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Coming Out for Purim

The Purim Superhero, a new picture book for Jewish children, includes gay parents. It’s about time.

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(Illustration by Mike Byrne, ©Lerner Publishing Group)

Nate has a dilemma: Purim is coming, and the other boys in his Hebrew school class are all going to dress as superheroes, but Nate wants to be an alien. What to do? With the help of his Daddy and Abba, Nate figures out a solution that delights everyone. And his story, The Purim Superhero, draws connections between his problem, the message of the holiday, and the process of coming out.

“Abba?” Nate asked. “Do you ever just want to be like everybody else?”

Abba looked at Nate. “You know the Purim story,” Abba said. “Queen Esther saved the Jews because she didn’t hide who she was. She told King Ahashuerus she was Jewish, and that her people were in danger.

“Sometimes showing who you really are makes you stronger, even if you’re different from other people.”

Predictably, certain Jews are having conniptions about a children’s book that includes gay parents and themes. “Disgraceful,” wrote a commenter on the Times of Israel’s feature about the book. Another wrote, “You may as well have a ‘Jewish’ book about how cheeseburgers and lobster are super kosher.” A third posited, “Judgement [sic] is coming.”

However, the naysayers were surrounded by commenters expressing excitement about the book. And in the land of professional reviews, Kirkus applauded The Purim Superhero as “both timely and entirely satisfying.” Publishers Weekly called its cartoonish art “cheery” and said that the text “can be wordy and overly earnest (an ironic effect, since Purim is basically the Jewish Mardi Gras) … but never overplays the relationship of Nate’s own family to the story.”

The Purim Superhero

I loved the book. (And anyone who knows me or reads my reviews of children’s books knows I’m a tough room.) I think 4-year-olds and 7-year-olds, developmentally worlds apart, can appreciate The Purim Superhero on different levels. I like the way Nate’s friend Max answers every question with “yep”—kids love repetition. I expect kids will enjoy studying the pictures and identifying the different superhero costumes. (I laughed aloud at a wee Wolverine in the mesh window of a Purim carnival inflatable bouncy castle. Thank goodness he doesn’t have adamantium claws like the real Wolverine!) The fact that author Elisabeth Kushner is a former children’s librarian is evident in the read-aloud friendliness of the book. I appreciated the fact that the parents in the story are supportive and offer guidance but let Nate work through his dilemma himself rather than solving it for him. Helicopter parents of all sexual identities: Take note.

I shared the book with the monthly LGBTQ Parenting Group at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, a progressive shul in New York City that caters primarily to queer folks. The group began about three years ago as the shul’s demographics were changing and the number of kids increasing. The synagogue now has Tot Shabbat services and a Hebrew school, too.

As Rabbi Rachel Weiss read the book aloud to the group, I watched the parents. Several became teary-eyed. “It’s so rare to see the reflection of our family in a children’s book, let alone a Jewish one,” one said afterward. Sure, I heard various nitpicks—there are no kids of color, only the boys wear kippot, the girls in the story wear pink and purple—but overall the response was rapturous. “I love that it’s just presented so casually, as a matter of fact, that the kid has two dads,” one mom said. “It’s not what the story’s about, it just is.” Another parent told a story about being horrified by her son’s earlier response to the story of Purim: He’d said, “Esther should hide who she is if it makes her safer.” She observed that a book like The Purim Superhero is a powerful counterpoint to that perspective.

During the session, Weiss added that a superhero metaphor happens to be her favorite way to teach children about Purim. “Most superheroes were created by Jews,” she pointed out. “They’re about being outsiders and about power and powerlessness, the disconnect between how a person may look nebbish-y on the outside but be a hero on the inside. Kids instinctively understand these issues. I use the holiday to get them to think about what powers they already have that they could use to be better people.” Purim turns conventional superhero narratives upside down. “It’s a holiday of reversals—revelry and fasting, getting so drunk you can’t tell the difference between Mordecai and Haman,” Weiss said. “And Esther’s situation is the reverse of the usual superhero story. Her superhero is who she is inside, not on the glamorous outside.”

