Keshet is a national organization that works for LGBTQ equality in Jewish life. The organization equips Jewish leaders with tools to build LGBTQ-affirming communities, creates spaces for queer Jewish teens to feel valued and develop their own leadership skills, and mobilizes the Jewish community to fight for LGBTQ justice. Keshet’s blog spotlights this work, as well as the voices of LGBTQ Jews, our families, and allies.
As part of Keshet’s partnership with the Jewish Women’s Archive, we are raising up the profiles and voices of queer identified Jewish women. Over the next few months we will offer profiles from the Jewish Women’s Archive coupled with reflections from community members.
I first met Lesléa Newman as a sophomore at Brandeis University. As co-founder of a fledgling Jewish-LGBTQ club on campus I was in charge of hosting Lesléa Newman for our first big event where she read some of her stories, including the famous “A Letter to Harvey Milk.”
Even though I had not yet read any of Newman’s work, I was very excited to meet her because, like me, she is a Lesbian, Jewish, and a writer. I got a tingle of joy just sitting next her at a rushed dinner in the cafeteria. Even though I was too shy to really tell her that we shared three identities in common, it was nice to be in the room with someone on the same page.
Once I began to delve into Newman’s writing I immediately fell in love. Her deceptively simple stories center on the intersection of our shared identities: Jewish and LGBTQ.
READ: In Time for Mother’s Day, ‘Heather Has Two Mommies’ Author Celebrates Book’s 25th Birthday
What’s interesting about Newman’s stories and poetry is that the intersections of Jewish and LGBTQ identities are explored through relationships: between lovers or friends, parent to child, mentor to student. They bring characters and readers together with the goal of empathy. While not all the stories or poems have happy endings, they are imbued with warmth, humor, and in a sense, optimism. The same optimism I felt sitting next to Newman, with our shared triumvirate identity. She was succeeding at, what for me, felt like the most impossible of them all: being a writer. If she could do it, maybe I could too.
Read more about Lesléa Newman at JWA.org:
A proud lesbian feminist writer, Lesléa Newman made history in 1989 with her controversial children’s book, Heather Has Two Mommies. Heather was inspired by Newman’s friend, a lesbian mother, who complained that there were no children’s books with families that looked like hers. The book, originally a desktop publishing effort, sparked national controversy when it was included in the 1993 Rainbow Curriculum, a list of books that better reflected American children’s diverse experiences. Newman went on to write countless books for children, adolescents, and adults on homosexuality, Jewish identity, eating disorders, and AIDS, including the award–winning short story “A Letter to Harvey Milk.” She has won the Highlights for Children Fiction Writing Award and the James Baldwin Award for Cultural Achievement, among other honors, and from 2008–2010 was poet laureate of Northampton, Massachusetts. From 2005–2009 she taught at the Stonecoast MFA program at the University of Southern Maine. As of 2014 she is a faculty mentor at Spalding University’s brief residency MFA program.
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