NEW YORK—Thousands gathered at Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan on Monday to pay tribute to the life of the man who Mayor Michael Bloomberg said considered “heaven” the only viable alternative to living in New York.
Ed Koch, the charismatic and outspoken Jewish political personality who served as mayor of New York City from 1978-1989, died of heart failure at 88 on Feb. 1 and was buried three days later at Trinity Cemetery in upper Manhattan.
“Just think about it,” Bloomberg said, “a Polish Jew in an Episcopal graveyard in a largely Dominican neighborhood. What could be more New York—or even more Ed Koch?”
On the stage of Temple Emanu-El for Koch’s memorial service, an honor guard manned by representatives of all of the city’s uniformed services surrounded the simple pine coffin. Rabbi David Posner began his words with a parable of Job: “All I did was just and honest, for righteousness was my clothing.” Koch’s nephews Shmuel, Jonathan and Jared, speaking as a triumvirate, recalled their loving uncle, the teacher of intellectual and political challenge, praising his familial warmth.
“In the family,” they said, “the question was always ‘how are you doing?”
New York’s second Jewish mayor died the same day of the public release of “Koch,” the documentary film that tells his life’s story. Koch’s presence was also virtually tangible that day during the celebration of the 100th anniversary of New York’s Grand Central Terminal. Bloomberg, leading the celebration, called his predecessor “a legacy of the five boroughs.” He said no retired official “had remained so actively involved” in the city as Koch.
The importance of Jewish identity to Koch was evidenced by the inscription on the memorial stone at his burial plot, which he bought in 2008: “My father is Jewish. My mother is Jewish. I am Jewish.” Those were the last words of Jewish Wall Street Journal bureau chief Daniel Pearl before he was killed by Al Qaeda in Pakistan on Feb. 1, 2002—11 years, to the day, before Koch’s death.
U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) told JNS.org at the Grand Central Terminal celebration that Koch “was a great mayor, a great adviser, and a great friend.” Calling him “an energetic cannonball of a man with an abiding love for our remarkable city,” she said his “steady leadership during the financial crisis of the 1970s helped turn the city around.”
“His broad knowledge of public policies affecting urban areas, his intelligence and grasp of detail, his decisiveness, were everything we want to see in a great political leader,” she said.
U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) told JNS.org the late mayor was “a quintessential New Yorker, a central figure in New York life for 40 years.”
“For decades, he embodied the soul of our city, unfailingly defending and advocating for New York and everyone in it,” Nadler said. “I was proud to have worked with him for years during his mayoralty and after on so many issues affecting the city and Israel, of which he was an unflinching supporter.” Nadler said Koch had a “rich and colorful life,” and was “honest, tough, hardworking and immune to pretense.”
Koch served in the House of Representatives from 1969-1977, and after his political career was a television judge on “The People’s Court” from 1997-1999. From his congressional days until his final ones, he made his feelings about Israel clear. His backing of the Jewish state and Jewish causes was public and proactive. While representing Manhattan in Congress, he met with Golda Meir (and as mayor, named a midtown Manhattan plaza “Golda Meir Square”), and influenced the removal of immigration quotas for Soviet and later Syrian Jews.
But not all his associations with the Jewish community were positive. He uncovered a major scandal in the nursing home industry that sent Rabbi Bernard Bergman to prison, and the American Jewish Committee in 1978 said his actions led to “a rise in anti-Semitism” among blacks in New York. As mayor, he angered the Chabad-Lubavitch movement by removing special police protection at its Crown Heights headquarters in 1978, he and cooled threats of violence between the Satmar and Belzer Hassidic factions with an additional police presence.
The wide range of Koch’s influence was evident in the words of those who spoke at his funeral Monday. The massive Temple Emanu-El was filled to capacity well before the 11 a.m. service began.
“Ed… has got to be loving all this attention,” Bloomberg said. “And I was particularly thrilled that he picked my neighborhood corner shul for his funeral.”
“No mayor, I think, has ever embodied the spirit of New York City like he did… Tough and loud, brash and irreverent, full of humor and chutzpah (nerve)—he was our city’s quintessential mayor,” he added.
Praising Koch’s turnaround of a New York in deep financial trouble, Bloomberg compared the late mayor to “Moses leading the Jews out of bondage in Egypt.” Koch, he said, “led us out of darkness and he gave us hope.”
“No one ever enjoyed the theater of politics more than Ed,” he said. “And no one—no one—was ever better at it.
Former President Bill Clinton took to the podium carrying a file of letters Koch had sent him during his presidency.
“Not just New York owes him a lot… until the end of life, he was concerned with the disaffiliated,” Clinton said.
The Consul General of Israel in New York, Ido Aharoni, brought “heartfelt condolences” on behalf of “the entire people of Israel, on behalf of a nation that felt Edward Koch was one of us.” He conveyed gratitude for Koch’s “longstanding support and unconditional love,” calling Koch a “clear voice for Israel [who] let us down never.” Aharoni recalled Koch as someone “always curious and eager to know more… one of a kind.” Commenting on Koch’s inclusion of the Shema prayer on his tombstone, the Consul General assured “Israel hears you loud and clear.”
Dianne Coffey, Koch’s longtime staffer, adviser, and friend, closed the dialogue. Koch, she said, “inspired loyalty,” combining “a shrewd intellect with powerful intuition.”
Six of New York’s finest stood silently aside the casket holding Koch’s body. Moments passed and they lifted the simple box to their shoulder for this final trip down the aisle. As thousands stood in a standing ovation, the notes of “New York, New York” wafted through the massive structure of Temple Emanu-El, growing louder and louder as step by step, Koch coffin moved toward Fifth Avenue.
“Every day with Ed was an adventure,” Coffey said. “That was his legacy.”
Koch remained a vocal political commentator until his death, and in recent years vacillated on his support of President Barack Obama. In 2011, Koch supported Republican (and eventual winner) U.S. Rep. Bob Turner over Democrat David Weprin for Anthony Weiner’s former seat in New York’s Ninth Congressional District. He told JNS.org at the time that he endorsed Turner “to send a message to President Obama” regarding Obama’s actions such as calling for Israel to agree to pre-1967 borders with Palestinians. But Koch expressed support for Obama in the same interview, regarding the president’s words a day earlier at the United Nations General Assembly.
“Either [Obama] didn’t need the message or he got the message, because I thought that his speech at the United Nations was superb yesterday and met all of my expectations,” Koch said.
Koch went on to endorse Obama in the 2012 election despite his previous criticism of the president’s Middle East policies. “Whatever rift existed before—and there was—that’s gone,” he told the New York Times.
But Koch’s tune changed again in late 2012, when he was fiercely critical of Obama’s rumored nomination of Chuck Hagel for defense secretary, telling The Algemeiner that Hagel “would be a terrible appointment” because it would convey the message to the Arab world that Obama is seeking “to put space between Israel and his administration.” Koch slammed the president even harder when the Hagel nomination materialized.
“Frankly, I thought that there would come a time when [Obama] would renege on what he conveyed on his support of Israel,” he told The Algemeiner this January.