The passing of Ed Koch feels like the death of a young man because, despite his 88 years, Koch was bounding with energy and passions.
The former mayor was a movie buff, a foodie, a politico, and above all a New Yorker. He was as loud and brash as his beloved Nooo-Yaaaahhk, the city being his whole life, and in his death it feels like a part of the city is gone now too.
For those of us whose love affair with New York is lived through the movies, Koch dragged his beleaguered home town up from the scuzzy sybaritism of Taxi Driver and The Panic in Needle Park to the yuppie vibrancy of When Harry Met Sally and You’ve Got Mail (as the city got better the movies got worse). He was swept to power in 1977 on a wave of resentment at the decay of New York and the looting during the July 13/14 blackout. He restored the city’s morale, revived its social and physical integrity, and made New Yorkers proud again. He had no concept of political correctness but he was no bigot, as much as radicals sometimes tried to cast him as one for his hardened stances on crime and urban breakdown.
Koch was the kind of Democrat the best kind of Republican likes. He was a man of liberal ideals but a practitioner of rough-and-tumble practical politics. He loved his party but whenever it went astray he was always on hand to kick it back into line. He wasn’t, as some have been saying, the last liberal of the old American tradition; Joe Lieberman, Marty Peretz, and a few others are still with us. But he embodied that increasingly rare political beast with pugnacity and optimism, the fire-in-the-belly of a happy warrior.
And he was a Jew. A proud Jew. John Podhoretz has written about this better than I can but, although he was secular and even attended Midnight Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral occasionally, Koch was proud not only of his Judaism but of his Jewishness in a way a lot of young people could learn from.
He was a proud Zionist, fought (perhaps in vain) against the gathering wave of anti-Israelism roiling up inside his party, and even helped deliver a defeat to Obama in the ninth congressional district special election of 2011 as a rebuke to the President’s “daylight” strategy against Israel. His tombstone bears the words of the Shema, and the final defiant declaration of Daniel Pearl before he was murdered for being a Jew: “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish.”
It’s terrible to think that Ed Koch will now take the honorific z”l (zichrono livracha). He deserves it, of course; his memory will be blessed. But it seems wrong that he’s gone, that such a vital force of life will now only be a memory.