It was no coincidence that Edward I. Koch, the quintessentially New York mayor who made “brash” a near-official part of his mayoral title, was remembered in death this week in a style of which he would have approved — a rigorously hands-on administrator during his three terms at the helm of the city, he planned his own funeral, starting some 30 years ago.
The details that Mr. Koch included in the events that marked his death were a reflection of the heralded life he led — the speakers (politicians and relatives), the music (“New York, New York”), the site of the funeral (Temple Emanu-El, whose thousands of seats were filled, many by average New Yorkers), the casket (plain oak), and his choice of burial plot (a non-sectarian section of Trinity Church Cemetery in Washington Heights, located near a subway stop, per his preference.)
“A Polish Jew in an Episcopal graveyard in a largely Dominican neighborhood,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at Mayor Koch’s funeral. “What could be more New York — or even more Ed Koch?”
Mayor Koch’s ultimate public gathering was, of course, somber, but replete with laughter, as eulogizer after eulogizer shared memories of a man whose sense of humor often defused tense situations with a well-placed quip.
And it was intensely Jewish, as befits a man who wore his Jewishness as a badge of honor. He would openly shed tears every year at the community-wide Holocaust Commemoration ceremony at Temple Emanu-El, which he continued to attend as a private citizen.
From his days in the U.S. Army, when he taught himself to box in order to teach a lesson to a platoon anti-Semite, to his career in Congress and City Hall, where he used his political influence on behalf of any number of Jewish and Israeli causes, and especially in his post-mayoral years, when the sheer force of his personality and his personal integrity established him as a leader of the Jewish community, Mayor Koch often served as the conscience of American Jewry.
His passing, representatives of prominent Jewish organizations would agree, leaves a void — an individual, readily recognized at the grassroots level, bearing no official title, whose non-partisan endorsement could spell the difference between victory and defeat for a political candidate.
The mayor, as he was quick to point out, was no saint. Political corruption festered on his watch. Tense relations with the African-American community became tenser because of his often-acerbic comments. The growing AIDS epidemic received scant attention.
Mea culpa, Mayor Koch said in later years.
Mayor Koch came to define New York City just as Teddy Kollek, with whom he had a close relationship, defined Jerusalem.
“Ed was not pareve. He stood for whatever he believed in — he was not quiet about it,” said Rabbi Arthur Schneier, spiritual leader of Manhattan’s Park East Synagogue, where the mayor often attended High Holy Days services. “He was a man of faith. ‘Arthur,’ he told the rabbi from his hospital bed last week, ‘I’m prepared to meet God.’”
“Ed Koch was one of us,” Israeli Consul General Ido Aharoni said at the funeral.
Once, after he left office, Mayor Koch accompanied a member of his law firm on a trip to Hong Kong. He joined the group for a round of karaoke on a boat ride around the harbor one night. Singing four beats ahead of the music, he belted out his version of “I Did It My Way.”
During his decades of public service — to his country, to his beloved city, to the Jewish people — Mayor Koch did it his way, with results that ensure that his memory will be a blessing.
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