It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a gay, Jewish ‘Superhero’

February 5, 2013


The Times of Israel: The Jewish world's fastest-growing news site

Nate doesn’t know what type of costume to choose for Purim. His friends are all dressing up as superheroes, but Nate loves aliens and wants to go as one to the Megillah reading and holiday carnival. Like most young children, he decides to discuss his dilemma with his parents. But unlike most kids, Nate doesn’t bring the problem to his mother and father. Instead, he talks it over with his Daddy and Abba.

Nate is the protagonist of “The Purim Superhero,” the first LGBT-inclusive Jewish children’s book written in English.

Cover of "The Purim Superhero." A boy stands on a stage wearing a red cape and a blue shirt with a "P" on it. His hands are on his hips.

The little boy, his sister and their two dads represent many American Jewish families who — until now — have not seen themselves reflected in the picture books their children read in Hebrew school or bring home from the Jewish community library.

Kar-Ben Publishing, a Minneapolis-based distributor of Jewish content for kids between preschool and middle school, decided it was time to bring Nate and his gay fathers into Jewish homes and educational settings.

“We had been interested for a long time in this subject. We’d done focus groups with parents and educators, and most were interested in seeing a book like this,” said Joni Sussman, Kar- Ben‘s publisher.

“What we wanted was a story with a gay family setting, but not specifically about being a gay family. We were looking for something non-didactic about the gay issue,” Sussman explained. “What we loved about ‘The Purim Superhero’ is that it is about a boy looking for his own identity and standing up for who he is. It’s really a story about Purim and Queen Esther.”

As a married lesbian with a 12-year-old daughter, the book’s author, Elisabeth Kushner, found being a same-sex family to be a non-issue.

“I wanted to write out of my own experience and that of other gay and lesbian families we know,” the 46-year-old told The Times of Israel by phone from her home in Vancouver, Canada. “It’s really not an issue for kids or for most people in larger cities. And for kids in LGBT families, their parents’ being gay is not necessarily the main issue in their lives, and I hadn’t seen any books reflecting this reality.”

Kushner, who previously worked for nine years as a children’s librarian at the Jewish Day School of Metropolitan Seattle, was equally concerned about producing an engaging and relevant Purim book.

“I used to read a lot of holiday books to the kids at the day school. There weren’t a lot of Purim books, as compared to other holidays. And most of the ones that we did have were basically retellings of the Scroll of Esther,” Kushner said. “I wanted something contemporary and good for reading aloud to younger kids.”

The aspiring children’s author thought for a long time about writing the kind of book she wanted to read. When Keshet, a US organization that works for full equality and inclusion of LGBT Jews, announced a writing contest in the spring of 2011, Kushner decided to do what she had been contemplating.

From the beginning, Keshet collaborated with Kar-Ben on the contest.

“We also didn’t want a didactic book about gay issues, about gay bullying and the like,” said Catherine Bell, Keshet’s director of education and training. “We asked people to share stories that would be interesting to all Jewish families, where the main character just happens to have gay relatives.”

Kushner’s manuscript beat out approximately 50 entries.

“The book really captured what we were looking for. It’s a compelling and relatable story for kids about both wanting to belong and to be yourself, and it deals with Purim in a real, not superficial, way,” Bell said. “We like that the gay dads were presented not as the source of Nate’s problems, but rather as a source of comfort and support.”

Notably, Nate’s Abba and Daddy use Queen Esther, rather than themselves, as an example when talking with Nate about being different.

“Queen Esther saved the Jews because she didn’t hide who she was. She told Ahashuerus she was Jewish, and that her people were in danger,” Abba tells Nate. “Sometimes showing who you really are makes you stronger, even if you’re different from other people.”

Written for kids, the story works on an adult level, too.

“The parent or teacher reading this knows the struggles the fathers have faced, and that they bring this perspective to their parenting,” Kushner reflected.

Released Friday, three weeks before its namesake holiday, “The Purim Superhero” will be promoted at Keshet-hosted launch parties across the US throughout the late winter and spring. A number of organizations have offered to co-sponsor events and help with marketing, and major Jewish educational groups and media outlets are partnering to get the word out.

“The parent or teacher reading this knows the struggles the fathers have faced, and that they bring this perspective to their parenting.”

Kveller, a popular Jewish parenting website, is one of them.

“From its inception, Kveller has aimed to be a resource and community for Jewish parents of all kinds, including LGBT families, so when we learned of this new, inclusive Jewish children’s book, we wanted to use our online presence to help publicize and spread the word as best we could,” said Molly Tolsky, the site’s associate editor.

“We’re working closely with Keshet on this because not only is it important for kids in gay families to feel part of the community and have literature that reflects back on them, but we are also supportive of our many LGBT Jewish educators,” said Rabbi Cherie Koller-Fox, president of NewCAJE, a cross-denominational Jewish educators’organization.

“We read it, we liked it and we endorsed it,” she said of the book.

Stateside, “The Purim Superhero” is available in hardcover and paperback directly from Kar-Ben, as well as from Judaica stores and major online book retailers. Along with the rest of Kar-Ben’s spring lineup, the book is heading to Israel with Sussman for the Jerusalem International Book Fair in mid-February.

“Our [religiously pluralistic] books aren’t well-understood inIsrael, where we market them through the Conservative [Masorti] and Reform [Yahudut Mitkademet]movements,” Sussman remarked. “They sell best at the museums and at the airport, where American tourists see them.”

Kushner said her mother, who lives half the year in Israel, would love to see “The Purim Superhero” translated into Hebrew. Although the Orthodox will likely not go for it (even though Nate and his fathers wear black kippot at synagogue and meals), it could fill a void in Israeli children’s literature.

While there are a number of Hebrew-language picture books (both original and translations) about same-sex families, they’re all aimed at a secular, liberal audience. None depict the Jewish aspects and rhythms of the daily lives of children and families — religious or not — living in Israel.

Who knows? Maybe “The Purim Superhero” will come to the rescue.