Rosh Hashanah in Chicago

These are the High Holy Days. Ten of ‘em, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur –the start of the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement. Much to reflect on, and a time for repenting too, as we all have our share of sins. Will we list them all here? Well, this is not that kind of journal. But one could; the Machzor provides capacious lists and one can find a place for one’s transgressions and plenty of company. Still, the New Year doesn’t start with a Guilt Fest; it’s Assessment Time first as one gives thanks, for these are days of rejoicing too as we wish each other the happiest of new years. And so a time of tuning in; turning in; reflecting out.

I’m in Chicago as my mom convalesces from a second hip surgery — which means, among other domestic endeavors, going with dad to synagogue as his failing eyesight makes going alone impossible. I am more than happy to go. It’s been something I’ve missed, a lot.

In synagogue, my old shul—reoutfitted, downsized, but still very much in the same place on Hyde Park Boulevard—the same shul that David Mamet writes about in The Disappearance of the Jews in his trilogy, The Old Neighborhood—I settle into a feeling of hominess. I am more comfortable in this community, next to my dad in synagogue, seeing friends from grade school, high school, friends of my family who’ve been coming to the same synagogue for 60 years, than I am anywhere else in the world… And I miss Chicago. Even as I bemoan the kind of conservative Jewish city Chicago has become. If what I hear from friends and family is true, the kind of diversity of expression we promulgate at the DCJCC – the kind of free-wheeling, free-thinking Jewish theater that takes risks and forges bridges between communities – doesn’t really exist in Chicago. Chicago remains a city whose Jewish culture is defined, in too large a part, by its suburban inhabitants, and whose agenda is set far too much by a hulking, monolithic Federation.

And while Washington has its Rockville, it also has the power of downtown DC and the various institutions (labor, religious, political action) that provide a cacophony of opinion, thought, and leading indicators as to where progressivism is going and ample reminders of where liberalism has been. No it’s not Manhattan. And it’s not San Francisco either. But Washington, and the urban discourse that Theater J has been a part of (and even helped to foster), is reflective of something energetic and robust as it represents Jewish culture and a re-invigorated liberal Jewish voice.

Not much of that to be found here in Chicago. Despite some of the greatest people in the world. I love my Chicago friends (grounded, unpretentious, worldly and well rounded). But they have uninspired culture here; at least as it speaks to the Jewish community. Sure, there’s Steppenwolf and the Goodman and their Jewish board members and audience; but really; it’s a community without a vigorous cultural voice. Art shines not a light and leads not the way. It merely reprises Gershwin Alone. And loves Beau Jest.

Chicago’s Jews are conservative. And they didn’t used to be. Not when I was growing up. But then, right as I was growing up, White Flight took root and the soul of the city moved to the suburbs. Suburban Jews wanted safety and secure schools. And they still think of safety and security first when it comes to global issues. Meanwhile, Jews have abandoned municipal politics in Chicago in a way they did not in DC. The most recent mayors of DC have maintained ties to the Jewish community and been in dialogue with Jewish advisors in a way that Chicago’s Mayor Daley no longer does. And there are far fewer Jewish judges in the city. Fewer Jewish manufacturers. Fewer Jewish labor leaders and public educators. At least that’s according to my dad, who for the past 19 years has served as President of the Chicago Jewish Historical Society.
I ask him if a Theater J could ever take root in Chicago?

“Not with the kind of programming you’ve been doing!
The community wouldn’t stand for it!”

Well, now that’s very interesting. But is it true? And could a Theater J find a sufficient number of kindred thinkers—ambitious theater-goers—to build a toe-hold and help to transform the cultural landscape here and, in turn, give new vigor to what’s left of a liberal voice in Chicago’s Jewish community?

The cultural blight this community lives with is the legacy of its retreat from the city. And yes, of course, Jews have returned to Chicago. And many Jews—as in DC—never left. But DC brought back its JCC. And in the process of that Center re-inventing itself, the arts got to take up residence at the center and in the center of that arts initiative grew this burgeoning Jewish theater with a progressive soul and a vision of itself to help lead the community into deep engagement with important issues. It would not be a theater of avoidance or one that reinscribed our insularity. It would build out and plug us back into a changing and challenging world. It was on that basis that The New Theater J (as we called ourselves back then) announced itself ten years ago.

And how it makes me dream today of starting a Theater J branch in downtown Chicago. Or near north Chicago. Or in Hyde Park, Chicago, just up from my old neighborhood. Just as New York could use its own Jewish Public Theater – with a Yossle’s Pub and a string of canonical Jewish work (how bout a Dybbuk in the Park) and plenty of new plays from American and Israeli playwrights, and a Yiddish cabaret, and dance, film, music and comedy too… So Chicago could use a provocative, challenging Jewish Steppenwolf. A Jewish Public and a Jewish Steppenwolf: I guess that’s what we’re aspiring to be at Theater J. Though we aren’t there yet. We haven’t the space yet. Or the audience, to be frank. We’re having trouble, this High Holy Day season, filling both the Goldman and the Studio Theatre’s Stage 4 with our robust programs. But the blueprint is there for all to see. PANGS and ACCIDENT. A theater of range and radical diversity. A Jewish Public. Are we at that threshold?

Here’s what I’d really like: To live in three different cities at the same time; Chicago, New York, and Washington, DC. That’s my idea of growth. Hang out a shingle in the middle of each city. And slowly transform the urban Jewish culture by establishing a strong theater with a vigorous conscience, embarking on a long-range conversation within our community that’s absolutely needed as it wanders about between neo-conservativism and abject materialism, having lost a big piece of its soul long ago.

More Chicago epiphanies to come as we peruse the excellent Steppenwolf Theatre website. Impressed by the paragraph that precedes its announcement of the season; a statement of what it’s all about. The big question. The overarching idea. We’ve got one too, but we haven’t shared it. We weren’t in touch with it. Now we are. And we’ll get it out tomorrow.

And maybe we’ll list some of our sins (as a theater) too. I’m sure we can come up with a capacious (and perhaps general enough) list. Happy-happy in our dreamy assessment state.

One thought on “Rosh Hashanah in Chicago

  1. Don’t forget San Francisco. There are several vibrant communities there that would love what Theater J does. On the road again…

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