Tag Archives: queer

Looking Forward and Looking Back: On Friendships and Transitions

When Jordyn & Becky first met, they were just starting college. Jordyn had dredlocks. Becky’s time was split between the Engineering Department and the Crew Team. Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake were still dating. And, Becky’s preferred pronouns were “she” and “her.” Now, 13 years later, all of those things have changed. But their friendship hasn’t. They sat down to talk about their friendship, life, and gender.

Jordyn: I think an important qualifier about our friendship is that it’s one of those fantastic ones where we can (and have) gone months without talking—but we can always pick it back up pretty seamlessly. And, while that’s great for the sake of knowing we’re always out there for each other, it does mean that we’ve missed big moments in each other’s lives. Like, for instance, when you started identifying as gender queer and trans.

 

Becky & Jordyn, Summer of 2013

Becky & Jordyn, Summer of 2013

Becky: That is an important thing about our relationship. And that’s true. When we first met I identified as a lesbian. It wasn’t really until I started Rabbinical School six years ago that I started to really explore ideas of gender. It was a gradual transition, starting with the way I had my haircut and what clothes I wore, eventually getting to the way I played around with and used pronouns.

Jordyn: I remember a few years ago being part of an email thread where someone said something—in reference to you—along the lines of “and he is going to…” I had to stop and check in. I wanted to be on the right page. Wondering whether or not I was going to support you, or accept you, or be there for you wasn’t the question, it was more making sure I wasn’t messing up with my language.

Becky: And language is really hard. We aren’t socialized to have control over our pronouns; having a conversation about language is a two-step process—first, discussing how we teach language and how we can chose the language we use, and second, taking that step to choose an appropriate pronoun.

Jordyn: And, I’ve messed it up—far more than once…which is really hard for me. It’s hard as an ally, it’s hard as your friend, and it’s hard because I know using the wrong pronoun is being disrespectful and unsupportive. But sometimes it’s that force of habit that makes things challenging.

Becky: We’ve definitely had conversations where you’ve started by saying “I don’t want to mess this up, but….” And, look, as long as you (or anyone) are learning and trying, that’s what I ask for. I don’t necessarily want to have a 15 minute conversation with someone about how they feel guilty each time they mess up my pronoun. Most importantly, we have to trust each other, and trust that our friendship is strong enough that one misused pronoun isn’t going to destroy it.

Jordyn: Still, I don’t want to put you in a position where you’re forced to constantly be a teacher.

Becky: But, I’m going to be a rabbi—being out there as a teacher is a role I’ve stepped into for myself. I don’t ever want to close the conversation about pronouns, or being queer. That being said, it can be exhausting.

Jordyn: Do you have advice, maybe with your rabbi hat on?

Becky: In thinking about being compassionate with someone about getting my pronouns correct, the biblical concept of “lifnei iver” comes to mind.

Jordyn: Meaning?

Becky: Leviticus 19:14 says: “You shall not curse a deaf person. You shall not place a stumbling block before a blind person, and you shall fear your God. I am the Lord.” As a person who identifies as trans and genderqueer and whose pronoun (intentionally) creates dissonance with my name, I try and remember that those whom I am encountering may be going through their own two-step process. First, they may be deaf towards the issues of gender and gender identity. I might be the first trans* person they meet. Rashi teaches that though the deaf person is specifically named, we can extend this verse to all those who are alive. I cannot curse someone because of their lack of knowledge. Similarly, withholding my pronoun or not correcting someone is putting a stumbling block in front of them. In the other direction, the person learning about gender or my preferred pronoun needs to acknowledge the stumbling blocks that exist in front of them. They need to know that they will stumble, and that unlike the blind person the Torah refers to, they need not be willfully blind.  

Interested in learning more? Check out Becky’s interview with Jennie Roffman, a board member at Congregation Kehillath Israel, reflecting on Joy Ladin’s Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders, or some of Keshet’s Trans* resources

Posted on March 19, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Hanukkah Gift Guide for Jewish Rainbow Pride

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!

