Israel Fishman was born in Westerly, Rhode Island. He took the middle name "David" as an adult. His parents, Minnie C. and Benjamin Fishman, were Orthodox Jews; his father was an ordained rabbi, although he never held a pulpit position or earned a living as a clergyman.
In September 1946, Israel Fishman was sent to Yeshiva Torah Vodaath in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. In letters, he described his childhood as one of much turmoil and loneliness. At the age of fifteen he was hospitalized for twelve weeks and treated with electric shock therapy. His early adult years were filled with the typical yearnings of youth and with his particular struggle to recognize, understand, and enjoy his life as a gay man.
Although Fishman rebelled against the confines of Orthodoxy, in fact found them inconsistent and irreconcilable with an openly gay life, the early years, imbued with the rule-and-calendar-based thinking of Orthodox life, formed a major part of his character and were an essential part of his personal conflicts. His writings are punctuated with Talmudic references and perspectives, and a recurring subject of interest, reflected in these papers, has been the lives of homosexuals under the Nazis.
Fishman worked in various New York businesses as an office assistant between the years 1956 and 1965. In 1958 he entered the City College of New York, enrolling as an evening student and working during the day. He graduated from City College with a B.A. degree, magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, in Philosophy in June of 1965, having become a full-time day student for several years prior to his graduation. In May 1966, he received an M.L.S. from Columbia University's School of Library Science
For the next year Fishman worked as Head of Technical Services in the library at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Richmond College of the City University of New York, on Staten Island, was the location of his next job, Acquisitions Librarian, which he held until 1970. He was subsequently hired by Upsala College in East Orange, NJ.
Fishman was hired as Circulation Librarian at Upsala College, at the rank of Assistant Professor, in September 1970. In the Spring of 1973 he learned that he had been denied tenure. After considering the appeal process and other options, he requested and was granted a six month sick leave, at the conclusion of which, on January 15, 1974, his salary and all remaining benefits ended. This was to be the conclusion of Fishman's career as a library professional.
Ironically, those Upsala-era years marked his greatest influence on the profession's social awareness. It was at the American Library Association meeting in Detroit in 1970 that Fishman conceived the idea of a gay liberation group within the library profession, and he a few others organized the Task Force on Gay Liberation, a section of the Social Responsibilities Round Table. The group's activities at the Dallas convention the next year (June 1971) gained national attention in the gay and mainstream press.
Fishman said in his correspondence that these public activities were responsible for the demise of his career in librarianship. He was succeeded in leadership of the Task Force by Barbara Gittings, a lesbian who was not a professional librarian. The two had a mostly affectionate friendship and collegial relationship, punctuated by times of disagreement on issues of their relative power and influence.
After leaving librarianship, Fishman went to Los Angeles, California for a period of work and study at the Gay Community Services Center. He returned to New York in the winter of 1973. A course in Swedish massage led to a new career as a masseur.
On February 2, 1974, Fishman met Carl Navarro at a performance of the play "Out of the Frying Pan" at the West Side Discussion Group (a regular gathering of gay men in New York City). The two became boyfriends (their preferred term), and began living together shortly thereafter, beginning a lasting relationship. The couple's activities included, for a number of years, lengthy annual trips to Italy, where they established many friendships. They celebrated their twentieth anniversary with a festive dinner party in 1994.