From Sweet Manhattan Schoolboy to Israel's Next Prime Minister?

Labor leader Isaac Herzog’s old school friends in New York share memories of the man who would be king.

AFP

NEW YORK – Soon after he was first elected to the Knesset, in 2003, Isaac “Bougie” Herzog said he liked to see himself as “carrying the torch” for Israel’s Anglo community. That torch may first have been lit during his days as a Ramaz high school student in New York City, where he left a strong impression and formed relationships that continue to this day.

Tomer Appelbaum

Herzog, 54, began as a sophomore at the modern Orthodox high school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side when his father was appointed Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations. Today he is leader of Israel’s Labor Party and a leading contender for prime minister in the upcoming elections.

At least half the Ramaz students had been together since kindergarten, when 15-year-old Herzog joined the school in 1975, and the other half had started together as freshman a year earlier. But Herzog, a freckle-faced boy known as Isaac — though some old schoolmates remember him as Yitz — entered 10th grade with confidence and charm.

At the time Herzog was short and skinny, though Rabbi Haskel Lookstein - both then and now Ramaz’s principal - points out that, “he grew three inches while he was here,” as high school boys often do.

Yet it wasn’t his growth spurt that left such a strong impression with most people.

“Bougie was this adorable, sweet, polite little boy who we knew would be a big deal,” says Shira Dicker, a publicist in New York who was in the same Ramaz graduating class.

“From the first minute he walked in to our synagogue and school, he was an up person,” Lookstein told Haaretz. “Optimistic. Always positive. He had a big smile on his face. To this day you imagine him with an impish grin,” said Lookstein, adding that Herzog was “an excellent student.”

Herzog is one of three alumni who Ramaz will honor at its annual benefit dinner on January 11th at the New York Marriott Marquis hotel in Times Square.

Some of the relationships Herzog formed in New York have spanned the decades since their 1978 graduation.

“He made many friends here, many of whom he’s still friendly with from 6,000 miles away,” Lookstein said.

Steven Koppel, who first connected with Herzog due to their mutual love of politics, was the Labor leader’s best buddy in high school and they remain close friends, a relationship deepened by the friendship of their now-adult oldest children. They speak often and get together as often as they can, Koppel told Haaretz.

Many Israelis in New York for just a couple of years enrolled at Ramaz when their parents worked in New York as diplomatic representatives of the government or as emissaries of the Jewish Agency. Mostly, Koppel says, the Israeli kids had a hard time integrating into the student body. “People would be isolated. Bougie was totally different,” Koppel says. “He was one of us from nearly day one and a popular person in our class.”

In what was probably his first-ever run for elected office, Herzog was elected vice president of the Ramaz student government. “Here’s a guy who comes as a sophomore and found himself popular enough to be elected vice president as a senior,” says Koppel, who, like Herzog, is today an attorney; partner at the Manhattan law firm Jones Day.

As student government VP, Herzog’s role involved “interfacing with the administration and listening to people complain,” says Koppel of the man who could head Israel’s next government. “He must have liked that.”

Herzog and his party recently joined forces with Tzipi Livni and the Hatnuah Party in an effort to beat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the upcoming Knesset elections.

As high school juniors, Herzog and Koppel worked as interns on the election campaigns of opposing candidates running for Manhattan Borough President: Herzog for Robert F. Wagner Jr., Koppel for Andrew Stein, who won.

“We did a lot of things together after that,” says Koppel. He and Herzog attended a summer academic program at Cornell University the following summer and, after graduating from Ramaz, as counselors at Camp Massad, a now-defunct modern Orthodox overnight camp in the Pocono mountains which was attended, at various times, by kids as notable and wide-ranging in their professional lives as Alan Dershowitz, Blu Greenberg and Ralph Lauren.

During Herzog’s high school years Ramaz students frequently protested at the UN, where his father was Israel’s ambassador. Chaim Herzog later became a member of Knesset and eventually Israel’s president. The UN adopted its Zionism is Racism bill while the Herzogs were in New York and Natan Sharansky was arrested during that era of refusniks.

Ramaz students went to the UN “close to weekly and sat and protested. We would have mass rallies in the late 1970s with all the Jewish high schools, but Ramaz was definitely at the forefront,” recalls Koppel. “That was a very important lesson that [Herzog] learned, that kol Yisrael arevim ze le ze (all Jewish are responsible for one another.)”

Since then “we’ve stayed friends for going on 37 years,” says Koppel. Even among those who aren’t as close to Herzog or may differ politically, “there’s nobody I know who doesn’t like him,” he says.

Several former classmates contacted by Haaretz declined to talk about Herzog or said they didn’t remember enough to share.

Herzog has maintained his ties to Ramaz. He was guest speaker at an alumni event last year in Jerusalem, which attracted about 350 people, said Kenneth Rochlin, the school’s director of institutional advancement. “His love for not just Ramaz but for the Jewish people and Israel came through. People were just blown away,” Rochlin told Haaretz. “We have very Haredi and very secular Ramaz alumni living in Israel, and I got nothing but thanks for having him.”

Herzog’s nickname was given to him by his Egyptian-born, French-speaking mother, who combined the French word for doll, “poupee,” with the Hebrew equivalent, “buba,” he told Haaretz in 2003.

Some of his old pals say that they thought his nickname was related to the French term for small candle, “bougie,” since Herzog “was a light ‘em up kind of kid,” said Koppel.

None of the former classmates interviewed remembered him as being much of a ladies’ man as a high school student. “He was definitely not flirty,” says Dicker. He was “friendly and polite and somehow relaxed. He was serious but also funny — the kind of teenage kid every parent looks at with drooling envy,” she told Haaretz.

Lookstein remembers Herzog’s facility in chanting the Bible’s megillot (festival readings) and the fact that he came to the rabbi’s synagogue, Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, with his father every Shabbat.

But Dicker remembers him for a different kind of skill.

“I will never forget this,” she told Haaretz with a laugh. “He once came over to me, I’d gone to Bloomingdales during lunch, he stands next to me and sniffs and says ‘Chanel No. 5: the perfume of queens and empresses. That’s what my mother wears.’ ”

Haaretz would love to hear from readers who would be willing to share a photo of Yitzhak Herzog from his time at Ramaz. Please email us at english@haaretz.co.il.