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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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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At Keshet we know how important it is to provide diverse resources for families. Last year we worked with author Elisabeth Kushner to create the first Jewish themed picture book featuring an LGBT family, The Purim Superhero. When we heard that S. Bear Bergman, Jewish educator, author, and storyteller, was creating an LGBTQ2S-themed book club, we knew we needed to learn more. Read on to get the scoop on the Flamingo Rampant Book Club, which features picture books for 4-8 year olds. Joining the book club means you’ll receive six books throughout the year. Bear is currently raising funding to support the project.
What was your inspiration for the Flamingo Rampant Book Club?
The truth is I was reading to Stanley, my four-year-old one night before bed. We had some new LGBTQ2S themed picture books, which my husband, who’s an expert on the topic, had ordered. These were out of print or from small publishers. Stanley asked if we could read the new books, and I said “sure, why not?” But every single one of them contained really difficult, extended descriptions of bullying. We read a couple, but eventually he looked at me and said, “I don’t want this anymore. I don’t like these bully stories.”
And all of a sudden I started thinking: “What are we sending our kids to bed with? What are the last images and stories that we’re offering them to carry into their dreams?”
The books we’d just read were fairly horrible–I mean, everything turned out all right in the end. But the descriptions of bullying we’re so substantial, they almost seemed like manuals for taunting, ostracization, and harassment. I’m a writer, and a lecturer; I do a lot of work around questions of gender and sexual orientation and I have for more than two decades. I am fortunate to be married to a guy who, among his many sterling personal qualities, is an expert on creating celebratory and inclusive classrooms for people of all genders and sexual orientations.
The books in the Flamingo Rampant Book Club include full stories of people of color written by people of color. Why was this important for you?
My family, which includes my chosen family, is fairly racially diverse and certainly diverse in terms of genders and sexual orientations. And my artistic community, ditto. We really wanted books that represented the world in which we actually live, and we also wanted to contribute positively to the experiences of families of color–especially LGBTQ2S families of color. At the moment, there are–as far as we know–only three or four books anywhere at all that feature lesbian or gay or bi or trans families that are anything other than white.
The industry average for representations of people of color in children’s books in 7%. To me, that’s a really shameful number. The prevailing wisdom within publishing directly mirrors the inequalities that already exist in our society–girls will read books about boys, but boys won’t read books about girls. Parents will buy books featuring white children or families for their Black, Indigenous, or Of-Color children, but white parents won’t buy books featuring Black, Indigenous, or Of-Color children or families for their white children. The result of all this is that the overwhelmingly majority of picture books center on white children; mostly boys.
So much of LGBTQ literature for kids focuses on stories of overcoming bullies and challenges centering on their (or their families) LGBTQ identity. The books in the Flamingo Rampant Book Club take a different approach–how has this shifted the narrative of the book club?
There are so many other things to talk about! That’s the thing that I find so bewildering. 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. Flamingo Rampant Book Club’s mandate is positive representations. If people really feel that they urgently require a book that is about bullying in order to bring some realism, there are plenty of books for them already.
If a family isn’t LGBTQ, is this the right book club for them?
Absolutely. This book club is a good fit for any family regardless of sexual orientation, gender, family size or style, race, ethnicity that wants their children to grow up with positive messages about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, two-spirit, queerer, or gender-independent people. That’s all that’s required. Whether your family knows LGBTQ2S people or not, these books all center around a story. So there’s plenty to hold the attention of a young person, and plenty of opportunity to open up conversations about issues of gender or sexual orientation without it seeming abstract, or like it’s coming out of nowhere. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, who does a lot of work and writing around parenting and spirituality and was an early supporter of Flamingo Rampant’s first project, told us that her favorite thing about those books was that they gave her a way to talk to her children about gender roles that was based on something they had just positively experienced together.
I also got the following email recently from a friend, who had just received it from their friend:
Do you remember the book you gave [our daughter]–The Adventures of Tulip, Birthday Wish Fairy about Transgender children? We had a friend visit who is trans and we read the book to [our daughter] so she could better understand who [our friend] is. [Our daughter] got very excited after I read the book to her, saying ” so [our friend] used to be a girl and now he is a boy” I said yes and then she said very happily: “so that means Fairies are real” That’s life with a four-year-old.
