THE BOOK OF LIFE - The New Queer Conscience
12:32AM Jun 12, 2021
Esther Safran Foer
black trans woman
[COLD OPEN] I was taught growing up that showing up for other Jewish people was part of the DNA of what it means to be Jewish, and that is what I want to impart to the queer community.
[MUSIC, INTRO] This is The Book of Life, a show about Jewish kidlit, mostly. I'm Heidi Rabinowitz. The New Queer Conscience was a 2021 Sydney Taylor notable book in the young adult category. It's a manifesto by young activist Adam Eli, that holds up k'lal yisrael, or Jewish solidarity, as a model for the queer community to emulate. I'm so pleased to bring you Adam's book in celebration of Pride month! For queer kidlit with identifiably Jewish characters, see the Diverse Jewish Kidlit section at BookofLifepodcast.com. Click on Read, and then on Diverse Jewish Kidlit and look for the tag LGBT. You'll find about 30 titles. If you know of any books I've missed, please drop me a line at BookofLifepodcast@gmail.com. Speaking of solidarity, it's always a good time to push back against ongoing antisemitism. Please click on the tab labeled Justice at BookofLifepodcast.com to find resources that will help you do just that. Now, let's hear from Adam!
Adam Eli Welcome to the book of life.
Thank you so much for having me and thank you for doing this podcast. I'm really thrilled to be here.
Excellent, I'm thrilled to have you. So your book, The New Queer Conscience, is an unusual kind of book; it's not a story, it's not a history, it's not a compilation of facts, exactly. It's more like a call to action, so can you explain that call?
That was beautifully phrased, I totally agree, it's definitely a call to action. Some people have been calling it a manifesto, I'm not totally sure if that fits, but basically the book opens with my personal story about being queer and Jewish, and using my knowledge of the queer community and the Jewish community to talk about the ways in which I think the queer community can move itself forward and see itself anew. So, the beginning is my personal story and then I list 10 direct calls to action, about how the queer community can change and become a more inclusive and loving place.
And how did you formulate this concept?
People always say, like, how did you write this book? And I have the world's worst answer. This book was not my idea. The idea of the book is that queer people anywhere, are responsible for queer people everywhere. And that idea comes from Jewish thought, particularly the phrase in the Talmud that says Kol Yisrael arevim zeh ba-zeh. And so, you know, I sort of made that my life's purpose. I was posting on Instagram a lot about this concept and queer people showing up for each other the way Jewish people should and are meant to show up for each other. And eventually I was approached by Penguin Random House who said we're doing this series of books called Pocket Change Collective about young activists with a message and we want you to talk about the idea of queer solidarity through a Jewish vantage. And once they said that it made total and complete sense. And that's what I did.
So you're talking about the parallel between Jews' responsibility for other Jews, and the queer community's responsibility for each other. What made you first see that parallel?
That's a great question and in the prologue of the book, the first two pages I talk about being an active queer person and being an active Jewish person, first when the Tree of Life synagogue shooting happened, and I watched you know, in awe. It was a Shabbos morning and I watched as the Jewish community mobilized into action by motzei Shabbos all the bills were paid for, there were people going down there to make food for the families, every single Jewish celebrity or person across the board had talked about it and had mentioned it, and it was just this great call to action that really felt like you know, when you mess with one of us you mess with all of us. And the most important thing about witnessing that reaction is, I wouldn't have expected any less. If you had asked me, What is the Jewish community's response going to be, I would have told you in nine hours from now after Shabbos I'm going to be standing in some park with like 400 other Jewish people in the midst of a vigil amidst a billion other things going on. So that was really empowering and then at the same time, two things were happening in the queer community. First we just found out that there had been another purge of queer people in Chechnya, government sanctioned violence against queer people, in case government sanctioned violence against a marginalized group rings any bells to the Jewish listeners, listening to this podcast; and the other is the epidemic of black trans women being murdered in the streets, and I talked about the timeline, and I saw within the queer community that there was no cohesive form of direct action the way there was in the Jewish community. My book posits that if we can make that idea of queer solidarity a fundamental aspect of what being queer is, then the community will be stronger for it. Because I was taught growing up by my parents, by my schools that showing up for other Jewish people was part of the DNA of what it means to be Jewish, and that is what I want to impart to the queer community.
So, in your book you list 10 steps that readers can take to make a difference, and that's a long list and I'm not going to make you go through all 10. But can you give us any highlights from that list?
Sure, one of the main things I talked about that comes out that is spread out over two to three steps is this idea that when it comes to the world we are living in, we are not living in a level playing field. All queers are born equal, and all Jews are born equal, but we are not treated like that within the world. The antisemitism we face in America is different than antisemitism in other parts of the world. It's different in how it manifests, it's different in its severity, etc. And the same thing goes with being queer and whether that talks about your disabled or differently abled bodies or that you're black or trans or gender identity, whatever it is, different queer people experience queerness differently and different Jewish people experienced Jewishness differently. And I posit that I think it's really really important that the folks with more privilege stand behind those that have less privilege. A great example would be in the Jewish community. We are often raising money in America, of course there's antisemitism in America, but we still raise money in America for Jewish communities in other countries where they are less hospitable, or, you know, non hospitable to Jewish people, and do our best to help them. And so that would be a perfect example, not to downplay what we face here, but that we do also, some of us have the privilege to help those around the world.
