Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz once told me about meeting Mayor Ed Koch. "He gave me a gift," the rabbi said. "A necktie. It is the only necktie I own, and I wear it once a year -- on Purim."
We each recall Ed Koch in our own way. To some, Mayor Koch will be remembered as the signer of our nation's first pooper-scooper law. To others, it will be his extraordinary work creating affordable housing in New York City. To me, it was being asked to help trace his Jewish family history and genealogy.
It was 1979, and I was writing a weekly newspaper column called "Tracing Jewish Roots" for The Jewish Week of New York. Each week, for two years, I taught my readers how to do Jewish genealogical research. One important source I wrote about, both in my column and in many other articles I'd been commissioned to write for various publications was the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.
YIVO is the finest archives and library of East European Jewish history in the world. Located in New York City, I visited there frequently to use their amazing collections. One day, I was standing in the YIVO lobby when suddenly its executive director ran in my direction and then, in a raised voice, shouted "You're the one giving us all the trouble!"
The "trouble," I quickly learned, was the number of people who had learned about YIVO from me and who were over-burdening their already over-burned staff. Today, in 2013, YIVO is part of the Center for Jewish History and is well equipped to help amateur genealogists, but in 1979, YIVO was a quiet place where a few scholars at a time visited its facilities. Suddenly amateur family historians were appearing by the dozens, and the professional staff couldn't handle them all -- and some didn't want to help the amateur genealogists who, like the simple child at the Passover seder did not even know how to ask the right questions.
But one day, a lovely woman, who later identified herself as Ed Koch's sister, came to YIVO's old location on the corner of 86th Street and Fifth Avenue with some old family photographs, and to make long stories short, the late, great Jewish historian, Dr. Lucjan Dobroszycki, on YIVO's staff, asked me to help them to trace the Mayor's genealogy. I accepted the challenge -- ultimately discovering, among other things, that Ed Koch was named after one of his great grandfather's, a man named "Yidl Itsik," and that another great grandfather of the mayor, Yisroel Edelstein from the town of Skala, was a legendary figure in the town's folklore. The man's alias was "Hersh Pinyas" and, as the legend has it, he led a band of thieves who stole from the rich and gave to the poor -- but never on Shabbat. The Koch family thought he eventually moved to the Holy Land, but others from the town insist he died in jail.
Upon my article's publication, the Mayor wrote me a letter, saying
"I want you to know I have rarely read an article which concerned itself with my family or me in particular that I enjoyed as much as the one that you wrote which appeared in New York Magazine. From now on, I shall insist that my curricula vita have at the top that he (me) was the great-grandson of 'an orthodox Jew (who) headed a gang of Gentiles, They stole from rich Polish noblemen and gave to the poor (and) by the way, he was known never to steal on Saturday, the Sabbath.' I don't know whether it is a true or apocryphal story since I am not the one who provided you with the information, but I sure do love it."
Mayor Edward Irving Koch, son of Jewish immigrants from Poland and born in the Bronx, will also be remembered for his quotable and voluminous wit and wisdom. This is my favorite: "I know that nothing happens here on this Earth that wasn't ordained by God. I know that. You know that. And therefore, while I know that it was the people who elected me, it was God who selected me."
The mayor later explained, "Not that I was given approval by the Deity, but I am delighted I was given the opportunity by the Deity."