You should also check out our Hanukkah Basics Shopping Guide“Shalom, Y’all!” Southern & Jewish Gift Guide, and our Hanukkah Gift Guide for your Favorite Camp Kid.

Hail your rainbow pride every time you walk through the door with this beautiful Metal and Glass Rainbow Mezuzah ($39.99).

newrainbowmez

Say it loud and say it proud in this I Love Jewish Girls T-Shirt ($29.50). Don’t worry, there’s an I Love Jewish Boys one, too!

ILOVEJEWISH

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.

keshetpurim

Sport your pride with this LGBT pendant, Rainbow Ray Star of David Necklace ($15.99). Makes a great gift.


PENDANTLIFE

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.

torahqueer

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.

orthdo

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.

queer

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.

MILKYMILK

We hope these picks help you narrow down your gift search for yourself, your family, and your friends!

Posted on November 13, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Rosh HaShanah: Sanctifying Our In-Betweens

Rabbi Reuben Zellman delivered this D’var Torah on Erev Rosh HaShanah in 2006 at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco. Seven years later, his words remain relevant and meaningful.

Gut yontef, L’shanah Tovah, Shabbat Shalom!

Before I begin, I want to offer my deepest thanks to all of my beloved Sha’ar Zahav community for the opportunity to be here with you this year. It is a privilege and a joy, and at this time of year I am especially grateful to God and to all of you.

Creative Common/Michael Fawcett

Creative Common/Michael Fawcett

We stand here tonight without knowing quite where we are. Or more precisely, we don’t know quite when we are. Shabbat has come in; the sun is just gone over the horizon. During this evening’s service light gives way to dark, and the old year and the new year meet. We cannot ever pinpoint the exact moment when the old year disappears forever. But we know that there is a time at sundown when it is no longer the past year and it is not yet the year to come. It is old and new, both and neither one, at the same time. For fleeting minutes on the evening of Rosh Hashanah, time and certainty are suspended, and we who have come to pray are lifted up into twilight and its mystery. Continue reading

Posted on September 3, 2013

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Parashat Balak: Something Queer in the Vineyards

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 Torah Queeries online collection, which was inspired by the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible. This week, Andrew Ramer considers the “queer” power of talking animals, and the blessings and curses they can bear.

Creative Common/muffinimal

Creative Commons/muffinimal

The American Heritage Dictionary says this of Queer:
1. Deviating from the expected or normal; strange; a queer situation.
2. Odd or unconventional, as in behavior; eccentric.
3. Of questionable character or nature, suspicious.

All of this could describe the talking she-ass who appears in this week’s parasha: unexpected, unconventional, of questionable nature. Parrots and myna birds can mimic human speech. Chimps and gorillas have been taught to sign in human languages. King Solomon was said to be able to understand the languages of the animals. But a talking she-ass is something else all together. Continue reading

Posted on June 15, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Five Things That Make Us Go Ummm

Is holding hands comfortable for LGBT at your institution?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?

Kid: Yeah!

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.

Posted on August 13, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Joy Ladin’s Door of Life

Joy Ladin's Door of LifeTalking 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.

Continue reading

Posted on August 1, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

A Queer Jewish Summer Reading List

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.

Posted on July 25, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

A Voice in the Desert: An Interview with Linda Sue Friedman

Linda Friedman

Linda Sue Friedman

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.

Posted on July 23, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Harvey Milk Hits (Off) Broadway: A Q&A with Lesléa Newman

Leslea Newman

Lesléa Newman. Photo © Mary Vazquez

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.

 

Posted on July 20, 2012

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Documenting Queer Jews: An Interview with Caryn Aviv

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 Jewslegalized 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.

Caryn Aviv

Caryn Aviv, courtesy of SecularJewishCulture.org

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!

Posted on July 16, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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