Deep thoughts, random insights, and musings by Susan Jacobs

Friday, September 29, 2006

September dreams

The leaves are starting to change color and all of a sudden wearing a jacket has become a necessity, not just a precaution. It’s late September, and I hardly know what has become of my favorite month.

September has held a special place in my imagination since I first saw the musical “The Fantasticks” when I was twelve years old. In the play, the month of September is a metaphor for the season of romance. While most of us spend the Septembers of our youth readjusting to school and lamenting the end of summer, when you stop and think about it, it is an ideal time for long walks and quiet talks. The weather is mild, the days are still relatively long, and the nights are filled with cricket songs. “The perfect time to be in love,” as the narrator tells us in “The Fantasticks.”

At this time of year, I tend to take out my recording of the soundtrack for “The Fantasticks” and allow my romantic notions to bloom anew. Between the romance of September and the optimism of the Jewish new year, this time of year always feels to me like one of great promise.

I was happy to find out several weeks ago that, after a four-year absence, “The Fantasticks” has returned to the New York theatre scene. I saw the musical several times in its long-time home, the Sullivan Street Theater, including one last time in December 2001, not long before the show ended its run in January 2002. At that time, the play’s themes of hope and disappointment and happy resolution and of Trying to Remember a certain kind of September were especially poignant following the terrorist attacks of September 11, just blocks from the theater in lower Manhattan.

Soon after, I wrote a column for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about the play’s influence on my own life. Four years later, most of the lessons still apply.

As I understand it, the new production of “The Fantasticks” includes some revisions to songs and lyrics, but preserves the special spirit of the show. It is still performed with minimal scenery and props, and still acted in front of small, intimate audiences. I was so happy to hear about this revival because, having attended some amateur productions of the musical, there is nothing quite like the real thing. And, anyone who has seen the show can attest that there seems to be an oral tradition associated with the show that is presumably passed from one cast to the next. It gives me great comfort that the actors in this new production can still learn from the musical’s creators about staging for certain critical scenes and about the richness of meaning implied by the script.

Next time I’m in New York, I hope to go see “The Fantasticks” and the revival of “A Chorus Line,” which I never saw on Broadway, but which I have loved for years because of the movie based on the musical.

September is closing, but the new year is just beginning, and I have very high hopes for the year ahead – both theatrical and personal.

A belated Shana Tova to all my readers!

Sunday, September 17, 2006

The mayor, my friend and neighbor

The national press has made quite a big deal lately of the fact that Pittsburgh now has a mayor, Luke Ravenstahl, who is just 26 years old, making him the youngest mayor right now of a major American city. While I am happy for my underestimated and much maligned city that it is getting some positive press right now, I think it is unfortunate that the sad circumstances that led to this development have been given far less attention.

Bob O’Connor, the man who was mayor until Sept. 1, when he died, lived about a block and a half away from me in a very modest home. I walk past that house at least once a week on Shabbos on my way to shul and Bob would always greet me when I saw him out in the yard, or walking his dog, or getting into his car. He was always enthusiastic and friendly, often saying Good Shabbos, or asking me how work was going, or chatting about the weather.

More than just polite pleasantries, Bob’s greetings always felt like those of a friend. He really knew who I was – which became clear when he visited my workplace on official business and said, “Oh, you work here!” It takes real talent to recognize a person out of context like that – but Bob wasn’t just being a politician, he genuinely took an interest in his neighbors and constituents.

Bob became Pittsburgh’s mayor in January, but he had been a city councilman for long before that, and even though he was a public figure, he remained incredibly personable and neighborly. He also had a very special relationship to the Jewish community. His wife, Judy, is Jewish, and her sister and brother-in-law are active members of the local Lubavitch community. Even though Bob remained a devout Catholic, he became an active supporter of many Jewish causes and institutions. As someone told me in an interview, Bob attended more Jewish community events than most Jews.

After he became mayor, I would see Bob less often and thought that, out of necessity, he might be less accessible than he had been previously. However, when I did see him, he remained as friendly and approachable as he had always been. Not long after he was elected, I was walking past his house when he was pulling his car out of the driveway. When he saw me, he stopped and rolled down his window to remark about something in The Jewish Chronicle. We chatted briefly, smiled at each other, and then went our separate ways. I marveled to myself about how special it was to have a mayor, in a city the size of Pittsburgh, who was so much a man of the people, and who continued to be everyone’s friend and neighbor.

Bob’s death brought shock and sadness to the whole city. Not unlike the death of Mr. Rogers a few years ago, we all felt a sense of loss. On the day of his funeral, I joined a couple of coworkers in standing along the route of his funeral procession. In addition to dozens of police cars and motorcycles and cars filled with dignitaries, the procession also included a shiny red fire engine and a sparkling blue garbage truck, symbolizing the mayor’s campaign to clean up the city. While many of us watched the procession with tear-stained respect, the tribute also expressed the hope of better days for our city, and a continuation of the programs initiated by our beloved mayor, Bob O’Connor.