Even as we begin to go back to activities that we have not enjoyed for 15 months, as we see people face-to-face whom we haven’t been able to see for some time, many of us still find ourselves in need of something that will gladden and inspire us. If you fall into that category, I really urge you to watch the recently-released movie “In The Heights.” It’s available on HBO Max through July 11 and is also playing in theaters in Gaithersburg, Germantown, and Rockville.
“In The Heights” was the first Broadway musical written by Lin-Manuel Miranda (LMM), who later wrote the monster hit “Hamilton.” “In The Heights” opened on Broadway in March 2008 and it has had a special place in my heart since July 2008 when it was the first Broadway play that Keleigh and I ever saw together. It was optioned for a movie almost immediately after first opening on Broadway but for various reasons, wasn’t actually filmed until 2019. The film was originally supposed to open a year ago but was delayed due to the pandemic.
The movie is set in the Latino community of Washington Heights where LMM actually lives, although he grew up in the adjacent community of Inwood. While Washington Heights has long had a large Latino presence there is even today a significant Jewish community there as well (not that the two are mutually exclusive -- there are of course Latino Jews). Yeshiva University’s main campus relocated to Washington Heights from Lower Manhattan in 1928. In the 1930s so many German Jewish refugees moved to Washington Heights that it became known as “Frankfurt on the Hudson.” While most of the children and grandchildren of these German Jews no longer live “in the Heights” there is still one major German Jewish institution, K’hal Adath Jeshurun (KAJ). KAJ is colloquially known as “Breuer’s” in memory of its founding rabbi Dr. Joseph Breuer. Rabbi Breuer was the grandson of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch who originated the ideology of “Torah Im Derech Eretz” (Torah together with worldly endeavors). KAJ is still a large community with many institutions including a widely respected Kashrut supervision.
The Jewish community of Washington Heights is not the focus of this movie although LMM said recently in an interview that when he was growing up, most of his friends were White and Jewish. But as an American Jew and the grandchild of immigrants, I found a couple of themes in the movie which resonated with me.
The first is the struggle to make it in this country while also trying to maintain, to some degree, important ancestral customs. The characters in this movie, or their parents, came here to work hard and to give their children a better life than they themselves had. (Contrary to the disinformation so widely believed that immigrants come here to live on the government dole, non-citizens are ineligible for most government assistance programs.) Spanish-speaking immigrants from different countries create a community. The main character, Usnavi, is Dominican but he lives with his adopted grandmother Abuela Claudia who is from Cuba. Nina Rosario and her father Kevin are Puerto Rican and Usnavi’s love interest Vanessa is played by an actress who is actually from Mexico. (I could not figure out what Vanessa’s origin is supposed to be in the script other than that she is Latina.) In one of the songs a minor character explains that her four grandparents are from four different countries but “I usually just say I’m from Queens.” This hit home for me since my grandparents, too, were born in four different countries -- Lithuania, Poland, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
The second theme is the longing for home versus the reality that we create our home wherever we are. Although Usnavi has spent most of his life in “Nueva York” he spent his childhood in the Dominican Republic. He remembers that time as the best days of his life and is constantly dreaming and scheming to go back there to live and to rebuild a beachside bar that his father once owned. But he is torn about uprooting himself from his community, the bodega which he owns which serves an important function in the community, and his teenage cousin Sonny.
This tension between the “home” of our memories, hopes, and dreams and the “home” we build together is very real for Jews as well. Those of us who consider ourselves to be Zionists often point out that our Siddur is full of prayers for our return to Zion. And yet, the “return to Zion” is as close as your favorite travel website and BWI or Dulles.
At any rate, “In The Heights” is a joyous celebration of home and community. If you haven’t seen it, I encourage you to do so.
As always, if you need to talk or I can do anything for you, please contact me via email at email@example.com or via phone at 301-977-0768 rather than through the synagogue office as I continue to work mostly from home, although having been vaccinated I am available for in-person meetings in my synagogue office by request.
Rabbi Charles L. Arian