Harvey Milk, in Life and on Film, Typified the Proud Jew as Outsider

Though He Shunned Official Religion, His Political Activism Came with a Yiddish Inflection

By Rebecca Spence

Published December 11, 2008, issue of December 19, 2008.
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San Francisco — In an early scene in “Milk” — the new biopic starring Sean Penn as slain gay activist and San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk — Milk, a proud new shop owner in the city’s Castro district, seeks to join his neighborhood business association. He initially gives assurances to a skeptical association leader, saying, “I’m not an interloper.” But in a bit of self-effacing humor, he adds, “I may be a Jew.”

The quip is one of the film’s only mentions of the iconic gay activist’s Jewish identity. But it typifies his brash style and cheeky humor. It also points to Milk’s profound sense of himself as an outsider.

Milk, who grew up on Long Island, was an entirely secular Jew. But according to those who knew him, his New York Jewish upbringing was unmistakable in his character, sense of self and social activist values. In many ways, he embodied the “non-Jewish Jew” vividly described by Isaac Deutscher, the biographer of Leon Trotsky.

Despite their distance from Judaism — Deutscher cited Freud and Spinoza as examples — such Jews were “very Jewish indeed,” he wrote.

“They had in themselves something of the quintessence of Jewish life and of the Jewish intellect,” and “dwelt on the borderlines of various civilizations, religions, and national cultures… where the most diverse cultural influences crossed and fertilized each other,” Deutscher argued. “They lived on the margins or in the nooks and crannies of their respective nations” and were “in society and yet not in it.” It was this, he said, that enabled them to “strike out mentally into wide new horizons and far into the future.”

Sharyn Saslafsky, a manager at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission who was a friend of Milk in the 1970s, put it more simply. “He wasn’t a religious Jew, but he was always proud of being Jewish,” she said. “He always had a sense of pride that he came from New York.”

Saslafsky, then a young political activist on the verge of coming out, would often stop by Castro Camera — the camera shop that Milk founded when he moved to San Francisco in 1972 — to talk politics. Saslafsky said that she and Milk often spoke in broken Yiddish, trying to outdo each other with their recollections of their parents’ and grandparents’ phrases. “I would call it the one-upmanship of speaking in Yiddish,” she said.

Born in Woodmere, N.Y., on May 22, 1930, Milk would have been 78 this year. His grandfather, Morris Milk, was a Lithuanian immigrant who opened Milk’s, a successful department store in the family’s heavily Jewish Long Island town. Morris also co-founded a Woodmere synagogue, then known as Sons of Israel.

According to Milk’s nephew, Stuart Milk, the old man had a profound impact on the young Harvey. “Morris had… [an] inclusive paradigm, and was very much a touchstone for Harvey,” Stuart Milk said in an e-mail.

While Harvey Milk may have learned his commitment to inclusivity in part from his Jewish grandfather, he did not carry on his grandfather’s commitment to synagogue life. Friends say that Milk shunned religion altogether.

“He had really strong feelings about the role that organized religion was playing in oppressing gay people,” said Naphtali Offen, a 59-year-old tobacco control researcher who knew Milk. “He felt alienated from Jewish religion.”

Milk was shot and killed by Dan White — an anti-gay Catholic who served alongside Milk on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors — years before the organized Jewish community opened its doors to gay and lesbian rabbis. The more liberal Reform movement finally ordained gay and lesbian clergy beginning in 1990. And the Conservative movement did not approve gay ordination or same-sex unions until two years ago.

Milk’s activism came at the peak of San Francisco’s burgeoning gay rights movement. The 1970s in San Francisco was a time of great hope, particularly for the thousands of gay men who descended on the Castro district from across America and claimed it as their own.

The reverberations of the “Summer of Love” in 1967 were still felt throughout the ’70s, as people experimented with sexuality and a powerful gay identity emerged. Milk, who unsuccessfully ran for office three times, made history in 1977, when he was elected to the city’s board of supervisors and became the first openly gay man to hold office in a major American city.

At the same time that Milk was pushing for people to come out of the closet and publicly embrace their gay identities, there was a subset of gay San Francisco Jews who were embracing their Jewish identities. A group known as the Lost Tribe formed in 1978, after fundamentalist Christian Anita Bryant’s crusade to enact anti-gay legislation came to California in the form of Proposition 6, known as the Briggs Initiative.

The Briggs Initiative, which Milk helped to roundly defeat, would have barred gay and lesbian teachers from teaching in the public school system. The Lost Tribe, comprising dozens of activist gay Jews, worked within the Jewish community to drum up opposition to the initiative. “It was a powerful and bonding time, and people made relationships personally and politically that have continued to this day,” said Avi Rose, a former member of the Lost Tribe. Rose is now executive director of Jewish Family & Children’s Services of the East Bay.

Rose, who also co-edited the 1989 anthology “Twice Blessed: On Being Lesbian or Gay and Jewish,” drew a direct connection between being Jewish and being gay. “As Jews, there are things we know about stigma and discrimination, and the importance of being visible,” he said. “I think for a lot of gay Jews, that translated from our Jewish experience to our gay experience. That’s what brought so many of us into the movement in prominent ways.”

Indeed, as with the feminist movement, Jews played leading roles in the early days of the gay rights movement. Milk’s campaign manager, Anne Kronenberg, was Jewish. And in New York, where the movement took shape following the Stonewall Riots of 1969, such leaders as Marty Robinson and Marc Rubin rose to prominence.

These days, Milk’s legacy continues with a new crop of gay Jewish political leaders. The first gay congressman to win election was Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank. And last month, Mark Leno became the first openly gay male member of the California State Senate. Leno, a member of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav — a San Francisco gay and lesbian synagogue — studied for two years at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

When Milk was assassinated November 27, 1978, in the wake of the Prop. 6 defeat, the entire city mourned: Thirty thousand San Franciscans took to the streets for a candle-lit march that began at the Castro and continued on to City Hall. But the first memorial service for the slain politician was actually held at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, which was founded only a year earlier, according to Allen Bennett, the synagogue’s first rabbi, who was openly gay himself.

Bennett, who delivered Milk’s eulogy, said that Milk visited the synagogue on more than one occasion. “He wasn’t there to pray, he was there to get votes,” said Bennett, who is now the rabbi at Temple Israel in Alameda. “So he certainly understood there was a Jewish community he could relate to.”

Bennett also delivered the eulogy at a widely attended service for Milk that was held at one of this city’s largest synagogues, Temple Emanuel. “It wasn’t simply because I was the first openly gay rabbi,” Bennett said. “It was because I was considered Harvey’s rabbi.”






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