What Jews Can Learn From ‘Hamilton’

Everything you’ve heard about Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” is true. The musical, which has won 11 Tony Awards, is not merely wonderful. It’s pure genius.

The music, acting, dancing, stage direction, and libretto are all simply stunning. Even for a reviewer not especially inclined toward rap — the rhythmically chanted performance style that comprises Miranda’s coin of the realm — it is clear that when practiced on this level, the synthesis of poetic diction, African-derived rhythm, and literary technique becomes high art.

The performances are spot-on. Miranda is a mesmerizing Hamilton, and Leslie Odom, Jr. a gripping Aaron Burr. Phillipa Soo, Reneé Elise Goldsberry and Jasmine Cephas Jones offer star power on stage, and add a level of musical sophistication to the arrangements by Alex Lacamoire. The dramatic pacing is impeccable.

The show’s story of the birth of our nation is compelling as well of course, perhaps especially for a Jewish audience keenly aware of its immigrant roots. That Alexander Hamilton succeeded was fairly miraculous. As Aaron Burrs asks in the production, “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished, in squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”

Like countless Jews fleeing pogroms, Hamilton the man had little other than natural talent to see him through. “I don’t have a dollar to my name,” he tells the audience, “an acre of land, a troop to command, a dollop of fame. All I have is my honor, a tolerance for pain, a couple of college credits and my top-notch brain.” His college studies (at King’s College, now Columbia University) was made possible through the help of some sympathetic wealthy men back home. His skill in maneuvering through the complex obstacle course of colonial business, politics, and military strategy was nothing short of miraculous.

“Get your education, don’t forget from whence you came,” the character recites from the stage, “and the world is gonna know your name.” How different was his situation from that of the many immigrants who congregated on the lower East Side in the early twentieth century? Did they also find their way through the kind of simple formula that shaped Hamilton’s life?

In a few cases, perhaps. But of course the story for most was much more daunting. Not forgetting from whence you came was a recurrent Cri de Coeur for some of the immigrants, but for others it became a slogan to rally against. The question was: do you derive your strength from the heritage that shaped you, or from the promise of a future with a clean slate? For Hamilton the past served a a reminder to fully embrace his new good fortune, leaving behind the remnants of the old life; countless Jews found themselves on the other side of the divide: suffering from homesickness and facing their new situation with dread, they clung to their past and yearned for a return. “For God’s sake, do not come here,” wrote one man to a Yiddish paper in Poland. “America is good only for the boors and the ignorant.”

It was understandable, given the conditions of their new home. Sweatshops offered the prospect of 84-hour weeks, and people were locked in rooms, wrote Irving Howe, “like sardines in a box.” There was rampant crime, wife desertion, gangs and prostitution. The past quickly receded into a blur, threatening the sinews of tradition. Soon there was wholesale rejection of the old ways. A kind of village atheism set in, spurring balls and parades on Yom Kippur, the most solemn fast day of the Jewish calendar. Yiddish poet Morris Winchevsky set out to prove that Moses didn’t write the Pentateuch.

Like Hamilton, though, some found renewed vigor through political activism. The community spawned anarchists like the Pioneers of Liberty, and labor organizers like the Propaganda Association for the Dissemination of Socialist Ideas Among Immigrant Jews. Vegetarians vied for attention with the founders of Ethical Culture. On the extreme left, a German anarchist named Johann Most advocated terrorism—the “propaganda of the deed.”

For his part, Hamilton — who was taught to recite the ten commandments in Hebrew — came to regard the success of Jews as “out of the ordinary course of human affairs,” and therefore the “effect of some great providential plan.” In the end, as the Jewish population in the United States assimilated and learned to claim its rightful place, history seemed to prove him right.

And the co-author of the Federalist Papers set the same example with his life, seizing every opportunity, spying for General Washington, becoming the country’s first Treasury Secretary and the principal architect of the new government, creating the budget system, the tax system, the central bank, the customs service, and the coast guard. Surprisingly, for someone who came from nothing, he emerged an aristocrat. And his legacy remains a powerful example of what can be accomplished with brains, heart and will.

Stuart Isacoff’s latest book is “A Natural History of the Piano” (Knopf/Vintage).

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What Jews Can Learn From ‘Hamilton’

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