Very few children’s picture books, let alone Jewish ones, feature LGBT parents. There’s Patricia Polacco’s oft-banned In Our Mothers’ House, Leslea Newman’s board books Mommy, Mama and Me and Daddy, Papa and Me, Vanita Oelschlager’s A Tale of Two Daddies and A Tale of Two Mommies, Todd Parr’s The Family Book, Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell’s And Tango Makes Three (another perpetually banned book), and a few more of varying literary quality. It’s hard for LGBT parents not to see themselves reflected in the books they read to their kids. For that matter, single parents (of both genders and all orientations) rarely see themselves, either. The parents at CBST talked about their fondness for animal protagonists, whose gender isn’t an issue. I adore Susan Meyers’ Everywhere Babies, because there are a zillion permutations of family depicted, without editorializing; the focus is on the universal adorableness of babies.

The fact is, until The Purim Superhero, there were no LGBT-themed Jewish picture books. That emptiness in the market was what prompted Keshet, the organization that advocates for the full inclusion of LGBTQ Jews in the Jewish community, to sponsor a children’s-book-writing contest. Keshet partnered with the publisher Kar-Ben, which agreed to publish the winning manuscript if it met the company’s editorial standards. “We’d long been interested in publishing a book involving a same-sex Jewish family,” publisher Joanna Sussman told me. “With the Conservative and Reform movements now sanctioning same-sex marriage, and it becoming legal in more states as of the last election, it was clearly time. But we hadn’t found a really good, non-didactic story with a charming premise and engaging non-stereotypical characters.” Indeed, Kar-Ben felt that most of the Keshet contest entries fell short. “They were too earnest, too preachy, too aimed at strictly the same-sex community, which is not a broad enough market for us to be viable,” Sussman said. “But The Purim Superhero had appeal beyond same-sex families.”

Indeed, straight families seem to love the book. “I’ve been astonished at how moved many straight people are,” Keshet Executive Director Idit Klein told me. “There are a dozen or so book parties happening around the country, in Jewish bookstores and JCC’s and private homes; if we’d been asked we would have thought gay and lesbian couples would be doing all the hosting, but it’s pretty evenly split between straight couples with kids and gay couples. I think it really signifies a shift in the climate in the Jewish community. The book reflects the Jewish world they live in and want to raise their kids in, one they aspire to keep taking to a place of greater inclusion and equality.”

Still, PJ Library, the influential program that sends free books to Jewish children across the continent (it’s sent nearly 4 million books to nearly 176,000 families) declined to offer the book to its subscribers. When I asked PJ Library’s Book Selection Chair Chris Barash why the book wasn’t chosen, she replied in an email: “The criteria for a PJ Library book begins with a great story with Jewish content and appealing illustrations that children and families will want to read again and again. … Our Book Selection Committee looks at a number of factors so that the overall PJ line-up for each of our eight age groups is multi-dimensional, diverse and appealing to our target audience. … The fact that a book hasn’t been chosen for our line-up may just be a question of a good fit at a given time and doesn’t mean that it won’t appear on our list in the future.”

I pointed out that The Purim Superhero meets all of PJ Library’s criteria. (Especially “diverse”!) So, why was it turned down? “Many quality books meet the basic checklist of criteria but aren’t selected,” she responded in another email. “It’s our policy not to share the specific reasons that any considered book isn’t selected.” (If you’d like The Purim Superhero to be included in the future, you can let PJ Library know by writing to them here.)

Sussman remains optimistic that the book will find its audience. “This isn’t just a ‘do the right thing’ project for us,” she said. “We really think it’s marketable. And if it does well, we’ll publish more.”

***

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Habbgun says:

“Sure, I heard various nitpicks—there are no kids of color, only the boys wear kippot, the girls in the story wear pink and purple”
Oooh boy. One line tells you all you need to know. This isn’t a children’s book. Its a laundry list for pretentious adult liberalism masquerading as a work of creativity. It is obviously astroturfed, wrought for maximum marketing word of mouth among a clearly defined market segment.
Please don’t insult me by calling be against gays. I would not have a problem if Hashem didn’t. Hashem does.
HOLY MATRIMONY IS NOT SOMETHING I CAN GIVE. HOLINESS COMES FROM HASHEM. I CAN NEITHER DENY A HOLY MARRIAGE OR CREATE IT. THE SAME HOLDS TRUE FOR A CHILDREN’S BOOK AUTHOR. All powerful as kiddie lit authors are. It is beyond them too.

