Harvey Milk (Photos/Courtesy S.F. Public Library)
Harvey Milk (Photos/Courtesy S.F. Public Library)

The essential Jewishness of Harvey Milk

Harvey Milk kept his homosexuality a secret from family members and employers for most of his life. But he never hid one fundamental aspect of his persona — his Jewishness.

A middle-class Jewish kid from New York whose grandfather founded a synagogue, Milk hung his bar mitzvah picture on the wall at the Castro Camera shop that doubled as his campaign headquarters as he made history by being elected to San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors in 1977.

Though not religious, Milk reveled in speaking Yiddish with friends and at one point considered opening a Jewish deli in San Francisco. He faithfully attended Passover seders, and cooked matzah brei for his non-Jewish partners.

“It was so important to his identity. There were all sorts of sentimental ways that his Jewish identity was important,” said Lillian Faderman, a scholar of LGBT history and literature whose new biography of Milk details his cultural connection to Judaism. “I think he really believed in tikkun olam and he really tried to repair the world.”

Faderman’s “Harvey Milk: His Lives and Death” is part of the Jewish Lives series published by Yale University Press. In the book, the retired Fresno State University English professor describes Milk as “a nice Jewish boy” who joined a Jewish fraternity in college and attended events at the campus Hillel.

Though his Jewish identity remained essential throughout his life, Faderman told J. that did not include regular synagogue attendance.

“He hated organized religion and from the beginning he did not trust it, and he felt that homosexuality and religion were incompatible,” she said in an interview.

Harvey Milk speaking in the Castro (Photo/Courtesy S.F. Public Library)
Harvey Milk speaking in the Castro (Photo/Courtesy S.F. Public Library)

Forty years after his tragic death, friends recount Milk telling Jewish jokes with his grandfather’s accent and sharing cookies in his City Hall office with an elderly woman named Henrietta Abrams who called him her “little Jewish prince.”

Walter Caplan, who hosted the seder that Milk attended every year, said his friend was a righteous Jew who was “a deeply spiritual person in his own way.”

“He didn’t deny in any way his Judaism, and it was actually a cornerstone of who he was and everything that he did,” Caplan told J. “Harvey fought for the underdog and he was a scrappy fighter and believed very much in social justice. Everywhere he saw something wrong, he wanted to fix it. I think he had the values that he got at Hebrew school and at the dinner table.”

But when Milk recorded three audiotapes in 1977 that included a premonition of his assassination a year later, he lashed out at rabbis and priests because they refused to support gay rights.

On those tapes, one of which he gave to Caplan, he reiterated his opposition to organized religion “because of what most churches are about, and not because of a disbelief in God.”

Harvey Bernard Milk was born in 1930 in Woodmere, New York, where his grandfather Morris — who, as Mausche Milch, was a dairy farmer in a Lithuanian shtetl before emigrating to the U.S. — was one of the founders of Congregation Sons of Israel.

As a youngster, Milk listened with his family to radio reports about the Warsaw Ghetto and the plight of Jews in Europe. There was plenty of anti-Semitism closer to home as well — nearby towns on Long Island were strongholds for the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party.

Harvey Milk at Castro Camera in the mid-1970s (Photo/Courtesy S.F. Public Library)
Harvey Milk at Castro Camera in the mid-1970s (Photo/Courtesy S.F. Public Library)

“Harvey was steeped in Jewishness as a child,” Faderman writes. “It was the Jewish culture he had been steeped in from childhood and the destruction of European Jewry he had heard about all through his adolescence that kept an unshakable grip on him as an adult.”

After moving to San Francisco in the early 1970s, Milk became politically active and went public about his sexual orientation as he became the first openly gay elected official in state history and one of the first in U.S. history. His speeches supporting gay rights often referred to the Holocaust and warned about the dangers of not pushing back against evil.

Milk was 48 when he was shot to death at City Hall on Nov. 27, 1978 by former San Francisco Supervisor Dan White, who also killed Mayor George Moscone. White, a homophobe who promised voters in his district that he would fight the city’s “social deviates,” had grudges against Milk and Moscone because of promises he felt they broke.

Cleve Jones, an intern in Milk’s office who went on to become one of the leaders of San Francisco’s gay community, said White also was infuriated because Milk made fun of him during supervisors’ meetings.

“Harvey used to tell me to wear my tightest possible jeans because it drove Dan White crazy,” Jones said. “Harvey could be so snide, and the fact that this gay Jewish guy was mocking him pushed [White] over the edge.”

In the last year of his life, Faderman writes, Milk seemed to reconnect with religion while dealing with personal challenges and tragedy — including financial struggles and the suicide of a romantic partner.

Faderman says Milk attended High Holy Day services “perhaps for the first time since his boyhood” that October at Sha’ar Zahav, which the year before had been established as San Francisco’s first gay synagogue.

Harvey Milk and his brother Robert posing for photo at Coney Island, 1942 (Photo/Courtesy S.F. Public Library)
Harvey Milk and his brother Robert posing for photo at Coney Island, 1942 (Photo/Courtesy S.F. Public Library)

But those visits for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur did not seem to be part of a pattern of renewed synagogue attendance for Milk, who was killed a few weeks later.

Ron Lezell says he sat next to Milk during those Rosh Hashanah services in 1978, yet doesn’t remember him attending other services. And Rabbi Allen Bennett, who as Sha’ar Zahav’s spiritual leader at the time was the first openly gay rabbi in the U.S., attributed Milk’s presence to politics.

“I think he was there as often as he needed to be to get votes,” Bennett told J. “I can’t say I saw him as a religious man. I think he lived and espoused many Jewish values, but I don’t think he could have named them as Jewish values if someone had sat him down and asked him about them.”

Bennett, who delivered the eulogy at Milk’s funeral services at both Sha’ar Zahav and Congregation Emanu-El, said Milk was more defined by his New York upbringing than his Jewish roots.

“I would say he was a New York Jew. New York was much more important to him and defined how he understood being Jewish,” Bennett said. “Because the milieu in which he grew up in New York was predominantly Jewish, then it was as much unconscious as anything else. I think it was really more of a brash New York cultural style than anything overtly religious.”

Sharyn Saslafsky, who met Milk through politics and then became a close friend, remembers sitting with him on an old maroon sofa in Castro Camera having conversations peppered with Yiddish while opera blared in the background. Like others, she recalls him as “very much a cultural Jew.”

“I think Harvey was very proud of being both Jewish and gay. He loved what Judaism and tikkun olam was about,” Saslafsky said. “I think the basis of who Harvey was personally and politically was really very Jewish in the sense of being active and making a difference, taking responsibility, empowering people. I look at that as very Jewish-like.”

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster z"l was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.