Best Purim promo ever: ‘Hamilton’


Just when you worried the current state of politics is ruining everyone’s sense of humor, along comes Purim.

Specifically, Purim at the Shtibl Minyan, a small Los Angeles synagogue that each year impresses its many funny members– including Conan Show writer Rob Kutner– to deliver a topical shpiel.

This year the shul mashed up Purim with the musical “Hamilton” and President Donald Trump and delivered… bigly.

Who lives, who dies: Hamilton’s Rosh Hashanah message


Can the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton” serve up some inspiration for the High Holy Days? Reflecting on how I felt on the night of Feb. 25, on my way out of the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York after seeing “Hamilton” (yes, with the full original cast!), I think the answer is yes.

“Hamilton” is a work of lyrical genius. It’s entertaining, creative and groundbreaking. But above all, “Hamilton” is a deep exploration of the human condition. “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” These existential lyrics appear in many of the show’s songs, and the theme persists throughout the “Hamilton” experience. “Once I wrote this passage, I knew it would be the key to the whole musical,” “Hamilton” creator, writer and star Lin-Manuel Miranda has said. The show is uplifting, depressing, funny, poignant, tragic and inspirational — all at once. The night I saw “Hamilton,” I laughed, cried, sang and felt troubled. Ultimately, I walked away still believing in humanity, filled with hope.

As I contemplate the coming High Holy Days, I look back on how I felt after seeing “Hamilton” as an ideal framework for a meaningful experience. Properly understood, Rosh Hashanah asks us to undertake a deep exploration of the human condition. Indeed, the Unetaneh Tokef prayer poses almost the exact same question as “Hamilton”: “Who shall live, who shall die?” As to “who tells your story,” the Rosh Hashanah Torah readings — like “Hamilton” — offer an honest profile of our story.

In “Hamilton,” we meet the Founding Fathers of the United States for who they really were: heroic, valiant yet flawed human beings. Miranda’s Alexander Hamilton is at once a larger-than-life, overachieving genius and a fatally flawed person whose life was scarred by dysfunctional relationships. Javier Munoz, who took over as the lead in “Hamilton” in July, believes that this honest and realistic portrayal of our nation’s founders (particularly their character flaws) is precisely why the musical’s story exerts such a potent hold on people. “They allow the audience to say, ‘I’m OK the way I am — flawed and human.’ It pulls them in closer.” 

In the same spirit, the Torah readings on Rosh Hashanah offer an honest portrayal of Abraham and Sarah. On a day when we contemplate our own character flaws and imperfect lives, we read about Abraham and Sarah’s troubled relationship, the complex account of Ishmael’s birth, Sarah’s disturbing expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael and the infamous day when Abraham almost slaughtered his own child. Despite all of this, we also look up to Abraham and Sarah as people who helped shape the religion and faith with which we identify. We tell these stories on Rosh Hashanah — the anniversary of the creation of human beings — because they remind us that all people, including those we look up to as our founding patriarchs and matriarchs, are filled with character flaws. Much like the “Hamilton” experience, worshippers who read these stories in the Torah are “pulled in closer” to one of the existential truths that lie behind the Rosh Hashanah experience: Human beings are imperfect, and despite that eternal truth, we never lose hope in our potential to achieve great things.

For 2 1/2 hours, Hamilton’s creative blend of rhythmic hip-hop lyrics, powerful musical arrangements and thought-provoking messages sent me on a journey through the full gamut of human emotions. 

Properly experienced, a Rosh Hashanah service should do the same. The rhythmic lyrics of the liturgical poetry should inspire us to sing and feel uplifted, the powerful music of the shofar should bring us to tears, and the rabbi’s message should be thought provoking. If your Rosh Hashanah experience involves laughter, tears and deep contemplation, and if sometime during services you should feel troubled, inspired, worried and then hopeful, then Rosh Hashanah, like “Hamilton,” will have touched the deepest recesses of your soul.

Of all the characters in “Hamilton,” the one who touched me most deeply was George Washington (played by Chris Jackson). Jackson’s commanding stage presence and soulful singing of every lyric filled me with chills and brought me to tears. I felt privileged to convey my feelings to Jackson after the show, and after meeting him, I felt he was blessed with a deeply unique spiritual quality.

I was therefore not surprised that when I read through the show’s official behind-the-scenes book “Hamilton: The Revolution,” the chapter on Jackson featured a beautiful double-page photo of him and the rest of the cast backstage holding hands in a circle, their eyes closed, with Jackson leading them in a pre-show meditation (something he does before each performance). His message to his colleagues: “Let’s agree that for the next 2 1/2 hours, this is the most important thing we’ll do in our lives, and that everybody — in the audience, on the stage and in the orchestra pit — will leave the theater a better person than when they walked in.”

