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
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...more
Forward: Harvey Milk was Jewish
In a brilliant article, Rebecca Spence tells us that Harvey Milk was indeed a Jew.