One of my family’s favorite Sarah Silverman routines plays on the Jewish habit of always claiming one of our own: “You know that self-hating, Jew for Jesus, Holocaust denier—Jewish!” So when I emailed an article about the recent Louisiana court decision against marriage equality to my son, a law student, I noted: “You know that anti-equality, out-of-step-with-the-times-judge?—Jewish!”
Why do we do this?
Why does it matter?
I think our instinct to do this is an expression of our emotional sense of connection, of family with other Jews. Our tradition names this in the value kol yisrael aravim zeh bazeh: all Israel is responsible for one another. This is often interpreted as meaning we should care for one another but of course it also means that we must not do harm to each other. This was one reason the Louisiana decision was so upsetting to me.
To be honest, I think another reason is because it can be easier to be angry and frustrated about the obvious injuries to LGBT Jews “out there” than to take the time, energy and risks to focus on the ones right here in my own community. I want to hold Judge Feldman accountable for his actions, not just as an American but as a Jew because what he did is contrary both to U.S. law (as evidenced in the other recent federal decisions) but basic Jewish values. I can and will write him a letter to express those opinons. But I don’t know Judge Feldman, I’m not Judge Feldman’s rabbi or part of his community, and that’s probably the most I can do.
On the other hand, there is a great deal to do in the Jewish places I do live—both physically and virtually—the people I know, the groups to which I belong, the organizations to which I give tzedakah. And this is the most painful reason I get so upset when LGBT Jews are injured and excluded by other Jews—that 5775 is approaching and we have so far to go. I feel heartbroken at the failure of Jewish communities that can raise and honor individuals with a great deal of Jewish information but apparently few Jewish values.
During this High Holy Day season we often discuss teshuvah, the process of returning through acknowledging and making amends for the harm we have done ourselves and others. Seldom do we hear about its counterpart, tochachah, “rebuke” or “reproof,” the obligation to tell someone who has harmed you about the damage they have done (for the origins of this practice see Lev. 19:17-18). The reason for this is twofold. First, the Torah, (as well as modern psychology) knows how bad it is for both the individual and the community if someone holds a grudge. Second, withholding the information denies the offender the opportunity to do teshuvah.
I know from personal experience that tochachah can be much harder than teshuvah. It can also place a difficult responsibility on the victim. I also know from personal experience that it can be like coming out. You can’t always predict the outcome but it does personalize the abstract—I am what LGBT looks like, I am the human being who was hurt by your actions.
So if, like me, you were upset by Judge Feldman’s decision as a Jew as well as an American, I hope you’ll think about tochachah on behalf of LGBTQ Jews this High Holy Day season, regardless of your orientation or identification.
It doesn’t have to be a federal court decision—as rabbinic Judaism so profoundly understands, the small, daily actions that make up our lives can have a world changing impact. Speak with your rabbi or other synagogue leaders about how homophobia and transphobia hurt you and the Jewish community and how you need to hear that message from the pulpit. Talk to educators about supplementary school and day school curricula and hiring policies. Check out whether the bathrooms and membership forms are non-gendered and, if not, do something to change them. And, of course, go to www.keshetonline.org for resources that can have a lasting and transformative impact throughout your community.
May the coming year be one of compassionate love and wholeness for all of us.
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This summer the UJA-Federation of New York hosted a Community Conversation on LGBTQ Engagement, a conference convened to discuss ideas of LGBTQ inclusion in Jewish institutions. Earlier, Keshet shared a prayer Rabbi Ellen Lippmann offered. We know you’ll appreciate the reflections of Jill Schreibman, a conference participant and long time LGBTQ advocate.
When my supervisor told me that UJA-Federation of New York was hosting a conference on LGBTQ engagement in the Jewish community, I was delighted that they were beginning a dialogue but couldn’t imagine how they would appeal to the vast range of experiences that would be represented in the room. Some participants had been working professionally in the LGBTQ community for decades while others were contemplating the topic for the first time. I came to the conference in the former category.
