Why it matters to be gay and Jewish

Why it matters to be gay and Jewish

Lawyer-turned-historian Rachel Tiven looks at Harvey Milk and Ed Koch for Pride Shabbat in Livingston

Rachel Tiven (Leslie Von Pless)
Rachel Tiven (Leslie Von Pless)

Ed Koch was a Jewish guy from Manhattan; he was born in 1924, grew up in Newark, and became mayor of New York City in 1978.

Harvey Milk was a Jewish guy from Long Island; he was born in 1930 and became San Francisco City Supervisor in 1978.

Both men were gay; Mr. Milk openly, Mr. Koch not. Mr. Milk died by assassin’s bullet in 1978; Mr. Koch died in 2013, of natural causes.

Their similarities and differences are fascinating (and heartrending). Rachel Tiven, a lawyer who’s worked at nonprofits advocating for immigration and LGBTQ rights, and now is well into a doctorate program in history at CUNY Graduate Center, will talk about them as part of an in-person and streamed Shabbat service for Gay Pride month at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston. (See below.)

Ms. Tiven talked about why she made the move from activism to history, and how one informs and supports the other. “In a roundabout way, I came to realize that I really needed to zoom further out to understand why this place is the way it is,” she said. “I had been looking very close up for a long time, and trying to make it better, but the way we are stuck now requires looking a little further back.”

There’s a great advantage to going back to school in your 40s, she added; you can use what you’ve learned about the world and yourself to figure out where your skills and natural intellectual inclinations fit best. “In college” — Harvard — “I concentrated in comparative religion and English,” Ms. Tiven said. “In retrospect, I probably should have concentrated in history, but I didn’t understand it, the way you don’t understand when you’re 18.

“You can study the same topics, but the difference is methodology. I was interested in understanding how religion and culture shaped the United States. Now I know that for me, the best approach is using primary documents. And I get to do it again.”

Ms. Tiven is passionate about her work; as she talks about history, and her new ability to study the documents that bring it to life, her intensity blazes.

Although she’ll talk about two men at B’nai Abraham, “most of my work is about women, and about women’s long search for full citizenship in the United States, to have responsibility both politically and economically,” Ms. Tiven said. “A lot of my work is about the women’s suffrage movement, and how women took no power and nurtured it into power.

“We still really don’t understand enough how what I call the largest nonviolent revolution in American history happened. It resulted in more power for more people, without violence, at least from the women.”

Ms. Tiven doesn’t know why the American suffragists chose to be nonviolent, while their counterparts in England made a different choice. “There is a tradition of class-based political violence in the UK, and women used it as a tactic. They thought the tradeoffs inherent in using it were worth it. It was a very considered decision. They threw rocks and burned down buildings.

Ed Koch in 1988; he still was mayor then.

“American suffragists knew that violence was available as a tactic, but they chose not to use it. That was a very considered decision. It’s fascinating.”

Her dissertation will be the political history of the 19th Amendment, which allowed women to vote. The amendment, ratified in 1920, reads, in its entirely: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

We know the general public history about the amendment’s passage and ratification — we know which legislators voted for it, and when — but we do not know the smaller details, the private motivations and conversations and conversions, that led them there. That’s what a historian gets to unearth.

“Why did men ultimately agree to dilute their own power by half?” Ms. Tiven asked. “Political theory says that usually you agree to give up power either because it is in your interest to do so — the Republican party backed the enfranchisement of Black men because they wanted their votes — or if the cost of continuing to resist is too high.

“Most of the suffragist history we have is about what the suffragists did and how and why they did it, but we don’t have a lot about it from the perspective of the all-white, all-male legislators who were the only ones in position to decide.”

Relatively few historians have studied women’s suffrage, Ms. Tiven said. “There are an estimated 100,000 books written about the Civil War, and maybe between 100 and 300 about women’s suffrage.” What we do know is that the northern states were in favor, “the Deep South states were dead set against it, but the border states were movable.

“It passed in Tennessee by one vote. Its passage was not a foregone conclusion. It passed by a hair.”

When it comes to deep, legislated social change, the tactics matter, but the human motivations are both less accessible and more telling.

“You can ask me how we won marriage equality, and I could tell you what we did,” Ms. Tiven said; she was active in that fight. “But if you want to ask me what worked, you have to ask the people whose minds were changed.”

That brings her to her talk at B’nai Abraham.

Harvey Milk, left, at a Gay Pride parade in San Jose in 1978.

The Torah parasha on that Shabbat is Beha’alotecha, when the Israelites, for a change, complain, and Aaron and Miriam criticize their brother Moshe “for his choice of wife and the way he manages his personal life,” Ms. Tiven said. “What happens when a leader has complaining followers and your closest intimates criticize your choices about your personal life?

“That will be the frame for the discussion of Harvey Milk and Ed Koch.

“I will talk about the relevance of being gay and Jewish,” Ms. Tiven said. “Why is it important? Listing great gay Jews is like the opposite of listing great Jews in sports. You could do a very long book about great gay Jews. But why is it meaningful?

“The question that interests me is about the role of a leader. To whom are you accountable? Koch had the good fortune to live a long time; their lives are comparable up until the point where Milk’s ends.

“Milk was totally out; two good biographies of him say that he left New York intentionally, to move someplace freer and more embracing. San Francisco always was more gay than New York.

“And San Francisco is much much smaller. The voting base there is a tiny fraction of New York’s. If you want to be mayor of New York, you have to cater to a lot a lot a lot of people. There are a lot of voters in San Francisco, but not nearly as wide a swath.”

Ms. Tiven talked about a recent piece in the New York Times, “The Secrets Ed Koch Carried,” “which gave us not so much a confirmation that he was gay — everyone knew that — but that he was lonely. I don’t know if you could call what he felt was regret, but it shows the tradeoffs.”

Those two men were “figures who came of age during and immediately after the war, shaped by the American Jewish midcentury consciousness. It shaped them in ways that are highly constitutive of American Judaism.

“What does it matter to us as Jews? Why are we interested in identifying them as Jews? As gay? Why does it matter to us that someone is gay and Jewish?”

Those are “substantive questions,” Ms. Tiven said. “And I hope that we will have substantive answers.”

Who: Rachel Tiven

What: Will talk about Harvey Milk, Ed Koch, and being gay and
Jewish in mid 20th-century America

When: At Shabbat services on Friday, June 17, at 6:30

Where: Live at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston and online on the synagogue’s website, tbanj.org; just click on the “streaming” link at the top. It also will stream on B’nai Abraham’s Facebook page.

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