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!
A Queer Ancestor in the Butch-Trans Border War
As the month of Tammuz draws to a close, we have the opportunity to mark the yahrzeit of a queer ancestor, the rumored-to-be-lesbian, potentially-transgender, and definitely awesome Maid of Ludomir, otherwise known as Hannah Rachel.
Growing up, one of my favorite pastimes was poring over dusty literature and historical annals, searching for the slightest of homoerotic nods from the author, the vaguest of historical conjecture in the biographies of famous dead people. Rumors about Eleanor Roosevelt or Emily Dickinson simultaneously titillated and comforted me, easing the burden of isolation that is felt by some gay kids who turn to a voiceless past, seeking to anchor themselves in historical precedent and human community.
And, like others, I’ve also searched for traces of myself in my Jewish past. The sometimes threadbare language of the ancient world provides a number of opportunities. David and Jonathan’s love for one another turned a few cogs in my imagination. The mere hint of romance between Ruth and Naomi kept me awake during Shavuot. And in the Talmud I have glimpsed the pretty boy Yochanan in just one too many questionable bath scenes.
There’s always some danger, of course, in assigning posthumous identities—you risk presumptuousness and factual error, to mention nothing of anachronism. The curious case of the Maid of Ludomir illustrates both the delight and the risk inherent in reclaiming queer heroes of the past.
The Maid of Ludomir, whose real name was Hannah Rachel Verbermacher, broke from the ranks of routine anonymity assigned to other females in her Hasidic community in the early 1800s. While visiting her mother’s burial site, she fell into an open grave, or so the legend goes. During a lengthy convalescence in which she drifted in and out of consciousness, she appeared before the Heavenly Court, where she was given a new soul. Finally, she awoke from her trance-like state and immediately took on a new identity, that of a rebbe. Immediately breaking off an impending marriage, she donned tallis and tefillin (clear markers of masculine privilege in the Hasidic world) and began teaching. She was said to dress in male garb and it is reported that she recited Kaddish in public after her father’s death (a duty the Hasidim would reserve for male relatives).
Widely respected for her great learning, she eventually attracted her own circle of faithful Hasidim. She was known to preside over tischen (communal Shabbat meals headed by a rebbe) and to distribute shirayim (leftovers) to her eager devotees. When, later in life, she and a fellow mystic joined forces to hasten the arrival of the Messiah, Elijah himself intervened, fearful that the pair’s efforts would succeed in a world not quite ready.
Like too many people in history whose communities have deemed them queer in one way or another, the Maid of Ludomir does not have a happy ending. In addition to attracting the attention of learners, she also attracted attention from the patriarchal establishment, who were rankled by this bizarre aberration in their orderly world. A powerful and well-known rebbe took her to task, coercing her to forfeit her teaching role. She complied, turning in her tallis and tefillin, and also acquiescing to a series of doomed marriages, all unconsummated. She finally died in utter obscurity without any descendants to mourn her.
Recently she was dredged up from the depths of anonymity and is once again attracting talmidim (students). In 2004 a memorial stone was unveiled on the Mount of Olives to mark her supposed burial site. Some now observe her yahrzeit, which is the 22 of Tammuz, falling on July 12 of this year. Books have been written about her. Jewish and feminist blogs have buzzed about her.
The Maid of Ludomir attracts the especial attention of both butch lesbians and transmen, two sets of identities between which there is sometimes camaraderie, sometimes a creative tension, and sometimes bitterness, anger, rejection, and misunderstanding. She is claimed by the lesbian community, on the one hand, who can picture her tzitzit dangling beneath a man’s suit, and who smile in recognition: butch.
At the same time, she is claimed by the transmasculine community, who retell the rebbe’s story in male pronouns, recognizing the person whom the Hasidim of the 1800s could not: transman. A queer Jewish zine published a piece about Hannah Rachel, with handwritten black ink correcting the female pronouns, calling the reader’s attention to the supposed injustice we do when we use female pronouns for this figure. One naturally must wonder what Hannah Rachel would have thought about the correction, if it is in fact a correction.
The push and pull between butch and trans has been described by Jack/Judith Halberstam as a “border war.” The choice of words may seem drastic, but ask someone who stands in that liminal space and you may be surprised to find the term fits. The term, while conjuring the image of territorialism, also serves another purpose, as Halberstam explains, “A border war suggests that the border is at best slippery and permeable” (from Female Masculinity, 1998).
