New York Gov. Mario Cuomo may not be running for the U.S. presidency, but for many New York-born Israelis, Mario is still their man.
Last week, several hundred transplanted New Yorkers attended a picnic in honor of the governor and his wife, Mathilde, who were visiting Israel for the first time.
The Sept. 3 event, which was sponsored by the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel and the Jerusalem municipality, had the homespun feel of a Sunday outing in the park, New York style.
Hot dogs and corn-on-the-cob were there for the asking, as were pieces of juicy watermelon. Everyone spoke English, except for the kids with catchers’ mitts, who interspersed American baseball slang with rapid-fire Hebrew.
Cuomo, long considered a staunch supporter of Israel, addressed the crowd with the straightforward, easygoing manner that has become his trademark. With a mischievous smile on his face, he quipped, “I’m here to see if any of you New Yorkers owe back taxes.”
On a more serious note, he said, “For Mathilde and me, this is the most unforgettable trip we have ever taken. Some things speak for themselves. Like Jerusalem. Like Israel. Until you come here, you know the words but don’t understand the music.
“We just flew back from the Golan,” he added, “and we saw the sun setting over the Holy Land. If only there were words to describe it, I could make many people very happy.”
The governor noted that New York state is one of this country’s strongest trading partners. “We send $800 million in trade to Israel every year, and we are one of Israel’s favorite customers in the U.S. In all, 22 percent of Israel’s imports come from New York,” he said.
While acknowledging that a main goal of the visit was to strengthen his state’s economic ties with Israel, “we really came out of respect for the people of Jerusalem, out of respect for Israel,” he said.
Cuomo, a practicing Catholic, recalled his childhood in the South Jamaica section of Queens. “I will never forget how a Jewish family took us under their wing and taught us how to run a grocery store.” Sometimes, he said, “I was the Shabbos goy who turned lights on and off for the shul across the street.”
With a glance at his host, Cuomo said, “Your mayor is an institution. Remember Fiorello La Guardia? Not even he can compare to Teddy Kollek.”
But even Kollek is not popular with all of his constituents. A handful of hecklers interrupted the proceedings by demanding that Jews be allowed to settle in what was once East Jerusalem. One protester shouted, “Mayor Kollek, why can Jews live anywhere in New York, but not anywhere in Jerusalem?” Another man called him a racist.
Kollek responded with his usual bite: “I suggest you go straight away and live in Harlem,” he told the protesters.
Cuomo was a bit more diplomatic. “Protests make me feel at home. If you want to greet somebody from New York, you should bring along a little bit of tsuris” (trouble).
Following the speeches, both Cuomo and Kollek stepped down and mingled with people in the crowd.
“These are two great men, Mario and Teddy,” said Chris Feldman, formerly of the Bronx. “They have the best in mind for all their residents. Mario has done a lot for New York state. He should run for president.”
“It’s not every day that you get the chance to meet the governor of New York,” remarked Dina Zlotogorski, who used to live on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
“I heard Mario say that he didn’t run for president because he hasn’t yet accomplished everything he wants to as governor. Add to that the fact that he’s a supporter of Israel,” she said, “and you have a winning combination.”