The Ascension of Ed Koch

Is Hizzoner in Heaven? You Better Believe It!

Not Forgotten: Ed Koch chats with Hillary Clinton during her run for U.S. Senate.
getty images
Not Forgotten: Ed Koch chats with Hillary Clinton during her run for U.S. Senate.

By Simon Yisrael Feuerman

Published February 08, 2013, issue of February 15, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Much has been and will be written about former New York City mayor Ed Koch, who died February 1 at the age of 88. He was such a New Yorker, and such a Jew. My contemporaries who came of age in the 1970s and ’80s will no doubt remember his nasal voice, his Yiddishisms, his exasperated and overheated sense of peculiarly “Jewish” states of being — like chutzpah, menschlichkeit, schmo.

“If you are caught with a gun in NYC, you’re gonna go to jayle,” he said in his distinctive whinelike lilt. Or during the water shortage of 1989, when, with a kind of haimish crassness, he adjured New Yorkers on their toilet habits: “If it’s yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down!”

That sing-song way of saying things had to have wafted up through the heders of the Old Country and the Talmud Torahs of the Newark of Koch’s youth, of immigrants and their children in Depression-era America. But while Koch will be remembered for his voice and manner, what fascinated me most was his relationship with God.

Yes, Koch quoted God dozens and dozens of times. In fact, he was on intimate terms with the Holy One, Blessed Be He — so much so that he felt the freedom to disagree with the Creator all the time. And in Koch’s own words, more or less, God was very much the sport about it.

“We all die,” Koch told The New York Times a few years ago, “Whenever He or She wants me, I’ll go.” Nevertheless, Koch being Koch, he outlined some conditions to the Master of the Universe: “I had a conversation with God: ‘Take me totally, or don’t take me. No salami tactics.’”

One might be tempted to see this as Tevye-like talk, the sort of jest one might expect from an aging, grandiose Jewish man who is also sentimental about his Yiddishkeit. But Koch earnestly believed in his Jewish God, and he made numerous promises and deals with Him throughout his long life; however, he didn’t keep them all.

For example, prior to his failed gubernatorial bid in 1982, he had made a promise at the Western Wall that he would not seek office above mayor. Later, he explained his loss to Mario Cuomo by saying he had broken his word with God and had been suitably punished.

One time, on Koch’s WABC radio show, abortion was the topic. A Catholic caller from Brooklyn claimed that although he is pro-choice, like the mayor himself, “I’m Catholic, and the Pope considers abortion to be murder.” Koch answered as only he could: “You, my friend, have a problem because you are Catholic and you are going to purgatory. I don’t have that problem. I am Jewish. And I am going straight to heaven!”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.