Tag: Jewish

Jewish Book Program Sending 14,000 Families with Toddlers a Free Two-Mom Story

Jewish Book Program Sending 14,000 Families with Toddlers a Free

PJ Library, which sends free books to families raising Jewish kids, has included a board book with a two-mom family in this month’s shipment to families with 1-year-olds—marking a striking change from how the organization handled a book with a two-dad family just a few years ago.

Havdalah Sky

PJ Library is a program of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, and unaffiliated with any Jewish movement, although they partner with organizations around the Jewish world. Subscribers receive free books each month, chosen by PJ Library, based on the age of their children. In 2014, PJ Library offered Elizabeth Kushner’s picture book The Purim Superhero, which stars a boy getting ready for the Jewish holiday of Purim. He happens to have two dads. Unlike their other titles, which they choose and send automatically, they only sent The Purim Superhero to families that specifically requested it. “Like it or not, parents in our community have differing opinions about same-sex marriage and how or when it is discussed with children,” wrote Harold Grinspoon Foundation trustee Winnie Sandler Grinspoon at the time. “… We think many families would love this book. Yet we know that there are some parents who would want to decide for themselves.” Even at the time, however, the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative movements of Judaism all supported marriage equality; only the Orthodox movement didn’t. Many were outraged that the book was treated differently from all others. The good news, though? The demand for the book was overwhelming. PJ Library ran out of copies within 36 hours and had to print additional ones.

Fast forward to this month, when PJ Library simply included Havdalah Sky: A Poem for the End of Shabbat, a board book by Chris Barash and illustrated by Sarita Rich, in its shipments to all subscriber families with one-year-old children in the U.S. and Canada. A publicist working with them told me that over 14,000 families have received the book. On its blog post announcing the pick, PJ Library wrote, “Our committee also loved that this book depicts a family with two moms. PJ Library strives to include books that represent all our families, and Havdalah Sky is an excellent contribution to that mission.”

What a difference a few years (and a little outrage) makes. Additionally, PJ Library now says it is “actively soliciting manuscripts that show and celebrate” a variety of diverse Jewish and interfaith identities, including “LGBTQIA+ people and families.”

Havdalah Sky itself is a gentle rhyming board book, told from a child’s perspective, as she, her two moms, and a pair of grandparents observe Havdalah, the short ceremony that ends Shabbat each week. After the requisite three stars are seen in the sky, a candle is lit; the grandfather (Saba) blesses the wine; Mama holds a container of sweet-smelling spices; the grandmother (Savta) watches the candle flame. The other mother, Ima (Hebrew for “mother”) plays the guitar and the child claps along, then the ceremony ends as the grandparents extinguish the candle in the wine cup, marking the end of the holiest day of the week. To end the evening, the child and her moms watch out the window as the child bids good night to the Havdalah sky. On the cover, one of the moms has very pale skin; the other mom and the child are just a shade darker. In the book’s interior, the dim room in which Havdalah is observed makes everyone’s skin a very light tan.

I love that, as in The Purim Superhero, the fact that this family has same-sex parents is entirely incidental to this soothing tale. I also love that Havdalah Sky shows extended family and the sharing of tradition across the generations, and adds to the small number of LGBTQ-inclusive books that depict families of faith. (Not that I’m particularly observant myself, although I am Jewish; I just don’t like it when LGBTQ and faith identities are always placed in opposition.)

Unfortunately, the book isn’t (yet) available to non-PJ Library subscribers, but PJ Library does tend to offer its books individually through the major online bookstores, so stay tuned. In the meantime, though, you can watch it being read in this Facebook video.

Bonus fun fact: Families with 3-year-olds received Here is the World, by Lesléa Newman and illustrated by Susan Gal (Abrams), in their January PJ Library shipments. It’s a lovely book about the yearly cycle of Jewish holidays. While there’s no LGBTQ content in it, Newman is of course the author of several LGBTQ-inclusive picture books, including the famed Heather Has Two Mommies.

