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!”