Edward Koch, who used his relentless anti-establishment persona and protectiveness over Israel to earn his place in New York City history beyond his three tumultuous mayoral terms, died early Friday morning. He was 88.
But if the mayor would have stopped to hear the reply after his signature “How’m I doin’?” the response of many in the Orthodox community would have been mixed.
Koch, who was also a four-term congressman, squeezed in a significant amount of both outrage and praise from the Orthodox community during his 1978–1990 period in office, particularly over his stance on standards of morality.
Ed Koch was a media darling, but could be boringly fact-saturated in private conversation. His personal life was a mystery. But as enigmatic as he was in political circles, he was even more so among his Jewish constituents.
He was buried on Monday following a shocking decision to be interred in a plot owned by a church, under a tombstone he designed defining himself with an unequivocal Jewish flavor. He considered himself a Conservative Jew, belonged to a modern Orthodox shul, but more often attended services at St. Patrick’s Cathedral than at his Park East Synagogue.
Koch’s Jewish legacy is still evolving, but the attitude of some of those who fought him bitterly a quarter of a century ago is that it was a fight “within the family.”
“There was a certain heimishkeit about him,” Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, who took Koch to court over an immoral order he issued, told Hamodia. “There are fights that people have within their family — and sometimes they are the loudest — but there is still a baseline sense of kinship. With Koch I think there was more or less that feeling even through the occasional obnoxiousness.”
Rabbi Zwiebel, the executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, said that Koch, who grew up without any religious education, was “very ethnically Jewish.”
“We felt that there was an address that we could reach out to when we needed to,” Rabbi Zwiebel said. “And that was also because of a number of people with whom he surrounded himself.”
One of those aides was Abraham Biderman, a special assistant for finance and economic development in Koch’s administration.
Mr. Biderman, who had worked in the state budget office where he became an expert on New York City finances, was recruited by Koch in 1983. He was the first high-level yarmulke-clad aide in city government — a feat not replicated since then.
Koch, Mr. Biderman said, expressed his Jewish pride by standing up for Israel and keeping a smattering of Jewish tradition. He fasted on Yom Kippur, participated in a Pesach Seder, and sat shivah during his mayoralty on the death of his father.
“He didn’t shave the whole week, he walked around in socks with a torn [shirt] — and he was mayor,” Mr. Biderman said. “He spent the full seven days — six days plus the morning.” He recited Kaddish with a transliteration.
It was a political flair that made him so successful. Koch was an intensely private person, most comfortable with number-crunching and discussing data while rarely revealing his feelings, instinctively knowing how to deal with the press.
“The transition always amazed me,” Mr. Biderman said. “We could be sitting in a room talking facts and then he would go out to the media. The press loved him because he always gave them what to write about and he was very open with them. But in private he wasn’t like that. He was very detail oriented.”
Koch was born in the city on Dec. 12, 1924, the second of three children of Louis and Joyce Koch. The Polish émigrés brought up their children to be proud of their Jewish background, and they gave their son the Hebrew name Yidel Itzik and the English name Edward Irving.
During the Great Depression the family lived in New Jersey. The future mayor worked his way through school, checking hats, working behind a delicatessen counter and selling shoes. He attended City College and served as a combat infantryman in Europe during World War II, earning his sergeant’s stripes.
Returning to the U.S., he received a law degree from New York University in 1948 and began practicing law in Manhattan’s bohemian Greenwich Village neighborhood, where his political career began as a member of the Village Independent Democrats, a group of liberal reformers. He defeated powerful Democratic leader Carmine DeSapio, whose roots reached back to the corrupt Tammany Hall political machine, in a race for district leader.
Koch was elected to the City Council and then to Congress, serving from 1969–77 as representative for a wealthy Manhattan district that was known for its millionaire Park Avenue constituency. He then ran for mayor, winning three times with comfortable margins.
During Koch’s three terms in office — one of only four men to hold that privilege — Koch’s Executive Order 50 created the most controversy with the Jews. His 1986 order banned organizations from receiving municipal funding unless they signed a nondiscrimination form protecting those whose lifestyle openly defied any moral standards. This order was deeply offensive to Orthodox Jews and other religious groups.
While some organizations did indeed sign the form, others, including Agudath Israel and the Salvation Army, took Koch to court and won.
“For us,” said Rabbi Zwiebel, who was Agudah’s attorney in the case, “it was a very offensive thing that he was doing. Basically he was saying, ‘I don’t care about the fact that you may have religious principles. If you want to do business with the city, if you want us to support your social service programs, you have to play the game by our rules.’”
The order was first passed in 1983, imitating a law that had earlier passed the state legislature. But the state law had exempted religious organizations. So nearly every Orthodox group, under the impression that Koch’s order also exempted them, signed the form.
Koch, however, when confronted by the media on this religious exemption, denied it.
“I don’t care what the state law says over here,” he declared. “If they want to take city money they have to play the game by our rules.”
Confronted with the real possibility that many social services, such as employment training programs, senior centers and youth agencies, would have to close, Agudah’s Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah directed their legal team to file a lawsuit against the city.
It was the first time Agudah went to the judiciary to secure their rights. And that record remained unbroken until the current metzitzah b’peh lawsuit.