I was the founding director of Westchester County’s center for LGBTQ adolescents, a program of Westchester Jewish Community Services (WJCS) that opened in 1995. While I left that position many years ago, I stayed involved with the program as a member of the Advisory Board and was attending the conference in that capacity. I wasn’t sure what to expect.
When I arrived at the conference, which took place this summer, I was immediately struck by the number of participants. There must have been close to 200 people in the room. After casual conversations with several people, it was clear that UJA-Federation had convened a cross-section of Jewish New York, all with the common desire to begin the discussion of how to make the community more inclusive of its LGBTQ members.
The panels that opened up the conference spoke movingly from two different perspectives. The first group described their first-hand experiences within their Jewish communities, as LGBTQ individuals, and one parent of a gay son. The second panel was comprised of professionals, some of whom work at the cross-section of Jewish and LGBTQ circles. I appreciated the candor and courage of the first panel, but was truly riveted by the second.
I was fascinated when one of the panelists put the issue in a historical context and spoke about how New York’s Jewish and LGBTQ communities came together in the early years of the AIDS crisis and how LGBTQ inclusion is consistent with Jewish values. I was reminded that, while so much progress has been made in the past two years, we were at the conference on the shoulders of the courageous people who advocated and struggled for LGBTQ rights over many decades. It was a humbling, and I felt both the privilege to be living through these historic times and the responsibility to make a contribution.
Another panelist was the researcher whose team led the Jewish Community Study of New York. The data she presented was interesting but what was more thought-provoking to me was a point made by an audience member who identified as Orthodox. The study separated the data on the Orthodox community so that more accurate comparisons could be made between groups, and while the questioner said she understood this reasoning, she described her feelings around the risk of marginalizing the Orthodox community by segregating the data; certainly a feeling that many LGBTQ people can identify with. For me, that moment crystallized why such a conference was necessary: regardless of where one may fall on the political, spiritual or religious spectrum, the ability to truly understand what it feels like to be marginalized and the desire to be recognized and treated as equal is a profound place to begin a dialogue.
I was also moved by the discussions in the smaller breakout sessions around gender identity. I thought I was “sensitive” to many of the issues that a transgender person faces, until one of the presenters spoke of her experiences around her daughter’s bat mitzvah and how her family and community reacted to her new identity. Her courage and her willingness to be vulnerable about her experiences with a group of total strangers at the conference, was inspiring.
I look forward to continuing the work with an ever-expanding group of allies.
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Last week our Boston community sat down for a conversation with Ayala Katz, mother of one of the victims of the 2009 Tel Aviv LGBT youth center shooting. Jayne Guberman, a founding member and mentor for the Keshet Parent & Family Connection, moderated the conversation with Ayala about their shared experience parenting LGBTQ children, Ayala’s fierce LGBTQ rights activism in response to her son Nir’s tragic death, and the strength she and her family draw from one another.
I’m not one to think that spaces are inherently holy… as people who have davvened (prayed) in bars with me know full well. Synagogues are only as holy as their actions and impact prove them to be.
I’m a rabbi at this congregation, but I’m also an individual who was raised as a little brother to someone who grew up in a Jewish community in which he couldn’t share his identity until he left.
If only he could have found a time machine and flown back to future to the present, because of Keshet, he wouldn’t have had to play “catch up” on all the love that he lost from the Jewish community.
A teacher of mine (the great Jewish liturgist Dr. Larry Hoffman) taught me to think of Judaism not just as a “religion” or a tribe, not even just as a people, or a people – but as a conversation. Judaism is a Conversation.
I wanted to just open this Conversation with a word of Torah, from our Scripture – because I think it has everything to do with why we’re here. The word of Torah from this week’s portion pertains to memory.
It’s in this week’s parasha, parashat Ki Teitzei, we encounter a famous and disturbing mitzvah. Deuteronomy 25:17 reads: “Zachor eit asher asah l’cha Amaleik baderech b’tzeitchem mitzrayim…” “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt. How, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.”
