Ted Comet had a problem: There just wasn’t, he felt, enough public expression of support for Israel.
In part, the problem was ontological. “It fell between two schools of thought,” he said. “Committed Jews said a parade may be OK for the Irish, but not for our own intellectual and cultural tradition. And non-committed Jews said ‘what? You’re going to go out and promote being Jewish in public?’”
That was in 1965. Unfazed, Comet, who is 95 and who has spent his career leading a number of major Jewish organizations, decided to put up the parade regardless. When he learned that none of the Jewish schools that promised to attend had marching bands, he recruited marching bands from Catholic schools nearby. When some of these bands turned out to have large crosses emblazoned across their drums, Comet paid for new drum skins, so as not to offend anyone’s sensibilities. Few people joined the march that year, and fewer still came out to watch and cheer, but Comet didn’t care. He had done something he felt was needed, a demonstration of Jewish pride up and down Fifth Avenue. When he and his wife Shoshana got home that evening, she said the whole thing was like having a baby: Difficult, incredibly gratifying, and destined for a future that’s impossible to predict.
For a couple of years, the parade ambled along peacefully, a niche gathering for a small host of enthusiasts. Then came 1967.
“The third parade was scheduled for the Sunday before the Six Day War,” Comet said. Having temporarily lost his Fifth Avenue permit—the swells in their condos thought all the marching and the music was just too much trouble—he rerouted the parade to Riverside Drive. And with Israel being on the cusp of war, he rebranded the parade, declaring it a demonstration of solidarity.
A quarter of a million people showed up.
The comedian Victor Borges, who Comet recruited as his guest of honor, had asked how long the parade usually lasts; based on the previous years’ experience, Comet said two hours. By the fourth hour, with throngs of people still marching by the review stand waving Israeli flag, Borges leaned over. “I don’t want to be rude,” he told Comet, “but my wife is expecting me for dinner Thursday evening.”
After that fateful day, Comet said, “the establishment recognized the significance of the parade. And if we didn’t have the infrastructure already in place in 1965 and 1966, we could never have pulled off 1967.”
The parade continued to thrive, attracting large crowds each year. But the specter of politics has never ceased to haunt it. When the Oslo Accords were signed, for example, some communal leaders, Comet said, suggested that it might be time to put the parade to rest now that Israel’s foundational conflict seems to be nearing its end. No longer involved with running the parade by that point—it’s now a project of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York—Comet thought that was a mistake. The parade, he firmly believes, is more significant than any one policy or political party. “Politics change,” he said. “Life changes. But we mustn’t lose sight of the significance of the concept of Israel as a Jewish state. When we go out and demonstrate, that’s what we’re demonstrating—a principle, not a political party.”
Still, as he rides in a convertible with his great-grandson this Sunday, serving as the parade’s Honorary Grand Marshal, he will, he said, have the political developments of the last few years on his mind: With a spike in anti-Semitic attacks, and with anti-Zionism on the rise, he feels the parade this year is more crucial than ever.
“It’s like Rabbi Heschel said,” he concluded, “this Sunday, as we’ll be marching, we’ll be praying with our feet.”