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How Ed Koch Honored My Son

The late New York mayor told me he wanted to be remembered by my son Daniel Pearl’s final words: ‘I am Jewish.’

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Trinity Church workers dig the grave beneath the headstone on the grave of Edward I. Koch, former mayor of the City of New York, on Friday, Feb. 1, 2013. (© Robert Kalfus 2013)

Most Jews have simple epitaphs on their headstones—perhaps a quote from Psalms or a passage from the Torah, or maybe a phrase proclaimed by one of the prophets. Ed Koch, the former mayor of New York, who died at 88 last Friday and is being buried today in his city, has the last words spoken by our son Daniel Pearl before he was murdered by terrorists in 2002: “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish.”

The fact that Koch has now died on the same day as our son seems to be yad hahashgacha, the hand of providence, at work. If I were a believer, I would say: How could anyone doubt God’s existence? Instead, I am struck by what a strange, surreal coincidence this is.

I never met Koch in person, but we first corresponded in 2004, when my wife and I were working on a book of essays inspired by the last words of our son. When I first heard what Danny said in that dungeon, I knew it would strike a chord with every Jewish soul—and, in fact, that every decent human being would be moved by this expression of identity. That he declared those words—words connecting him to his people with a shared, ancient history—makes me feel he wasn’t alone, that he had many millions of hearts with him in Karachi. “Back in the town of B’nai Brak there is a street named after my great-grandfather, Chaim Pearl, who was one of the founders of the town,” Danny said, and he had the pulse of the entire Jewish history with him, from the Talmudic scholars who founded the ancient town to the city-builders of modern Israel.

The echo of Danny’s words has not subsided. Koch took the dramatic act of putting it on his tombstone, but many others carry Danny’s words and are nurtured by them, quietly. For the book, we commissioned many prominent Jews to reflect on what the phrase “I am Jewish” meant to them, and Koch was one of the 300 people we asked. Koch sent in an essay mainly expressing anger about the terrorists—how they act against civilized society, and how they should be dealt with. It was about our world and how we got into this war, and we felt it didn’t fit the theme. The theme was what does being Jewish mean to you, a very personal question, and we asked Koch if he’d be open to revising it. Koch’s answer was definitive: That’s how I feel, he said, and I can’t change it.

Maybe his Jewishness was genuinely defined by who his enemies were. Or maybe it was defined primarily by being part of a certain generation of New Yorkers who lived through the Depression—after all, he refused to leave Manhattan, even in death. “I’m proud of being Jewish,” he would always proclaim, and his tombstone will never allow us to forget that fact: “He was fiercely proud of his Jewish faith,” it reads. But Koch never explained, at least publicly, what that meant beyond triumphalism and the joy of making it as a minority. Why be proud? What particular elements are there to be proud of? Surely there is more than the fact that we have survived persecution and genocides for being who we are.

Some will surely comment on the fact that Koch included how our son was murdered, and who his killers were: “Muslim terrorists.” Koch, as I said, was very angry about Islamist terror, and I think using these words was very purposeful on his part: a way of reminding us that our enemy is not 19 misguided lunatics, but a whole ideology that fosters anti-Western fanaticism and elevates itself above the norms of civilized society. In a time where political correctness was at its peak, perhaps it was productive for Ed Koch to remind New Yorkers that our real enemy is not Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, but the ideology on which he grew and that is being passed on to his children, emboldened and intensified by the hour. That is our real enemy.

When the New York Times reported that Koch had chosen Danny’s words for his headstone a few years ago, I was extremely moved, and I called to thank him. “This is how I feel,” he told me, “and this is how I want to be remembered.”

As told to Bari Weiss.

***

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Am Yisroel Chai!

I am proud to be part of a people that gave birth to men like Daniel Pearl and Ed Koch. Both of them are examples of what good men do with the responsibility to make a better world.

We each in our own way struggle to live life authentically, meaningfully and compassionately as Jews in an increasingly complicated world. Not easy for me and I expect will continue so for the rest of my life. I honor those who stay committed to the challenge with such passion and integrity. They inspire me.

Alexander Diamond says:

Why is it always “prominent Jews” as though only the Jewish elite get to die. What’s wrong with commissioning the rest of us who are a lot more in the trenches and front lines than “prominent Jews”. Daniel will always remain part of us, non-prominent Jews.

The book Judea is referring to, I am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl, is such an inspiring anthology. If anyone is interested in reading it, here is the link to purchase it from Jewish Lights Publishing: http://www.jewishlights.com/page/product/978-1-58023-259-3

Hannah says:

There are no coincidences.

Leon Geyer says:

Daniel Pearl’s father points to Koch’s never expressing what being Jewish meant to him beyond simple triumphalism and surviving. When such statements are made, the underlying assumption is that it should be our faith. But for millions of Jews, and I dare say majority of us, being Jewish is not about our faith since we do not believe in the tenets of our faith, but simply follow tradition out of the need to identify with our Jewishness somehow. Thus, it’s perfectly normal not to look for deeper meanings of being Jewish, and simply answer I’m Jewish since my parents were.

It’s a very moving article and graceful choice made by a man who often seemed to be lacking in graces. That said, and recognizing that larger than life people lead larger than life lives, this really isn’t going to be much of a Jewish funeral.

Two good men!

The example of the Maccabees, who never compromised their Jewishness in the face of genocide, is alive and well today in the legacies of Daniel Pearl and Ed Koch. Proud to be Jewish!

