Charting History “In the Heights” Shabbat Chukat, Friday, June 18, 2021

I’m not in the habit of using the Friday night pulpit to recommend movies – but. . . You MUST go see “In the Heights,” the movie version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s groundbreaking, Tony-winning Broadway musical that preceded “Hamilton.” “In the Heights” is raucous and beautiful. The dancing and singing are spectacular. The story is heartwarming and emotional – and it includes a few surprises that I never saw coming.

I know it’s on HBO Max. But see it in the theater, if you can. The big screen and the immersive sound do it justice.

Great singing and dancing aside, though, there are good reasons to speak about the movie from the bimah on Shabbat.

“In the Heights,” for those of you who don’t know, is the story of three days in the life of the diverse Latino community of Washington Heights, the neighborhood north of Harlem on Manhattan’s West Side. Its residents come from countries throughout the Caribbean and Central America, all drawn to the promise of a better life. But many struggle with the powerful forces arrayed against them: poverty, racism, anti-immigration politics — not to mention the usual stresses on any family.

Many also struggle with themselves. They are torn between their pride in their heritage and their desire to be fully Americans. Do they have to move out to move up? As we join the story, the ties that have bound generations of neighbors together are fraying. Prices are rising. And a massive blackout in the hottest days of the summer creates huge challenges for the future of the Heights and its unique cultural personality.

The first thing that struck me about “In the Heights” was that it could easily have taken place in a Jewish neighborhood. People of one ethnic group moving into the homes and businesses of another ethnic group that has moved up by moving out. People fighting distrust and discrimination. Parents sacrificing everything for their children, so that the kids can leave the barrio (or the shtetl) prepared for a successful life. Sounds familiar, right? One character in the film even gives a “l’chayim” in a toast over cold beers.

But the more I learned about the history of the show, the more Jewish it became to me. From its first version in 1999, written when Lin-Manuel Miranda was still in college, “In the Heights” has gone through a series of major mutations. Responding to the social, political and cultural changes of the past two decades, the film version has a profoundly different outlook, focus, and feel than the original stage show.

A professor here at Penn State University, A.K. Sandoval-Strausz, the school’s Bronx-born director of Latino and Latina Studies, reviewed the show’s history for an article in The Washington Post this week. And what I share with you tonight about the evolution of the show over two decades is drawn from that article.[1]

Amazingly, that first version of the show didn’t really deal with immigration at all. It was love story whose backdrop highlighted the wide array of music, food and language in the neighborhood. That changed by its next iteration in 2004 which, as Sandoval-Strausz points out, followed a decade of major migration to this country — and a subsequent anti-immigrant political backlash.

Playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes came on board. She shifted the focus of the play from one relationship to the entire community, spotlighting the characters and the different countries from which they had come.

Major musical numbers were added that highlighted the shared experiences of one wave of immigrants after another. All that led to the show’s debut on the Broadway stage in 2008, where it blew everybody away with its charm, its unique rhythms, and its sheer energy – and where, as Time magazine noted, its celebration of multiculturalism made it the perfect musical with which to open the Obama presidential era.

But in the decade that followed, our national mood and federal policies changed. We witnessed southern borders all but closed, even to legal immigration, with parents and children torn from each other; and ramped-up rhetoric against immigrants and people of color in general.

So the finished film evolved to answer these challenges. New plotlines include the threat to so-called “Dreamers” who were brought to this nation illegally as small children.

As Sandoval-Strausz wrote: “This cinematic adaptation of ‘In the Heights’ has met its historical moment.”

But what strikes me as most Jewish about the show is not that it met this moment – but that it has evolved to meet every moment. It has adjusted to reflect each generation’s self-awareness, needs and goals.

And that is something that we Jews have been doing for three thousand years.

In every generation, we try to make sense out of our own lives through our history, our traditions, and our sacred texts. And as we search for answers, we find new insights – and new answers — in old stories.

This process of ongoing revelation is as old as the Bible itself. Take the book of Deuteronomy, Moses’s farewell address. He gives us a very different take on some of the key events in Exodus and Numbers, portraying himself as a leader much put-upon by the people, whom he regularly saves from God’s wrath. Within the Bible, this is clearly the story he wants to impart to the people before he dies – as both promise and warning of how they should behave in the future.

But the changes that are made in the telling also reflect the authors and redactors of Deuteronomy, who — in the late 7th century BCE, in the reign of King Josiah – sought to reinforce monotheism and the worship of Israel’s one and only God, as well as the centrality of Jerusalem as the source of both temporal and celestial power.

Or take Chronicles, which gives us a very different take on the same era that’s already been covered by the Books of Kings.[2] While Kings focuses on the monarchy, Chronicles wraps its historical perspective around the Temple. That makes sense, since it dates from a time when the re-built Second Temple took center stage in the hearts, and the daily lives, of the Jews of Israel. That’s how the authors explained our history in the way that people of their generation would understand.

Now, since the close of the canon two-thousand years ago, we have used tools like biblical commentary and Midrash. These tools help us unpack the text, yes. But they also teach us a lot about the authors and their communities — be they Babylonian rabbis, medieval European sages, or modern scholars.

All of their work is designed to answer the same questions: How can we Jews understand these obscure texts and make them relevant? How can we use them to connect our past to our present, in order to preserve our future?

That’s at the heart of what we do every time we pick up a Tanakh or look at rabbinic literature or ask the question: “Why does the Torah want us to know this?” We start with the presumption that the past has something important to teach us today, and that if we don’t find meaning in it, we’re not looking hard enough or using all the tools at our disposal.

