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Not A Day Goes By

Dear Jonah,

You and I find some fascinating ways to make our lives intersect, don’t we? Yep, present tense … because it’s still happening, kiddo. Consider this …

In the summer of 2004, you were at the URJ Eisner Camp in Great Barrington, MA. You’d been spending parts of each summer there since 1998 when you were 8 years old and in K’tanim (the littlest ones at camp). In 2004, you’d turned fourteen and your unit, Tzofim, was producing a camp show entitled Stars of David. It featured your peers’ take on then-prominent Jewish celebrities, one of whom was Orthodox rapper Etan G, and he was played by none other than you! After a brief interview with the show’s host, you performed Etan G’s “Makin’ the Motzee,” a rap tribute to the prayer before meals. This piece became your signature presentation at weekend retreats in the NFTY youth movement for the next five years or so of middle and high school.

Now the connection here probably never registered in your life but it’s a powerful one in mine. In 2005, a year after the Eisner show, Jewish author Abigail Pogrebin published a book entitled “Stars of David,” featuring interviews with prominent Jewish celebrities. Same title but a different list to be sure.

Showstopper by Abigail PogrebinFast forward to these past few weeks. I have been exchanging emails with Abby Pogrebin to work out details for bringing her to my synagogue as a guest speaker. She’s about to publish a new book, 18 Holidays – One Wondering Jew, and we’re eager to hear about it. Along the way, I discovered that she’s also written an essay entitled “Showstopper,” which describes her experience as a 16-year old cast member of Merrily We Roll Along, a Broadway musical that ran for just sixteen performances in November 1981. Since the show closed so quickly, very few people got a chance to see it. I was one of those very few, which isn’t so surprising since I’m an avid fan of Stephen Sondheim musicals, I happened to have been living in New York City at the time, and it was to be one of the very few opportunities in my life to get to see a Sondheim show premiere on Broadway.

Sadly, the show closed quickly. It’s what Abby writes about, trying to understand – thirty years later – what had gone wrong.

I really liked reading her essay. To be afforded an opportunity to peek inside a show whose score I’ve always adored – this was irresistible. And having a kid who just graduated college and has begun the search for his own big break into theatre – well, let’s just say I’m hoping he’ll have his own stories to tell.

But then there’s “the connection” – that instant when the act of simply reading someone else’s words hurls me to the place inside where you are, Jonah. I never know when it’s going to happen and while it always takes me by surprise, it’s never unwelcome.

Here it is.

At one point deep into the piece, Abby mentions “Not A Day Goes By,” an especially beautiful and haunting number from the show. She points out one of the fundamental challenges (and perhaps part of the show’s undoing) as she shares the experience of watching it sung thirty years later by the seasoned adult actors the young cast was playing back then and now are today. She mentions that the singer at the 30th had lost a family member some five years earlier. And suddenly, the song is no longer just “a number” from the show.

Abby writes …

On March 15, 2010, at Avery Fisher Hall, Broadway luminaries such as Bernadette Peters, Mandy Patinkin, Patti LuPone, and Audra McDonald gathered to honor Sondheim’s eightieth birthday. In a gala concert directed by Lonny Price, LuPone belted out “Ladies Who Lunch” from Company, Peters and Patinkin reprised their glorious duet “Move On” from Sunday in the Park with George, and Elaine Stritch brought the house down with “I’m Still Here” from Follies. But to me, the most stirring moments came from Merrily: Peters’s rendition of “Not a Day Goes By” was achingly apt because she had lost her husband five years earlier in a plane crash. “Not a day goes by / Not a single day / But you’re somewhere a part of my life / And it looks like you’ll stay.”

I was still single when Merrily opened in 1981. But by its 30th anniversary concert it had been nearly three decades since your mom and I had stood beneath our huppah. We’d parented three kids and, a year prior to that 30th anniversary night with Sondheim, had endured the agony of losing one of those kids.

You. Jonah.

I never pay enough attention to lyrics. I’m a music guy. While I’ve always loved this tune (I’ve played and sung it about a billion times), not once have I ever stopped to consider the song’s actual message. In the context of the show, it seemed to have been there to display the songwriters’ talent and maybe their limited palate of compositional tools (the same musical intervals used here are used throughout the show).

So now, I read about this 30th anniversary performance of “Not A Day Goes By” and, suddenly (as these things always seem to unfold … suddenly) it’s a song about you. It tells your story, Jonah. Okay, really it tells my story, my heart, my longing.

So I’m watching Bernadette Peters, and I’m wondering if she’s singing about her husband. To her husband. And tears are rolling down my face because I’m definitely thinking about you. I’m singing to you, Jonah.

To be clear, the song (for me, at least) describes only a moment. A familiar moment, but not a constant one. I’m so grateful for that. I don’t know that I could survive perpetual grieving. How lucky I am to be able to put that away, to be able to go out and live, and laugh, and love. There’s always time to come back to you. There will always be time to come back to you. That’s inevitable. A curse. And a gift. The song gets it right (whether Sondheim meant to or not) … not a day goes by.

Here’s the full lyric:

Not a day goes by,
Not a single day
But you’re somewhere a part of my life
And it looks like you’ll stay.
As the days go by,
I keep thinking, “When does it end?
Where ‘s the day I’ll have started forgetting?”
But I just go on
Thinking and sweating
And cursing and crying
And turning and reaching
And waking and dying
And no,
Not a day goes by,
Not a blessed day.
But you’re still somewhere part of my life
And you won’t go away.

I was just going about my daily routines – living my life, doing my job – and along comes this coincidence, a person I met in a Starbucks and for whom I’m trying to arrange an author’s appearance at temple. I go to her website, looking for some biographical information, discover she was in the original Broadway production of Merrily We Roll Along and wrote an essay about it 30 years later.

It was just a coincidence. Nothing earth-shattering. It all made me smile.

Until, almost in passing, Pogrebin mentions this song, “Not a Day Goes By,” which had been used pretty much just as a punchline. But now, she’s made the connection to death and that’s all it takes to bring you into focus. You were born seven years after that show’s rapid demise, and your own demise came one year before the show’s 30th celebration at Avery Fisher Hall.

A lot of time had to pass before those actors could really project what the parts had needed in the first place. A reviewer on Amazon of Abby’s essay wrote: Pogrebin takes us backstage during the musical’s genesis, as it progressed from “promising to plagued.” There were too many characters to keep straight, the cast had teenagers portraying wizened, world-weary adults. As she says, the “pathos wasn’t registering.”

The same had been true for me. In 1981, I was just a kid. 24 years old. By 2010, my life had become a dizzying array of life-experiences, both glorious and terrible. Not quite “world-weary” (I hope) but now, today, the pathos certainly does register.

Jonah and me (1991) ... he's a year old

Jonah and me (1991) … he’s a year old

I’m no longer in the depths of my grieving, but the poignancy of a lyric can still turn on a tear. “Not a day goes by,” Jonah, when I don’t think of all that we shared in your nineteen years, of the gifts that you gave to me and to your family and to the world, and of the deep sense of loss that now accompanies each day of my life.

“Somewhere you’re a part of my life.” Not everywhere. If that were so, I’d just curl up in bed and lose myself in the nightmare of your disappearance. “But I just go on.” Really. I do. And it’s good. Really again. I miss you terribly, of course. But thankfully, you’re somewhere, not everywhere. The days go by. And they’re blessed days. “Because you’re still somewhere part of my life. And you won’t go away.”

Love you forever,
Dad

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