What has surprised you during this process?
Honestly, I have been surprised at how many people have marginalized this series as something that would only be of interest to LGBTQ2S parents and families. Of course, it’s lovely to have affirming books to show our children that represent our family and family like ours. But my kid sees positive images of families like ours every day-he lives in one! Think about the child who doesn’t get any specifically positive images of LGBTQ2S families. That kid is left with whatever filters through from media, and whatever kids say on the playground. I hope progressive, feminist parents will also recognize this book series a powerful tool for positive change in their families, schools, libraries and so on.
What’s next for you and for the Flamingo Rampant Book Club?
Well, the next 20 days will be devoted to getting enough people to sign-up that we can make this project happen. If 450 families don’t sign up for subscriptions, or if we don’t get the equivalent in funding, then there will be no books for anyone. So right now, I’m hustling to make sure we get the most media exposure that we can manage to make sure that the message reaches as far as I can get it to reach. After that, a nice nap. And after that, I’ll be doing some dates with the Jewish Book Council this year to various Jewish Book Festivals across the United States, continuing to perform and lecture at universities and festivals, trying to figure out the kindergarten drop off and pick up schedule, and trying to make some progress on my novel.
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My brother is gay and his amazing boyfriend, Risto, is the newest member of our family. I never presented Risto as anything other than Rob’s boyfriend to my daughter and she has never mentioned anything about two men loving each other and sharing the same bed when they visit.
My daughter is lucky to have amazing aunts and uncles who love her and spoil her constantly. There is no difference in her mind between having an aunt and uncle who are married and uncles who are in a relationship together.
Me: Remember, some kids don’t have a mommy and a daddy. Some have two mommies, two daddies ,or only one. Families are all different.
Daughter: Yeah mommy. That’s right.
Me: Even though Uncle Robbie Dobbie (to most people, that would be just Uncle Rob, but not in our family) and Risto don’t have kids, they love each other.
Daughter:Yeah. They do.
At my daughter’s birthday party, which was a family-only event, she was truly the center of attention. After the party, my brother and his boyfriend stayed with us overnight for a longer visit.
My daughter’s love for them is amazing. It is almost as if she knows their relationship is special and she wants to be a part of it. One minute she was hanging on Risto playing with him and his iPad and giggling with Uncle Robbie Dobbie the next minute.
She really understands that Uncle Robbie Dobbie and Risto “go together.” There is no difference in her eyes between them and her other aunts and uncles. That is a gift and I am grateful to be living in a time when relationships are simply relationships and love is simply love.
While we are Jewish and Risto is not, he attends family holidays with us and has enjoyed learning more about Judaism. I believe our family has welcomed even more by his inclusion in our holiday events. Who doesn’t like having 4 glasses of wine at Pesach (Passover) anyway?
What my daughter does not yet realize are the perks of having gay uncles (not being stereotypical here; they actually agree with these): they spoil her with princess supplies like no one else, my brother made her a mermaid birthday cake with a doll (Risto did the doll’s hair) and when she is a little older, Uncle Robbie Dobbie will be more than happy to play “Wonder Woman” with her, just as we did as children (unfortunately, I was “Wonder Girl” as my brother got to be “Wonder Woman”). My daughter is one lucky girl!
My daughter is growing up in such a different world than I grew up in. And while the world is much scarier now, it is also filled with such hope. People who are gay and lesbian can get married in many states and they are able to receive benefits. This is monumental and my daughter gets to be a part of it and witness it. I hope she will be witness to more barriers being broken down as she grows up.
Do you have an LGBTQ family member? Click here to learn more about the Keshet Family & Parent Connection! Join a community of parents across the country who are coming together for support, to hold events, and to advocate for change in the Jewish community.
This past month, we shared stories of LGBT and Jewish Pride.
We heard from Jordan, who reflected on how his LGBT identity influences his Jewish identity.
We heard from Val and Alexandra, two students who are proud of being exactly who they are.
We heard from Ailsa, who showed how finding a community gave her the strength to find herself.
We heard from parents who support their children and raise them with Jewish values.
