Former Congressman and three-term Mayor of New York Ed Koch passed away today. Koch was quite a character, and lots has been written about the man who rose from his modest beginnings as the son of Yetta and Louis Koch in the Bronx to assume the helm of the proverbial City that Never Sleeps, the Big Apple, etc. Later in life he worked as a political commentator, film critic and reality show judge. He was a lifelong bachelor, commonly assumed to be gay. When asked about his sexuality, he famously responded “What do I care? I’m 73 years old. I find it fascinating that people are interested in my sex life at age 73. It’s rather complimentary! But as I say in my book, my answer to questions on this subject is simply “Fuck off.” There have to be some private matters left.” He did enjoy the company of Bess Myerson, the first Jewish woman to win the Miss America pageant in 1945, but her role was widely acknowledged to be that of his beard.
Koch’s funeral will take place at the “Our Crowd” Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan on Monday. Koch also prepared his tombstone ahead of his death. It is located at the Trinity Church nondenominational cemetery at 155th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, a location Koch chose because it is a “bustling cemetery.” The site has a stone bench and a tree and he said he hoped people would visit. The epitaph contains two quotes, the first reads “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish.â€ (Daniel Pearl, 2002, just before he was beheaded by a Muslim terrorist.)” and the second is the first line of Sh’ma Yisrael, the quintessential Jewish article of faith: “Hear, O Israel, The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” in English and in Hebrew. In a strange twist of fate, Koch passed away on February 1st, the same date that Daniel Pearl died on, 11 years earlier.
The third quote on his tombstone was one that Koch wrote himself. It reads “He was fiercely proud of his Jewish faith. He fiercely defended the City of New York and he fiercely loved its people. Above all, he loved his country, the United States of America in whose armed forces he served in World War II.” That’s a lot of ferocity, faith and love from a man who lived life large, a man who represented many things, but from our particular perspective, embodied the ultimate ascendance of the Jews in America. The question he leaves us with is a challenging one. Is Koch’s brand of Jewish identity, one where he was both unapologetically secular and nonetheless proud of his Jewish heritage, one where he was an unequivocally loyal American and a strong supporter of Israel – is that brand of Jewish identity sustainable? Or is it a thing of the past? A relic of a previous generation, possible only by virtue of the fact that it had witnessed both the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel?
Food for thought. Rest in peace Ed.