Our parasha is saying to us: remember what happened to your people, at the very point at which you were most vulnerable! And when are we supposed to remember this horror?
Our text continues: “V’hayah b’haniach Adonai Elohecha l’cha mikol oy’vecha misaviv…” “When the Eternal your God grants you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Eternal is giving you as a hereditary portion you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!”
When are we to remember? When we are… home. Safe.
This space, Temple Israel, is as safe a space as any. And still it’s mandated that when you’re feeling safe, when you’re protected, THAT’S precisely when you are to remind yourself about your vulnerable past. Perhaps that’s because we know that if just “sit back and relax” and let the story of today happen without our voice and our past, then ignorance and hatred will start growing like weeds.
In Judaism, we don’t have a word for history. Today the Hebrew word for history: HISTORIA. (The first phrase I learned in my year of study in Jerusalem was “zeh lo big deal!”). History is what happened in the past and it remains in the past. It’s passive. In Judaism we have ZIKARON, memory. Memory is something entirely different. Memory is ACTIVE. What distinguishes memory from history is that it’s wedded to responsibility.
Memory is how we carry our story into the future. Memory enables us to hold and preserve a tragic past in our heart and then with our hands build a future that changes the story, that adds healing and wholeness to the narrative that will be read about us in ages to come.
Simply put, we are at our best when we are champions of memory.
I’d be remiss if I failed to mention that we – Temple Israel and Keshet – are currently in a state of mourning. Just yesterday we observed here a funeral of a beautiful human being named David Passer. A champion of Keshet, a leader at Temple Israel, and the Executive Director of Shir Tikvah in Weyland. David and his husband Marc made history – and memory – when they courageously became the first same-sex couple in our Commonwealth to join a Temple community as a family.
Many of us sat Shiva yesterday or today at Shir Tikveh. I lift this up because if it weren’t for David’s memory, the Conversation that is Judaism here in Boston and the Commonwealth might still be years behind where it is now. That’s because David was a champion of memory. Keshet is a big open tent filled with champions of memory; folks embracing memory to transform the world as it is into the world as it should be.
We are blessed to be having this Conversation – a conversation about equality and inclusion, about what love really looks like, a conversation about hope.
A special thanks to Temple Israel Boston for partnering with Keshet for the event and to our cosponsors: ADL New England, CJP – Greater Boston’s Jewish Federation, Congregation Kehillath Israel, Eshel, Family Equality Council, Gann Academy, GLAD (Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders), Greater Boston PFLAG, JCDS, Boston’s Jewish Community Day School, Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Boston, Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston, New Israel Fund, Prozdor & Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston.
Visit www.keshetonline.org/supportfamilies for more info about our program for parents and family of LGBTQ Jews.
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You’ll love this mother-daughter team who have joined the inclusion efforts at Sha’aray Shalom! Jodi Tolman and her daughter Chloe participated in Keshet’s Boston Leadership Summit, putting their commitment to LGBTQ inclusion work within the Jewish community into action. See what happens when Jodi (known as “mom”) and Chloe sat down to interview each other about the importance of LGBTQ equality. Read part 1 of their interview here!
Mom: Do you think it’s important for cisgender and straight people to get involved in LGBTQ justice work?
Chloe: It’s critically important. In order for there to be real change, we need everyone’s involvement, in some way or other. If it’s simply talking with family, friends, colleges, etc, about the issue – lasting, cultural change will require the vast majority of folks in our society to be part of the solution. Not everyone has to be warriors on the front lines. People can just be having conversations with their neighbors over their back fence.
Chloe: Do you think the work we’re doing, in our small and limited way, will have an impact?
Mom: I’m sure you’ve heard the Margaret Mead quote, but it’s the best way to answer your question. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Mom: Why did you want to get involved in LGBTQ inclusion work at Sha’aray Shalom?
