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Though officially an exercise in change and progress, Rahm Emanuel’s inauguration as Chicago’s first Jewish mayor was nonetheless steeped in well-worn myths and traditions

Rachel Shteir
May 17, 2011
(Brooke E. Collins/Chicago 2011)
(Brooke E. Collins/Chicago 2011)

According to the official program for Rahm Emanuel’s swearing-in ceremony yesterday, the rabbi spoke twice.

The leaflet had Jack Moline, a Chicago native who is currently the rabbi of the Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria, Va., offering his benediction both before and after the Chicago Children’s Choir.

Perhaps listing Moline twice is Emanuel’s way of reminding the city that he is its first Jewish mayor, a fact that most of the inaugural coverage will mention and then quickly drop. Or perhaps, since the rabbi actually only spoke once, it was a typo, if it is conceivable to imagine that Rahm’s media staff—which reporters here have criticized for their micro-managing—made a mistake. The reduplication reminded me of an image that has haunted me throughout the campaign: an Emanuel caught between the old and the new. As the New York Times’ Monica Davey observed in a May 16 story, however forcefully Rahm charges toward change, in Chicago, “old alliances and neighborhood tribalism are hardly forgotten.”

Indeed, these tensions roiled throughout the inaugural festivities, which began on Saturday. It was raining and in the 40s that morning when Emanuel’s black SUV pulled up at a community garden on Chicago’s South Side. First to emerge was a staffer carrying a shovel and a pitchfork. The mayor-elect then leapt from the car and stalked around the garden in a Patagonia fleece, jeans, sneakers, and no coat. The rest of the family was there too, also coatless, though Emanuel’s wife Amy had a pashmina chicly wrapped around her neck.

Mr. Mayor, is this a metaphor for rooting out political corruption? a reporter asked as Rahm began pounding his shovel into the dirt.

Sure, he replied, coming up with a shovelful of weeds, plastic, and dandelions. “If you want to see it that way.”

But then he seemed to think better of it. “Is this OK to throw out?” he asked, holding up his shovel to no one in particular. When a garden staffer assured Rahm that it was, he poured the dirt gently into a wheelbarrow.

Several hours later, the rain had not abated, and a crowd of about 100 gathered in Grant Park to hear Chicago—the ’70s supergroup that got their start here, that is.

Given Rahm’s platform of change, the choice seemed, at best, counterintuitive. If you are advocating change, you might want to eliminate references to Chicago as the Windy City, the City of Big Shoulders, Chi-Town, or the City That Works or adjectives like “muscular.” Or at least keep them to a minimum.

As usual, Team Rahm succeeded more with the snacks and the swag than sophistication, offering rain-drenched spectators lip balm, granola bars, bottled water, and rain ponchos.

By Monday, it was still cold but clear. Thousands gathered in Grant Park at the dazzling Frank Gehry-designed Pritzker Pavilion, the brainchild of Emanuel’s immediate predecessor, Richard M. Daley. Before the ceremony, U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, former Obama hand David Axelrod, and other high-powered pols wandered near the press tent, granting sound-bites.

Common wisdom holds that the swearing-in ceremony and inaugural address were models of diversity and testimonies to Emanuel’s seriousness about change and reform.

Maybe so, but just as the band Chicago provides residents with a sentimental view of the city and its musical heritage, Rahm’s inaugural address offered listeners a sentimental fable about its nickname: It is called the Second City, because, after the Chicago Fire of 1871, the residents rebuilt the city “from the ground up,” he said.

That is one story about how Chicago earned its nickname, to be sure. But telling only this part of the moniker’s history does everyone a disservice. The name may also have taken root when Chicago became the country’s second most-populous city around 1890, and it stuck when A.J. Liebling used it as the title of a book that compared the city’s residents—unfavorably—with New Yorkers.

Things have changed since then, of course. Chicago, as someone once pointed out to me, is not Chelm. Yet, the most recent census showed that Chicago is now third in the nation, population-wise, and shrinking. If Chicago is to change, as Rahm wishes, it will be, as Rabbi Moline said in his speech, quoting the Talmudic sage Rabbi Chanina, “because we are praying for the welfare of the government, praying that every person will help fix what is broken.”

As I walked away from Pritzker Pavilion through Grant Park, I could not help but notice the many cracks lining the sidewalk.

Rachel Shteir is the author of The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting, which is to be published by The Penguin Press next month.

Rachel Shteir, a professor at the Theatre School of DePaul University, is the author of three books, including, most recently, The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting. She is working on a biography of Betty Friedan for Yale Jewish Lives.

Rachel Shteir, a professor at the Theatre School of DePaul University, is the author of three books, including, most recently, The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting. She is working on a biography of Betty Friedan for Yale Jewish Lives.

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