FLASHBACK 30 YEARS: Koch Writes About Satmar, Bobov, Fistfights, & Rabbi Yehuda Levin


The following is an interesting excerpt from a book titled “Politics”, written by Former Mayor Ad Koch, almost 30 years ago.

An analysis of the primary-election results showed that there were only two groups that did not vote for me. The first was the Satmar sect, which is a Hasidic Jewish group, many of whom live in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. This group is against the existence of the State of Israel on the grounds that a Jewish state should exist only after the Messiah returns. In addition to that, the Satmar are death on wheels on gay-rights legislation. And, most important for them, they are opposed to the resource recovery plant, the garbage incinerator (one of eight planned for the city) which is to be located in the former Brooklyn Navy Yard in Williamsburg, and which I have led the fight for on the Board of Estimate. In the Satmar’s area I got 29 percent of the vote, while Carol Bellamy got 63 percent. This is particularly significant because the last thing in the world the Satmar as a community would approve of is a woman mayor.

On Sunday, October 27, the New York City Marathon was held. The race starts in Staten Island and runs for twenty-six miles through every borough and many of the city’s ethnic neighborhoods. I started the race, as I have done for the last seven years, by firing the cannon. Then I watched as nineteen thousand runners passed before me over the Verrazzano Bridge—a glorious sight. In prior years after shooting off the cannon I would go to the finish line two hours later to greet the winners. I decided that this year I should track the route of the runners ahead of them and stop at each of the watering stations set up by volunteers. There were about ten such stations set up in each of the boroughs. I loved it as I sped along ahead of the runners by car. At each station I got out of the car to drink a cup of water, to the cheers of the spectators lining the streets. I did that until I got to Satmar country in Williamsburg.

When I arrived there I told my driver that I wanted to get out of the car and walk for a few blocks The men on the street were dressed in their black hats and coats, and the married women wore their decorous wigs. The Bible requires each married woman to wear this wig in public so as not to show her hair to any man other than her husband. There was no applause for me as I walked by. In my head I simply decided to do what I do at ball games, where they always boo politicians. I raised my arms high in the air with thumbs turned up, as though the spectators were cheering me. One Satmar man in his midthirties said to me, in his East-European-inflected English. “Mayor, we don’t want the incinerator.” I turned toward him and said, “I lost in this neighborhood and you’re getting two.” Of course it was said jocularly.

On Sunday. November 3, the weekend before the general election, the Satmar cooked up a new technique against me, or at least one that had not been used for several hundred years. I was scheduled to go to Boro Park, a lively and commercially productive section of Brooklyn that is populated in large measure by the Hasidic Jewish community.

The purpose of my visit was to participate in the dedication of Bobov Promenade, a street-name change to honor the Rebbe of the Bobover community. “Rebbe” is the affectionate, respectful diminutive title given to a rabbi of great scholarship and renown. This Rebbe, Rabbi Schlomo Halberstam, has a glorious history of surviving the Holocaust and saving other Jews in Poland. He led his flock across the sea to America and they settled in Boro Park. I have met him on a number of occasions. We like each other even though we don’t communicate much when we are together. His usual words are “Have a piece of cake, have a drink” (referring to wine or schnapps). And then he gives me his blessing which consists of “Everything you want you should have.” At that particular moment all I wanted was to be reelected.

We had been told that one of my opponents, Rabbi Lew Y. Levin, who is an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, would be there. He was the candidate of the Right to Life Party, and his platform consisted of denouncing me as supportive of gay-rights legislation. He said that I was bringing Sodom and Gomorrah to New York City. At the New York Times debate that was all he talked about. And then he engaged in insulting behavior by declining to shake hands with me. He said it was for religious reasons, the religious reason being, I later learned, that he, along with others, is to “excommuuicate” me. That was the surprise that Levin’s ultra-religious group of zealots had in store for me in Boro Park: a demonstration and an excommunication ceremony.

When my car got to Boro Park, by chance we were stopped at an intersection as the demonstrators’ bus approached. It happened to be where I was getting out of the car. When they saw me it was like a collective primal scream of rage from inside that school bus. I simply laughed and gave them my thumbs-up salute, which evoked more screams from them. I kept walking through the neighborhood to the site of the ceremony.

Before the ceremony I went into the Rebbe’s house, and as I was walking in I noticed that among the two thousand people in the crowd, two men were engaged in a fistfight.

I said to my security guard, “Stop them We shouldn’t allow them to fight”.
He said, “Mayor, keep walking.”
I listened to him and kept walking into the house. I had some cake and wine and received the Rebbe’s greetings and blessings.

When I came out of the Rebbe’s house my advance man, Peter Kohlman, said to me, “Mayor, it was very interesting out here. There were about four fights. The Bobov people recognized the others who were infiltrating and who would have demonstrated against you. They beat them up and then delivered the bodies, still breathing and able to walk, to the police.”

Obviously if the police had seen the fights they would have intervened. But I laughed when Peter told me that, thinking, Only the Bobov would be able to tell the difference between their black hats and frock coats and those of the zealots.

The reporters were there and they asked me about the zealots. I said, “This is an exploitation of very sensitive and sophisticated religious principles for vulgar political purposes. I am a proud son of Israel and a proud Jew. And,” I went on, this is what their counterpart zealots did to Spinoza. At least I’m in good company.”

When I spoke at the ceremony, I referred to an incident that had occurred inside the Rebbe’s house. He had pointed to someone, saying, “This is Mr. Katz. He is a real Hasid.” I had said to the Rebbe, “What do you mean, a real Hasid?” He said, “If you are a real Hasid, you pick a Rebbe to follow.”

So when I was out on the platform where the Bobov were cheering me, I turned to the Rebbe and said, “I asked you what it means to be a true Hasid. And you told me it is someone who picks a Rebbe to follow. I want you to know that I am a true Hasid I am picking you to follow.”

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(Transcribed by Dov Gordon – YWN)


  1. So if Koch was a true Chossid and picked the Bobover Rebbe to follow;

    why did Koch not keep the Torah and live the life of an observant Jew, and why was he in favor of gay-rights legislation?

  2. “The Jewish state should exist only after the Messiah RETURNS” Did anybody catch that? Christian doctrine. Ok,a little late to be nitpicking, the book is long published and the author not in this world. But i am thinking, that in his sensationalist style, perhaps he was able to slip a lot of other slightly off-truth items under the radar as well? Anyway, certainly some interesting pieces of historical politics, for what they’re worth (not too much. Nothing new under the sun).

  3. He had the courage to write that he was a chassid.
    Certainly the Bobover Rebbe zt”l is working on behalf of his neshomo now. Let’s not spoil it. He also had the courage to write Shma Yisroel on his tombstone.

  4. It seems that Hasidim mainly care how one looks on the outside. If you look like one of them, then your “Holy”, doesn’t matter anything else you do. Super shallow and superficial.