Very often, faith and LGBTQ identities are seen in opposition. A new picture book, however, celebrates both the Jewish spiritual tradition and families of all types, including ones with same-sex and gender non-conforming parents and Jewish families of color. The two Jewish authors—one Black, in a different-sex relationship, and one White, in a same-sex one—shared with me a little about their motivation for writing it.
When Aviva Brown went looking for a book to give to friends who had just had babies, she discovered that her favorite, one she herself had been given, was out of print. She had already written and self-published a children’s book, Ezra’s Big Shabbat Question, to reflect her own Black Jewish family, “so I decided that if I couldn’t find what I wanted, I’d just write a book myself,” she told me via e-mail. “I thought about all the hope, joy, fear, and humility that raising children inspires and I wanted to put it into a book with a decidedly Jewish point of view.” She shared her idea with her friend Rivka Badik-Schultz, who relates that Brown told her, “We need an inclusive, Jewish baby book.”
“I agreed and she sent me her first rough draft,” Badik-Schultz said. “Several reimaginings and revisions later we had a draft we both loved.”
Brown added, “I’m a huge advocate for diversity in Jewish kidlit, and I knew that I wanted to show the many, many variations of Jewish families. My family has a mom, a dad, and four kids, but that isn’t every family. The modern Jewish family may have two parents of the same gender, or one parent, or gender non-conforming parents, and so many other variations. Rivka and I wanted to try to show at least some of those families on the page.”
“When it came to the illustrations, we were both completely on the same page,” Badik-Schultz affirmed. “We wanted to represent different family structures and the diversity of Jewish families. We wanted to show families with single parents, adopted children, and raising grandchildren. We wanted to show gender non-conforming parents, same-sex couples and interracial families. We wanted to show a spectrum of what it means to have a ‘new family.’” They succeeded—and the gender non-conforming parent even became the cover image.
She added, “I am a white, cis woman in a lesbian relationship. Our daughter is 9. As she has grown up we have strived to provide her with a diverse literary cast of characters. But—when she was a baby there were so few options. Mama, Mommy, and Me was really the only baby book we had that remotely represented our family. But at least we had one! I have many friends in the LGBTQ community and one of the complaints that I often hear is that baby books—even those aimed at our community—tend to assume that at least one parent is cis-female. Minority racial populations see even less of themselves represented in baby books. Getting to work with Aviva on ensuring that there was racial diversity as well as gender diversity was a special treat.”
Their book, I Looked Into Your Eyes: A Poem for New Families, is a loving poem from parent to child told as a series of comparisons between the parent and various figures from the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). “The first time I looked into your eyes, I laughed like Sarah,” it begins. The parent then wept like Hannah and sang like Miriam. “As I looked into your eyes,” it continues, “I wished for Abraham’s generosity, Moses’ humility, and Joshua’s courage while the city walls crumbled.” The poem then speaks of the peace, oneness, and love that the parent feels while looking into their child’s eyes.
On one page, a parent talks of feeling “the Divine Spirit,” but there is no mention of “G-d” per se (and thus no gendering of G-d), a light touch that feels like it leaves room for Jews with varying conceptions of the divine. While the text and biblical references would work for families of any Abrahamic tradition, a few pages include Jewish symbols, like Stars of David and a tzedakah box for charitable giving, that mark it as intended for (though not necessarily limited to) Jewish families.
The illustrations, by Catherine Sipoy, depict modern families doing family things—having a meal, reading a bedtime story, going to the doctor, looking at the stars—with insets showing the relevant biblical figures. The parents and children have a wide variety of skin and hair tones. One family is Black, another East Asian; others could be read as White or Latinx. Two parents wear turquoise jewelry and look to be Native American (and yes, there are Native American Jews). Another wears a sari and a bindi—and while the latter is best known as a Hindu symbol, Brown said that she “asked in many multicultural Jewish groups and was told that the bindi is as much a cultural symbol as a religious one, and that many Indian Jewish women wear them.” Badik-Schultz added that a friend of hers who is Jewish and married to an Indian man wears a bindi “when they are doing ceremonial activities” and encouraged the bindi in the picture. They’ve clearly done their homework to be both inclusive and accurate.
This sweet book shows that faith, tradition, and LGBTQ identities can live in harmony. It also offers a much-needed balm against the “ashkenormativity” of much American Jewish culture, which favors the experiences and traditions of those with Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jewish ancestry (and I say that as someone of 98 percent Ashkenazi descent myself). It would make a great Hanukkah gift (the holiday starts on December 10) or a baby gift at any time of year.
Looking for another inclusive book for and about new families? Try Wonderful You, by Lisa Graff (my review here) or try some of the growing number of LGBTQ-inclusive board books.
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