Har­vey Milk: His Lives and Death

Lil­lian Faderman

December 18, 2018

Har­vey Milk — elo­quent, charis­mat­ic, and a smart-aleck — was elect­ed to the San Fran­cis­co Board of Super­vi­sors in 1977, but he had not even served a full year in office when he was shot by a homo­pho­bic fel­low super­vi­sor. Milk’s assas­si­na­tion at the age of forty-eight made him the most famous gay man in mod­ern his­to­ry; twen­ty years lat­er Time mag­a­zine includ­ed him on its list of the hun­dred most influ­en­tial indi­vid­u­als of the twen­ti­eth century.

Before find­ing his call­ing as a politi­cian, how­ev­er, Har­vey var­i­ous­ly tried being a school­teacher, a secu­ri­ties ana­lyst on Wall Street, a sup­port­er of Bar­ry Gold­wa­ter, a Broad­way the­ater assis­tant, a bead-wear­ing hip­pie, the oper­a­tor of a cam­era store and orga­niz­er of the local busi­ness com­mu­ni­ty in San Fran­cis­co. He reject­ed Judaism as a reli­gion, but he was deeply influ­enced by the cul­tur­al val­ues of his Jew­ish upbring­ing and his under­stand­ing of anti-Semi­tism and the Holo­caust. His ear­ly influ­ences and his many per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al expe­ri­ences final­ly came togeth­er when he decid­ed to run for elec­tive office as the force­ful cham­pi­on of gays, racial minori­ties, women, work­ing peo­ple, the dis­abled, and senior cit­i­zens. In his last five years, he focused all of his tremen­dous ener­gy on becom­ing a suc­cess­ful pub­lic fig­ure with a dis­tinct polit­i­cal voice.

Discussion Questions

Few fig­ures in mod­ern Amer­i­can pol­i­tics are more doc­u­ment­ed than Har­vey Milk. Remem­bered as the May­or” of Cas­tro Street, he was the first open­ly gay man elect­ed to pub­lic office in this coun­try. His brief time as a San Fran­cis­co super­vi­sor before his assas­si­na­tion forty years ago, has been por­trayed in books, movies, and an opera; his lega­cy rever­ber­ates to this day.

Still, by exam­in­ing Milk’s life through the lens of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, and ben­e­fit­ing from access to fam­i­ly records and inter­views, Lil­lian Fader­man cov­ers new ground in this con­tri­bu­tion to Yale’s Jew­ish Lives series. With a storyteller’s skill that pulls the read­er in and moves the nar­ra­tive along, Fader­man makes the case: Milk’s Jew­ish upbring­ing, his under­stand­ing of the Holo­caust and anti­semitism, are all part of a cul­tur­al Jew­ish iden­ti­ty and val­ues set that informed his activism and leadership.

That Milk’s per­son­al Jew­ish iden­ti­ty — a strong per­son­al attach­ment with lim­it­ed insti­tu­tion­al affil­i­a­tion — is far more famil­iar to read­ers in our time than it was in his own makes this vol­ume more res­o­nant. Fader­man suc­cess­ful­ly rein­tro­duces Milk not just as a sig­nif­i­cant Amer­i­can fig­ure, but also as a part of the Jew­ish Amer­i­can story