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Recalling Ed Koch, New York’s Favorite (Off-Color) Yiddish-Speaking Mayor

A chilly rain was no obstacle for the crowd that poured into the Museum of Modern Art on January 29 for a sneak-preview screening of Neil Barsky’s cleverly crafted documentary about former New York City mayor Edward Koch, who died of congestive heart failure just three days later.

New York Moment: Masha Leon and Ed Koch in 1997. Image by Karen Leon

Guests included a slew of mayoral candidates: City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Public Advocate Bill De Blasio, former MTA Chairman Joe Llohta and former NYC Comptroller Bill Thompson. Public advocate candidate Daniel Squadron, a state senator, was also present, along with Representative Nita Lowey and former public advocate Betsy Gotbaum. The red carpet crush also included former Bronx borough president Freddy Ferrer, former state comptroller Carl McCall, and former lieutenant governor and past MTA chairman Richard Ravitch; all three appeared in the film. Seated next to NBC senior correspondent Gabe Pressman — whom I’ve known for decades — I could not help but share in the laughter and gasps as the audience revisited the Big Apple’s highs and lows, including the incendiary Ed Koch-Mario Cuomo mayoral election circus.

We all hoped that Koch might make an appearance. His death at 88 on February 1 coincided with the film’s New York opening at the Lincoln Square and Angelica theatres. Whatever his moniker — mayor of New York, Hizzoner, quintessential New Yorker — Koch was, above all, a proud and committed Jew. In addition to being the city’s mayor, he was a vocal, uncensored, unwavering standard bearer for the Jewish community.

I wrote about Koch often in this column, and have many memories of run-ins with the former mayor. Here are a few favorites.

Koch spoke at the April 22, 2007, launch of the exhibit “The Jewish Daily Forward: Embracing an Immigrant Community” at the Museum of the City of New York. “My father got it in Yiddish and read it every day,” he told the crowd. “I read it ‘religiously’ every week in English. It’s a great paper. … Got a letter from a genealogist at Ellis Island about a document indicating that my father came here at 15 alone. It notes: ‘Not sure he’d be able to make it in this country.’ And that’s how I became mayor!”

At the February 21, 2003, National Jewish Outreach Program dinner, Koch was the keynote speaker: “This organization prides itself on reaching out,” he said. “But in addition to everything else they do, they have to reach out to the Christians who want to be our friends. I made it my job as mayor [and] continue to do it today. There are only 13 million of us [worldwide] and anti-Semitism is now our No. 1 problem.”

At the Museum of Jewish Heritage’s April 14, 2008, dinner honoring Peter Kalikow, president of the real estate firm HJ Kalikow & Co., Kalikow predicted that “in 20 to 30 years [Holocaust deniers] will claim these crimes never happened.” Koch was adamant: “Anytime anyone says it never happened, let them come here [to the museum] and see.”

On September 12, 1994, at a Polish Consulate reception for archivist Lucjan Dobroszycki’s book “Surviving the Holocaust in Poland 1944-1947,” I made a beeline for Koch, the event’s keynote speaker. He was then a radio talk show host and a syndicated film critic. My greeting to Koch was: “How could you?!” I told Koch I was appalled at his using “drek [Yiddish for excrement]” to describe the hit Disney film “The Lion King” when speaking as a panelist a few days earlier on Channel 5’s “Good Day Street Talk.” Lowering his eyelids to half mast, and fixing his lips into a mock smile, Koch shrugged and said, “It’s permissible because it is a foreign word, like [the French] merde.” I hit back: “I can’t imagine a French TV or radio personality using the English equivalent, “s—,” on the air because the French would consider it a foreign word!” He shrugged but was a good sport about it.

In the April 20, 2004, New York City edition of Newsday, journalist Dennis Duggan reported on the Anti-Defamation League’s celebration of the bravery of Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara, who in 1940 and 1941 helped provide visas to 6000 Jews — including my mother and me. I had been asked to participate in the candle-lighting ceremony at the base of the ADL’s memorial Wall of Remembrance at Dag Hammersjold Plaza, and Newsday ran a photo showing me lighting a candle.

I was surprised to receive a letter from Koch, dated May 4, 2004: “Dear Masha: Dennis Duggan’s story about you and your mother was wonderful. … The Jewish community should give even greater recognition to the late Ambassador Chiune Sugihara. He saved thousands of Jews and, while known to many, remains unknown to many more. All the best. Ed.”

Over the many years that my daughter Karen photographed Ed Koch for this column, he never forgot the cartoons she had done of him — sometimes with Mario Cuomo — back when, in the late 1980s she had been the political cartoonist for Crain’s New York Business. Koch told her that though he sometimes hated a particular editorial, he still loved the cartoon — and requested that she send him copies.


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