Edward Irving Koch, New York City’s long-serving, charismatic, controversial 105th mayor and arguably the most visible American Jewish official of his day, passed away this morning at age 88 from congestive heart failure. His three epitaphs, chosen several years before his death, expressed the centrality of Judaism to his identity.
The first quotes the murdered journalist Daniel Pearl “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish.” The second, is the Sh’ma, and the third, which the mayor wrote himself after suffering a stroke in 1987, 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.”
Interviewed by The New York Times in 2009 about his future grave, the famously ebullient Koch proclaimed: “It takes up the whole stone!”
Born in Crotona Park in the Bronx in 1924, Ed Koch was the second of three children of Louis (Leib) Koch and Joyce (Yetta) Silpe Koch, both Galitzianer garment workers, Koch grew up in Newark and Brooklyn and attended City College. Over six feet tall, and eager to fight Hitler when he was drafted in 1943, he concealed a serious hand injury in order to serve.
That didn’t prevent him from boxing a bully during basic training. He lost the fight, but put an end to the numerous anti-Jewish remarks he and fellow Jews had endured during basic training. It was the beginning of a lifetime combating anti-Semitism. He eventually joined the 104th Infantry Division, and fought against the Wehrmacht in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany in the spring of 1944. He broke his leg during the occupation of Aachen, an injury that got him sent home — a stroke of luck, as his unit sustained heavy casualties during the Battle of the Bulge a few weeks later. Sgt. Koch returned to Europe in 1946, charged with de-Nazifying a small village in Bavaria, his first experience with municipal administration.
Returning to New York City in 1946, Koch, who had not finished his bachelors’ degree, talked his way into NYU Law School and passed the bar in 1949. Still living with his parents, Koch was a member of the Flatbush Jewish Center, a Conservative synagogue, and active in the Young People’s League, the predecessor of the United Synagogue Youth.
He moved to Greenwich Village in 1952, and joined the reform Village Independent Democrats (VID) in 1958, after a flirtation with more mainstream politics. The VID succeeded in beating Tammany leader Carmine G. De Sapio for district leader in 1961. When De Sapio attempted a comeback in 1963, Koch narrowly defeated him. Two years later, Koch endorsed Republican John V. Lindsay for mayor, unheard-of for a Democratic district leader. Koch won election to the New York City Council in 1966 and to Congress from the East Side and Greenwich Village, on a strong anti-Vietnam war platform, in 1968.
During five terms in Congress, Koch compiled a strongly liberal voting record but a centrist style, assiduously courting the friendship of conservatives. Popular among his colleagues, he obtained a seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee, giving him national stature in the Jewish community as a key supporter of Israel. He travelled many times to the Middle East, met every Israeli prime minister, and became a dedicated Zionist.