Many eras could reasonably compete as the defining Jewish moment of New York City: pushcarts on the Lower East Side, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, the CCNY point-shaving scandal, the Ocean Hill-Brownsville teachers’ strike, the Brill Building’s influence on the American songbook, and the garment industry’s styling of American haute couture.
The faces on our Mount Rushmore who have come to define the very essence of Jewish New York are equally varied: Emma Lazarus, George Gershwin, Sandy Koufax, Leonard Bernstein, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Red Holtzman and Woody Allen. Some, however, call to mind a very different set of New York memories, and stereotypes, such as Arnold Rothstein, Ivan Boesky and Bernard Madoff.
But whether they evoke the sublime or the debased, whether they invented handball or the bagel, the Jewish soul of New York City, at least to my mind, is best exemplified by former Mayor Ed Koch.
Yes, Abe Beame was the city’s first avowedly Jewish mayor (Fiorello LaGuardia’s mother was Jewish, but he identified himself as a Catholic). Beame, however, presided over New York City during its near fiscal collapse, when the Bronx was actually burning, and crime was not just a statistic — it was a rallying cry for white flight.
For many, Beame was a nebbishy party hack not quite ready for prime time, a backroom dealer who lacked the grit and charisma required of a melting pot mayor. It was during his mayoralty, after all, when President Ford ostensibly told the city to “drop dead,” when Con-Ed blackouts and strikes by civic employees were abundant, when the Son of Sam (David Berkowitz, geez, another Jew) placed an ominous curfew on the city so great that even the sexual swingers of Plato’s Retreat retreated to their own bedrooms. Beame was a Jewish mayor whose face projected all the anxiety of a man standing around helplessly as unendurable tsuris descended upon his municipal government.
And then came Ed Koch — another New York Jew, this one, however, to the rescue, which was fitting for a twice decorated combat veteran of World War II. Koch is deservedly credited with having saved New York City from the brink of bankruptcy. But even more importantly, perhaps, he gave the five boroughs a renewed sense of energy and purpose. This was a city that never slept, but not because it was overrun with muggers. Koch restored the excitement, reclaimed the tourists, reinvigorated the economy and brought law and order to the streets.
And he did so in a brashly Jewish way. Not only was he Jewish; he acted Jewish, a far cry from the Germanic “Our Crowd,” Anglicized-named, Episcopalian-scrubbed Jews who managed to penetrate polite society even during the 19th century. With Koch, the qualities of the street-smart, fast-talking, occasionally off-putting Jewish New Yorker were always on full display. He denied the New York Giants a parade permit to celebrate their 1987 Super Bowl victory because they played their home games in New Jersey. He heckled the hecklers. He decamped on the Brooklyn Bridge during a transit strike, cheering on pedestrians like a Moses on the Manhattan side of the Red Sea. He seemed to be everywhere: Chinese restaurants, subway cars, “Saturday Night Live,” baseball games, and cameo appearances in movies as New York City’s mayor. There was even an Off-Broadway musical, “Mayor,” based on Koch’s bestselling memoir. Ironically, he might have ended up as governor of New York if he hadn’t told Playboy magazine that he found suburban and upstate rural life to be “sterile.”
Of course, this all occurred during a time when Jews were developing a new sure-footedness on American soil. Jews were fast becoming card-carrying members of the American mainstream. The children of immigrants were no longer confined to the ghettos of the outer boroughs. Ivy League schools, white-shoe law firms, Wall Street investment banks, and exclusive country clubs were suddenly open to Jews, their quotas magically lifted like some antiquated, bigoted fog. Israel was emerging as a regional power with a nimble army and a spy network the envy of James Bond. Mark Spitz provided the other dramatic Jewish story of the 1972 Munich Olympics, and he looked positively tanned and toned in a red, white, and blue Speedo. Jews were truly flexing their muscles — without apology, without shame. Barbra Streisand even sang “Hatikva” on a prime-time network television broadcast, “The Stars Salute Israel at 30.” (Oh, how times have changed. No such star-studded spectacle awaited Israel when she turned 60.)
For many Americans, Koch embodied the crusading, can-do spirit of the modern American Jew — opinionated, pushy, comical — a Jewish caricature, to be sure, but a force to be reckoned with. The arrival of Ed Koch as the public face of New York and America’s Jewish everyman introduced an entirely new Jewish sensibility into the national consciousness, laying the pathway for other political and cultural refinements of the Jewish-American experience that had yet to evolve. Sen. Joe Lieberman’s vice-presidential candidacy, and the ubiquity of Jews and their religious symbols in popular culture, such as “Will & Grace,” Matisyahu, Madonna’s embrace of the Kabbalah, and even President Obama’s White House Passover seders, were all natural outgrowths of Koch’s three terms in office.
In fact, the dawning of Ed Koch offered the perfect coda to the Age of Aquarius. New York City awoke from the doldrums of urban decay, and Jewish-Americans began to see chutzpah as a virtue to be shared and admired. Koch carried himself as the Jewish Mayor in ways that Mitt Romney could never do as a Mormon president. While still in office Koch called out Jesse Jackson for his pejorative “Hymietown” remark in the 1984 presidential campaign and even said that Jews would be “crazy” to vote for him. And long after Koch had left Gracie Mansion, he publically supported candidates who were sympathetic to Israel, most recently breaking with the Democratic Party in a local congressional race, which led to the election of Republican Bob Turner, simply to send a message to President Obama that his support for Israel was not to the former mayor’s liking.
Most fittingly, Ed Koch’s imprint on Jewish New York is destined to be everlasting. Indeed, it will be engraved right into the soil of Manhattan. He will be bured in Washington Heights’ Trinity Cemetery, where he has already arranged for his memorial stone to include the Star of David, the Shema Yisrael, and the final words of slain Wall Street Journal reporter, Daniel Pearl: “My father is Jewish. My mother is Jewish. I am Jewish.”
Thane Rosenbaum, a novelist, essayist and law professor, is the author of, most recently, “The Stranger Within Sarah Stein.”