In the mid-1970s, William Rapfogel, who was publishing a small Jewish newspaper on the Lower East Side, arranged a meeting at a café near Grand Central Station with Edward Koch, then an obscure member of Congress, and one of the representative’s aides.
Rapfogel brought up the topic of Jacobo Timerman, a Jewish journalist in Argentina who was imprisoned by the country’s military junta for what many observers viewed as anti-Semitic reasons.
Koch, who had recently learned about Timerman’s plight, seemed energized by the cause, said Rapfogel, now executive director of the Metropolitan Council of Jewish Poverty. “Koch was impassioned,” Rapfogel recalled. Koch told him, “I’m going back to Washington and make this a major issue.”
The congressman kept his word, Rapfogel said. “He began to shake trees in Washington,” lobbying with the State Department and foreign embassies.
Timerman eventually was released from an Argentine prison; he went on to work for a while in Israel, and he thanked Koch for working on his behalf.
Koch hated “seeing Jews being persecuted,” said Rapfogel, who went on to work as an assistant to the mayor.
Mayor Edward Irving Koch, who died Feb. 1 at 88 of congestive heart failure at New York-Presbyterian Hospital at Columbia University, brought this Jewish sensibility to his three terms in City Hall and to his subsequent life as a private citizen. It was in that post-mayoral life that he established himself as de facto leader of the American Jewish community; he no longer held elected or appointed office, yet he held great influence among rank-and-file Jews.
He “redefined” what a Jewish leader is in this country — someone whose influence comes from force of personality and a public perception of probity — said William Helmreich, professor of sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center and author of the forthcoming book, “The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles to Understand a City” (Princeton University Press).
Wearing his unabashed, unapologetic street-smart New York Jewishness as a mark of pride, “he outlived the former charisma that his title gave him as mayor,” said Helmreich, who added that Koch’s endorsement gave a candidate for local or national office the aura of “being taken seriously.
“When Koch breathed, the world listened. His influence was so great that people were scared if he came out against them,” Helmreich said.
“Ed Koch was unique” in this regard, Rapfogel said, adding that no individual of recent generations has approached Koch’s role.
A master at gaining — usually favorable — press, Mr. Koch was in the end his own strongest competition for headlines, dying on the day that a documentary about his life, Neil Barsky’s “Koch,” made its New York premiere.
A onetime classic liberal, who bucked the city’s Democratic Party establishment and eventually created his own power base, he spent his last years, in the words of Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, as a “Jewish Yoda — blessing or cursing political figures as he saw fit.”
Outspoken — to many people’s annoyance — on any number of social or political or cultural issues on which he considered himself a maven, he grew into far more than, as a Wikipedia profile this week described him, an “American lawyer, politician and political commentator.”
Originally a crusader against Communism, and eventually against what he viewed as Muslim extremism, Mayor Koch was a one-man anomaly: a self-declared secular Jew who harbored a strong belief in God and embraced the trappings of the faith on his own terms; a lifelong Democrat who would endorse candidates on a non-sectarian basis; a Jew who was buried in northern Manhattan’s Episcopalian Trinity Cemetery (he couldn’t bear to leave the borough, even in death, and wanted to be near a subway for visitors’ sake) but with a gravestone of his own design that included a Jewish star, the Sh’ma prayer and the declaration, in the words of the slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, that “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish.”
Working until his final days as a lawyer and ubiquitous commentator, he worked in a Manhattan office on whose windowsill he kept a conspicuous silver-colored Chanukah menorah and other Jewish and Israel-related memorabilia.
Leaders of Jewish organizations this week issued statements of praise in Koch’s honor. Morton Klein, Zionist Organization of America: “His pride of being Jewish and love of Israel was always very clear, even palpable.” Alan Steinberg, political science instructor and former EPA administrator: “He was a member of every Jewish family.” Ruth Messinger, president of American Jewish World Service and former Manhattan Borough President: “An extraordinary man and mayor — passionate about New York City, passionate about government, committed to the people who worked with him and for him.”
Elected — then twice re-elected — mayor by heavy margins, he lost his bid for an unprecedented fourth term because, he said, “voters got tired of me.” He had proclaimed in 1988 that any Jew who voted for civil rights leader and presidential aspirant Jesse Jackson was “crazy.” Earlier, when City Hall reporters pressed him on the subject of black anti-Semitism — a topic he frequently broached — he cited Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam and a local assemblyman from Brooklyn, Al Vann, as examples of black leaders who have “used anti-Semitism.” Some Jews hailed his outspokenness, others denounced it, while black leaders accused him of stirring tensions and the newspapers ate it all up.
When, in the summer of 1989, a young black man, Yusuf Hawkins, was murdered for venturing into mostly white Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, to buy a car, tensions simmered even more in a city still healing from the Howard Beach incident three years earlier — paving the way for David Dinkins, the African-American borough president of Manhattan, to rise in popularity in a crowded Democratic primary just three weeks after the murder. As a black official who had publicly denounced Farrakhan, Dinkins had the standing to mix liberal Jews and minorities into a winning coalition.