We heard how as we celebrate, we must also keep fighting.
And as we heard these stories—and many more—we saw the community watching, listening, and learning. What happens when Pride ends? How can we keep the idea of full LGBT inclusion on the mind and in the hearts of the Jewish community now that June is over?
What will you do to keep Pride alive for 11 more months?
Pride is not automatic.
It is not thrust upon us
like responsibility on a new parent,
nor handed to us
on a silver platter.
Rather, it is found.
Bubbling in the depths of our soul.
It grows like the first buds of spring
hindered by the weather
but strong none the less
until it blooms into a full flower.
Why am I proud?
I was proud to be queer
when I first came out
and finally felt myself telling the truth
after a lifetime of lies
as if I had finally brought freedom to myself
instead of shying away
from the life I could live.
I was proud to be queer
when my younger brother came into my room
and said, “Alex, when did you know you weren’t straight”
and after a discussion on my bed
left by saying
“Well, it doesn’t matter”
“I don’t know yet if I’m straight or not.”
I was proud to be queer
when a friend messaged me on Facebook
and trusted me with their biggest secret
“I think I’m bi”
and gave me insight into their life
that no one else knew.
I was proud to be queer
when DOMA and Prop 8 were repealed
and I sat with my friends
and cheered for a victory
that was finally mine
A victory that mattered in my life
A victory not only for me
but for everyone.
But more than just queer
I’m proud to be Jewish
I’m proud to have a community
that welcome me in my entirety
that doesn’t care who I love as long as I love my culture.
I was proud to be a queer Jew
when we discussed homosexuality in a Torah studies class
and the entire class agreed
that the Torah is not an excuse to discriminate.
And I am proud to be a queer Jew.
I am proud of the life I live
I am proud of the voice I’ve been given
I am proud of the fear I have destroyed
And I am proud to be me
in the purest, truest form
I am proud to be me.
This year will mark the 9th year that I have been marching in the Cadillac Barbie Indy Pride Parade in Indianapolis. My son had been out a few years and I took the plunge by joining other members of my PFLAG chapter to march in the parade. I have to say that I was not prepared for what I would witness that morning.
But as I marched in Pride that first year, I learned that not all LGBT people are as fortunate as Matthew. Before the parade started, people began lining the sidewalks along the parade route. At the appointed time, my group began marching. One of the women walking with me was another Jewish mom. She was an “old-timer” and I was a novice.
We walked very slowly down the street behind our PFLAG banner. I was smiling and waving, and then I heard a roaring sound. As the crowd noticed our banner, they began cheering and shouting—”We love you PFLAG—thank you—thank you!” I looked around and realized that it was LGBT adults who were doing the yelling and cheering. I looked at the woman I was marching with and even though she was smiling, she had tears streaming down her face.
I knew that too many LGBT young people faced scorn and isolation from their parents, and were bullied by their classmates. But until that moment, I hadn’t understood that the LGBT adults who lined the sidewalks were still suffering from the pain of rejection from their parents—many of whom were not alive anymore. That pain never went away.
And then I realized that we—the supportive parents of LGBT children—represented the parents that these people never had.
I kept waving and smiling, but now I, too, had tears running down my face.
Annette Gross has continued to support her son and her community by founding the Indianapolis chapter of Keshet Parent & Family Connection program. The Keshet Parent and Family Connection is a diverse network of parents and family members of LGBTQ Jews across the country who are available to offer support to other parents dealing with any stage of their child’s coming out process. Anyone can join or start their own chapter – visit our website to see more!
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At the young age of 5, I started what would be a decade of denial. I should’ve known I was gay when I was in preschool, and I asked my mom if there was a country where I could marry my best friend, Rachel.
I should’ve known I was gay when I put it on my calendar every Monday for five years to “Pick A New Crush.” Every other girl in my class had a crush on a boy, so I would take a look around a classroom and pick the boy that wasn’t picking his nose. I didn’t have high standards.
I should’ve known I was gay when I watched the movie Stranger Than Fiction over and over again just for the one scene when Maggie Gyllenhaal danced in the bakery.
I should’ve known I was gay, and deep down I did know I was gay, but society told me I had to be something I’m not, and I obeyed.
