October is LGBTQ History Month, when we celebrate those who paved the way for gay and civil rights. The Jewish communities boast many members who have made significant contributions to the fight for equality, many of them well known, such as Harvey Milk, Barney Frank and Tony Kushner. Here are just a few trailblazing LGBTQ Jewish Gems we honor this month, and their Jewish stories:
Ilene Chaiken: Elkins Park native Chaiken is a Hollywood pioneer: She was one of the first gay female directors to film a television show, and the show itself was the first on TV centering on lesbian characters. The L Word was created in 2004 and Chaiken, who before had worked on shows including The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, was heralded for being among the first to create a show that positively represented LGBTQ people. Chaiken’s own life story is reflected in the show’s main character Jenny Schecter, a Jewish woman who discovers her sexuality after moving to Los Angeles. Chaiken has followed the success of The L Word with her current smash hit Empire.
Aaron Copland: The “Dean of American composers” was born in 1900 Brooklyn to a conservative Jewish family, and picked up his passion for music from Jewish weddings and ceremonies he attended at the local synagogue. After initial musical studies in New York, Copland moved to Paris, then a composer’s rite-of-passage, before returning to America, determined to make it as a classical composer. During the Depression, however, Copland decided to adapt his musical style to be more accessible for the typical American listener, giving it wider appeal. The open, gently changing harmonies of his works like Appalachian Spring, Billy the Kid and Rodeo and Fanfare for the Common Man are typical of what many people came to consider to be the sound of American music. While Copland never officially came out as gay, his progressive outlook made him unafraid to publicly date men. Copland passed away in 1990, yet the lasting influence of his music remains.
Masha Gessen: Gessen, a Russian-American Jewish journalist, has taken remarkable risks to advocate for LGBTQ issues in Russia. She was born in Moscow, emigrated to the United States as a teenager, and returned to Moscow in 1990 as a journalist. Gessen published critical profiles of Vladimir Putin and members of his regime, claiming that his rise to power destroyed years of progress and made Russia once more a threat to its people and the world. In 2013, Putin instituted a gay propaganda law, advocating for the bill with derogatory references to Gessen and her family. Gessen was beaten outside Parliament while on assignment and fled to the United States for fear the government would take her children. From her new home in New York, Gessen now writes extensively on Russian politics and world affairs. She also writes about the oppression of Jews in Russian society.
Maurice Sendak: Best known for his treasured children’s book Where the Wild Things Are, Sendak funneled his distress for the murder of family members in the Holocaust into his work. His parents emigrated from Poland to Brooklyn, where Sendak was born in 1928, but much of his extended family was killed in the Holocaust, exposing him to mortality at a young age. Plagued by health issues that kept him confined to bed, he escaped through his imagination and, after watching Fantasia, decided to become an illustrator. His second solo work was Wild Things, originally imagined as a story where a child escapes to a land of wild horses — until Sendak realized that he couldn’t draw horses. He changed the concept to “wild things,” inspired by the Yiddish expression for boisterous children, “vilde chaya” (“wild animals”). Sendak lived with his partner, psychoanalyst Eugene Glynn, for 50 years. Upon Glynn’s death in May 2007, he donated $1 million to the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services, where Glynn had worked, in his memory. Sendak passed away in 2012.