Hamilton, which opened at the Public Theater this week, tells the story of the founding father and ten-dollar-bill-centerfold as vibrant, living history. Tony-winning songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda also stars in his work about the life of Alexander Hamilton, telling what he describes as the story of an immigrant. To speak to the experiences of a man born and raised in the Caribbean, the musical features Miranda’s unique blend of hip-hop and show tunes, and the cast is almost entirely actors of color. Early buzz is overwhelmingly positive.
Something the musical doesn’t explore is the founding father’s early connections to Judaism, and the much speculated-about possibility that Hamilton had Jewish roots himself. Though the claim of Jewish heritage remains largely unsubstantiated, Hamilton certainly had close relationships with Jews from a young age.
While Hamilton’s father James A. Hamilton was definitely Scottish and a non-Jew, sources like the Jewish Virtual Library claim that Hamilton’s mother, Rachel Faucette, was likely Jewish. Her exact background is hard to determine, though. She seems to have been at least part Hugenot, and perhaps of African descent as well.
Some of the loudest contemporary voices insisting Hamilton was Jewish are neo-Nazis, in a racist conflation of Jews and Federalism. Bigotry aside, it is possible that in the relative melting pot of the colonial Caribbean, Faucette could have had Jewish or black ancestry, or both. Around the time of Hamilton’s birth in Nevis in the West Indies, the Caribbean had a sizable Sephardic community. Charlestown, the capital of Nevis, had a particularly large Jewish population.
What is certain is that Hamilton was a Jewish Day School boy. His mother never divorced her first husband (a probably Jewish man with the surname Lavien), so the Anglican Church saw Hamilton as illegitimate, banning him from its local school. Instead, he studied at a Jewish school (possibly being solo tutored by the headmistress) run out of a synagogue in Charlestown. It was there that he learned Hebrew, and he reportedly recalled to his son years later learning to recite the Ten Commandments.
Hamilton may not have organized Kabbalat Shabbat at the Constitutional Convention, but he maintained great personal respect for the Jews. His advocacy of immigration included demanding tolerance for Jewish Americans.
“Progress of the Jews,” he once wrote, “From their earliest history to the present time has been and is entirely out of the ordinary course of human affairs. Is it not then a fair conclusion that the cause also is an extraordinary one – in other words, that it is the effect of some great providential plan?’” And in a court case, he argued, “Why distrust the evidence of the Jews? Discredit them and you destroy the Christian religion.”
While Miranda isn’t Jewish (his mother and father are from Puerto Rico and he was raised in New York City), the 35-year-old’s previous Broadway hit, In the Heights, featured the occasional Yiddishism, and a video of him and his wedding party performing Fiddler on the Roof’s “To Life,” for his bride went viral in 2010. Like Hamilton, Miranda grew up around a mix of cultures, and got a taste of Jewish culture early—he recently told the New Yorker that all of his elementary school friends were Jewish (and he would speak to their nannies in Spanish).
Hamilton, like its eponymous protagonist, may not be explicitly Jewish. But the strange, wonderful melting pot it embodies is definitely worth celebrating.