Thank you. Can you give a parallel with the queer community?
Yeah, absolutely. And so, for example, certain members of the queer community in America live with a certain type of privilege, for example, let's talk about New York City in 2020. If you are a gay white, cisgender man in New York City, chances are that a lot of things are going to be going your way. There's going to be a lot of media representation for you. Of course, it is always easier to get a job if you're not gay, but there are gonna be a lot of job opportunities open to you. If you are walking down the street holding a guy's hand, it's less likely that a police officer is going to come up and try to mess with you than say if you were a trans person or if you were a trans person of color or black trans woman. In New York City in 2020 there are less opportunities for housing, for insurance, for jobs, and just general safety on the subway, than there are for cis men.
Okay, good example. And so the specific call to action, in this case, is that those with privilege, need to be helpful to those with less privilege.
Exactly, So I sort of smush two steps together. So I think it's step number four, is recognize that the world is not equal, and that we're not on a level playing field, because a lot of people don't want to admit it. And something I found that was really helpful is people say, especially if you're queer, or especially if you're Jewish, you can say, but how do I have privilege when I've experienced X, Y or Z? And privilege isn't about what you've experienced, it's about what you haven't had to experience. So step four is acknowledge that the world is not an even playing field. And step five is, I think, I think step five, is that the people with more privilege or more opportunity rally behind those who have less, the way the Jewish community has been doing as far as I'm aware, for a very long time in certain ways.
I checked, it is step five.
All right, excellent. I watched your interview on I Weigh with Jameela Jamil...
Who was delightful, and you talked about the difficulties of your relationship with your Judaism in your youth. So can you tell us about that and about how you ended up embracing that part of your identity?
Definitely. So that is definitely in the book also. Growing up, by the time that I realized you know what was going on around me and I realized that I was gay, I realized that religion was playing a huge role and why there weren't more gay people around me and how I couldn't be out. And I hated being Jewish, that is what I said. And when I went to college I had a sort of religious moment. It was like one of the first nights in college and I said you know like, I am no longer Jewish, I will not celebrate Jewish holidays. I won't talk about Judaism. I will not wear a kippah, etc and I did that for like four or five years, and during that time I was getting comfortable as a gay person, and I realized maybe like five or six years later, it's a pretty long time, that the reasons that I liked being queer also apply to being Jewish. The idea of being part of something greater than yourself, being a part of a group of people that is traditionally persecuted that has thrived and thrived, people that make culture and art and just like a general sense of belonging, and I was able to use my relationship with my queerness to bridge my relationship with my Judaism, but it took me a really really long time.
So you talk about your comfort with your queerness helping you be more comfortable with your Judaism. Were you always comfortable with your queerness?
No, absolutely, absolutely not. I had your run of the mill coming out story. I went to an Orthodox high school, and grew up in a, in between Conservative and Orthodox setting.We went to an Orthodox shul but my family was really more Conservative and very very progressive and very loud about their support for queer people, even when I was growing up. But it was really hard for me and it took me a while to come to terms with that and become comfortable with that, and then once I was, that became to my complete and utter shock, the tool that brought me back to Judaism.
That's interesting that you say your family was already very supportive of the queer community. And yet, that didn't help you feel more comfortable yourself.
There were queer family members that we had and my parents made it very clear to us that they were okay with us marrying people of the same sex, so long as those people were Jewish. And so I knew that, but I didn't know about my friends. I didn't know about my school. When I came out I truly did not know how the people that I had known for the past 18 years were going to react. I knew that my family wasn't going to abandon me but otherwise, it was pretty much up in the air.And so I did not come out until Thanksgiving of my freshman year, until I felt comfortable enough that I'd made a new group of friends in case, everyone else that I knew dropped me, that I wouldn't be you know, alone in the world except for my immediate and sort of extended family, because I had these new friends in college; and I think it was quite strategic on my part.
Interesting. That makes sense. In Tablet Magazine, I read that your identity as an activist is kind of a family trait. So can you talk about your family's activism and how it affected you?
My mother started something called the Mosaic of Westchester, which is a group that seeks to enrich the Jewish community through queer inclusion. She was also an activist in the Soviet Jewry movement. And so when I first started doing my queer activism, the parallels were very strong. It was in the 70s, the Russian government sanctioning treating Jews as second class citizens. And here in 20... I think 2018, it was the Chechen government, which is a Russian proxy state, it is controlled entirely by Putin, also government sanctioning and rounding up queer people and either killing them or putting them in concentration camps or threatening them and beating them, and so I felt like the parallels there were pretty pretty strong
In the drawing on the cover of your book, you are pictured wearing a pink kippah.
