Monday, December 08, 2008

Additional reflection on Harvey Milk

Harvey Milk's Wikipedia article mentions that he was Jewish.

I consider him a martyr to Christians as well; in Christ there is no Jew nor Greek. As I said, I consider him to have been doing the work of Christ, even if he did not call it that. However, I am not and was not trying to negate his cultural heritage. He was Jewish. For that matter, Jesus was Jewish too. He came not to destroy the law, but to fulfill it.

The author of JVoices, a progressive Jewish blog, asks “Why don’t people know Harvey Milk is Jewish?”

When I googled “Harvey Milk and Jewish” to see what I would find in the latest news articles and reviews of the film, let’s just say I was underwhelmed with results.

What I have found is that, rather than explicitly discussing Milk as an Ashkenazi Jew, pieces describe his features, like his nose, his voice (usually saying he has a Long Island accent. So much of this brings up Sander Gilman’s The Jew’s Body, for me), or his political personality.

In reading the articles, I kept feeling this unease. In particular I sent around the Salon review by Andrew O’Hehir to a few friends, to ask them what they thought of Milk’s description where O’Hehir wrote:

In a city of buff and beautiful gay men, Milk had funny hair, bad clothes (when he broke into politics, he bought three secondhand suits and wore them over and over again), a big honker and an abrasive Long Island accent. He was ferociously loyal to his friends and allies but could be ruthless toward others; his sweetness and compassion concealed a powerful will and a provocative, prankish sense of humor.

He did everything but say Ashkenazi Jew, and the responses I got back from people were mixed. One person found it offensive; another coded; another who said that listing descriptors doesn’t make it inherently negative. (feel free to add your take below).

The feedback was interesting, but I was still wrestling with this larger question — what of this invisibility?

I haven’t been able to get over the irony of O’Hehir writing about Milk “busting open America’s closet,” while simultaneously writing him into a Jewish one, not that O’Hehir is alone in this.

The few Jewish blog sites I’ve seen mention the film all have this “ah ha” moment where the writer realizes that they never knew this prominent figure in U.S. politics was Jewish. But at least they had the “ah ha” moment.

There may be something to be said about colonialism here. In the movie Milk, Milk, played by Sean Penn, says

“Dan, I have had four relationships in my life. And three of them tried to commit suicide, and it’s my fault because I kept them hidden and quiet because I was closeted and weak …. This is not just jobs or issues. This is our lives we’re fighting for.”

Christians who read my reflection on Harvey should take care that they do not put Harvey into a non-Jewish closet.

It seems that Harvey did go to a progressive synagogue, as the Jewish News Weekly of Northern California documents. He attended Sha'ar Zahav, which was established for Jews who felt excluded from mainstream Judaism on account of their sexual orientation.

In her sermon, Sha'ar Zahav's Rabbi Jane Litman said that a yahrzeit helps to establish the collective memory of the community.

"A lot of our congregation members are too young to remember him," she said later. Her sermon spoke of "looking to the heroes of our community for moral guidance. Our social action fund is named after Harvey Milk. He is a bright star in our firmament."

Litman also read a message from Bennett, now at Alameda's Temple Israel, joking that "although Harvey was agnostic, had he lived he would have been a strong member" of Sha'ar Zahav.

Elva Smith, the mother of Harvey Milk's deceased partner Scott Smith, also read from the siddur.

After the service, the memorial turned into a tikkun leyl, an all-night study session.

"We thought since no one slept the night Harvey was murdered, we wanted to honor him" by studying without rest, Litman said.

In the late hours, the lights were left on in the synagogue as congregants listened to panelists speak of personal memories of Harvey Milk.

Rabbi Yoel Kahn, who left as Sha'ar Zahav's spiritual leader two years ago and now leads Stanford Hillel, also participated. Bob Kelley introduced the photo exhibit of Milk he curated at San Francisco's New Main Library. Kevin Schaub, executive director of the Harvey Milk Institute, which co-sponsored the event, also spoke, as did Jonathan Katz and Suzanne Loebl.

Finally, as the sun rose to warm the synagogue Saturday morning, those still left greeted it by reading from the Torah.

"A lot of people were crying. This is a big thing for us," Saslafsky said.

"Twenty years ago no one wanted us; we saw ourselves as a small, marginalized group. To now be in a beautiful building, and have a growing, young congregation is poignant and powerful."

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