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Adam Eli Uses Jewish Roots, Ideology to Stand Up for Queer Community in Debut Book

In “The New Queer Conscience,” published in June, the 29-year-old shares that queer people anywhere are responsible for queer people everywhere.
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August 5, 2020
Photo by Ryan McGinley. Book cover illustrated by Ashley Lukashevsky.

In July 2018, Adam Eli’s life changed when he received an email from Penguin Random House asking him to write about the intersection of Judaism, queerness and activism. 

In the Greenwich Village local’s literary debut, “The New Queer Conscience,” published in June, the 29-year-old shares that queer people anywhere are responsible for queer people everywhere. “That is my message,” he told the Journal. “I’m proud it was loud enough and I had enough writing out there that [Penguin Random House] could see it so clearly.”

“The New Queer Conscience” is one of a short-form book series in the Pocket Change Collective aimed at young adults. The series examines different theses by varying activists. The authors were selected because of their platforms. The editors, Rachel Sonnis, 26, and Nathaniel Tabachnik, 28, said they sought out Adam Eli because, “We felt a particular kinship with his message, both being queer Jews,” Sonnis said. “He was a really great creative partner. It was his ability to galvanize the community and organizations and the movements he is behind.”

“He is just filled with so much passion and believes so strongly in his values,” Tabachnik added. “It wasn’t a question of pulling things out of him, it was, ‘OK, we have so much to talk about, how can we edit it down, crystalize it and make it the strongest it can be?’ ” 

The book explores Adam Eli’s Orthodox New York upbringing, his journey to self-acceptance and self-love, and his family’s role in allyship, including Jewish mother wisdom. At the end of the book, he lays out a list of ways members of the LGBTQIAA+ community can show solidarity for one another.

“The New Queer Conscience” was already in the works when the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh took place in October 2018. Adam Eli made the decision to rework the book and begin it in the aftermath of that day. His message was the queer community needs to respond to events the way the Jewish community does.

“We are all looking for a place of belonging, and we are all looking for people who like us and are nice to us, and [we] are all looking for a place to be ourselves without shame,” he said. “I’m here to say I firmly believe that being queer and Jewish has made me a better person and a better activist, and I want to talk about the beauty of [that].”

He writes that both queer and Jewish cultures are alike in many ways, especially when it comes to having a deep heritage. But, while Jewish history is preserved and passed down, queer history “can be hard to access.” 

Adam Eli; Photo by jacob bixenman @jacobbix

Inspired by the works of the late Jewish Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel and the late American poet Maya Angelou, Adam Eli made sure every word in his 66-page book was written in such a way that everyone would be able to understand his message. He also wanted to respect, reach and engage teens. “Teenagers are serious people and if you take them seriously, they will take you seriously,” he said. 

Sylvie Shaffer, a Washington D.C. author, librarian and committee member for the American Jewish Libraries, recommends young adult, Jewish and LGBTQ literature to teachers and kids of all ages. After reading “Queer Conscience,” she was selected to write about it for a mock award blog that predicts winners for the Sydney Taylor Book Award, which celebrates authors who authentically share their Jewish perspective for children and teens.

“I think it’s an incredible book and a book that teens are going to read and really be impacted by,” she said. “After you read it quickly, you can let it marinate for weeks and weeks. I continue to think about it. Like Adam Eli, I’m white, I’m queer and I’m Jewish. This is a very strong mirror book but I think kids will come to this book regardless of what their own identity is and it will have some sort of impact that will lead them to action.”

The book’s launch on June 2 coincided with Pride, the Black Lives Matter resurgence and COVID-19. Despite the climate, Adam Eli said the book has been well received. His only regret was not including enough material on queer Jews of color. 

Adam Eli (center); Photo by @hunterabrams

Arya Marvazy, managing director at JQ International, was so moved by the book that he included it in the 2020 JQ Pride Shabbat gift box and asked Adam Eli to speak at the event. 

Raised in a conservative Persian Jewish community, he connected to Adam Eli’s story. “We thought there was no one else like us,” Marvazy said. “Our communities similarly communicated that homosexuality was wrong, unacceptable. … I think the pieces about Adam’s book that resonate with me are valuable and poignant in this very moment. For us to have a united sense of care for one another is one of the most powerful ideas ever put forth for a unified queer future.”

Los Angeles native Yoni Kollin, 19, first learned about Adam Eli and his book at JQ’s Pride Shabbat. “I [was] like, ‘Whoa, this is a really great book,’ ” they said. “First of all, great minds think alike, and second of all, this book is actually very true to what it feels like to be queer.” 

Adam Eli said, “If you want to keep your kids close to you, and if you want to keep your kids close to Judaism, you have absolutely no choice but radical acceptance. … If you reject or even give them a hard time about it, they’re going to put distance between you and the Judaism you brought them up with, period.” He noted his parents have come to “radically accept” him since he came out in 2009. They have attended rallies and established groups that help with LGBTQ inclusion in Jewish spaces. 

Adam Eli hopes his book inspires the next group of Jewish, queer and other intersectional activists around the world to build on what he has written and that they feel seen. 

“I want people to walk away with the idea that being queer means that you are never alone,” he said, “because you are part of something greater than yourself. If you want it, you can tap into this extraordinary power in community, but if you do, that comes with a certain obligation — the same with being Jewish.”

“The New Queer Conscience is available for purchase here. Follow Adam Eli on Instagram @adameli.

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