We also start with the presumption that we want the past to teach us and guide us. We want our ancestors and their stories to be a source of pride – just like the people of Washington Heights did. It doesn’t mean white-washing troubling passages or events. It means struggling with them to learn from them – even if the lesson is what not to do.

So let’s look at one episode in this week’s Torah portion, Chukat. After the death of Miriam, the water supply dries up. The people rise up once again against her brothers, Moses and Aaron, wailing about being left to die of thirst in the wilderness, and why-oh-why did we ever leave Egypt!

God instructs Moses and Aaron to take up a rod, assemble the people, and order a nearby rock to produce water – a miracle that is meant to rally the troops.[3]

So they do. They’re at the rock, Moses has his staff in his hand, and he says to the people: “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?”[4] Moses strikes the rock twice with the rod, and water pours out.

But now God is angry with Moses and Aaron! “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people,” God tells them, “therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.”[5]

Wait…. What just happened there? Why, exactly, is God angry at them? What did they do wrong? It’s really not clear.

Over centuries, the sages have come up with a different lot of answers. Early on, the rabbis thought it seemed obvious: Well, God said to order the rock – v’dibartem – and Moses struck it instead. But for us – I mean, doesn’t that seem like a petty little difference? Given everything Moses has done for God and the people, does the punishment fit the crime?

A thousand years ago, Maimonides – the great physician, philosopher and Torah scholar – suggested something very different: It had nothing to do with the stick, he said. It had to do with the way Moses spoke to the people, calling them out: “Listen, you rebels!” – Shim’u-na hamorim!

“God found fault with him,” Maimonides wrote, that “such a man as he should show anger in the presence of the entire community of Israel, where wrath is unbecoming. This was a profanation of God’s name, because men imitated the words and conduct of Moses.”[6]

So, not only should Moses not have blown up at them like that – but in doing so, he gave them implicit permission to act that way, too. Leaders and teachers instruct us with everything that they say and do. And Moses was setting a very bad example.

Maimonides is, of course, speaking as someone who moved easily – though carefully – in the courts of Islamic power in Spain and North Africa. He uses his experience with the wider world to warn us about speaking rashly or losing our temper in public.

That resonates with us. We represent the Jewish community among non-Jews all the time – whether we are aware of it or not, and whether we like it or not. Maimonides reminds us that what we say and how we behave is often taken by others to represent what all Jews say and do.

So let’s now look at the same text in much more modern interpretation. This one comes from the Women’s Torah Commentary published by the Reform movement just thirteen years ago.

In her essay on the parashah, Dr. Ora Horn Prouser reminds us that all of this happens right after the death of Miriam, and she believes that the text itself shows us that it’s all related. Remember that Moses called out to the people, Shim’u-na ha-morimlisten up you rebels! She points out that this word for rebels, mor’im, only appears this one time in the Torah. “Remarkably,” she teaches, “in their unvocalized form the words morim (rebels) and miryam (Miriam) are made up of the same four Hebrew consonants: mem-reysh-yud-mem.”

“This verbal coincidence,” she teaches, “may intimate that Moses’ behavior has as much to do with losing Miriam as with his frustration with the Israelite people. It suggests that, when faced with the task of producing water, Moses recalls Miriam as his older sister, his co-leader, and perhaps most of all, the clever caretaker who guarded him at the Nile.”[7]

Wow. Now that’s something we totally get. Remember – there was no formal mourning period for Miriam, as there would be for Aaron and Moses. No chance for her brothers, or the people, to openly weep for her.

And even if there had been, we know from personal experience that the intense and overpowering feelings we have after we lose someone we love can surface in unexpected ways at completely random times.

So for a lot of us, this interpretation might make the best sense of a really troubling text. Anger and frustration born out of loss – especially after the year we’ve had – is something we absolutely understand.

Throughout the show and movie “In the Heights,” characters are challenged by a “here and now” that is moving fast: surprising, sometimes strange and sometimes strangely familiar. Every day is a balancing act, when they have to weigh what they’ve lost of their past against what they may gain for their future. Everyone makes different choices. Some have even changed from one version of the story to another. This, too, is at the heart of our own evolution from generation to generation.

Beyond its masterful storytelling and film-making, “In the Heights” encourages and inspires us to revel in the uniqueness of each community that comes to our country for a better life. But it also teaches us to search under the surface for the underlying values and needs that all of our communities have in common.

Ken yehi ratson: Be this God’s will and our mission on earth. As we say together: Amen.

####

©2021 Audrey R. Korotkin


[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2021/06/11/in-the-heights-immigration/. Accessed on line June 14, 2021.

[2] The Jewish Study Bible: Torah, Nevi’im, Kethuvim, Second edition, edited by Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler (New York: Oxford University Press USA, 2014), p. 1707

[3] Num 20:1-8.

[4] Num. 20:10.

[5] Num. 20:12.

[6] Maimonides, Shemonah Perakim (“Eight Chapters”), his introduction to the Mishnah’s Pirke Avot, chapter 4, paragraph 13. Accessed on Sefaria.com, English translation by Joseph I. Gorfinkle.

[7] Ora Horn Prouser, “Another View,” The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Dr. Tamara Cohn Esakenazi and Rabbi Andrea L. Weiss, Ph.D. (New York: Women of Reform Judaism, 2008), p. 931.

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