I was listening to the radio the day Ed Koch passed away in February, when I heard a recording of the former New York City Mayor answering a reporter’s question about how he would like his epitaph to read.
In his inimitable style Koch responded without missing a beat. “He was fiercely proud of his Jewish faith and he fiercely loved the City of New York”, he said. I was totally impressed. Here was a wonderful manifestation of the “pintele yid”, that inexhaustible Jewish essence which is at the core of every Jew. It was noteworthy, I thought, how Koch had mentioned his pride in his Jewish identity first, ahead even of his love for New York.
I recalled how over 30 years ago while serving as Mayor, Koch helped some of my fellow Jews in St. Louis – may God bless them and keep them – to learn an important lesson. Koch probably never knew what he accomplished that day, and I never had the opportunity to thank him for it. So I’ll share the story here as my belated expression of gratitude to “Hizzoner” the Mayor.
Young, idealistic and inexperienced, my wife, Shiffy, and I had just moved to St. Louis a few months earlier to establish Chabad in this mid-size Midwestern Jewish community of about 50,000. One of our earliest community-wide projects was to erect a fifteen-foot Chanukah menorah on the plaza of the St. Louis County Government Center. The county executive happily approved the menorah display and even joined us for the beautiful lighting ceremony. The TV and news reporters were present and provided ample media coverage. We received many wonderfully supportive comments from the public, Jews and non-Jews alike, telling us how the menorah was a tasteful and fitting expression of Jewish celebration and pride, and of the religious diversity which is this country’s blessed hallmark.
Much to our surprise and dismay, the menorah display also encountered fierce opposition, which emanated largely from the professional leadership – well meaning, I am sure — of an array of local Jewish establishment organizations. Their argument was ostensibly that they considered the placement of the menorah on public property to be in violation of the constitutional separation of church and state. It was evident, however, that there also was an underlying unease with the forthright, unabashed public display of Jewishness which the menorah represented, and which many Jews in this conservative city, in the middle of America, were unaccustomed to at the time.
These were well-intentioned people who were firmly attached to what they perceived to be the Jewish community’s sacred opposition to such displays. Some saw us as foreigners, “imports from Brooklyn” (that’s how one writer referred to us in an op-ed), who had come to town to overturn long-standing, hallowed community norms. The county executive, to his great credit, remained firm in his support of the menorah display, and the entire community was abuzz over this controversy. The local Anglo-Jewish newspaper made it front-page news and editorialized against us, and word of the discord within the Jewish community even reached the general media. It was not a pleasant situation, to say the least.
A lot has changed since then. We have become good friends with many of the people who initially opposed us, and Chabad now enjoys deep and fruitful relationships with individuals and organizations from throughout the community. The public Menorah has become a commonplace and accepted feature in many cities across the country. Moreover, in a couple of landmark rulings the U. S. Supreme Court gave its nod to this sort of “holiday display” on public property. Eventually American Jewish organizations came around to recognize that there exists a constitutional argument in support of such displays as well, namely the protection of our religious freedom and of free speech. But our story happened well before that.
It was the last day of Chanukah that year, and the iconic, big city Mayor Ed Koch happened to be in St. Louis to address the annual meeting of the local Jewish Federation which was held over a Sunday brunch at an upscale St. Louis hotel. Several hundred supporters were in attendance, including many of the professional and lay leaders who were heading the opposition to the menorah. Koch gave his speech, which of course had nothing to do with the menorah, and then proceeded to take questions from the audience. That’s when one questioner took to the floor and asked Koch to explain how, as a Jewish mayor, he dealt with the issue of religious symbols on public property and, specifically, would the mayor be kind enough to share his own view about the placement of menorahs on public property.
An audible gasp went up from the audience. Someone had dared to bring up the embarrassing, unmentionable topic of the menorah display in the presence of this important guest. Then there was utter silence as the straight-shooting Koch responded in his typical direct and outspoken manner. “I have no problem whatsoever with having a privately-funded menorah on public property”, he said. “I think it’s absolutely wonderful. I’m proud to say that we have one in New York City at Fifth Avenue and Central Park” he continued.
As if he hadn’t said enough on the subject, the Mayor continued further. “Let me tell you what else we do in New York,” he said. “The menorah is in Manhattan. The people who light the menorah are the Lubavitchers. They live in Brooklyn. So when they light the menorah in Manhattan late on Friday afternoon when it’s getting close to Shabbos, we provide them with a helicopter and we fly them back to Brooklyn, so they can get home in time for Shabbos!”
Nothing more needed to be said. That was the end of the problem. While I’m sure most people in the audience didn’t change their minds about the menorah display and the First Amendment just because of what Koch had said, he nonetheless succeeded to make everyone understand that good and decent people within the Jewish community can hold differing views on such matters. While doing so, he not only quieted a controversy regarding church-state separation, but more importantly, he let my fellow Jews in St. Louis see a wonderful first-hand example of real, unapologetic Jewish pride. He reminded them that there’s no reason in this great country for anyone to hide their Jewishness as if it were contrary or inimical to american life and culture. And for that I am most grateful.
Thank you, Mayor Koch.
Rabbi Yosef Landa is Regional Director of Chabad of Greater St. Louis