I REMEMBER reading the intriguing New York Times article back in 2008, interviewing former mayor of New York City Ed Koch about his burial.
This past Friday, at age 88, Ed Koch passed away. His final wishes discussed in that NYT article were implemented. A life-long, unapologetic and proud Jew, Koch was buried in the famous non-denominational cemetery of Trinity Church, located in Manhattan at Broadway and 155th Street.
As a public servant, starting in 1977 a three-term run as mayor of New York, Koch cared about being buried in Manhattan, wanting it as his final resting place.
But he is Jewish. So according to the Times article he researched the propriety of being buried in a non-Jewish cemetery because he wanted to his burial as traditional as possible. Koch was advised to have a gate erected near or before the space of his plot that read “Gate for the Jews,” which he and the cemetery installed. He was also instructed to add rails surrounding his grave, which he also did.
Now in this historic cemetery, containing graves of American Revolutionary patriots and other icons of American history, is the testament to the Jewish contribution to the American narrative.
Read the related, "Jewish world pays tribute to Koch"
Engraved on Koch’s headstone, alongside a star of David, in both Hebrew and English is the Jewish prayer Shma, “Hear O Israel . . . ”
However, what makes the story of Koch’s burial intriguing, aside from a Jew buried in a non-Jewish cemetery, is the epitaph Koch chose: “My father is a Jew; My mother is a Jew; I am a Jew.”
These were the final words of martyred journalist Daniel Pearl. On Koch’s gravestone, underneath the quote, Koch gave the context, stating that these were Pearl’s final words before being murdered by a Muslim terrorist — a fact, by the way, that has largely been omitted in the reporting of this story.
HOW humbling and inspiring. Ed Koch — who accomplished so much and could have used a noble quote that testified to his public life for his epitaph — chose to be remembered simply as one thing: a Jew. And not just any Jew, but a Jew connected to a martyred Jew.
The legacy Koch leaves, aside from bringing back New York City from the brink of economic ruin, aside from being the brash and proud pro-Israel Jew he was, is the awareness of martyrdom that has dogged the Jewish people from time immemorial and unfortunately lives on today.
There is a pertinent story about Naftali Lau-Lavi, the famous Holocaust survivor who helped his younger brother escape and then fulfilled the promise he made on the eve of WW II to his father to do all he could to enable his younger brother to continue the family’s 38 generations of rabbis. When Lau-Lavi was Israel’s Consul General in New York City, Ed Koch asked to meet his brother, then chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, Rabbi Israel Meir Lau.
They met at City Hall, whereupon Ed Koch said to Rabbi Lau: “You know, I am also a survivor.” Knowing that Ed Koch was born in the Bronx, Rabbi was perplexed, and waited for an explanation.
Koch went on to say how, as mayor of new York, he was once part of a delegation to Berlin, where they were shown various documents and artifacts of WW II. One of them was Hitler’s famous globe, which stood in his office. Marked in black ink, under each country, was the number of Jews residing there. Albania had the number one. One Jew! Even a single living Jew was too much for Hitler, and he had him marked for death.
Strangely enough, the number of Jews marked under the US was six million. Koch explained how, when he saw that globe, he realized that every single Jew was a target of Hitler, including himself as one of the six million marked in America. If Hitler and the Nazis had not been stopped, he too, along with who knows how many others, would have been murdered.
So you see, Koch concluded, I too am a survivor.
To which Rabbi Lau graciously replied: “Thank you for the lesson you taught me. Every Jew, wherever he lives, is a Holocaust survivor.”
To his core, Ed Koch embodied an unshakable connection to Jewish destiny of the past and, as his epitaph testifies, Jewish destiny of the future.
Being Jewish means different things to different people. By choosing the meaningful words he did, words that were said under the darkest of circumstances, Koch leaves us all with the message of the power of being a Jew. And how interconnected we all are.
Daniel Pearl was killed for one thing: for being Jewish. Regardless of who we are, Jews are all united and connected by our Jewishness. Ultimately, that is who Ed Koch and Daniel Pearl were: fellow Jews.
Koch takes Pearl’s words and brings them out of the dark, transforming them into words of Jewish identity, Jewish pride and Jewish faith. Not what the Muslim terrorist had in mind. But with Koch’s decision, he changed that.
Mystically, Ed Koch the mayor died the same day as Daniel Pearl the martyr. Ed Koch the mayor, who breathed life and meaning into the final words of the martyr.
Words heavy with Jewish power and meaning: “My father was a Jew; My mother was a Jew; I am a Jew.”
Copyright © 2013 by the Intermountain Jewish News