Am I the only one who thinks it’s funny that the artist made the gay dads a pirate and a cowboy, two of the stereotypically gay costumes.

marjorie ingall says:

It’s fun to stay at the Y-M-H-A!

Habbgun, your comments are incredibly boorish, narrow-minded, obnoxious, stupid, uncreative, useless and – unlike fundamentalist Christians – hate disguised as religion. As a Jewish man who came out at 16 and now in my early 50s, I no longer have tolerance or respect for your kind – smug ignorance will get you and your world no where. I pity you; if you have gay children or grandchildren, I truly pity them even more. You’re sad and mean-spirited, not even open to the wonders of the world around you.

Jacob Arnon says:

“Institute to shed light on Islamic anti-Semitism

Why one scholar insists we are ignoring rampant anti-Semitism, especially in the Muslim world, at our peril”

By Haviv Rettig Gur

http://www.timesofisrael.com/institute-to-shed-light-on-islamic-anti-semitism/?utm_source=The+Times+of+Israel+Daily+Edition&utm_campaign=b4e22ae09f-2013_01_27&utm_medium=email

Jacob Arnon says:

This isn’t the place to write about Gay sex, Habgun, but if you insist than you should know that hashem as you call him doesn’t have a problem with Gay women, only with gay man and only because they “waste seed.”

I bet if you try hard enough you can find a way to make gay sex kosher also. But you would first have to stop being a bigot. God or Hashem is not a bigot since he made Gay men along with non Gay men.

Got it?

oaklandj says:

Don’t worry. If he has even straight children or grandchildren, they are probably embarrassed by his dinosaur-age values.

ambetz says:

“Queen Esther saved the Jews because she didn’t hide who she was”

Actually the Megillah tells us that she did hide her identity… 2:10 “Esther had not revealed her nationality and family background, because Mordechai had forbidden her to do so.”

Esther doesn’t reveal who she is until much later, and only after having been rebuked by Mordechai in 4:13-14.

The book’s message could have been about overcoming ones fear, and doing the right thing by revealing your true self, just like Queen Esther. It would still be a good message for kids, and wouldn’t contradict the Megillah.

Elliot T. says:

This is an attempt to put a veneer of “normalcy” on what is inherently a grotesque, troubling and unhealthy situation for children. And then to intertwine a religious theme around this. It is something that couldn’t even have been imagined in a madhouse 100 years ago.

oaklandj says:

Women having the right to vote would not have been imagined in a madhouse 100 years ago. Do you think women’s suffrage was a mistake? Wait…not sure I want to hear your answer to that question.

herbcaen says:

Perhaps we could have a revised Megillah about King Ahashveros trading in Vashti for Haman as a lover

marjorie ingall says:

Uh, in the beginning of the narrative she’s not “out” as a Jew. The will-she-or-won’t she drama is a big part of why the Purim story is so successful as a narrative. (Of course, a beauty contest, bad guy suggesting a reward to the King he THINKS is for himself but turns out to be for his nemesis, massive banquet-related-suspense and massive bad-guy-comeuppance don’t hurt either.) I’m confused — you don’t think Esther saves her people by revealing her true identity to the King? It’s kinda right there in the text (as even you say, tho don’t quote).

marjorie ingall says:

That hadn’t occurred to me…but it sounds like you’ve given it a lot of thought.

Habbgun says:

Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, polarize it. That is the Alinsky way of using mob tactics and of course you never address the issue the underlying issues. Everyone who thinks this book is a good idea in these comments yells bigot but never attempts to honestly address the religious questions involved.

