‘As Jewish As You Get’


When I interviewed Ed Koch in 1980, his father had just visited him at Gracie Mansion. When the elder Koch heard his son criticized, he asked, in characteristic family style, “What do you need this for?”

Koch was then in the third year of his first term. I was just out of college, writing for an early incarnation of the English-language Forward. He greeted me in his office as though I were a distinguished journalist, and had three advisers — Dan Wolf, a special assistant to the mayor and founding editor for the Village Voice, Herbert Rickman, also a special assistant and liaison with Jewish groups, and Vic Timoner, foreign language press secretary — sitting in, sometimes chiming in.

“I’m about as Jewish as you can get, in terms of traditions, obligations and pride,” he said, repeatedly underlining his commitment to Jewish ideals. For Koch, the essence of Judaism was in rendering service to others. He enjoyed quoting the line from Deuteronomy, “Justice, justice, you shall pursue.”

He showed me a photo of himself as a young boy sitting on a pony, a classic Bronx pose. Named “Yidl Izhik” for his father’s father, he learned to read and write Hebrew at the Free Hebrew School in Newark, where the family moved after his father lost his fur business during the Depression. His bar mitzvah was at Ohav Shalom in Newark, and he remembered the first line of what was perhaps his earliest public speech, “I want to thank my mother and father.”

As a kid, he worked at a hatcheck concession, in a delicatessen, liquor store and a shoe store to help the family make ends meet. He worked his way through two years of City College before joining the U.S. Army in 1943. After the war, while attending New York University’s School of Law, he founded the first Young People’s League at the Flatbush Jewish Center. A few weeks prior to our interview, he had visited Flatbush and a woman called out that there had never been as good a Young People’s League president as Ed Koch.

The mayor said that he identified as a Conservative Jew, that he wasn’t so comfortable at Reform services where he felt “naked without a yarmulke.” He spoke prophetically about what was then a troubled Lower East Side “coming back.” About his heroes in political life, he named Fiorello LaGuardia and Harry Truman.

When asked to name his favorite Jewish hero, he was quiet for a few minutes and then mentioned Bar Kochba, a military strategist who led the Jews in revolt against the Roman Empire.

Decades later, I would run into him at Fairway on the Upper West Side, when he was thought of as a grandfatherly figure rather than someone’s son. He would say he remembered our interview, and I would say he was a very good politician.