Hamilton: An American Musical. Image copyright Hamilton: An American Musical.

How “Hamilton” Will Help Me Teach About Jewish History

Hamilton, a new musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda, has captivated my nerdy history-and-Broadway-musical-loving-heart in a big way. That’s not surprising — but what is maybe a little bit more surprising is how it’s once again helping me make connections to my work sharing Southern Jewish history… including something I bet you didn’t know about Alexander Hamilton.

For days on end, the cast soundtrack has been playing nonstop in the house while I wash dishes, change the baby, relax after work. The much-lauded new musical breaks barriers, and musically it really is great- I highly recommend taking a listen here. (Side note: My favorite songs are “Schuyler Sister” and “Guns and Ships.”)

READ: Meet the Jewish biographer behind Broadway’s hip-hop “Hamilton”

I admit it, I didn’t know much about Alexander Hamilton until his story was sung to me through clever and catchy lyrics. What I love about this medium is its potential to be used in the classroom. I’ve already been keeping up with tweets and posts from teachers using the music in their American history classes, engaging students in this untold narrative through a contemporary lens and encouraging them to write lyrics about their own stories.

It’s clear how these songs can help students answer a few questions on the AP test, but I’ll argue the themes in this musical can also be used in some religious school classrooms as well. Because, guess what, Hamilton went to Hebrew school too! Well, sort of: Turns out because of his family background (in which his mother may have been Jewish?), he wasn’t able to attend the Christian school in St. Croix… so he was tutored by a Jewish woman.

Hamilton was also an immigrant. Just like the Jewish immigrants that formed our congregations and communities here in the South and throughout the United States of America, Hamilton came to this country alone as a young man, looking for economic opportunity. When teaching about Jewish immigration, the reasons for leaving the “old word,” the journey to America, how immigrants made a life for themselves in a new place- it’s important to reflect also on the immigrants who came before them, and those who still continue to come. Addressing Jewish and non-Jewish audiences, this approach helps connect us to the larger American story.

I’m going to add this into my collection of teaching tools, along with songs from my favorite Southern Jewish musical– Parade, written by Jason Robert Brown, about the Leo Frank case in Atlanta.

Have you incorporated music or theater into your classroom? What are your favorite examples?

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