“[Koch] was seen as divisive and that didn’t help him get re-elected,” recalls Democrat consultant Hank Sheinkopf. “Among Jews there was mixed reaction. Some people felt it was heroic because they didn’t like Al Sharpton, but others felt he shouldn’t ‘mix in’ [on the topic].”
Compounding Mr. Koch’s problem as he sought a fourth term were the corruption scandal at the Parking Violations Bureau among patronage employees, and a sense that Koch had no rigid political ideology.
“[Voters] never could understand where he was on the political spectrum,” said Sheinkopf. “He was not the progressive they knew. He became a utilitarian. When corruption got out of control and racial incidents happened, he took the blame — he was supposed to make these things go away.”
Although Koch’s policies couldn’t be blamed for the Bensonhurst incident, his blunt style at a time when healing words were needed came to earn the antagonism of some members of the black community, says Helmreich, who interviewed Koch recently for his new book.
Koch admitted as much, Helmreich said. “I was a little controversial,” he told Helmreich, praising Mayor Michael Bloomberg for fostering intergroup relations where extensive black-white tensions “don’t exist anymore.”
“He insulted everybody — that was his style,” Helmreich said.
That trend may be part of his very final legacy with the reference to the “Muslim terrorist” who killed Daniel Pearl in his epitaph. “Ed Koch’s tombstone is only one I’ve seen that spreads hate from the grave,” tweeted liberal blogger MJ Rosenberg this week.
Helmreich said Koch “could have handled [relations with the African-American community] better.”
Which Koch didn’t deny.
“He never feared admitting he was wrong,” said Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, who volunteered on Mayor Koch’s three mayoral campaigns and served as chief of staff to the traffic commissioner in the Koch administration.
In 1995, as an aide to Gov. George Pataki, Wiesenfeld was appointed “in just a few hours,” to be part of a delegation representing the state at the funeral of Israel’s assassinated Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin. Mayor Koch was also part of the delegation.
“By sheer coincidence,” Wiesenfeld told The Jewish Week, neither he nor Koch was in possession of their passports then — both were in the renewal process.
“We exited and entered the U.S. and Israel undocumented,” Wiesenfeld said. “If you’re standing next to Ed Koch, you can do anything.”
Throughout his career in office, starting with his days in Congress, Koch advocated on a wide variety of issues close to most Jews’ hearts: freedom for Soviet Jewry; mistreatment of Syrian Jews; the U.S. granting of visas to PLO representatives. As mayor, he made newly elected Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin an honorary citizen of New York, declared a Jewish Heritage Week here, named a Midtown plaza for Golda Meir, protested the anti-Semitic statements of the Rev. Louis Farrakhan, and criticized the Reagan administration’s decision to sell advance early-warning aircraft to Saudi Arabia.
After he left the mayor’s office, he continued to wield an influence among grassroots Jews — especially during political races — that arguably exceeded any official leader’s. His endorsements were credited with playing a crucial role among Jewish voters in Florida in the 2004 Bush v. Kerry presidential race (Mr. Koch threw his support to George W. Bush) and in the 2011 local congressional race between Republican Bob Turner and Democrat David Weprin (Koch endorsed Turner, as a protest against President Obama’s Middle East policies).
In 2008, Koch campaigned in Florida on behalf of then-Sen. Barack Obama, whose pro-Israel bona fides were suspect. Jewish voters flocked to Mr. Obama’s appearances, former Pam Beach County Democratic Chairman Mark Alan Siegel told the Palm Beach Post. “They knew he was completely outspoken and would tell people exactly what he was thinking. It was reassuring that a guy who was not just completely committed to Judaism but to Israel was putting his “hechsher” on Barack Obama.
The Early Years
Edward Koch was raised in the Crotona Park section of the Bronx by immigrant parents, Louis and Yetta, who hailed from Poland. His father worked various jobs and moved the family to Newark, N.J., for several years to work in a theater. Edward was the middle sibling, with an older brother, Harold and younger sister, Pat. (Harold, a carpet designer, died in 1995). Two children’s books written with his sister in 2004 and 2011 tell how a young Ed Koch discovered his penchant for oratory as a sandlot baseball announcer and changed his lifestyle to lose weight as a kid.
He was drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II, an experience he would cite in later years as shaping his Jewish identity.
His basic training took place in Spartanburg, S.C. “I was not a particularly physical kid,” he said in an interview with the U.S. Memorial Museum’s “Voices on Antisemitism” podcast series. “In fact, I had a tough time getting over the obstacle course, but I practiced, I’d go back at night at 5 o’clock and practice, so I could get over the obstacle course.