And this is your actual kippah.
This is my actual kippah.
Yeah. So can you talk about the symbolism wrapped up in that?
First of all, thank you for asking; very few people ask. I do my best to wear my kippah when I'm out publicly doing something political or being queer and there are three reasons why. The first is that my kippah and the way that it's made is four pink triangles combined together, which is a symbol that I find really relevant to queerness and really relevant to Judaism. Because you know, the Jews in the concentration camps were marked with a yellow star, and queer people or "sexual deviants," were marked with a pink triangle. So it's a nod to that. The other reason is, in Hebrew school, I was taught that the kippah acts as a barrier between you and God or your higher power, and thus serves as a reminder to you that this isn't about you, it's about something greater than yourself, and that's what protesting and movement work is. And finally, is that in my day, I have seen a lot of people do a lot of not so nice things in the name of Judaism, wearing kippot, and I decided that I would like to be out there doing things that I thought was the right thing to do, wearing a kippah to sort of balance that out a little.
Tell us about Voices4.
Sure, Voices4 is an activist group that I started that is based on the principle of queer people anywhere are responsible for queer people everywhere, and it was deeply inspired by the Soviet Jewry movement, even down to some of the logistical things that we did. And Voices4 was... I didn't know it at the time, but it was basically me acting out the principles that you see in the book. And so the book is not where I like went to college and studied a bunch of stuff and wrote a thesis, it is not like that. It's, I was sort of like running around doing all this stuff based on this ideology and then a very talented editor named Rachel Sonis at Penguin Workshop, reached out to me and said I see what you're doing and I'd like you to write about it. And so the blueprint for Voices4 and the blueprint for the book are very similar.
It's Tikkun Olam Time.
So your whole book is about tikkun olam, but beyond following the advice in your book, what action would you like to call listeners to take to help heal the world?
First of all, I love this question. And earlier, I think at the end of last episode, I dedicated this episode to any Jew that has felt marginalized by the Jewish community: any Jew that has felt left out, whether that is a divorced Jew, a black Jew, a queer Jew, an unmarried Jew, a disabled Jew, a Jew who has a Muslim parent, or who is converted etc. I'd like you to think about someone who either told you they felt that way, or you think may have felt that way, and reach out to them in a very unassuming way maybe say Shabbat Shalom, something that's very clearly Jewish, and loving and welcoming.
Wonderful. Is there anything else you'd like to talk about that I haven't thought to ask you?
Yeah. When you write a book, it's a long time before it comes out, and something that I regret not putting in the book is I regret not talking more about Black Jews, and Jews of color and disabled Jews. And I talk in very broad terms about how the Jewish community shows up for each other and I even say "most of the time," in parentheses, (most of the time), and I wish that I'd expanded a little bit more on that, most of that time, because I really focused on queer solidarity in the book and I wish I'd spent a little more time questioning Jewish solidarity and pushing for that as well.
Okay, well I'm glad you got a chance to tell everyone.
Yeah, me too.
We'll scribble it in the back of the book. Adam Eli, thank you so much for speaking with me.
Thank you so much for having me and thank you so much for all of the work that you do. I think that your podcast is such an incredible resource and when I got the email to be on it I was so, so, so excited. And I want to say that if you are a educator or librarian, and you enjoyed this episode, please please feel free to reach out to me. I always want to speak to students. I've been doing a lot of that virtually, and I'm super interested, super interested in working with you. I'm incredibly, arguably offensively, easy to find. I'm just @AdamEli on Instagram, my email's right there.
Alright, thank you so much.
Thank YOU so much.
[MUSIC, DEDICATION] I'm Esther Safran Foer, author of I Want You to Know We're Still Here, a Post Holocaust Memoir. I'll be joining you soon on The Book of Life podcast. And I would like to dedicate the episode to the sparks that happen when grandparents and grandchildren share their stories.
And I'm Sadie Foer, granddaughter of Esther, and I would like to dedicate this episode to Ron, who was basically my grandfather, and passed away two days ago, who always had a story to tell, and hopefully I will be able to tell his story now.
[MUSIC, OUTRO] Don't be a stranger. Say hi to Heidi at 561-206-2473, or Bookoflifepodcast@gmail.com. Check out our Book of Life podcast Facebook page or our Facebook discussion group Jewish Kidlit Mavens. We are occasionally on Twitter too at @bookoflifepod. Want to read the books featured on the show? Buy them through Bookshop.org/shop/bookoflife, to support the podcast and independent bookstores at the same time. You can also help us out by becoming a monthly supporter through Patreon, or making a one time donation to our home library, the Feldman Children's Library at Congregation B'nai Israel of Boca Raton, Florida. You'll find links for all of that and more at BookofLifepodcast.com. Our background music is provided by the Freilachmakers Klezmer String Band. Thanks for listening, and happy reading.