I came out for the first time to one of my closest friends at a convention for my youth group, United Synagogue Youth (USY). She immediately accepted me but I was still slapping myself in the face when I saw a cute girl and constantly praying to G-d to please, Hashem, help me be “normal.”
I came out to a group of peers on April 4th, 2014 at the Keshet/Hazon LGBTQ & Ally Teen Shabbaton. I drove up from my New York suburb to Middle Of Nowhere, Connecticut (Falls Village) with my best friend from USY to the Isabella Freedman Center.
With shaking hands, I grabbed my suitcase and walked into a room with around 50 Jewish teens. Some draped rainbow flags over their shoulders and others chatted about the best challah recipe for Shabbat dinner. From learning about the hardships that other LGBT Jewish teens have endured to doing services on a mountain top, I felt the largest connection to Judaism I have ever experienced and my hatred for myself transformed into an overwhelming sense of pride. April 4th to 6th is the weekend that changed my life for the better.
Walking into my suburban public school the next day was a nightmare. I feared being taunted, judged, losing the friends I had just finally made.
But it was exactly the opposite.
My day started with a phone call from another Keshet Teen LGBTQ Shabbaton attendee, congratulating me and wishing me luck. I only met that teen a few months ago, but they are now not only a friend, but family. I got messages of support from people in school and people in my synagogue, people who live next door to me, and people who practice Judaism in Africa.
Especially this month, I’m so incredibly thankful for the Jewish community for teaching me that different is not just “ok,” but incredible.
We Jews are all over the place and the sense of family—whether the conversation is about coming out or what horseradish brand is on your seder plate—is so immense and welcoming. No matter what, I know that I am branded with the imprint of my grandmother’s matzo ball recipe and that my rainbow flag is proudly stained with grape juice from my Shabbat dinner.
According to education theorist Rudine Simms Bishop, fiction should serve as both a mirror and a window. That is, books should both reflect the realities of their readers’ lived experiences and allow readers to see inside the thoughts and feelings of others. In this spirit, here are some of my favorite contemporary young adult (YA) books—that is, books for teen readers—that feature LGBTQ and Jewish themes.
In “Princes” in David Levithan’s short story collection How They Met, and Other Stories (Knopf, 2008), 17-year-old Jon’s parents are hesitant about letting him invite the super-hot Graham to his brother Jeremy’s upcoming Bar Mitzvah. But Jeremy insists that everyone should be able to bring the date of their choice. Like all of David Levithan’s writing, this story is sweet, romantic, and a lot of fun.
In Believe by Sarah Aronson (Carolrhoda Lab/Lerner, 2013), teenage Janine, an aspiring fashion designer, survived a Jerusalem suicide bombing that killed both her parents. When a preacher from her past appears in her small Pennsylvania town, Janine and her lesbian aunt, a former officer in the Israeli army, are forced to redefine who they are and who they want to be.
Don’t forget to check out small independent presses! Grunge Gods and Graveyards by Kimberly G. Giarratano, coming in June 2014 from Red Adept, is the story of a girl and a ghost set against the backdrop of the 1996 music scene. While Lainey’s helping her ghostly crush Danny discover the identity of his murderer, she’s also coming to terms with her Jewish roots and her best friend’s unexpected love interest.
Starglass by Phoebe North (Simon & Schuster, 2013) takes place in a secular Jewish dystopia in outer space. (Yes, really.) Growing up on the spacecraft Asherah, Terra has never known anything other than the rigid rules of her society . . . until she stumbles on something that changes everything. Characters juggle love (gay and straight), friendship, and emerging adult responsibilities in a futuristic world where well-known Hebrew words and expressions have subtly shifted meanings. A sequel, Starbreak, will be released in July.
Numerous other YA books feature Jewish themes and minor characters who identify as LGBTQ, including Forgive Me Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick (Little, Brown, 2013), Intentions by Deborah Heiligman (Knopf, 2012), and the older If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson (Putnam, 1998).
If you’re a Jewish LGBTQ teenager, you can see your own priorities, challenges, and triumphs mirrored in these terrific YA books. If you’re not, they provide a window for learning about diverse identities and experiences.