Second bonus fun fact: Havdalah Sky isn’t the first book to show a two-mom family celebrating Havdalah. The 1986 book Chag Sameach! (Happy Holiday!), by Patricia Schaffer, about the Jewish holidays, did so as well. The text doesn’t specify them as a couple, but professor and librarian Jamie Campbell Naidoo includes the title in his authoritative Rainbow Family Collections reference book—and they sure look like a couple to me. (Chag Sameach! feels dated now, though; I mention it only as a historic note.)

Want to sign up to receive PJ Library free books monthly? Do so here. Children 8 and under receive PJ Library’s picks; those 9 to 12 may select their own (from a few options) through the sister service PJ Our Way.

Extra bonus note: Today also marks the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat, the “New Year of the Trees” that is today often celebrated as a Jewish Arbor Day or Earth Day. For the holiday, PJ Library has launched a “Plant for Tomorrow” matching donation campaign to help plant tens of thousands of trees for future generations and help with critical reforest efforts. All proceeds will go to the National Forest Foundation (NFF). Each dollar contributed through PJ Library’s campaign through the end of January will help plant one native tree. PJ Library will match donations up to a total of $50,000, and NFF will plant trees where they are most needed.

Authors Collaborate Across Identities on Picture Book Celebrating Jewish Families of All Types

Authors Collaborate Across Identities on Picture Book Celebrating Jewish Families

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.

I Looked Into Your Eyes: A Poem for New Families

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. 

(As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)

Newfest 2020 Preview: Trans Teens, Jewish Funerals, and So Much More

Newfest 2020 Preview: Trans Teens, Jewish Funerals, and So Much

As the pandemic approaches its one-year mark, the film industry continues to adjust to this new world. Release dates have been pushed, drive-ins have made a moderate return, and film festivals have gone online. While I would do just about anything to sit in a movie theatre again — except risk pandemic safety — that last change isn’t all bad. Film festivals going online means that more people can watch a wider variety of lesser known films!

I was lucky enough to be on the screening committee for Newfest, New York’s largest LGBTQ+ film festival, this year and I am so excited about the final program. And if you live in the US you can watch the films! Even if you’re not in New York!

It’s a big slate with 120 films, panels, and virtual events from tomorrow, October 16th through October 27th. To help you choose what to check out, here are my top ten recommendations.

Bonus #1 – Shorts: Dream a Little Dream

I haven’t seen all of the shorts that are being screened and haven’t even seen all the shorts in this program BUT I did want to mention it, because it has two of my favorite shorts I watched. Maxwell Nalevansky’s Jazzberry and Xanthe Dobbie’s Elagabalus are both electrifying shots of queer creativity and they should not be missed.

Bonus #2 – No Hard Feelings (dir. Faraz Shariat)

This list doesn’t include films only about queer men, but this movie is very good and you should watch it!!

Bonus #3 – All Trans Brokeback Mountain Screenplay Table Read (prod. Gaby Dunn)

Conflict of interest: I am in this! But even if I wasn’t in this I’d still recommend it, because who wouldn’t want to watch Brian Michael Smith, Leo Sheng, Alexandra Grey, Jen Richards, and a bunch of other trans actors (yes, myself included) perform an all-trans version of Brokeback Mountain?? I mean, come on.

10. Ahead of the Curve (dir. Jen Rainin)

Since you’re here on Autostraddle dot com, there’s a good chance you’re someone who cares about the past and future of lesbian media. This documentary about Franco Stevens and the founding of Curve magazine (originally Deneuve) is a fascinating look at the last 30 years of lesbian media, representation, and culture. The film works as both an essential historical record and an exploration of where we are today — and where we might be tomorrow.