Chloe: As VP of our GSA at school, I realized that the best way to foster social change is to penetrate every aspect of culture and society and work to bring bout enlightenment and awareness. Religion is a popular place for people to hide behind conservative ideology, but they shouldn’t. Most especially in the religious realm. I believe that mercy, justice, kindness, and freedom and dignity for all people are among the basic tenets, or should be, of a religious life.
Our shul can be much more demonstrably open and inclusive and I want it to be a place where everyone, including LGBTQIA+ people and their families can feel welcome and, most importantly, a sense of belonging. I would be proud to have helped that come about.
Chloe: What got you interested in working at the temple as a front for change?
Mom: For the reasons you just stated, but also because, as the center of our family’s spiritual life, it’s a logical place for me to want to focus my efforts in this cause. Also, I’m so excited about the work we’re doing with Keshet, and that at the end of the coming year, we will have implemented the Action Plan that we formulated at the Keshet Leadership Summit. At that time, CSS will have a place in Keshet’s fabulous Equality Guide which will enable LGBTQ folks on the South Shore who are searching for an open and inclusive shul to find us.
I’m also extremely excited about helping other religious institutions in the area who might want to open their organizations and create warm, welcoming and inclusive cultures, to follow our lead. Our work with Keshet will empower us to serve as a mentor congregation to others in our community, and it would be an enormous honor to support other groups and help them to do what we will have done.
Mom: Do you plan to carry on with the work you’ve been doing with the GSA at school and the task force at CSS when you get to college? What are your goals for your efforts at Sarah Lawrence?
Chloe: One of the reasons that Sarah Lawrence was my top choice of colleges, and that I am so thrilled to be going, is because they are ranked amongst the most LGBTQ-friendly campuses in the country. I think that much social change and progress is made on college campuses and that progress can be a springboard for change in society-at-large.
I will work with existing groups on campus and perhaps, if I see a need, form a new one. And just as importantly, I will lead by example by making certain, as I do now, that my actions, speech, opinions, deeds, etc, all demonstrate my belief that an equal and fair society for all people is the best kind to live in. It’s my way of working toward tikkun olam.
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You’ll love this mother-daughter team who have joined the inclusion efforts at Sha’aray Shalom! Jodi Tolman and her daughter Chloe participated in Keshet’s Boston Leadership Summit, putting their commitment to LGBTQ inclusion work within the Jewish community into action. See what happens when Jodi (known as “mom”) and Chloe sat down to interview each other about the importance of LGBTQ equality.
Mom: Chloe, what was the genesis of your interest in LGBTQ equality?
Chloe: I have always had a strong sense of fairness and have felt very keenly that people in this world should be treated equally and fairly. Unfair treatment of any individual or group has always raised my hackles, and I think that’s been due, in great part, to you and Dad teaching us about the profound importance of equality in our society and equal rights for all people. You taught us that it is our moral and human obligation to work for justice in our world.
As for my particular interest in LGBTQ rights, soon after we moved up here from New Jersey, my friend, Bridget (who has since legally changed their name to Quinn) came out in high school as trans and pansexual. I was not particularly well-versed in the issue at that time, and Quinn taught our friends and me a lot about LGBTQIA+ life, which very much sparked my interest in learning more and working for justice in the LGBTQIA+ community.
Chloe: How did you become interested in LGBTQ rights, Mom?
Jodi: I have had a passion for civil rights and social justice since I was a kid. In fact, when I was 11, I asked Meema if Jewish girls could become nuns! Without laughing (which I always appreciated her for!) she asked why I would want to become a nun. I answered that it seemed that they devoted their entire lives to helping others and that’s what I wanted to do with mine. She explained that I could live as selfless a life as I chose without becoming a nun and that was the beginning of my realization that I wanted to work in the world to help people. As I grew and matured, my interests were honed and my passion for social justice developed.
I had a very close gay friend in high school, who ended up dying of AIDS some years later, and nobody ever spoke about his being gay and what it must have been like for him. It was not talked about or even acknowledged back then, but I knew it had to be a painful and very difficult life for him. As I have watched LGBTQ rights come more and more into the fore throughout my life, it has become more and more important to me to fight for social justice in this community.
