Elisabeth Kushner is the author of The Purim Superhero, the first LGBT-inclusive Jewish children’s book in English, published in January 2013 by Jewish publisher Kar-Ben, after the manuscript won Keshet’s National Book-Writing Contest in 2011. We recently sat down with Kushner to discuss The Purim Superhero:
What made you want to write a children’s book for the Jewish community addressing LGBT issues?
Elisabeth Kushner: My impetus for writing The Purim Superhero was a picture book manuscript contest sponsored in early 2011 by Keshet, which is a wonderful organization whose purpose is to “work for the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews in Jewish life.” They were looking for picture book manuscripts with both Jewish and GLBT content, in response to a dearth of such books— apparently there had never been one, which really surprised me. I was working on a novel at the time, plus I had a day job and a family, and at first I thought I didn’t have time for another project. But then I thought, “Well, I’m a Jewish lesbian, and a parent, and a writer, and a former librarian at a Jewish day school so I’ve read lots of Jewish picture books. If I don’t enter this contest, I’ll feel completely ridiculous.” So I entered, and my manuscript won, and Kar-Ben, which publishes lots of really high-quality Jewish children’s books, agreed to publish it, and here we are.
How did you decide on Nate’s costume predicament being the focus rather than his family’s lifestyle? How do you think that adds to the book’s message?
EK: I really wanted to write a book about a kid with same-sex parents where the parents being gay is not “the problem.” I know it’s hard for a lot of people in a lot of places, but I’ve been lucky enough, as a lesbian parent, to live in communities where my spouse’s and my sexual orientation is not the main issue that we our daughter deal with in our lives, and that’s been the experience of many of my friends and their families as well. I wanted to write a book that reflected the reality of that experience, where the LGBT aspect of the family is a natural part of the main character’s life, like having an older sister and being Jewish, but the problem that drives the story comes from elsewhere.
The Purim costume element of the book actually came before the GLBT aspect; I’d worked at a Jewish day school for several years, and had been frustrated by the lack of books about Purim that I could share with my library classes. Purim is a Jewish holiday that has a lot of kid-friendly aspects, like costumes and noisemakers and general silliness, and yet—maybe because, unlike Chanukah or Passover, it doesn’t correspond with any major Christian holidays that take place at the same time of year –I couldn’t find any good read-alouds at that time that told the story of a contemporary kid celebrating Purim. (There are a few more now, but there weren’t then.)
After a few years of thinking, “sheesh, someone should write a good Purim picture book,” I thought, “maybe I should write a Purim picture book.” I always wanted it to be about a kid having a costume crisis, because that seemed like a realistic problem for a kid to have. I worked on with that idea a little, but I couldn’t make it work and sort of forgot about it for a while. Then, a few years later, I saw the Keshet contest and thought that a kid with same-sex parents would be a great protagonist for a Purim story. The origin story for Purim is the biblical Book of Esther, which is very much about having the courage to stand up for yourself and your people in the face of persecution, seemed to me to echo a lot of the issues for contemporary GLBT people, so a story about a kid with gay parents that’s set during Purim could pick up on that message without hitting people over the head with it.
In your experience, how does Jewish culture see the gay community? Can you shed any light on why?
EK: The Jewish communities I know best share the values of the mainstream communities where I’ve lived as both a child and an adult: inclusiveness, social justice, standing up for the oppressed and the underdog. My experience is that the Reform, Reconstructionist, and, increasingly, Conservative movements within Judaism are extremely supportive and inclusive of GLBT people, for reasons reflecting general cultural shifts as well as what I think of as a Jewish affinity for other marginalized people: there’s a line from the book of Exodus, in the Torah, that says “Do not oppress or mistreat a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” That’s a concept that’s taken seriously in Judaism.
That said, there’s certainly a strain of Jewish fundamentalism that’s very anti-gay, in similar ways and with similar rationales to Christian and other religious fundamentalist movements. So there really isn’t one “Jewish culture” any more than there’s one monolithic gay culture.
What kind of response is The Purim Superhero receiving in the gay community? The Jewish community? At large?
EK: The response in both communities has been, overall, tremendously enthusiastic. Because Kar-Ben is a Jewish publisher, and because the setting concerns a Jewish holiday that’s not very well-known in mainstream North America, I think there’s actually been a bit more awareness of the book in the Jewish community than the gay community; most of the events where I’ve promoted the book this month have been at synagogues and Jewish schools, where the majority of families attending don’t have queer parents. A lot of parents are glad to have a book to share with their children that affirms their Jewish identity in a way that includes LBGT families.