A quarter of Koch’s platoon was, like him, “Jewish kids” from New York City. “They weren’t very physical.” Many of the non-Jews in the platoon, who were more physical, were better than the Jews in the obstacle course; they openly resented the Jews, who excelled at “map reading and a whole host of subjects that the Army wanted you to be proficient in — the Jewish kids … would either raise their hands and ask questions or get up and provide the answers
“There came a point, when every time a Jewish kid would get up and raise his hand, one of the others — his name peculiarly, I mean it sounds so crazy because it’s so Hollywood, his name was actually Jack LaRue — … would say, ‘Who’s the next Yid that’s going to raise his hand?’ And that went on, and it seared my soul. I thought to myself, what can I do?
“I said I’m going to train myself. And I did. I tried to put myself into shape, and when the 15th week came … the same thing happened. A Jewish kid raised his hand and Jack said, ‘Who’s the next Yid?’ And when the lecture was over I went over to him and I grabbed him by the neck and I said, ‘When we get back to the battalion, we’re going to have this out.’ He said, ‘What’s wrong? What’s wrong?’ I said, ‘You know! You know!’ And then I could hear yelling around me, and somebody yelling, ‘What’s happening?’ And somebody else yelled, ‘Come on over, they’re going to kill the Jews.’
“And we went back to the battalion,” Koch recalled. “And it was really very gentlemanly — they had gloves, and we had three rounds, and he knocked me down in each of the rounds. And I got up in each of the rounds … There’s no question that he won the fight. But the moral of the story is, there were two further weeks of basic training, and there was never in the course of those two weeks an anti-Semitic slur. And I felt I had done something.”
Koch, who earned two battle stars in service and left the Army a sergeant, told the war-related story of how he, in a meeting with then Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, a Holocaust survivor, would also identify himself as a survivor.
Near the end of the war, Koch found himself in a room where a globe that had belonged to Adolf Hitler was stored, Wiesenfeld said. Every capital of a nation that had been conquered by Germany — or might be, according to Nazi plans — was marked with a figure of that country’s Jewish population, and the number of Jews the Nazis planned to exterminate. Washington, D.C., was marked with 6 million, the population of the United States during the war.
“I only survived” the Final Solution “because they [the Nazi army] didn’t make it here,” Koch told Rabbi Lau.
Mayor Koch’s personal hero was Harry Truman, Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, told Haaretz. “He admired independence.”
Mr. Koch never married; rumors swirled about his sexuality; he always declined to directly answer questions whether he was gay. “As I say in my book,” he said in a 2011 interview with Tablet magazine, “my answer to questions on this subject is simply f— off.’’
Special Pride In Israel
A frequent visitor to Israel, he took special pride in the days he spent there in 1990, during the first intifada. Walking around Jerusalem, he was struck by a rock thrown by a Palestinian. The rock drew blood, which Koch cleaned with his handkerchief.
He would describe that incident at the time by saying he “shed a little blood for the people of Israel.” The incident gave him a good talking point for speeches back home, said Abraham Biderman, a former finance commissioner and housing commissioner who was with him on the trip. “If people told him there was no threat to Jews in Israel, he had his own experience,” Biderman said.
Though not observant, Koch always showed a healthy respect for religion, forging close ties with John Cardinal O’Connor and often attending mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He also regularly took part in Torah dancing with the Bobover chasidim at Simchat Torah, Biderman said. In 1981, after an infamous choking incident at a Chinese restaurant made news, Koch was afraid of observant Jews finding out he was dining on pork, and lied to the press, saying it was watercress.
An admittedly shameless promoter of his favorite causes, he commented — unfavorably, it seemed — on the behavior of then- City Councilwoman Ruth Messinger, as described by Todd Purdum in a Vanity Fair remembrance.
The issue at hand was concessions that Yankee owner George Steinbrenner was seeking from the city.
“Lemme tell you something about Ruth Messinger,” Mayor Koch told Purdum, who was then working for The New York Times. “If there is any event happening anywhere in the world that she can bring New York City into to further her ambitions for citywide office, you can count on it.”
“Well, how is she so different from you in that regard?” Purdum asked.
“He beamed,” Purdum wrote. “ ‘She isn’t,’ he declared, then paused for effect, and beamed again. ‘Did I say she was?’”
Met Council’s Rapfogel, who maintained his friendship with Mayor Koch, shared a meal with him at a kosher restaurant in Manhattan about a year ago.
The mayor, upset about the widely reported sour relationship between President Obama and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, said he was considering writing a new book.
“I want to write a book about how to get along” — how Obama could get along with Netanyahu, and vice versa, he told Rapfogel.
Koch’s health was already failing, Rapfogel says. “He had all these plans. He never stopped thinking in terms of Israel.”
But in recent weeks, the ex-mayor seemed to turn his attention to details of his final arrangements.
Biderman’s final conversation with his former boss took place about three weeks ago. “I tried to talk him out of being buried in Trinity Cemetery,” rather than a Jewish graveyard, Biderman said. As in the case of Rabbi Arthur Schneier, who showed him alternative sites, the entreaty failed. Koch had spoken to an Orthodox rabbi who said the burial was OK if his grave was separated from others on the site, as it would be.
In death, as in life, Ed Koch had the final say.
Assistant managing editor Adam Dickter contributed to this report.