Mom: What are your thoughts about the current state in our country of LGBTQ equality and how things are progressing?
Chloe: I’m very happy to see that things are changing for the better, at least in our part of the country and world, but there is still a long, long way to go before we have true equality. We have to work hard to educate people and help “normalize” the LBGTQ community in the minds and experience of cisgender and straight people. I think if we keep pushing, we’ll get there.
Chloe: What do you think of the progress we’ve made?
Jodi: I was young in the 60’s but I know from my parents and family, and learning all about the civil rights movement, that it was an incredibly exciting time in the arena of social justice. I know that to watch real change be born back then, as prolonged and painful as the labor was, was extraordinary. LGBTQ rights and equality is the civil rights issue of our time, and to see the changes that are happening, and the speed with which they’re coming about, is one of the most exciting things I’ve witnessed in my lifetime. I absolutely agree, however, that there is still so much work to do and ground to cover, but we are making real, tangible progress. It’s thrilling.
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I spend my workdays gathering and leveraging financial resources for grassroots community organizers and artists working at the intersection of sexual orientation, gender identity, and racial and economic justice. As a fundraiser at Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice, I am a professional queer.
One of the biggest perks of my job is that I get to sit with people who have been supporting lesbian feminist organizing in the U.S. for twenty or thirty years and hear the stories they tell. The people I meet have often gone on incredible journeys of lost or compromised employment, complicated family relationships, losing and finding faith communities, geographic relocation, all while navigating feelings of being simultaneously privileged in some ways and oppressed in others.
Hearing stories from these community members has made me reflect a lot on mine. And, the donors often wrap up their tales with a request to know how I ended up sitting across from them. I don’t have just one story, or course, but every version I have ever found myself telling comes down to this: I am a queer activist because I am a Jew.
I was raised in an affluent community with a big Jewish population, high levels of education, and almost no Republicans. My synagogue prided itself–and still does–on providing shelter every night for eight homeless men, five nights a week, for most of the year. My Jewish community emphasized a set of social justice values: standing up for and standing with your neighbor who is oppressed, questioning authority, and supporting impoverished people in and around your community.
We were taught that we could not allow our current and unprecedented level of acceptance by wider American society to trump our understanding of what it means for a community to be powerless in the face of systemic oppression. We were taught that as Jews it was our job to fight for a more just and whole world.
That is the context into which I came out: not a community without homophobia, but one in which I knew that I would have access to a higher set of principles if and when incidents of homophobia happened.
A year after telling my family and friends that I “liked girls,” I went to a weekend advocacy training for teens in Washington, D.C., at the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism. The training included optional issue briefings on sexuality-based employment discrimination, hate crimes, and funding for AIDS research. That weekend, which ended with a trip to Capitol Hill to lobby for the issues we cared about at our legislators’ offices, was my first experience publicly arguing for LGBT rights. It happened not only in a Jewish context but because my Jewish community was committed to teaching its young people how to fight for the causes we cared about.
After I came out of the closet, I had gone looking for other LGBTQ people my age besides the ones at school, and when I found them, it turned my world upside-down.
The teens I met at the LGBT Community Center’s drop-in program had life experiences totally different from mine, and those differences broke over and over again along racial and economic lines. I met people who had been kicked out of their homes because they were gay, threatened with violence over their gender presentation, suspended from school when they defended themselves against homophobic violence, and harassed regularly by police. I became intensely aware of how my white privilege and wealthy background had not only shielded me from experiencing similar things, but from even knowing those things were possible.
Getting involved in a multiracial, cross-class, queer community had attuned me to types of injustice I had never before noticed, and growing up in a justice-minded Jewish community meant I could not just stand by and watch.