9Athena says:

You lead a very sequestered life Leon. The ‘majority of us’ is obviously a cipher to you. You see Leon, the ‘tenets of faith’ (whatever that means) is not the defining factor, just as parents are not the defining factor for me or for millions of others who state they are Jews. I meet a lot of Jews where only one parent is Jewish. And there are Jews who have deliberately elected to be Jews and don’t follow ‘tradition’, whatever that is. There are many motivations and reasons why individuals declare “I’m a Jew”. Now-just to clarify-did you just say that you’re Jewish because your parents are Jewish? And you blindly follow ‘tradition’ because you don’t know how to identify as Jewish otherwise? If so Leon-it means your world is peopled with other Jewish robots who could just as easily be devout Christians or Moslems or whatever. Time to get to the library Leon. Start with Salo Wolfe Baron. Josephus, Abraham Heschel and move on from there.

1 of the best books I ever read….

Faith Luber says:

Especially given that the headstone is already in place.

Leon Geyer says:

So why don’t you just tell it what being Jewish means for you. To me, this question doesn’t make much sense. Both of my parents is Jewish, so I am. Why should it mean anything else. It’s an ethnic distinction. What does being French or Russian mean? Why should we, Jews, look for something deeper?

LizardLizard says:

I am so glad the WSJ printed Judea Pearl’s comment on Koch. I was angered by the Remberences piece on Koch that came out over the weekend. It explained (in the context of mentioning Koch’s gravestone) that Daniel Pearl’s words were said before he was killed by a militant in Pakistan. I immediately sat down and wrote a letter to the editor and pointed out that Koch’s OWN WORDS ON HIS GRAVESTONE (which he presumably chose with some care, yeah?) said that Daniel said the words before he was “beheaded by a Muslim terrorist.” Rather different, no? I was distressed that the WSJ resorted to such a mealy-mouthed word as “militant.”

Elaine Grae says:

In answer to Leon Geyer – we should look for something deeper, because if we do not, Judaism and the Jews will not survive much longer. We should be proud of our long and eventful history stretching from the beginnings of Biblical times through conquerors and despots and our various dispersions in before this common era, and also our persecutions in this common era. We have a wonderful and beautiful culture and religion. Go study – it’s amazing what treasure you will find! Am Yisrael Chai!

9Athena says:

Leon, I hardly know how to begin. Let’s start with a foundation of inescapable logic. You are not me. I am not you. True? Next step. You are not your father. Your father is not you. True? When it comes time for you to die (hopefully much later than sooner) no one can die for you. True? The conclusion is: you are you. True? So who and what are you? If you are a duplicate of your parents you would be somewhat of a clone. If every human generation replicated their parents’ lives, we would be living in caves and eating grubs. So it’s obvious that changes have taken place through the generations. True? What changes, why, by whom? Before your past generations became ‘Jews’ what and who were they? A ‘Jew’ is not an ethnic distinction any more than French or Russian or American is. Before there was such an entity as “French’ there were the celts and the Goths. I’m sure you have no idea what ‘Russian’ means. Who were they before Catherine the Great conquered east of the Urals? Asiatics;Turk Mongols in the East.. And west of the Urals, most were slaves from long ago slavic tribes What does American mean? What I’m saying to you is this is your journey. You get one chance and then you die. If you don’t question and seek answers for yourself and by yourself (with a lot of help along the way) it’s as though you never existed. In other words, Leon, you have to find out who YOU are as a unique distinct human being. And when you really delve, you won’t like who you are at all. Then the growth will start.

I hardly know how to begin

doesn’t seem so: you very confidently started with assumption that Leon leads a very ‘sequestered’ life, telling him ‘to get to the library’, and then guaranteeing that when he delves into himself, he won’t like what he is. none of these are very becoming approaches for a Jewish person, to begin with–cause if you yourself ever read anything on Jewish subjects, in particular musar, you’d know that a Jews in general and especially dealing with other Jews, is supposed to be respecting and polite in their conversations. especially when you try to champion Judaism, G-d and other lofty things. i’d say you’re doing a big disservice to the very things you want to uphold, by making such baseless assumptions about your counterpart–whom, by the way, i personally know very close, and can guarantee that he HAS read and learned quite a bit about Jewish matters, religious and all.

and what the heck are you talking about the genesis of Russians? how were they ‘slaves’ if no Roman or any other foreign power was present in the territories of Russia, Ukraine and other neighboring countries, until the establishment of their own Ancient Rus statehood? save maybe for Swedes and Khazarians, who did make them pay tribute, but not subject to slavery. not to mention that the conquest of Ural and lands beyond it started way before Catherine the Great. seems like you are the one in dire need of reading and learning

Jews are a nation-religion, that is unique or near unique among us, at least among nations that still happen to be around. which means that ethnic component is at least as important as religious. and yes, before French there were Gauls, Romans, Franks, even Huns and so on, but today it doesn’t matter much as they have blended into one nation, whose name came from the Germanic component. Same with Americans, and same with Jews: many tribes and other groups came on to Jewish fold, be it Khazars, the ‘erev-rav’, the ‘Ilyintsy’ and what not; but in joining us, they became ethnically Jewish

that all doesn’t mean there’s no deeper plane to Jewish identity, but you’re doing a poor job of exposing it

hello, i’d appreciate if you read my comment below. apparently it went in as a reply to Leon’s post, rather that yours; but it was meant for you

poet’s peace each .

I am also proud to be part of the same heritage as these brave men. May they rest in peace!

Funny how Koch would talk endlessly about being a Jew, but spent his whole life running way from the fact that he’s Gay. Very sad……

nmfd72 says:

As a Roman Catholic I admired both men very deeply, one who devoted his life to the people of the City of New York and one who gave his life in defense of his faith! God Bless them both

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How Ed Koch Honored My Son

The late New York mayor told me he wanted to be remembered by my son Daniel Pearl’s final words: ‘I am Jewish.’

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