Keshet is a national organization that works for LGBTQ equality in Jewish life. The organization equips Jewish leaders with tools to build LGBTQ-affirming communities, creates spaces for queer Jewish teens to feel valued and develop their own leadership skills, and mobilizes the Jewish community to fight for LGBTQ justice. Keshet’s blog spotlights this work, as well as the voices of LGBTQ Jews, our families, and allies.
This Sunday, May 22, Harvey Milk would have been 86 years old. Although his life was cut short, his pioneering work as a visible advocate for gay rights lives on. On his birthday, now known as Harvey Milk Day, we celebrate his work, life, and lasting legacy. At Keshet, we’re honoring his life and achievements by reprinting this excerpt from A Letter to Harvey Milk by Lesléa Newman, first published in 1988, ten years after Milk’s assassination. The story is told from the perspective of Harry, a Holocaust survivor in San Francisco taking a writing class at the local senior center. In this excerpt, Harry is responding to a prompt to “write a letter to somebody from our past, someone who’s no longer with us.”
In 2008, Keshet honored both Milk and Newman as LGBT Jewish Heroes.
You had to go get yourself killed for being a faygeleh? You couldn’t let somebody else have such a great honor? Alright, alright, so you liked the boys, I wasn’t wild about the idea. But I got used to it. I never said you wasn’t welcome in my house, did I?
Nu, Harvey, you couldn’t leave well enough alone? You had your own camera store, your own business, what’s bad? You couldn’t keep still about the boys, you weren’t satisfied until the whole world knew? Harvey Milk, with the big ears and the big ideas, had to go make himself something, a big politician. I know, I know, I said, “Harvey, make something of yourself, don’t be an old shmegeggie like me, Harry the butcher.” So now I’m eating my words, and they stick like a chicken bone in my old throat.
It’s a rotten world, Harvey, and rottener still without you in it. You know what happened to that momzer, Dan White? They let him out of jail, and he goes and kills himself so nobody else should have the pleasure. Now you know me, Harvey, I’m not a violent man. But this was too much, even for me. In the old country, I saw things you shouldn’t know from, things you couldn’t imagine one person could do to another. But here in America, a man climbs through the window, kills the Mayor of San Francisco, kills Harvey Milk, and a couple years later he’s walking around on the street? This I never thought I’d see in my whole life. But from a country that kills the Rosenbergs, I should expect something different?
Harvey, you should be glad you weren’t around for the trial. I read about it in the papers. The lawyer, that son of a bitch, said Dan White ate too many Twinkles the night before he killed you, so his brain wasn’t working right. Twinkles, nu, I ask you. My kids ate Twinkles when they were little, did they grow up to be murderers, God forbid? And now, do they take the Twinkles down from the shelf, somebody else shouldn’t go a little crazy, climb through a window, and shoot somebody? No, they leave them right there next to the cupcakes and the donuts, to torture me every time I go to the store to pick up a few things.
Harvey, I think I’m losing my mind. You know what I do every week? Every week I go to the store, I buy a bag of jellybeans for you, you should have something to nosh on. I remember what a sweet tooth you have. I put them in a jar on the table, in case you should come in with another crazy petition for me to sign. Sometimes I think you’re gonna just walk through my door and tell me it was another meshugeh publicity stunt.
Harvey, now I’m gonna tell you something. The night you died the whole city of San Francisco cried for you. Thirty thousand people marched in the street, I saw it on TV. Me, I didn’t go down. I’m an old man, I don’t walk so good, they said there might be riots. But no, there were no riots. Just people walking in the street, quiet, each one with a candle, until the street looked like the sky all lit up with a million stars. Old people, young people. Black people, white people, Chinese people. You name it, they were there. I remember thinking, Harvey must be so proud, and then I remembered you were dead and such a lump rose in my throat, like a grapefruit it was, and then the tears ran down my face like rain. Can you imagine, Harvey, an old man like me, sitting alone in his apartment, crying and carrying on
like a baby? But it’s the God’s truth. Never did I carry on so.
And then all of a sudden I got mad. I yelled at the people on TV; for getting shot you made him into such a hero? You couldn’t march for him when he was alive, he couldn’t shep a little naches?
But nu, what good does getting mad do, it only makes my pressure go up. So I took myself a pill, calmed myself down.
Then they made speeches for you, Harvey. The same people who called you a shmuck when you were alive, now you were dead, they were calling you a mensh. You were a mensh, Harvey, a mensh with a heart of gold. You were too good for this rotten world. They just weren’t ready for you.
Oy Harveleh, alav ha-sholom,
“A Letter to Harvey Milk” from A Letter to Harvey Milk copyright © 1988, 2004 by Lesléa Newman (University of Wisconsin Press). Reprinted by permission of the author.
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