9. Rūrangi (dir. Max Currie)

Trans person returns to their small town post-transition has become something of a trope, but what elevates this New Zealand film is its sharp trans and queer perspective. Before activist Caz returns home, we get to see him in his community surrounded by a wide variety of other trans people. And once he arrives, conflict with his dad is accompanied by support from his queer woman friend from childhood and the rekindling of a past romance. This isn’t a fish out of water story centering the reactions of cishet people. This is Caz’s story and the story of the queer and trans people of various genders who fill his life with meaning.

8. Kelet (dir. Susani Mahadura)

This hour-long documentary about Kelet, a Somali trans woman living in Finland, is a gorgeous portrait of the Helsinki ballroom scene and this one captivating individual. The quiet moments between Kelet and her friend Lola are as arresting as the ball scenes and the film ends up being a testament to chosen family and the struggle to own your culture and yourself. There’s a sharp difference between Kelet’s experiences modeling in normative spaces and her intracommunity performances and Mahadura’s camera emphasizes these differences. Kelet is searching for where she belongs and it’s a pleasure to witness a part of that journey.

7. Shiva Baby (dir. Emma Seligman)

This is officially a comedy, but with its horror movie score, claustrophobic cinematography, and premise of running into your sugar daddy and your ex-girlfriend at a shiva, I think it’s safe to say this is the scariest movie of the festival. Rachel Sennott stars as Danielle, a 20-something on the precipice of college graduation who has no idea what to do with her life — career-wise or otherwise. Seligman does such an excellent job capturing a specific type of Jewish culture and the simmering anxiety it induces. The cast — that includes Dianna Agron! — is excellent, especially Sennott who excels equally in moments where she’s living a nightmare and in moments where she is the nightmare. It’s probably good that I had to watch this at home because I spent the whole movie shouting NO at the screen.

6. Forgotten Roads (dir. Nicol Ruiz Benavides)

This movie has EVERYTHING. A 70-something lesbian rediscovering her sexuality. Another 70-something lesbian who is married to a man but moonlights as a queer lounge singer. Gays, against all odds, learning how to drive. UFOs. Yes. UFOs. Benavides’ debut film is emotionally accessible and artistically esoteric and that combination makes for an incredible viewing experience. I have seen a lot of lesbian movies in my time and it’s always special when something not only surprises me with its quality but actually just surprises me?? There has truly never been a movie like this one. UFOs!!

5. Your Mother’s Comfort (dir. Adam Golub)

This documentary about Brazilian trans activist Indianara Siqueira is more than just a portrait of a person. Through Siquiera, Golub’s film captures all that she cares about and represents. The film shows the power of sex worker-led community action and mutual aid. It shows the impossibility and the necessity of marginalized people fighting for our lives. And, specifically, it shows the tumultuous recent years of Brazilian politics and the impact of Siqueira and Casa Nem, the house she runs for trans youth. There are so many moments of joy, so many moments of pain. Witnessing Siqueira’s persistence — and her doubts — is a gift right now especially. When I say this film is inspiring I don’t mean that in a surface level hopeful documentary sort of way. I mean it gets under your skin, buries itself deep within, and helps you to keep going another day. If you’re feeling lost in the weeks leading up to the US election, let this film be your comfort.

4. Welcome to the USA (dir. Assel Aushakimova)

This is the first Kazakh lesbian film I’ve seen and it’s always such a treat to get a window into a new country’s lesbian culture and cinema — especially when the film is this good. The title eludes not to the film’s setting, but to protagonist Aliya’s future destination. She has won the green card lottery and is beginning to say goodbye to a home she resents. Saltanat Nauruz is wonderful as Aliya. This is a subtle film and it’s effective largely because of her performance. The whole film feels culturally and personally specific even as it explores issues many queer people face such as obligation vs. desire. This isn’t a plot-heavy film, but what’s on screen lingers long after it ends.

