Ed Koch, Fiercely Secular Jew, Takes Unique New York Style to Grave

Letter From Temple Emanu-El

Stately Send-Off: The funeral for Ed Koch at Temple Emanu-El felt like a most Episcopalian kind of Jewish funeral. He probably would’ve reveled in the contradictions on display.
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Stately Send-Off: The funeral for Ed Koch at Temple Emanu-El felt like a most Episcopalian kind of Jewish funeral. He probably would’ve reveled in the contradictions on display.

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published February 04, 2013, issue of February 15, 2013.
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Ed Koch was a shellfish-eating guy from the Bronx. In the hospital, he once carried a picture of Cardinal John O’Connor so that if his back pain somehow disappeared it would count as a miracle on O’Connor’s path to sainthood.

And yet Koch, the New York City mayor who died last week at 88, stubbornly insisted on his own Jewishness, building a contradiction that followed him quite literally to his grave Monday.

A funeral at Temple Emanu-El on the Upper East Side was the mayor’s last stop before burial in a Christian cemetery in Washington Heights under a tombstone that says the word “Jewish” four times.

“A Polish Jew in an Episcopal graveyard in a largely Dominican neighborhood,” Mayor Bloomberg said at the service. “What could be more New York, or even more Ed Koch?”

Bill Clinton chats with Gov. Andrew Cuomo at Ed Koch’s funeral.
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Bill Clinton chats with Gov. Andrew Cuomo at Ed Koch’s funeral.

A sweet multicultural sentiment, maybe, but one that is more Michael Bloomberg than Ed Koch. Koch’s epitaphs, which he picked himself, are parochial enough to make one wonder whether Episcopal mourners visiting their own dead will be made uncomfortable.

“My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish,” reads the first, quoting slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. The second epitaph is the Sh’ma, the third a paragraph that begins: “He was fiercely proud of his Jewish faith.”

Israeli consul general Ido Aharoni, who spoke after Bill Clinton at the funeral, essentially called Koch an Israeli.

“Ed Koch was one of us,” said Israeli consul general. Koch was “one of the most important and influential American Zionists of our time.”

Perhaps sensing the vulnerability of his claim, Aharoni bolstered it with a story, about a time in 1990 when the mayor was hit in the head by a rock during a walk with Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek. At the time, the AP reported that Koch “used a handkerchief to stem slight bleeding.”

To Aharoni, what took a handkerchief and two band aids to fix twenty years ago is an enduring symbol of the mayor’s allegiance to Israel. Ed Koch “literally bled for the Jewish state,” Aharoni said, earnestly.

If the Israelis felt Koch belonged to Israel, New York’s political class knew otherwise. “Ed Koch would have loved this crowd,” said Diane Coffey, Koch’s former aide and longtime friend, looking out at the filled 2,500-seat sanctuary.

Every official ever elected in New York seemed to be there. Former mayor David Dinkins chatted with former senator Alfonse D’Amato. Both governors Cuomo, father and son, sat near the front of the room massive room.

Koch’s sister’s family had the pews nears the center of the front row, with hundreds of Koch administration alumni filling the seats directly behind them.

Spotlighted on center stage was Koch’s coffin, a relatively plain oak box with a Jewish star on top.

As Jewish funerals go, this one felt rather Episcopalian.

Temple Emanu-El, the massive, 2,500 seat Reform synagogue on 65th Street and 5th Avenue, was built to look like an cathedral, with stained class windows and ceilings that reach unbelievable heights. There were few yarmulkes. The rabbi, black-suited and bald, read a Hebrew prayer in the scholarly mode of the old-school Reform rabbis.

After the speeches and a short prayer, a six-cop honor guard lifted the coffin into the crowd. The pallbearers were enveloped in the throng and, from an aisle away, it looked like the oak coffin was hovering above mourners. The organ played “New York, New York,” and giggles of recognition were subsumed by waves of applause for the departing mayor.

Afterwards, Bruce Ratner, the mega-developer behind the Barclays Center, skipped out through a side door.

So did most of the New York notables and Koch administration alumni. The politicians, however, were stuck. They wanted to leave through the main exit, where they would pass in front of the flatbed NYPD truck packed with photographers. The civilians swept out and the elected officials waited behind, so it was largely notables who jammed in the bottleneck in the synagogue’s foyer.

City Council speaker Christine Quinn and former MTA chairman Joe Lhota, who might face each other in the New York City mayor’s race in November, waited near each other to walk through the front doors. New York City Comptroller John Liu, another mayoral hopeful, wasn’t far behind. City Councilman David Yassky, who Liu beat in the 2009 Comptroller race, was on the other side of the room. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who will likely run for governor someday, stood in the same pack as George Pataki, who has already held that post.

Today, Ed Koch wasn’t playing politics. Everyone would get one last endorsement.


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