Six months after my trip to Washington D.C., I marched in the streets of Manhattan in memory of Matthew Shepard, Amadou Diallo, and Abner Louima, calling for an end to anti-gay hate crimes and to racist police violence–and the people I walked with were Jews I had met in D.C. and queer people I had met at the Center.
I was raised by a community less than two generations removed from violence at the hands of the state in the old country. My community still remembered facing discrimination at the hands of landlords, employers, and colleagues here in what was supposed to be the Goldene Medine (or golden county). Despite this history, my community remained committed to a notion that a more whole world was possible with enough human effort and determination.
My Jewish community taught me that we all have important work to do to bring justice, and that while the work might be difficult, it was neither impossible nor negotiable. I am deeply fortunate to have the cushions of economic security, a high-quality education, and an incredibly supportive family that are unavailable to many LGBTQ people. My Judaism teaches me that my access to those buffers is precisely what must compel me to fight for those who don’t have them.
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Sarah is barren, Rachel is barren, Rivka is barren. As a single man, I too am barren, unable to conceive and birth a child. I remember the exact moment I knew I wanted to parent, and that I wouldn’t wait for a partner to co-parent. I remember deciding that foster care would be my path to parenting, as at that time, adoption by openly gay people was outlawed by the state where I lived. And so I took the class and filled out the paperwork, and endured the grueling inspection of my home, my finances, and every other nook and cranny of my life.
And I was denied, because of a health issue and a history that included some legal complications.
I took the tour of the tunnels under the Kotel, where one can stand in that one spot closest to where the Holy of Holies stood. Usually this spot is reserved for women, so I knew it was full of the power of motherhood. And it was empty of people at that moment, so I prayed there too.
Like Sarah, like Rachel, like Rivka, and like Hannah, my prayer was answered.
It took resources, it took sacrifice, it took letters from and the support of my community, and it took good (legal) counsel, but I prevailed and was allowed to foster and then later, when that anti-gay law was changed, to adopt.
Last month I was again in Jerusalem, and with a friend who had never been, so we took the same tour through the tunnel under the Kotel. As we approached that same spot I was overcome with gratitude to G-d and love for my children, and my eyes filled with tears and I started to cry. A helpful guard thought that I was claustrophobic, and came to help me. How could I explain what I felt? But as we passed that spot, that one place in Judaism where women get a better location than the men, I could only thank G-d for all of the blessings in my life.
Tu B’av is a great day for love. For romantic love, for family love, and love for G-d and the community. I know that not everyone can (or should) parent. I know that having children is difficult for many, inside and outside the LGBT community. But for those that are able, and willing, the love that will enter your life is beyond measure–as is my gratitude to G-d.
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This week our friends at Kveller shared this painful story of a woman losing the support of her father after coming out as a lesbian. If you or a parent you know is struggling with a child coming out, we can help. Check out Keshet’s Parent & Family Connection here. We can match you up with a mentor, another parent who has been through the same situation, and can offer support and resources.
I got married earlier this year and my father was not at my wedding. Five years ago, when I came out to him as a lesbian, he told me that he still loved me but that he thought my relationship was wrong.
He said he would love for me to visit and stay at his house, but that my fiancé was not welcome, because he found it to be “too much” for him. When our daughter was born he didn’t acknowledge her. My brother reports that my father doesn’t think of her as his granddaughter, and believes that she isn’t really my daughter, anyway, because my wife was the one who carried her. He only acknowledges my older daughter from my previous (heterosexual) marriage.
A couple of years ago, around the holidays, my father left me a message asking what my older daughter would like as a present. I emailed him back, telling him what both of my daughters would like, and that I wasn’t going to send a message to my children that either of them were more or less my own. If he couldn’t send something for both of them, I wrote, don’t send anything for either of them. He never responded, but a present arrived in the mail for my older daughter only.
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Recently a friend of mine made a very astute point: “We’re from the Midwest. We don’t do conflict.”
