Mayor Mish-Mash: Remembering Ed Koch

The New York Times published an interesting story this week on late NYC Mayor Ed Koch, a Jew. Apparently the mayor’s rabbi, Arthur Schneier of Park East Synagogue (Modern Orthodox), tried to take His Honor cemetery shopping, but Koch was bound and determined to be buried in Manhattan, and so he will spend eternity in Trinity Cemetery, surrounded by Episcopalians.

Although the Times implies that Park East was where the mayor davened – when he davened – it also clearly states that he identified as a Conservative Jew. Not that he lived as one; he neither kept kosher nor was shomer Shabbos.

And, of course, the coup de grace is that Koch’s funeral was held at Temple Emanuel, with its rabbi, David Posner, officiating. Koch apparently made clear that the funeral needed to be at Emanuel, the only shul (you should pardon the expression) big enough for the expected crowd. The Times made clear that Schneier could not officiate, not because the funeral was at Emanuel (although I wonder what accommodations might have been made over that issue, both by Schneier and by Posner) but because the burial was at Trinity.

We read almost daily about the detachment of our youth and young adults from the denominations. Mayor Ed Koch, of course, was a youthful 88. There is nothing new under the sun.

In another deviation from typical Jewish practice, the gravestone was prepared in advance, lacking only the dates of birth and death, and presumably will be installed immediately after they are carved into the stone. At the time of my recent bereavement, the cemetery manager suggested that appropriate protocol was to prepare the monument in 30 days but wait for the year to dedicate it. (I think perhaps he was more concerned with cash flow than with Jewish minhag.)

At the turn of the year, as we were reading Va-y’chi, about the deaths of Jacob and Joseph, I blogged about their concern that they not be buried in Egypt, pointing out that Jacob wanted to be reunited with his wife, Leah, and the rest of the patriarchal group. Joseph’s reason is not given in the text, but clearly he was not driven the same way as Ed Koch. He could certainly have prevailed on Pharaoh to accord him the honors dead he had earned in leading Egypt. While he wouldn’t have had the words of Daniel Pearl to quote on his monument, it could certainly have read, “Here lies Joseph, son of the Israelites, Rachel and Jacob, whose wisdom and foresight sustained Egypt through famine and brought it back to prosperity. May he be remembered forever for his contributions to the Egyptian polity.”

But then we would have been less likely to encounter the Pharaoh who knew not Joseph. Ed Koch chose to be buried where he had lived and worked and made his mark. He was confident that the his Jewish constituents would remember him wherever he was buried –so he took out insurance to build a wider legend.

Like many of his contemporaries, Mayor Ed Koch was denominationally immune, theologically passive, and ethnically committed. Zichrono l’vrachah, may his name be for a blessing.

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Larry Kaufman

About Larry Kaufman

Laurence (Larry) Kaufman, z"l, was a member of Beth Emet, the Free Synagogue, in Evanston IL, where he coached b'nai mitzvah candidates on their divrei Torah. A long-time Reform Movement activist, he served on the North American Board of URJ, the North American Council of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, the Board of ARZA, and was a past president of Temple Sholom of Chicago. Even while semi-retired, he consulted with an Israeli technology company on its U.S. public relations and marketing communications.

2 Responses to “Mayor Mish-Mash: Remembering Ed Koch”

  1. avatar

    “Koch was bound and determined to be buried in Manhattan, and so he will spend eternity in Trinity Cemetery, surrounded by Episcopalians.”

    I don’t think he’ll spend eternity there. I think he’ll spend eternity tachat kanfei hashekhinah surrounded by people of all faiths.

    • Larry Kaufman

      Perhaps I should have beem more explicit and separated the eternity of the body from that of the spirit. In the Jewish tradition, as firmly established for us by the Patriarchs, and as confirmed in contemporary Reform responsa, we lie among our own.

      Clearly the Mayor’s Judaism was important to him, and as I have expressed previously, he may have done his people a favor by making his own rules for himself.
      I have no confidence whatsoever about the eternality of Koch’s soul or its status tachat kanfei hashekhinah– but we know where his body is, and will be.

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