Who Was Harvey Milk?
During the final years of the Great Depression, when Harvey Milk was about eight or nine, he loved going to the movies. On many Saturdays, he would spend his allowance on tickets to the local movie theater. All across the country, there were special Saturday-afternoon shows with movies just for kids. But the movies weren’t the reason Harvey liked going.
Raffles were held during the daytime movies, making it possible for kids to win prizes if the number on their ticket was chosen. Harvey went to the movies always hoping that his ticket would win him a prize. But it wasn’t really the prize that he wanted.
The prizes—things like watches and toy guns—were handed out onstage. The winners would come up to the stage to pick up whatever prize they had won. Although many winners probably did that quickly and quietly, Harvey did not.
When he’d win, Harvey would make a show out of it, taking low, dramatic bows and getting the packed crowd of kids in the theater to cheer him on. That is what Harvey looked forward to most: the cheers and the attention he received when he was on the stage.
After Harvey grew up, he still loved to perform in front of people. He wanted them to pay attention to what he had to say. But grown-up Harvey wasn’t an actor. Instead, he ran for public office, using his talent and skills to inspire others, to fight for the rights of all people, and to try to change his community for the better. This is his story.
Chapter 1: The Milks Come to Woodmere
Harvey Bernard Milk was born on May 22, 1930, in Woodmere, New York, a town on Long Island about an hour from New York City. The first person in Harvey Milk’s family to come to Woodmere was his grandfather, Mausche Milch. Mausche was born in what is now Lithuania, a country in northern Europe. He had a big family, and it was hard to find work that could support his wife and five children. So he left on his own to find work in the United States.
Mausche was the only Jewish person in Woodmere, and he changed his name to Morris Milk to fit in more. He worked as a door-to-door salesman, selling things like clothes and fabric, called dry goods. He saved his money and opened his own store, Milk’s Dry Goods. The store did well, and after almost six years alone, it was time for the rest of Morris’s family to come to America. His children changed their names in America, too. The youngest child, Hieke, became known as William. William was Harvey’s father.
William, who called himself Bill, married Minerva “Minnie” Karns in 1925, when he was twenty-eight. Minnie’s family was also Jewish and originally from Lithuania, too. Minnie had grown up in Brooklyn, New York. She was independent and funny, and she believed that women could do many of the same things men could. Bill and Minnie had two children, Robert Milk, born in 1926, and Harvey, born four years later.
By the time Robert and Harvey were born, Milk’s Dry Goods had grown into Milk’s Department Store. Harvey’s grandfather became an important man in the community, which by then included a lot more Jewish people. He wanted to use his own wealth to give something back. In 1928, Morris and other leaders in Woodmere started a synagogue—a Jewish house of worship. They called it Congregation Sons of Israel.
Harvey grew up going to synagogue with his family. The leaders of the synagogue wanted its members to follow the traditional rules of their faith. They didn’t work or use cars and other machines on the Sabbath—Saturday—the Jewish day of rest.
Harvey’s mother wasn’t strict about all the rules, but there was one important Jewish idea that Minnie believed in. It was called tikkun olam, which means to help fix the world. For Minnie, that meant always being involved in volunteer projects, like helping to feed the poor. His mother’s efforts to help others set an important example for Harvey.
Chapter 2: Discoveries
Harvey Milk was an unusual-looking kid. He had big eyes, a big nose, and ears that stuck out from his head. Other children teased him, but Harvey just brushed off their taunts. Sometimes, he would tease them right back. Harvey was outgoing. He liked to make people laugh, and he loved to be the center of attention. In 1941, when eleven-year-old Harvey was at a party for a baby cousin, someone filmed the celebration. When the camera was on Harvey, who knew he was being filmed, his smile got wider and his eyes twinkled. He really enjoyed being in front of the camera.
Harvey had a lot of energy, and was even a bit of a troublemaker. From a young age, he liked to pull pranks on friends and family members, just as his older brother did. Once, while their mother was at the store, Harvey and Robert took all the labels off the canned goods in the house. After that, the only way for their mother to find out what was in the cans was to open them!
Harvey was really close with his grandfather Morris. He respected him for the work he did in their community, and he looked to him for advice. Harvey never forgot one of his grandfather’s sayings: “Don’t hide your green hair; people will see it anyway.” He was letting Harvey know that he shouldn’t try to cover up who he was. It was his grandfather’s way of saying “Always be yourself.”
Harvey’s grandfather was a role model for him. And because his family was involved in the synagogue started by his grandfather, Harvey had his bar mitzvah at Sons of Israel when he was thirteen. A bar mitzvah (or bat mitzvah, for girls) is a Jewish ceremony that signals when a young person must begin to observe the Jewish commandments. They become responsible for their actions and behave more like adults within their religious community.
By the time of Harvey’s bar mitzvah, however, he wasn’t interested in the religious parts of Judaism. He didn’t like all the rules synagogue members were supposed to follow, and he didn’t like being told what to do. He was, however, proud of being a Jewish person.
Harvey grew up in the 1930s and 1940s, a time when there was a lot of anti-Semitism—discrimination against and sometimes hatred of Jews. There was even anti-Semitism on Long Island, where Harvey and his family lived. Many people traveled in the summer to the town of Yaphank, where marches were held for the Nazi Party and there was actually a street named for Adolf Hitler.
In 1943, just before his bar mitzvah, Harvey learned about the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto in Poland. When they found out they were going to be sent to concentration camps, the Jews in Warsaw decided to fight the Nazis instead of going willingly. They fought bravely, but the Nazis eventually captured most of them, and they were sent to the camps.
The lessons of the Warsaw ghetto and the Holocaust stayed with Harvey. He believed it was important to fight for what you believe in. He also believed it was important to make the choice to do the right thing. And he never hid the fact that he was Jewish.
When he was fourteen, Harvey convinced his mother that he was old enough to go to New York City by himself to see the opera. Harvey had become an opera fan when he was just eleven. On Saturday afternoons, he would listen on the radio to performances by the Metropolitan Opera in New York. He’d move his arms around, pretending he was the conductor.
Harvey’s mother gave him money for tickets in the standing-room section of the opera house. He traveled there by train. In the city, Harvey discovered many different types of people. He recognized that some of the men in the audience were attending the opera together. They were similar to him in a specific way. Harvey realized that, like them, he was gay—that he was a young man who was attracted to other men. He was not yet ready, however, to let others know how he felt.
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