Ed Koch: From Newark to Gracie Mansion

Ed Koch: From Newark to Gracie Mansion

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Young Ed Koch with his sister, Pat, center, and cousin Pearl Bass.
Young Ed Koch with his sister, Pat, center, and cousin Pearl Bass.

Ed Koch, 88, the pugnacious former New York City mayor whose political imprimatur was eagerly sought by Republicans and Democrats alike, died early Friday morning of congestive heart failure. He had been hospitalized twice in recent weeks to drain fluid from his lungs.

In a 2011 interview, Koch told it like it is, whether the subject is President Obama’s performance or his secret for living a long life. “I’m 86, I work every day in the law firm Bryan Cave in New York, I write commentary and movie reviews — and I’ll send them to you for free if you send me an e-mail. I’m happy,” he told NJJN in a phone interview from his law office.

The interview appears below:

On Nov. 6, Koch will be speaking and signing his new children’s book, Eddie Shapes Up, at Maplewood’s [words] book store. In advance of his appearance, Koch, who coauthored the book with his sister, Pat Koch Thaler, spoke with NJJN about the book, growing up in Newark, and his reconciliation with the president.

NJJN: Is your new children’s book — about being overweight as a child and trying to change — based on your experiences as a child right here in Newark?

Ed Koch: Yes. I lived on Milford Avenue off of Clinton Avenue. I went to Miller and Monmouth elementary schools and South Side High School (now Malcolm X. Shabazz High School). And I went to Oheb Shalom synagogue on High Street. [Oheb Shalom Congregation is now located in South Orange.] The incident in the book when the boy is called “fatso” in the schoolyard — that’s based on my experience in the schoolyard at Miller Elementary School.

NJJN: Is it true you worked as a hat-check boy in a Newark dance hall?

Koch: Yes. My father and mother had a hat-check concierge at Krueger Auditorium on Belmont Avenue and I worked there as a hat-check boy when I was 10 or 11 years old. But they always made me leave before midnight.

NJJN: Would you like to send a message to Chris Christie, New Jersey’s famously overweight governor?

Koch: I have great admiration for the governor. I know he’s dealt with this problem as so many of us have. I was a very fat kid as a child and an adolescent and I remember being called Fatso. He needs my sympathy; he doesn’t need my advice.

NJJN: How did a Newark boy like you become such a New Yorker?

Koch: I was born in the Bronx, so it’s not such a big flight. My parents went to Newark because of the Depression when I was seven, and they returned to New York, to Brooklyn, when I was 17. I ultimately went to CCNY for college and then to the armed services. When I returned I went to NYU law school. I’ve lived most of my life in New York and I’m a proud New Yorker.

NJJN: You supported Republican Bob Turner against David Weprin, a Democrat and an Orthodox Jew, in the special election held last spring to fill the congressional seat vacated by Anthony Weiner. You were pretty clear then that you were down on Barack Obama’s leadership, especially as it concerned Israel. And yet, at the end of September, you announced you were endorsing Obama. What changed — or did we misunderstand what you were doing in supporting Turner?

Koch: I wanted to send the president a message not to take Jews for granted. Jews vote overwhelmingly for one party. It’s crazy to put all our eggs in one basket, as we used to say. Jews are the group giving President Obama the largest vote aside from the black population — in 2008, 78 percent of Jews voted for him. I thought he did not deserve it. He was very bad on the issue of Israel and I wanted to send him a message… [In] the ninth congressional district, the one with the largest Jewish constituency of any congressional district with 300,000 Jews — I wanted the president to know we were unhappy. He now knows. He’s changed his position.

NJJN: What positions has he changed?

Koch: When Obama gave his speech in Egypt [in 2009] I thought he was throwing Israel under the bus. And he didn’t even go to Israel on that trip, which is so customary. But I think he changed his position and delivered a very powerful speech in favor of Israel at the UN recently. [The speech, delivered in September, opposed a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state.] I commended him. We met and he convinced me he is supportive of the State of Israel, and I said I would support him. If things progress as they are progressing, I will go to Florida and seek to build Jewish support for him in that key state. On the other hand, if he does not do what he says, then he can’t count on me.

NJJN: What do you want to see from the president?

Koch: Most important at this particular moment is to have him state that any attack by Iran on Saudi Arabia or on Israel will be perceived as an attack on the United States. And if Iran uses conventional weapons, we will respond with conventional weapons. If Iran uses nuclear weapons, we will respond with nuclear weapons.

NJJN: You are very proud of continuing to work and being productive at 86. What’s your secret?

Koch: Orange juice. I love orange juice. I drink it all day long. I just hope I don’t get diabetes. Who knows, really? It’s all in your DNA.

NJJN: What do you hope local youngsters will take from your book, Eddie Shapes Up, and from your experiences?

Koch: I hope they understand that we love them whether they are skinny or fat or in between. But we want to help them have a better, happier life, and they can do that by eating healthy food and exercising. And their parents have to take responsibility to make healthy food interesting and appetizing and inculcate the knowledge that the best life, the happy life comes from eating intelligently — no diets, just eating intelligently. And that’s Eddie Shapes Up.

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