Jacob Arnon had an idiotic response. Yes Hashem creates but he also distinguishes. He made pigs, flies and salamanders but you don’t eat them. Not Kosher. He created Shabbos as a day of rest but you can physically work (though working is not kosher), even marriage between a man and a woman has its rules (heard of Mikvahs anyone?). He created discernment and the ability to choose. If you have an argument shout down Hashem if you can. Sorry but Alinsky tactics don’t work with him even if it is all you have.

By the way Mr. Morin. Fundamentalist Christians have nothing to do with Jewish religious practice. You only brought them up because Progressives have checklists which also tell them who it is permissible to hate so you checked that box off. Islam has a lot to say on the matter and I hear they are much more aggressive as well but you made no mention of that. Either because Progressives hate Christians but not Islamists or because Islamists are more dangerous to speak against or for both reasons which would be truly pathetic. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and its because of reason number one. Get out more, meet different people. I’ve met fundamentalist Christians. They are often pretty good people.

ambetz says:

I agree with you. Esther saves her people by revealing her identity. However, the quote from the book says that “she didn’t hide who she was”. By saying this, the author removes the whole “will-she-or-won’t she drama” from the children’s book. As you point out, this is a key theme in the Megillah. My point was that there’s no need for the author not to be true to the original text in order to deliver the message.

Elliot T. says:

You are creating a straw man argument in lieu of having anything rational to say. Suffrage is not related to the topic being discussed, and neither is my opinion of suffrage.

oaklandj says:

It’s not a strawman argument at all. You’re arguing that gay parenting is terrible because it was inconceivable 100 years ago. I’m arguing lots of things we take for granted today were inconceivable 100 years ago. I’m sorry my analogy demonstrates how empty your argument is.

And speaking of rational, I have yet to hear a single rational argument against gays have equal rights when it comes to marriage, parenting, serving in the military, or anything else. I’m far more used to reading the sort of sophistry you’ve shared.

oaklandj says:

It’s not a strawman argument at all. You’re arguing that gay parenting is terrible because it was inconceivable 100 years ago. I’m arguing lots of things we take for granted today were inconceivable 100 years ago. I’m sorry my analogy demonstrates how empty your argument is.

And speaking of rational, I have yet to hear a single rational argument against gays have equal rights when it comes to marriage, parenting, serving in the military, or anything else. I’m far more used to reading the sort of sophistry you’ve shared.

Elliot T. says:

You need to improve your comprehension/reading skills. “100 years ago” was not the crux of my argument, nor was that the reasoning of my post. First, you bring up suffrage, the merits or not of which have absolutely nothing to do with this discussion, then you invent a second argument based on your error. You are laughably hysteric. I stated thus: Having homosexual parents (one of which absolutely cannot be a biological parent) is not a choice children can make. I personally do not believe homosexual “parents” are not healthy for children. You make think otherwise. I do believe that being in a household controlled by homosexual “parents” can be frightening and psychologically damaging for children. Children are produced by a male and female pair of parents. These are the people who should be the real parents, not some random pair of people with a sexual attraction playing at being “Jewish”.

Elliot: children are always under the “involuntary control” of their parents, regardless of their sexual orientation; that’s what parenthood is. And there are many children unrelated to one or both of their parents, whether a step-parent, adoptive parents, or same-sex parents. I know same-sex couples who have adopted the children of single, unwed teenage girls. Do you think such a mother can be a better parent than a stable, loving, same-sex couple?

Elliot T. says:

You can always pick out the exceptions which may be better for the kid. In some cases, if the biological parents are violent lunatics or drug addicts, of course this is true. But as a broad rule, it is the natural order of things is for kids to stay with their biological parents. Perhaps “involuntary control” was the wrong phrase. My point is that children have no say when they are forced into a homosexual household. I have no hatred or even dislike towards homosexuals. I don’t think they can help it, and this is the way they were born in most cases. I am only questioning whether it is ultimately healthy for children to be raised by such couples. I think, after carefully considering and with some direct knowledge, not.

