For days now, I’ve been trying to wrap my head around this question: “Why don’t people know Harvey Milk is Jewish?” A few days ago, I added Harvey Milk to the wikipedia list of Jewish American politicians. I saw the film, MILK, starring Sean Penn, with a private audience of mostly Jews, queer and straight. The screening included opening remarks from community members, including Sharyn Saslafsky, who reminisced about how she used to walk into Castro Camera and chat with Harvey in Yiddish. In a 1998 interview with the J, Saslafsky also mentioned that:

Milk occasionally attended services at Sha’ar Zahav, which was then a new congregation with only a few members who considered themselves refugees from the Jewish community.

No surprise then that the “J” is the only Jewish paper I’ve seen yet write about the film yet.

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.

I’ve been particularly perplexed, and well, pissed, by the lack of stories in the Jewish media, since one of the main reasons the film was made was because there was a feeling that Milk’s legacy was fading.

Dan Jinks — the co-executive producer of “Milk” — was a student at Los Gatos High School at the time, and he remembers “sitting and watching the candlelight march after the shooting. “He was a hero in a movement that has had very few public heroes.”

“That’s the biggest reason we wanted to make this movie,” said Jinks. “There’s an older gay population that knows who Harvey Milk is but outside of San Francisco, he has become a forgotten figure. Certainly, younger gay audiences don’t know who he is.”

The Jewish media usually loves to peg an icon as one of their own. Yet, with the release of Milk as a major motion picture in the hopes of reviving his legacy, we’ve barely seen a blip on their radar screen.

There’s a part in the film that struck me quite profoundly. About two thirds of the way in, there’s a moment where Dan White (who assassinated Milk and Mayor Moscone) tells Milk that having the gay “issue” gives him a political “advantage,” and Milk responds,

“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.”

Let’s be clear: we’re still fighting for them.