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Ed Koch, Proudest of Jews

By Jeffrey Goldberg
February 01, 2013 11:14 AM EST

One of the reasons I adored Ed Koch (with eyes open -- I knew that his last term as mayor was a sad one, beset by corruption and hubris, and that he could have tried much harder to create a functional relationship with the city's black community) is that he reviewed movies like my grandmother reviewed movies. People may not remember this, but Koch had a long and illustrious post-Gracie Mansion career as a very bad movie reviewer. (A characteristic teaser Tweet: "Drive, don't run, to see Ryan Gosling in 'Drive.'")

My grandmother, who died several years ago and who also adored Koch -- even though Koch, unlike my grandmother, betrayed the city by living outside of it for parts of his life (my grandmother rarely ever budged from Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn) -- devoured movies, too, and her reviews had Koch's same slashing forthrightness and practical outer-borough sensibility. When I asked her what she thought of "Titanic," she answered, "Enough with the water already."

Many years ago, I gave my grandmother a moment of real joy when I told her that Koch had driven me home the night before from a dinner (his very loyal NYPD protective detail did the actual driving).

"Did you tell him I love him?" she asked. Actually, no. "Did you say thank you for saving us?" This was her unshakable view, and the view of many hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers: Ed Koch saved us. The city was in seemingly permanent decline when he took over City Hall, and he lifted up New York through sheer will, irrepressible optimism and hot air. He didn't make it perfect. But he did, in fact, save it.

There was one other aspect of Koch's gargantuan personality that moved New Yorkers like my grandmother. He was the proudest of Jews. He was just saturated with ethnic feeling, and rambunctious in his pride. His devotion to Israel was total, and he despised what he saw as an Upper West Side tendency to cringe and wring hands. He felt about the Jewish people, and their reborn homeland, the way he felt about New York. 

Koch will be buried in Manhattan, of course -- he wouldn't have had it any other way. And on his gravestone, he decided several years ago, will be the words of the "Hear, O Israel" prayer, and these lines: "My father is Jewish. My mother is Jewish. I am Jewish.” These words are not his own; they were the last words spoken by Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter beheaded by terrorists in Pakistan in 2002.

Even in death, Koch will be celebrating the two most important aspects of his epic life: his city, and his people.

(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)

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