Here is a new definition of chutzpah: Dying on the day that a documentary film based on your life is scheduled for release in your own home town!
But it gets even better. In 2008, Ed Koch, the third of New York City's four Jewish mayors (to date), purchased a burial plot in Manhattan's Trinity Cemetery, and then he designed his own headstone to include these words:
"My father is Jewish. My mother is Jewish. I am Jewish."
Daniel Pearl, 2002, just before he was beheaded by a Muslim Terrorist.
He had these words carved right above the Sh'ma. And then, on February 1, 2013, exactly eleven years after Daniel Pearl's brutal murder in Pakistan on February 1, 2002, Ed Koch died in a Manhattan hospital at the age of 88. Oh yes, this man really knew how to put on a show!
Koch is a marvelous documentary: well-researched and informative, yet playful and irreverent. Director Neil Barsky, making his filmmaking debut, worked as a reporter for years (first at the New York Daily News and then at Wall Street Journal) before moving over to Wall Street (first as an analyst and then as a hedge fund manager). So Barsky knows my own favorite maxim in his bones: "Follow the money."
Following the money leads Barsky to credit Koch with transforming Times Square from a dingy peephole paradise into a blazing commercial district lit anew each night by some of the brightest lights on the planet. But Koch didn't just dispense dollars downtown, he also funneled profits from the booming financial district back into all five boroughs.
Using news footage and a huge inventory of still photographs (beautifully assembled by editor Juliet Weber), Barsky shows exactly what the New York Times describes in its very long obituary : "Koch began one of the city's most ambitious housing programs, which continued after he left office and eventually built or rehabilitated more than 200,000 housing units, revitalizing once-forlorn neighborhoods."
As we watch President Obama and members of the 113th Congress debate public sector investment and the role of "Big Government," this is all quite timely. Ed Koch was clearly a man committed to using his power as mayor to improve the lives of real people from every walk of life "east side, west side, all around the town." Unfortunately, however, Koch is so focused on what happened within the five boroughs that a non-New Yorker is left feeling Barsky has only told part of a much larger story.
Start here: Where did all the money come from? Barsky provides hints, but then he never fully explores them. Elected to Congress in 1969, Ed Koch spent almost a decade in Washington, DC as a member of the House of Representatives. He didn't resign until the very end of 1977 (just in time to begin his first term as mayor). Quoting from the New York Times obituary again, during his time in Congress, Koch "became known as a hard-working, independent liberal able to work with conservatives. He co-sponsored a law that gave citizens access to their government files and introduced legislation for a national commission on drug abuse. He supported public transportation and housing, Social Security and tax reform, home health care for the elderly, aid to Israel, amnesty for draft resisters, solar energy research, federal financing of abortions and consumer protection measures." My guess is that many of his DC colleagues were still on hand to approve the huge loan guarantees authorized by Congress once New York City's new mayor was in office.
Barsky also tiptoes around Ed Koch's relationship with the African-American community. Much is made in the film itself of Koch's decision to close the Sydenham Hospital in Harlem during his first-term, but I think there's more to it than that. Although Barsky mentions that Koch went down to Mississippi during "Freedom Summer" in 1964, he doesn't tell us how that might have affected Koch later, especially when Jesse Jackson included support for a Palestinian state as one of his platform points when he ran for President in 1984.
Let me be blunt here: When Jackson made his infamous "Hymietown" comment, exactly who did he have in mind? ("That's all Hymie wants to talk about, is Israel; every time you go to Hymietown, that's all they want to talk about.") Reading what Koch wrote about his trip to Mississippi for the Village Voice in 1964, it's easy to imagine that he took Jackson's 1984 remark quite personally and reacted accordingly, not only in 1984 but when Jackson ran a second time in 1988.
My point is that New Yorkers like Barsky may well define Ed Koch as a New Yorker, but the quote from Daniel Pearl on his headstone indicates to me that Ed Koch wanted to be remembered as more than just a three-term mayor of New York City. My guess is that the man himself wanted to be known as someone who played not just on our national stage, but also on the world stage as well.
Koch opens this Friday (March 15) at the Music Box Theatre in Andersonville, and I definitely think you should see it, not because it's a perfect film, but because Ed Koch, in his all-too-human complexity, lived an exemplary Jewish-American life. Click here for times and tickets.
Note that one of Ed Koch's final gigs was hosting the web series "Mayor at the Movies." You can still watch him doing his reviews online, but right now, I'm taking the liberty of rating this film for him:
PS: Four Jewish mayors of New York? Yes. The first was Fiorello La Guardia, mayor of New York from 1934 to 1945. Although he was raised as an Episcopalian, La Guardia's mother was a Jew from Hungary and he spoke Yiddish on the campaign trail. The second was Abraham Beame who served as mayor from 1974 to 1977 (when he was defeated by Ed Koch). Michael Bloomberg, the current incumbent, was elected in 2001 and is in the final year of his third term.