And many indeed have passed over that border and back again. Queer Jewish writer S. Bear Bergman, who once identified as butch and is now a self-described gender-jammer, has written about this blurry zigzag that we draw between butch and trans. Bear wryly purports to clarify the issue for us, “Butches are not beginner FTMs, except that sometimes they are, but it’s not a continuum except when it is” (from Butch is a Noun, 2006).
And, of course, there are others for whom the distinction between butch and trans makes no sense. Redwolf Painter, a Heyoka writer, asks plaintively, “Can I tear myself apart and put myself back together to name what part of me is butch and what part trans?” (from “Split Myself Apart,” 2011).
To be sure, the once-forgotten Maid of Ludomir has no voice with which to clarify her identity for us, nor would she even understand the identities we assign her, lacking the century of context which makes such conversation comprehensible. Ultimately, her legacy will elude the specifics. Both butch lesbians and transmen who are seeking a clear Jewish precedent will have to turn the page and search on. Or maybe it is my own desire to claim her that is speaking: I want a Jewish ancestor of my own, someone who has straddled uncomfortably the border, an arbitrary demarcation that is at once real and imaginary, between butch and trans.
One thing that is easily recognizable, however, is that the Maid of Ludomir was, without a doubt, queer, and that this is an appropriate time both in the year and in the arc of our history to reflect on the legacy of this curious ancestor, wherever our imaginations or needs may lead us in that contemplation.
On July 1st, Massachusetts moved one step closer to living up to its reputation as the birthplace of democracy – the Transgender Equal Rights Bill that passed in November 2011, went into effect!
Massachusetts joins 15 other states (plus Washington D.C. and 143 cities and counties) in adding non-discrimination laws for gender identity in the areas of employment, housing, K-12 public education, and credit. Hate crimes laws were also updated to include gender identity.
This is a major victory for equality.
However, the bill doesn’t extend protections in public accommodations—meaning that while it’s illegal to fire a hotel employee for being transgender, it’s not illegal to refuse service to a potential guest for the same reason. Keshet, along with other activists and committed state legislators, will continue to fight for full equal rights.
In Massachusetts, Keshet spearheaded the Jewish community presence on the Interfaith Coalition for Transgender Equality (ICTE), a multi-faith alliance to mobilize support for transgender rights legislation in Massachusetts. To the best of our knowledge, the ICTE is the only interfaith group in the country working for transgender inclusion and civil rights.
Almost 60 Jewish clergy, community leaders, and organizations signed a formal declaration of support for the civil rights bill. Below, you can read the powerful testimony of several rabbis in Massachusetts who spoke out on this issue.
Rabbi Joseph Berman
Massachusetts State House
Monday, April 4th 2011
I’m Rabbi Joseph Berman and I serve as the Rabbi of Temple B’nai Israel in Revere. I’m honored to be speaking with you here today.
A few months ago my congregation, Temple B’nai Israel, signed on to the Do Not Stand Idly By campaign launched by Keshet, one of the coalition partners. The campaign calls for an end to homophobia and transphobia in the Jewish community. In the words of Julian Lander, who grew up in Revere and Winthrop, runs our ritual committee, and has been out as a gay man in the congregation for many year: our synagogue took this step “in order to state publicly and explicitly what our community has already demonstrated with its actions: that we believe in the fundamental dignity and worth of each person.” Continue reading
So, let’s get started. Featuring bloggers from many different parts of the resplendent world of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer Jews and our straight allies, the Keshet blog will bring you a rich cross-section of ideas, narratives, arts and culture reviews, current events, and much more.
Here’s what you can expect:
• We’ll share a queer take on the weekly Torah portion in preparation for Shabbat, some taken from Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible, some from other authors.
• We’ll spotlight synagogues and other Jewish institutions with best practices for LGBT inclusion. We’ll offer DIY queer Jewish events to bring to your own community.
• We’ll bring you fresh commentaries on Jewish holidays, as well as LGBT community holidays. Expect new resources and special readings for Pride month, National Coming Out Day, Transgender Day of Awareness, and for important dates on the queer calendar.
• We’ll invite activists, authors, and musicians to sound-off on the latest queer Jewish happenings in pop culture and the arts.
• We’ll feature posts on coming out, being LGBT and Orthodox, parenting an LGBT child, trans issues in the Jewish world, being in an LGBT interfaith relationship, marriage equality, queer clergy—plus lots more!
Know someone who would be a fabulous blog interviewee? Found a kosher bakery that sells rainbow challah? Have an exclusive scoop on Rachel Berry’s bat mitzvah? Discovered a trans connection to the Dead Sea Scrolls? We’re all ears and can’t wait to share new content. Shoot us an email to email@example.com. And if you’re interested in writing a blog post yourself, let us know!