Ed Koch and the Unanswered Question



He was as direct, forceful and iconoclastic in death as he was in life. Not halachically committed during his lifetime, he ensured that an entire world would understand that the core of his self-definition was his Jewishness.

His rabbi was Orthodox, but he never represented himself as observant. Yet, he sat shivah for a parent at Gracie Mansion. Not given to backing down from a position because of what others would think, he treated Torah differently. Thus, when the media once learned that he had choked at a restaurant, he created a white lie around the incident. The offending food had been pork, but he explained later that far be it for him to publicly advertise his disregard for this most basic requirement of kashrus. He evidenced thereby the midah of shame/ boshes that the gemara in Yevamos tells us is one of the three national characteristics of authentic Jews.

When his rabbi tried to find him a more traditional Jewish place of interment, he turned down several alternatives, preferring not to leave Manhattan, and to park himself among the common folks in Washington Heights.

He selected the text for his tombstone years in advance, combining the famous last words of Daniel Pearl Hy”d with the Shma, in Hebrew and in translation. To the “I am a Jew” line he appended an explanation of how Danny Pearl uttered those words just before his beheading by “Muslim terrorists.” Ed Koch knew how un-PC those words were, chose them deliberately, and literally chiseled them in granite for all time, directing the attention of millions to what he believed to be the source of a threat to civilized humanity.

Danny’s father, my friend Dr. Judah Pearl of UCLA, conveyed his thoughts about Koch’s memorializing his son in an article in Tablet. In 2004, he and his wife Ruth asked 300 people to submit essays (subsequently published in a marvelous volume) of reactions to their son’s last words. What did being Jewish mean to them? Ed Koch’s essay focused on terrorism and his anger over it, seemingly coupled with his perpetual consciousness of having risen from humble immigrant-family roots to ascend to the top. The Pearls found that submission out of character with the others. The Pearls found that submission out of character with the others.

Koch never explained, at least publicly, what that meant beyond triumphalism and the joy of making it as a minority. Why be proud? What particular elements are there to be proud of? Surely there is more than the fact that we have survived persecution and genocides for being who we are.

Dr. Pearl then moves on in his Tablet piece to other topics, without providing an answer to this all-important question. Why, indeed, continue to be proud? Jews are often proud of the historical contribution that Jews have made to the world, but completely flustered when asked why the world still needs them. When one of the granddaughters of Moses Mendelssohn told her family that she intended to become a Lutheran, her father reassured her that this was perfectly acceptable. Jews had made their contribution to the world. Those who bought into that Jewish message happened to be Lutherans at the time, so joining up with them was the natural continuation of the Jewish experience. Having given the world so many things of value (equality under the law; the sanctity of individual life; the utopian ideal, to name a few), was it not time for Judaism to sing its swan song? Having given the world a stunning performance, what can we do for an encore?

Dr. Pearl has his answer; I have mine. We are both uncomfortable with each other’s answers. The question remains perhaps the most important one that any Jew can ask.

Yehudah Pearl could not help but take note of the irony in Ed Koch dying exactly eleven years to the day of Danny’s murder.

The fact that Koch has now died on the same day as our son seems to be yad hahashgacha, the hand of providence, at work. If I were a believer, I would say: How could anyone doubt God’s existence? Instead, I am struck by what a strange, surreal coincidence this is.

We might be struck somewhat less dramatically by the fact that Ed Koch died on the eve of the reading of Yisro, home to the Aseres HaDibros. Chazal assume that a number of differences between the versions in Shemos and Devarim owe to both of them having been stated simultaneously. (Zachor and shamor are perhaps the most well-known example.) Maybe Ed Koch’s tombstone mirrored that quality of the luchos. Maybe the answer to Dr. Pearl’s question is that the two epitaphs on that tombstone are really one, and were given bedibur echad. Ultimately, “I am a Jew” finds its true meaning, and its promise for the future, in “Shema Yisrael…Hashem echad.”

Whatever Ed Koch meant, by now he knows this to be true.

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Matthew Wolsk
2 years 9 months ago

I see we have a couple of “Jewish grinches” here. Instead of looking at what Koch did do, they focus on what he didn’t do. Yes he should have had himself buried in a Jewish cemetary. WHy he didn’t only he and G-D knows. But how can you not be struck by the utter kiddush Hashem he made in his dying day. The fact that he died on the same day as Daniel Pearl should make everyone’s hair stand on end and give goose pimples to the coldest and closest of hearts.

Eddie Sherman
2 years 9 months ago

Ed Koch was a great mayor who was colorful, opinionated, brash, etc – all the adjectives. However, his choice of a burial plot is beyond belief. How a proud Jew does not want to be buried in a Jewish cemetery is beyond me.

Furthermore, Koch even after he was no longer Mayor, attended “religiously” year in and year out the midnight mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on the eve of December 25. He even had a permanently designated seat. Did he have a permanent seat at Temple Emanuel or Park East Synagogue? Did he attend services at least as many times… Read more »

2 years 9 months ago

For me, Ed Koch is somewhat of a paradox. On the one hand, he was proudly Jewish and unabashedly pro-Israel, and yet he had only contempt for such leading pro-Israel political leaders as Sarah Palin and Rudy Giuliani, while supporting Barack Obama for President not just once, but twice. Overall, though, my understanding is that he was a very successful Mayor of New York, which is no small accomplishment in itself.

As to the question of what the continued value of being Jewish is, I seem to recall that somewhere in our Haggadah, it makes the observation that we… Read more »

2 years 9 months ago

There is something flawed about the Jewish pride of someone who refuses to be buried in a Jewish cemetery; there is something flawed about the Jewish comprehension of someone who proclaims Shema Yisrael in Trinity Cemetery.

2 years 9 months ago

I dont know why Dr. Pearl was puzzled by Koch’s essay on what being Jewish meant to him. Koch was a non-observant Jew who was born in the 1920s. For members of that demographic, one’s Judaism was expressed in one of two ways: Either by supporting Israel, or, more often, in opposing the enemy. For that demographic, the “enemy” was often Christianity. (This latter attitude is rapidly vanishing, thankfully, and in many cases has disappeared entirely.) For us living in the 2010s, and especially for us orthodox Jews, we find that strange. We have so much to celebrate from… Read more »

Daniel Shain
2 years 9 months ago

“Dr. Pearl has his answer; I have mine. We are both uncomfortable with each other’s answers. The question remains perhaps the most important one that any Jew can ask.”

I would love to hear/read more about Dr. Pearl’s and Rabbi YA’s answers to this question.

[YA – See if you can get him to agree to a public discussion of the question :-) ]

2 years 9 months ago

February 5, 2013 at 12:20 pm

He may not have been observant, but he knew that he was a part of the Jewish People and nation. How much better off we would be if every Jew at least realized and felt that.”

Including those that are observant!

2 years 9 months ago

He may not have been observant, but he knew that he was a part of the Jewish People and nation. How much better off we would be if every Jew at least realized and felt that.