3. BloodSisters: Leather, Dykes, and Sadomasochism (dir. Michelle Handelman)

Autostraddle is co-presenting this 25th anniversary screening of Michelle Handelman’s seminal documentary which means with the code AUTOSTRADDLE20 you get $2 off! So that should make the already enticing prospect of watching this documentary all the more enticing. This portrait of the San Francisco leather scene is graphic and tender. It’s a snapshot of a subculture in a specific time as well as a larger statement about BDSM and BDSM among dykes. It’s so exciting that this film is being rediscovered and will be available for you all to watch!

2. Tahara (dir. Olivia Peace)

There have been a lot of queer coming-of-age movies about a girl in love with her “straight” best friend, but few capture the depth of that experience like Tahara. With the backdrop of a classmate’s suicide and a deliciously awful object of desire, this movie becomes less about the angst of a teenager and more about the search for meaning in a meaningless world. Jess Zeidman’s script is hilarious and specific and director Olivia Peace makes bold choice after bold choice each more effective than the last. The film has a claustrophobic Instagram square aspect ratio, heightened animated sequences, and other sharp formal risks that all work to deepen the story. Cinematographer Tehillah De Castro’s work is phenomenal in moments both bold and subtle. Madeline Grey DeFreece carries the film with a grounded and charming performance and Rachel Sennott is once again a hilarious Jewish nightmare. This is a teen comedy, but it’s a teen comedy about grief, manipulation, and autonomy. It gave me a whiff of horrifying nostalgia before settling into something deeper, something more present. I think this is a really remarkable film!

1. TIE: Alice Júnior (dir. Gil Baroni)/Always Amber (dir. Hannah Reinikainen, Lia Hietala)

This is a tie because I love both of these films so deeply and because they’re both phenomenal coming-of-age portraits of trans teenagers entrenched in social media.

To explain all the reasons I love Alice Júnior would be to spoil one of its sweetest surprises. But what I will say is that occasionally I watch a movie or a TV show that changes what I dare to expect from trans media and this is one of those films. We simply do not get trans media this inventive and charming and queer and FUN. This is a trans girl coming-of-age romcom that doesn’t shy away from the realities — or the specificities — of being trans, but still manages to have the humor and charm of any cis fave. Anne Celestino Mota is incredible as Alice, a character who would fit right in with the rebel girls of the best late 90s/early 00s romcoms. She’s so funny and real and it’s such a thrill to see what a talented trans actor can do when given actual good writing. Every choice big and small is done so right and I’m used to it being done so wrong and I just love this movie so much I want to SCREAM. This is what we deserve! This is what we could have! This is what we DO have! FINALLY.

Always Amber is about a genderqueer teenager named Amber, but this isn’t a straight forward documentary about a trans teen. Reinikainen and Hietala follow Amber’s lead, telling the story through videos Amber records themself and focusing on what Amber cares about most. Because, yes, Amber is trans, but they’re also a teenager and what matters to them most is their friend drama with another trans teen named Sebastian or their romance with another trans teen named Olivera. Unsurprisingly, this group of trans teens have more interesting and complex things to say about gender than the vast majority of discussions we usually get to see in media. This documentary is about a person and it’s about a generation and it’s about a future that is yet to exist. It’s a political declaration that all people regardless of age should get to determine how they present and how they’re addressed and who they are. Amber gets to experience an adolescence most of us were denied. It’s a delight to spend time with them in their world. But in showing this near-fantasy it reveals an even greater one. Amber actually deserves more. Amber deserves a world where they don’t have to fight for themself or their community — where it’s just inevitable.

Movies can reflect our world. They can also imagine a better one. Alice Júnior does both. Always Amber does both. Two special films and the standouts of this year’s Newfest.

Join us and NewFest for the virtual screening of Bloodsisters: Leather, Dykes, and Sadomasochism, director Michelle Handelman’s enduring 1995 film that documents the queer outlaws of the San Francisco leather scene. Get a Festival Pass or tickets with a $2 discount at newfest.org/festival with the discount code AUTOSTRADDLE20. The New York LGBTQ Film Festival runs October 16-27 and features 120+ new films and events on demand. See you there!