Let’s hope that this coming Rosh Hashanah, we can approach our services as the most important things we’ll do in our lives, and that everybody — the congregants, the clergy, the volunteer ushers — will leave the synagogue a better person than when they walked in.

Let that be the story we live to tell. 


Rabbi Daniel Bouskila is the director of the Sephardic Educational Center.

‘Hamilton’ creator Lin-Manuel Miranda stars in new video — for Yeshiva University


It’s a question thousands of fans are undoubtedly asking themselves: What is Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator and star of the hip-hop musical “Hamilton,” up to now that he has left the insanely successful production? Could he be writing another biographical smash hit?

The answer may be surprising. In the short term, at least, he’s partnering up with a New York Jewish institution: Yeshiva University.

In addition to starring in a show that earned a record-setting 16 Tony nominations, Miranda can now also add Y.U.’s latest fundraising video to his resume. He narrates and appears in a video focused on the school’s 2016 Day of Giving slated for Sept. 20 and 21.

“Yeshiva University is a radiating force that is shaping our world,” Miranda says over footage of famous Jews, like Joe Lieberman and Alan Dershowitz, who have connections to the school.

But Miranda, who is Puerto Rican and not Jewish, has connections to the school, too. He grew up in Washington Heights — where the main Y.U. campus is located, and which served as the setting for his first hit, “In the Heights” — and his mother is an assistant professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine (which was, until earlier this year, part of Y.U.). Miranda has given guest lectures there and was given an honorary doctorate from the school in 2009, when he was 29  — making him the youngest ever to receive that honor from the university.

Of course, growing up in Washington Heights left him with plenty of Jewish connections outside of Y.U. He has previously said that all of his elementary school friends were Jewish and that he paid his rent before making it big by performing at bar mitzvahs. Then there’s his love for “Fiddler on the Roof,” which he has said heavily influenced “In the Heights.” He even surprised his wife at their wedding by singing “To Life (L’Chaim),” an upbeat tune from “Fiddler.”

“That’s what will be my real legacy,” Miranda said of his wedding stunt last year on CBS Sunday Morning. “It’s one of the things I’m proudest of in my life.”

So you never know, here’s to hoping his next musical is based on famous Jews.

How the Broadway musical “Hamilton” deepened my connection to Israel


I want to thank you for several things.  The first two may seem obvious.

First, for your revolutionary new art form.  I have always loved musical theater, but your unique choice to tell the story of Alexander Hamilton through the language of hip-hop is nothing short of brilliant.

Secondly, thank you for making American History so accessible to anyone lucky enough to see your show on Broadway.  I was fortunate to be born in America. As an American, I listen to the soundtrack with gratitude for the sacrifices our founding fathers (and mothers) made to establish this incredible country.  Thank you for making it so personal.

But the reason I felt compelled to write to you is to share what the “Hamilton” soundtrack has done for me, something that I did not expect.  As of this writing, I have not had the pleasure of seeing the show…YET.  But I have listened to it several dozen times.  I wasn’t sure why I found it so compelling, or why I related to it so completely.  But I think I understand it after having returned from a recent trip overseas.

By way of background, I am the granddaughter of 4 Holocaust Survivors.  Both of my grandfathers were married with children before the war, and both of them lost their wives and their children to the Nazis.  My father was raised in Israel and returned to live there 25 years ago.  He has always been deeply connected to the tiny nation, and his passion is contagious.  My 2 sisters and I have been traveling to Israel since we were little girls, visiting our grandparents, spending time with our cousins and the few distant relatives that survived the Holocaust.  I have always loved Israel.  And as an adult, I have had the privilege of learning the complicated history and geopolitical struggles that Israelis deal with. 

But this past trip to Israel was different for me because of “Hamilton.”  You see, the modern state of Israel is only 68 years old.  Which means that many of the natives and immigrants that sacrificed everything to establish this new nation are still alive.   And I have had the honor of spending time with many of them.  As I listen to your brilliant score now, I can’t help but relate it to the struggles and triumphs of my grandparents and their contemporaries.  There are so many similarities…

The Jewish immigrants of Europe lost everything and had to rebuild.  Their ship to a new land was the Exodus.  Once they were there, they had to gain independence from the British Mandate over Palestine. Just as they raised a glass to freedom, they had no choice but to fight a war of Independence.  And once victorious, they had the challenge of establishing a new nation… one that is still young, scrappy and hungry.

Like America, Israel is a model for how a new nation can successfully build important institutions like a Supreme Court and a world-class defense force.  Israel has been a Democratic beacon of stability in a region struggling with instability.   Israel has shown the world that a young country can make the most of its limited resources to become a leader in agriculture and water technologies.   Israel has been an innovator of technology and medical research that helps people all over the world.  And as the world struggles with issues like Cyber-security and Homeland Security, world leaders can look to Israel for many creative and cost-effective solutions.