“He was basically pointing a gun at the heads of Jewish organizations,” Rabbi Zwiebel said. “That for us was deeply offensive and something which required even going to court. … It showed us where his priorities lay.”
Similar lawsuits by the Salvation Army and the Catholic Archdiocese of New York were later combined into a single case, and the state court of appeals ruled in their favor on the separation-of-powers clause. New York State’s highest court said that since the anti-discriminatory law came from the legislative branch, Koch’s executive branch could not add to its breadth.
The state later passed a law specifically barring any discrimination based on standards of morality, opening the door for Koch to renew his executive order. But while the mayor did indeed reissue the order, he added a religious organizations exemption.
Even though the acrimony still lingers, Rabbi Zwiebel said that Koch aides later told him that the mayor “was expecting that we would challenge him.” And he never challenged the religious community again.
“Diplomacy was not necessarily his strong suit,” Rabbi Zwiebel said. “He was very much in your face and would say things that could be very offensive at times. But in terms of policy issues, [this executive order] is the one that dwarfs everything else.”
Overall, Koch generally had the support of many of the city’s Jews. He was elected to a job few were willing to bet on. The previous mayor, Abe Beame, had nearly defaulted on the city’s debt just a few years previously, and Koch’s first inauguration was greeted a week before with a Wall Street Journal editorial predicting that the city’s resurrection was a waste of time. Let New York go bankrupt, they proposed.
The newly sworn-in mayor admitted that he had little background in finance, but he turned the city around with the philosophy that the city will not pay for projects or raises it cannot afford. And within three years he balanced the budget and successfully took on the unions.
However, specific to the Jewish community, Koch started off his term disappointingly. He seemingly picked fights with several large Orthodox groups, yanking the 24-hour police force in front of Lubavitch’s world headquarters in Crown Heights and angering Williamsburg’s Jews by placing an incinerator within their neighborhood.
Koch eventually made peace, visiting the Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt”l, several times and attending the Bobover hakafos every year. He allocated a huge tract of city land in Williamsburg to the community; today it constitutes the heart of the Jewish area, and visited the Beirach Moshe, zy”a, of Satmar.
He would come around to Boro Park, Williamsburg and Crown Heights often.
“He was the kind of mayor who did not stay behind closed doors,” Rabbi Zwiebel said. “He would come out into the communities — and it wasn’t just the Jewish community. He believed in mingling with the people.”
After his primary defeat in 1989 to David Dinkins, who went on to become the city’s first African-American mayor, Koch took to vociferous pro-Israel activism. He wrote biting critiques of President Barack Obama’s treatment of Israel and praise when it was called for.
His standing for Israel started during the Carter administration. During a reception for President Jimmy Carter, who had flown to New York specifically to endorse Koch, the mayor handed the stupefied president, in front of dozens of members of the national press, a letter protesting his sale of weaponry to Saudi Arabia.
“Carter was furious,” Mr. Biderman recalled.
The last hurrah for the self-described “liberal with sanity” came in 2011, when his dissatisfaction with Obama’s Israel policies led him to endorse Republican Bob Turner for a special election in New York. The man who crossed party lines to endorse President George W. Bush in 2004 for his support for the Jewish state did so again at this particular low point in U.S.–Israel relations.
The point was heard loudly in Washington, and Obama invited Koch over for a half-hour conversation on the sidelines of a United Nations summit. Subsequent to that meeting, Koch endorsed Obama.
The mayor’s distrust for the president never subsided, though. Koch said last month that he had known “that there would come a time when [Obama] would renege on … his support of Israel.” He added that he was just surprised that “it comes a little earlier than I thought it would.”
Koch started slowing down at the end of last year, followed by a series of hospitalizations. He died on Friday.
Koch designed his own tombstone, inscribed with Shema Yisrael in Hebrew and English, and the immortal words of Daniel Pearl, Hy”d, before his beheading by al-Qaida terrorists in Pakistan 11 years ago. Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter who was abducted by an Islamist terror group in 2002, said immediately prior to his death, “My father is Jewish. My mother is Jewish. I am Jewish.” These words were uttered on Feb. 1 — incidentally also the date of Koch’s death.
Koch evoked surprise when he revealed that he would be buried in church ground. While owned by the Trinity Church in northern Manhattan, the cemetery is nondenominational. Koch said that he selected it since it is the only Big Apple burial ground still available.
“I went to argue with him about it more than once,” Mr. Biderman recalled, “and he told me that he asked Rabbi Maurice Lamm,” who has written several books on Jewish mourning.
His grave, the mayor told Mr. Biderman, was constructed in a method that conformed to Rabbi Lamm’s instructions, with a fence around the burial place, which was four cubits away from the closest grave.
Koch, who once said that the thought of leaving Manhattan — even in death — was distressing, insisted on this specific gravesite since the only cemetery in Manhattan had not been active in more than 200 years and he wanted a “bustling” graveyard.
Koch’s overall legacy was, as usual, articulated by him when the 59th Street Bridge was renamed the Ed Koch Bridge in 2011.
“It’s not soaring, beautiful, handsome, like the George Washington or the Verrazano,” Koch said. “It’s rugged, it’s hard- working — and that’s me.”