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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Writer considers intersection between Judaism and sexuality

Published: February 13, 2009
Section: News

SEXUALITY: Author Leslea Newman reads from one of her books at her speaking event “You can’t be lesbian, you’re Jewish!” Sunday night in the ICC.<br /><i>PHOTO By Max Shay/The Hoot</i>

SEXUALITY: Author Leslea Newman reads from one of her books at her speaking event “You can’t be lesbian, you’re Jewish!” Sunday night in the ICC.
PHOTO By Max Shay/The Hoot

Leslea Newman, poet laureate of North Hampton, MA, and author of Heather Has Two Mommies, spoke in the ICC Sunday about her experiences as a Jewish lesbian an an event titled “you can’t be lesbian, you’re Jewish!”

Newman said that the title of the event came from an encounter she once had after one of her speaking engagements.

Newman, whose work tends to focus on the intersection of the lesbian and Jewish identities, read a short story entitled “A Letter to Harvey Milk” to the group.

The story went over particularly well with her college-aged audience, who had Sean Penn’s recent film “Milk.”

The story relayed the impact that Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician to be elected to public office in California, had on an elderly Jewish man living in Brooklyn, New York following Milk’s assassination.

The man and the people around him were young adults during WWII, and remembered what being gay in a concentration camp meant, and were fascinated by how the times had changed. The protagonist writes a letter to Milk for a writing class he is taking to fill the time, and asks Milk, “You had to get yourself killed for being a feigaleh?”

Newman, who seems to channel Fran Drescher and that particular brand of New York Jewishness that we like to attribute to our grandparents on Long Island and the Lower East Side, is a graduate of the University of Vermont and the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied poets at Naropa University in Boulder, CO, where she studied under Allen Ginsburg. She currently teaches at the Stone Coast MFA program at the University of Southern Maine. At the age of 27, Newman came out and reconnected with her Jewish faith.

Newman sees herself as “one stop shopping.” She has encountered some animosity in the Jewish community and ignorance in the lesbian community. In the end, she is, “just trying to get along.”

She has recently released a book of poetry, Nobody’s Daughter, and has just released The Reluctant Daughter, a novel about a woman who does not know whether or not she wants to be a mother until she decides whether or not she wants to be a daughter.

Newman said she got her start in writing professionally when she realized that there was no literature on Jewish lesbians readily available. Heather Has Two Mommies was written after a friend, also gay, had mentioned that there was a similar lack of material in children’s literature. Children’s books came easily to Newman. She writes her children’s books in verse, tapping into her skills as a poet, and “always writing a truthful story the most beautiful way I can.”

Newman encouraged the audience to push themselves in their writing. She said her biggest fear is, “page fright-a blank page is the most frightening thing in the world.” However, she challenges herself to write something everyday.

The event was co-sponsored by Brandeis’ Jewish GBLTA club Shalem and the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance (FMLA).

FMLA President Laura Hand ‘11 said that when Shalem contacted her about the event, she saw it as the perfect opportunity for FMLA to reach out and interact with other clubs on campus. She also “saw many feminist ideals in Newman’s work.”

Shalem Co-president Emily Jaeger ’11 said that the club, in its first year at Brandeis, was looking for a speaker that embodied both the Jewish and gay identities.

“Personally I was very moved by the writing and very pleased with the turnout,” said fellow Co-president, Noam Sienna ’11.