Just as I am proud to be an American, I am proud of what my ancestors have been able to do in the small sliver of land in the Middle East, our Jewish homeland.  It is certainly not perfect.  It has its share of political struggles and betrayal, and has real struggles with enemies that would like to see Israel removed from the map.  But as you so eloquently depict, every developing country has its challenges.

I welcome the opportunity for Hamilton to premier in Israel, because I can imagine the experience will hit very close to home.  When “Les Miserables” debuted, for example, the intensity of revolution followed by the powerful song “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables” was all too familiar to the audience members who had lost their friends and loved ones in recent wars.  And I’m sure that Israeli audiences will be affected when confronted with living with the unimaginable, because they live with it every day.  Just recently, I woke up to the devastating news that Hallel, a beautiful 13 year-old Israeli-American girl was stabbed to death while sleeping in her bed after a 17 year-old terrorist broke into her home.  And yet somehow, the men and women of Israel pick up the pieces of their lives and move forward with resilience. Can you imagine?

While I was there I bought a set of coasters with the images of Israel’s original leaders.  When my 7-year old daughter asked me who they were, I explained they were the Alexander Hamilton, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson of Israel.  She got it.

So all this is to say thank you.  Thank you for making me understand better about the personal struggles and sacrifices made by the founding fathers and mothers of our two great nations.  It makes me appreciate both even more.  Thank you for telling their stories.

Respectfully,

Diana Stein Judovits

That time ‘Hamilton’ creator Lin-Manuel Miranda sang in Hebrew


Raise a glass! The 2016 Tony Award nominations were announced this morning, and the the revolutionary Broadway megahit “Hamilton” collected the lion’s share, with a record-breaking total of 16.

Creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda himself received three nods, for best original score, best book and best lead actor.

This makes it official: Whether we’re talking about the 18th or the 21st, “Hamilton” is the show of the century — which is about how long you’ll have to wait to get tickets.

In the meantime, while you suffer through the interminable wait, we’ve got you covered: You can watch what’s probably the greatest wedding toast in the history of wedding toasts.

At his 2010 nuptials, Miranda called on the entire wedding party to serenade his “beshert,” Vanessa Nadal, with a surprise performance of “To Life! (L’Chaim!),” the iconic showstopper from “Fiddler on the Roof” — which, incidentally, was also nominated for three Tony Awards today, including one for best musical revival.

Sweet and spot-on, it’s no shocker that Miranda’s song-and-dance performance was on par with an actual stage number. Several Broadway vets took  part, including music direction by “Hamilton” collaborator Alex Lacamoire (now up for best orchestration). Apparently, Miranda arranged and rehearsed the whole thing secretly in a matter of days.

“Fiddler,” of course, is one of Miranda’s favorite shows — he appeared in his school’s sixth-grade production and identified it as one of the biggest influences for his 2008 Tony-winning musical, “In the Heights.” Not long ago, he plucked the three actresses who play Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava from the current Broadway revival for a special rap-enhanced rendition of “Matchmaker” at Ham4Ham, the free sidewalk performances Miranda coordinates for the crowds lined up for “Hamilton” ticket lotteries.

That Miranda hits the hard “chet” in “l’chaim” just right may be because in elementary school, as he told The New Yorker, “all my friends were Jewish,” and he was also no stranger to singing and dancing at over-the-top Jewish events. As he told The New York Times Vows column, he met his wife — an MIT-trained scientist who is also an attorney — before his first Broadway bonanza, and he was paying the rent by performing at bar mitzvahs.

“‘I was literally one of those guys who shows up in a black satin shirt and tries to get kids and old people to dance,” he said. ‘It was bleak.’”

The future, of course, is bright, and the toasts to “Hamilton” and Miranda — a MacArthur Fellow and winner of last month’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama—are only just beginning.

Yet it’s possible that no performance will top the one he orchestrated at his own wedding.

“That’s what will be my real legacy,” Miranda told Mo Rocca last year on CBS Sunday Morning. “It’s one of the things I’m proudest of in my life.”

Our Hollywood moment: An article in three acts


Prologue

One of many things that I’ve learned over the last several years is that many roads in L.A. lead to Hamilton High School. Hamilton sits at the strange but fertile delta of Beverlywood, Beverly Hills, Culver City and a couple of markedly less fortunate neighborhoods. It is a school at a crossroads, much like Alan Kaplan was himself. A founder of the school’s humanities magnet, Kaplan had run into a critical mass of trouble. His fiery teaching style and philosophical emphasis on racial inequality as a foundation of American history had always fueled admiration among most students and consternation among some parents. The parents most unsettled were African Americans who felt that Kaplan’s focus on slavery and its modern legacy was inappropriate and ultimately demeaning. By the spring of 1999, a group of about a dozen parents had organized and charged Kaplan — a Jewish man — with racism, calling for the school district to take action.