My point was that children have no say into any household into which they are born. The *fact* is that studies on the issue point to outcomes for children raised in two-parent same-sex households that are as good as, and in many cases better than (because of the higher financial, planning, and legal hurdles to achieve parenthood for same-sex couples), two-parent heterosexual couples. Adopted children from single mothers are certainly better off in those situations. If you have no animus towards gay people, why would you think it unhealthy for gay or lesbian couples to raise children?

oaklandj says:

“In the 1920s Harvard’s racist President A. Lawrence Lowell tried to impose a quota on Jews admitted to Harvard because, as he put it, “Jews cheat”. When a distinguished alumnus reminded him that non-Jews also cheat, he replied, “You’re changing the subject. We’re talking about Jews.”

oaklandj says:

“I’ve met fundamentalist Christians. They are often pretty good people.”
After reading your comments here, I see you share a lot of common ground with them.

Habbgun says:

Finding common ground is how we fight intolerance right? Interreligious dialogue is how we find we are all sincere right? Hmmmm….tolerance for me but not for thee.

Elliot T. says:

You have now diverted the discussion from suffrage to cutting and pasting something a Harvard President said about Jews. Perhaps in your imagination this has something to do with homosexual parents. But then again, to someone who has no rational ability to debate, then anything at all they chose to pick out of the air bolsters their point of view.

oaklandj says:

Somehow I don’t think fighting intolerance is really what you’re after. But whatever. Peace.

oaklandj says:

Flew right over your head. Oh well, I can’t say I didn’t try.

Habbgun says:

And I don’t think having anything more than all the proper parochial Bay area prejudices is what you are after. Again, I don’t see why fundamentalist christians got drawn into the discussion except for the fact someone feels they are allowed to hate a specific group. Fundamentalist Christians have nothing to do with Jewish practivce.
Hope you enjoyed your Purim and shalom.

oaklandj says:

Self-styled fundamentalist Christians are the biggest opponents to equality. It has less to do with the fact that I’m in the Bay Area, and more with the fact that I’m a gay Jewish dad to a beautiful baby girl. For all those things I’m repeatedly told I’m condemned to hell, and that they will fight me and my family from enjoying the rights that heterosexual-headed families enjoy. They fight progress and decent moral values, as they have for centuries.
I enjoyed Purim, and hope you did, too. Shalom.

Elliot T. says:

Illogical stupidity certainly flies over my head. I can’t imagine being so moronic.

Habbgun says:

Yeah well….fundamentalist Christians still are not responsible for Jewish law and in such a discussion there is no reason to mention them for good or ill. Their responsibility is toward their own beliefs.
I’ve accepted what is called Orthodox Judaism on my own volition and not everything is easy. The one thing that drives those who follow it are that we sincerely believe that it is for the best and when it doesn’t seem so we must open ourselves more not less. Congratulations on the baby girl. Children really focus our feelings on Jewish practice. Every, Shabbos, every holiday is an opportunity to teach or let things slide. Not easy. Best of luck with the challenge.

“My point is that children have no say when they are forced into a homosexual household.” – I laughed when I read this – it conjured up images of Dickensian times.. round up the children and force them into homosexual households! Same sex couples have been raising kids for a while now – there are adult children of same sex couples.. they’re perfectly well adjusted and I haven’t met one who has resented their parents or childhood. Society evolves and never remains static and so do values.

oaklandj says:

I agree they’re entirely entitled to their own beliefs. However, they take this fight to the civil sphere, too, so in that sphere I will fight them. And I know enough about their theology to know that by attacking homosexuality and gay marriage they are on far weaker (Christian) theological ground considering their lack of an issue with divorce and remarriage (probably because most get divorced, but are not gay themselves).

At any rate, my partner and I love being parents. Yes, the Jewish calendar provides us with many reminders to tune into what’s important. This coming Shabbat I’ll be unplugging. (http://nationaldayofunplugging.com/)

elie says:

ou can do what you want but don’t say the torah is ok with it. you can write what you want want but don’t say the torah said it when it doesn’t.
so you wish to say that it’s good to be gay,because esther said she was jewish-that is a lie,it’s written she didn’t!

That there are no kids of color is hardly a nitpick!

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Coming Out for Purim

The Purim Superhero, a new picture book for Jewish children, includes gay parents. It’s about time.

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