out, one of our major donors had a big problem with it. I mean, she was just so uncomfortable with me. The first thing she said when she saw me, the first time after I came out, was “I’m not gay!”
But you know what? She never stopped supporting Federation, even when it became clear that Federation still supported me. She’s remained a major donor to this day, except that now, she socializes with me and my partner — she just had us over for dinner with her family. That’s the kind of community we are.
As the first out lesbian to be the head of a Federation, you’re a role model for queer Jews everywhere. Who are your queer Jewish role models?
I know it’s important to have queer Jewish role models, and I’m touched you referred to me that way. But when I think about Jewish role models, the person I think of most is my Hebrew school teacher, from when I was just eight years old. She’s the person I remember teaching us about the Holocaust. We read children’s poetry from the Shoah, and that’s the first time I remember crying over literature. She was straight, but sometimes just having a human being who can be a role model for what you want to be in the world is a real gift.
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!