The newspaper I worked for, the L.A. Weekly, dispatched me to Hamilton to see what I could find out. Kaplan did not want to be interviewed, but I kept asking.

Finally he agreed to talk, on a Sunday afternoon. I thought for a moment he wasn’t going to open the door when I rang the bell at his place in Encino. I found him blunt, wary, impolitic, impulsive, bull-headed, but also gracious and idealistic, fascinating and fiercely committed to his students. I decided he was not a racist. I wrote my story. He kept his job.

That initial meeting, as it happened, was the start of something entirely unexpected. Within a year, we were engaged. That was the fairy-tale ending of one story, but the prelude to another — our Hollywood moment.

Dramatis personae:
Erin Aubry Kaplan — a writer, black
Alan Kaplan — a schoolteacher, Jewish
Michael Siegel — a literary agent
Michael Maren — a screenwriter
Various skeptics and supporters

ACT I: The Proposition

(Scene 1: A cubicle at the L.A. Weekly)

The phone on my desk is ringing. It’s late. I don’t want to answer. I have an uneasy, semi-permanent feeling it’s the parent group that once wanted me to write about the awful transgressions of Mr. Kaplan. The Mr. Kaplan who is now my fiancé. The parents are probably still fuming, and objectively speaking, I don’t blame them. I hardly understand it myself. When I first met him, I could see right off that Mr. Kaplan — Alan — had a roguishness and rough-edged charm that hooked pubescent students, but I didn’t think it would work on me. Of course, I didn’t think I would work on him. The last person he wanted in his life was a black reporter. The last impression I thought I’d get was of a sincere, sensitive but remarkably unguarded white man who offered me dinner in the middle of a very tense interview at his place in Encino. The dinner — a large cube of lasagna and a salad — turned out to be the only food he had left in the house. He set the table and everything. He didn’t eat, just watched me. I was moved. That was the first movement of many, the first movement of an entire symphony. Now we were engaged.

“Erin Aubry? Hi, this is Michael Maren.”

It’s not the parent group. I relax a little.

“I know this is sudden, and that you don’t know me. But I’m a screenwriter, and I live in New York. And I read your piece in Salon magazine today, and I thought it was really terrific.”

For Salon.com, I’d written, “The Color of Love,” a concise account of my unlikely romance with the guy who was falsely cast as the West Coast incarnation of David Duke. Alan was not a mercenary like David Duke, plus he was a lot more chivalrous. I thank Michael for his feedback. Nice way to end the day.

“There’s something else.” Michael pauses. “I think this would make a great screenplay.” Another pause. “It’s got all the elements — love, race, conflict, story arc, resolution. And it says a lot about L.A., things that don’t normally get said. I’d like your permission to shop it around.”

“Shop it around?” I hear myself say the words. I’m sitting up straight. I glance out my window at the Hollywood Hills. I listen.

“Yes. You know, pitch some studios and networks. I’m thinking HBO would be a good bet. They do original ideas, and I’ve written for them before…”….
He’s a former journalist, now a full-time screenwriter, a real one, who wants my story. Our story.

I start to feel floaty, giddy. A tiny bit self-important.

“I think that’ll be fine,” I say. “But I need to talk it over with Alan. It’s his story, too.”

(Scene 2: The kitchen of the writer’s apartment)

I have to break this to Alan the right way. My future husband is an idealist who likes movies but hates Hollywood, at least as a concept. Parties, paparazzi, Oscar fashions, actors dating models, models dating actors, celebrity hangouts, production trailers that screw up street traffic — he hates all of it.

Like me, he’s a native Angeleno. That’s part of our connection. He grew up in Sepulveda, a rarely filmed part of town; I grew up in equally unglamorous South Central. His favorite places to eat are old-line diners like Norm’s, which has twilight meal deals and takes coupons. He also likes the eternal two-tacos-for-99-cents special at Jack in the Box. To Alan, the pretensions of Hollywood and the film industry exist purely to threaten a better, simpler, more straightforward L.A. that’s disappearing by the acre, like the Amazon rainforest. One of his biggest fears is that one day, Hollywood will discover Jack in the Box and make it chic.

“Honey,” I call out, “you’ll never guess who called me at work today.”
Alan looks at me over his reading glasses. He’s in the kitchen, a newspaper spread on the counter, his fist in a box of dry granola. He hates milk.