When we received early tickets for the musical “Hamilton” at the Public Theater, I had doubts about going. What do I know about hip-hop music? I said to my husband. Give me Gershwin, Porter, Sondheim — they write songs I can relate to, but hip-hop with its rap lyrics, the musical form in this play, is for a different generation. Then the reviews came out, all raves, and we decided to dip our toes into the hip-hop waters. Boy, were we glad we did. The production is sheer delight, the music powerful, the lyrics brilliant.
And it all seemed so Jewish, although composed by a writer of Puerto Rican descent, Lin-Manuel Miranda, with a cast made up mostly of actors of color. Watching it, my mind kept flashing to the Passover saga, and in retrospect, for good reason. What is more Jewish than the incessant flow of words throughout the play? Our tradition includes an entire biblical book called “Devorim,” or “Words,” and our Passover seder centers on the Haggadah, the “Telling.” What other people builds a festive meal entirely around reading aloud the words of a book? It is our own form of rap. Moreover, much of the story of Alexander Hamilton’s life is the story of this country’s beginnings, from the colonial rebellion against the British to the founding of the United States.
It is a story that in many ways parallels the Exodus from Egypt. Early on, the colonists sing of their longing for freedom from England and their burdens of taxation. As they break away, the wily King George sings, “You’ll be Back,” predicting their return to the fold, much like Pharaoh chasing after his slaves to get them back. Hamilton didn’t match Moses in greatness, of course, but like the Jewish leader, he began his odyssey as an outsider, and that affected his actions. Moses grew up in an Egyptian court, neither part of that world nor the world of his own people, giving him a unique perspective in leading the Israelites to freedom. Hamilton, born out of wedlock on a Caribbean island, was abandoned by his father and orphaned by his mother at a young age. An immigrant in New York, he brought his own revolutionary passion to the struggle against an entrenched power.
Although not dealt with in the musical, there has been a question about Hamilton’s Jewish roots. His mother may have been part Jewish, and her first husband, Johann Michael Lavien, has been thought to be Jewish. She never divorced that husband but became the common-law partner of James A. Hamilton, a Scotsman. Because the Anglican Church regarded Alexander Hamilton as a bastard, he was banned from its school in the West Indian island of Nevis, where he was born. His mother placed him, instead, in a Jewish school, and there — he later told his son — he learned the Ten Commandments in Hebrew. He always admired the Jews and described their progress as “out of the ordinary course of human affairs.” He attributed that course to “the effect of some great providential plan.”
Beyond Hamilton the person or the musical, it’s clear that the founding fathers of this land revered the Hebrew Bible and turned to it in planning their revolution and nation. The first words of the Declaration of Independence assert that all people are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…” And the famous words on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, “Proclaim Liberty throughout All the Land…” come from the Book of Leviticus. The eminent British rabbi and scholar, Jonathan Sacks, has said that one of the reasons for the success of the American Revolution in 1776 is that its leaders, in dialogue with the Bible, based it on the concept of God, the Supreme Power, and with that they placed a moral limitation on the power of a human government. The Russian Revolution of 1917, based on the philosophy of Karl Marx, and without such a built-in limitation, led to the abuse of power and the slaughter of millions. The American founders, says Rabbi Sacks, also learned from the Bible that the redemption of the Israelites in the Exodus was not about the individual soul, but about the redemption of an entire society, and that influenced them greatly.
Following in the footsteps of the founders, Abraham Lincoln was guided by biblical ideals of freedom in developing his own vision. With his affection for the Hebrew Bible, he also befriended Jews and gave them high positions, as Jonathan Sarna and Benjamin Shapell show in their new book, “Lincoln and the Jews.”
Now, as the last days of Passover approach, we can look forward to celebrating Shavuot and the giving of the great document that inspired so much in this nation.
Francine Klagsbrun’s latest book, “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day,” is now an e-book. She is currently writing a biography of Golda Meir.