His offhanded comment hit home with me, and I’ve found myself using my Midwestern roots as a justification for disengaging. A car cuts me off and starts yelling worrisome obscenities? I’m from the Midwest—I’ll just wave. Facebook sends a slew of disturbing and frightening images my way? I’ll be keeping my thoughts to myself.
Yesterday my bubble of self-protection was challenged when anti-Semitic graffiti was scrawled outside of a home in my own community. I’m lucky to live in one of the most accepting and friendly places in New England. I’m happy to call the town of Salem, Massachusetts home—and although we might be known for witches and Halloween-related tourist traps, it’s a town where one always feels safe.
And, that feeling of security is well earned. This summer Salem was awarded a perfect score on HRC’s Municipal Equality Index. Earlier this year Salem signed an anti-discrimination ordinance specifically aimed at protecting the rights of trans* individuals. Salem’s Mayor, Kim Driscoll, even went as far as to donate $5 to nAGLY (the North Shore Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Youth) for each phone call her office received objecting to a recent decision to end a contract with college displaying discriminatory practices.
It’s safe to say that it is very safe to be yourself in Salem.
Yesterday I was forced to question that safety. A friend shared a picture with me—anti-Semitic graffiti was found outside a home flying an Israeli flag. This was something I never thought I would see in my very safe, very friendly, very accepting neighborhood. Suddenly the fear of a rise in anti-Semitic actions and the conflict that seemed so far away was playing out in my back yard. Suddenly, I was very afraid.
I am lucky enough to have grown up in a time and place where anti-Semitism is a rarity, making this incident all the more difficult for me to process. This was a new fear for me, as well as a new sadness. Even though the graffiti was blocks away from my home, I felt unwelcome, singled out, and sad. For the first time in my safe community, I felt afraid. Now my familiar coping mechanism of avoiding conflict felt wholly inadequate; my well-being was challenged by one individual’s act of hatred. And I wasn’t sure what to do next.
In today’s highly pressurized world, our responses to actions of hatred become almost more important than the acts themselves. Realizing this, I’m forced to challenge myself and ask at what point do my Midwestern tendencies towards passivity need to be suppressed? How do I respond to the very real evils taking place around me? How do I speak up for myself, and for others, without escalating an unsafe situation? And how do we, as a society, learn to balance our reactions in a way where hatred and fear never win over kindness and morality?
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Last week on the blog, S. Bear Bergman of the Flamingo Rampant Book Club issued a call for children’s books that feature diverse LGBT families. He emphasized the need for books in which diversity itself isn’t the core issue of the plot. That is: “Let these people take trips! Let them have adventures, let them solve mysteries, let them celebrate things, let them worry about other things besides their identity–moving, new school, going to the dentist, any number of interesting childhood challenges that can be overcome.”
Well, Bear, you (and everyone else too!) are in luck: Your post comes just at the moment that author Dana Alison Levy introduces her debut novel for middle grade (ages 8-12) readers, The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher.
The family at the heart of The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher is made up of two dads, four adopted boys, and various pets. They’re Jewish and Christian and Hindu, white and African American and of Indian descent. They’re interested in soccer and ice hockey and turtles and imaginary friends. They have seriously mixed feelings about homework. And they’re constantly getting into a variety of hilarious scrapes.
Jill Ratzan caught up with Dana Alison Levy to ask her some questions about her book’s inclusion of same-sex parents, religious diversity, and zany humor.
The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher is being hailed as a contemporary take on the classic middle grade family story. What inspired you to modernize this familiar genre?
I grew up adoring novels that I now know are called “middle grade” but I thought of as just kids books. Books like Elizabeth Enright’s Melendy Quartet, Sydney Taylor’s All of a Kind Family series, and of course Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books were among my favorites. I also loved the ones that had a little magic thrown in, like Half Magic and Magic by the Lake by Edward Eager. (My sister and I called them “Cheerios books” because we’d reread them again and again, usually while eating Cheerios out of the box.)
When I thought about writing the Fletchers, I wanted that same kind of story, but set in the world we live in now. And the world we live in has many more diverse types of families than ever before. Still, the core of the story is the same as these books written dozens of years ago: a loving family and the shenanigans and trials they go through in a year.