There have been a few negative comments that I’ve seen on articles and websites, from people who feel that a book about a family with gay parents isn’t compatible with Jewish values. That’s a view of the world and of Judaism that’s clearly very different from mine, but what I found so amazing was how many comments there have been from Jewish parents and professionals who aren’t gay, saying things like “I’m so happy to have a book that reflects some of the diversity in my child’s family or neighborhood or classroom.”
I’ve also had a very positive response from people who are neither Jewish nor gay. I’ve done an author visit at one school that had very few Jewish students and none that anyone knew of with same-sex parents, and the kids and families there responded very warmly to the book, and really picked up on the themes of feeling different and finding a way to to be yourself and be part of your community at the same time. One straight, non-Jewish mom wrote to me that her daughter has been struggling with the expectations she feels around being a girl, and that after reading the book for the first time she looked at it by herself for a long time. That meant a lot to me to hear.
And for families that are both Jewish and LBGT, I think there’s an extra dollop of identification and excitement—one little girl who has two dads informed me at a book event that her family already owned a copy and that it was “our new favorite book!”
What was your initial hope for the book? Do you feel it has been or will be achieved?
EK: I very much wanted to write a book that held up on its own as a compelling story with believable characters, not just as the vehicle for a moral or message. Based on the response from kids as well as adults who care about kids’ books, I think I’ve achieved that, and while I’d like to give full credit to my skills as a writer, the reality is more complicated and dependent on cultural context: For a long time, this issue of gay families was so loaded that it tended to overshadow other aspects of a book, especially a children’s book. But in the past twenty years there’s been a huge cultural shift in the way we think about GLBT people, and that makes it more possible to write and publish a book like The Purim Superhero.
A big part of that shift, at least in the children’s literature world, has come about because of previous books that approached the subject of gay families—books like Heather Has Two Mommies and And Tango Makes Three—and it’s an honor to be part of that growing genre. My hope is that this book, in turn, will help open the door for more children’s books in the future that incorporate a greater range of diversity within both the GLBT and Jewish communities, while honoring kids’ need to read a good story: books about kids of different racial and cultural backgrounds, physical abilities, and economic resources, as well as different family configurations aside from one-or-two-kids-living-with-two-parents.
How do your life experiences show up in your writing?
EK: My life experiences show up in both direct and indirect ways in The Purim Superhero.Like Nate and his sister and dads, I live in a family that, aside from having same-sex parents, is conventional in many ways. And while I don’t share my protagonists’s interest in aliens, I have wrestled, like Nate, with the question of how to honor my individuality and uniqueness while being part of the communities I live in. I think everyone does. My daughter is also a little bit like Miri, the older sister in the book.
What kinds of movements/charities do you support? Has the press for The Purim Superhero benefited them?
EK: I’m not much of an activist at this time in my life: like a lot of parents, my daily life revolves mainly around my job and my family, with as much writing as I can fit in. I feel strongly about a number of issues, particularly GLBT issues, but the main way I support them right now is by living my life openly and matter-of-factly, at work, at my daughter’s school, and in my neighbourhood. I believe in Harvey Milk’s message that being out as a gay person is one of the most powerful ways to change attitudes about GLBT people. That doesn’t take much courage for me, as a middle-aged person in the community where I live now, and it’s certainly not enough all by itself, but it has a ripple and a cumulative effect, I think.
One reason I’ve worked hard to promote The Purim Superhero since it was published about a month ago is in gratitude to Keshet for doing the work that it does to support Jewish GLBT people, and to support Jewish communities in being inclusive. If there had been an organization like Keshet around when I was a teenager and feeling conflicted about my sexual identity, it would’ve made a huge difference to me.
What one big message do you want readers, particularly young children, to take away from The Purim Superhero?
EK: My experience sharing the book with children is that they get different things out of it depending on their age and experiences, but they all seem to understand that there are many ways of being different, and that it can be hard to be different, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. I wanted it to come through that you shouldn’t have to choose between holding onto your identity and being part of your community, even if you might get pressure in that direction; if you can find a way to honor the aspects of yourself that are important to you, it’s worth it and can even inspire others.
Wisconsin native, Hannah currently lives in Queens, New York. She plans to pursue her
graduate degree in community arts education, and spends her free time cooking, reading,
and listening to ‘80s hair bands.