The boys in The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher struggle with various “issues” like whether or not to try out for the school play, how to approach a grumpy neighbor, and how to repair a damaged friendship. The fact that they have two dads is never itself an issue, though. What made you decide to take this perspective?
That’s a good question, and a hard one to answer. I guess in part I believe that kids, if they’re lucky (and the Fletcher kids are really lucky), get to live in a bubble for a while. In the bubble, they don’t have to pay a lot of attention to the big issues of society, be it race, or socioeconomic inequality, or sexual orientation. Nobody gets to stay in the bubble for long, but for this book at least, I wanted the Fletcher kids to have the luxury of taking their life for granted.
I worry about this element of the story, honestly. I know that our world is not colorblind, nor blind to differences in sexual orientation. Most kids like the Fletchers will, at some point, experience some challenging and hurtful moments related to these issues. I would hate for kids or parents to feel that, just because the book doesn’t focus on those moments, it erases those challenges. But I wanted to avoid writing an “issue” book and instead let the more universal and mundane hurts and conflicts rise in importance.
One of my hopes in focusing the story on the everyday challenges in the Fletchers’ school year is to normalize and universalize the experiences of a family that might look different on the outside. Hopefully I was able to do that without ignoring what makes them unique.
One of the Fletcher dads was raised Jewish (“bar mitzvahed and everything!”), while the other is Episcopalian. They want to honor these traditions while making sure that their sons’ African American and Hindu birth backgrounds are also recognized. The family loves creating holiday celebrations that can “belong . . . to everyone,” like hosting elaborate Halloween parties and leaving a plate of latkes for Santa Claus. Again, why did you choose to bring this aspect of interfaith families to your story?
This part of the book came pretty close to my life. I was raised Jewish, though not religious, and my husband comes from a Catholic background. Both of us have strong ties to our traditions, but neither feel that the organized religion quite represents us. So the question becomes: how can we maintain traditions and a sense of spirituality without organized religion? Many of our friends also struggle to answer this question with their families, merging different religious traditions into something new.
Like the Fletchers, we believe in marrying rituals and traditions from all faiths, melding them and shaping them to become our own. When writing the book I wanted to include the Hindu festival of Holi, which takes place in early spring and involves a massive color fight, and I also wanted to include Sukkot, which I think the Fletchers would really get behind (An outdoor house for all meals? Of course!). But I just ran out of room!
The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher is full of anecdotes of everyday family zaniness, including a series of Thanksgiving cooking mishaps, an ice rink surprise, and a memorable incident involving a sandwich, a dripping-wet cat, and a pair of underwear. Do you have a favorite Fletcher family moment?
I confess, the scene of Zeus the cat falling into the bathtub then racing around the house dripping wet while being chased by Frog [the youngest of the boys], wearing only his underwear and a cape, was one of my favorites to write. I will not speak to whether a version of this story happened in my household, but leave it up to the readers to wonder.
I hear that a sequel is in the works! What can you tell us about it?
Yes!! I’m so very delighted that I get to spend more time with the Fletchers! I am working on the sequel now, and it will come out in the spring of 2016 (In theory at least. Publishing works in mysterious ways). While I won’t say too much, I will say that we pick up pretty much where this book ends, with the Fletchers heading out to their beloved Rock Island for summer vacation. Rock Island is a place where time stands still, except this year, the boys must tackle some unexpected changes — on the island and even in themselves.
Dana Alison Levy was raised by pirates but escaped at a young age and went on to earn a degree in aeronautics and puppetry. Actually, that’s not true—she just likes to make things up. That’s why she always wanted to write books. She was born and raised in New England and studied English literature before going to graduate school for business. While there is value in all learning, had she known she would end up writing for a living, she might not have struggled through all those statistics and finance classes. You can find Dana online at www.danaalisonlevy.com or on Twitter and Facebook.
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