'Hamilton' Got Me to Stop Bugging My Friends Who Moved Abroad

The Broadway musical and a Soviet avant-garde film shown on a Queens side street both tell about the impact immigrants have had on New York.

The cast and crew of 'Hamilton' arrive for the 2016 Tony Awards Meet The Nominees Press Reception, Manhattan, May 4, 2016.
Reuters / Andrew Kelly

It was Hamilton who convinced me to stop picking on my Israeli friends who live in New York for not coming back to Israel  yordim, basically “defectors” in the Hebrew jargon.

Yes, Alexander Hamilton. The only immigrant among America’s founding fathers, born out of wedlock in 1757 on a Caribbean island. The guy who took part in the Colonies’ War of Independence, became the new country’s first treasury secretary and was killed in 1804 in a duel by none other than Vice President Aaron Burr.

“I’m a Zionist,” I used to say to my friends, when I still felt like bugging them, and they would look at me aghast. “Your place is in the country,” I would tell them. “We need your brains, your energy, your creativity, your doctorates, your talents, your enthusiasm.”

Some were apologetic, some were adamantly opposed, some were flattered. And all are Palestinians, of course most of them Israeli citizens, though some from the West Bank.

Last Wednesday I went to Queens to meet with two of these folks whose place should be in the homeland (henceforth Charming Couple 1). I managed to keep my mouth shut and not tell them they should come back once they finish their doctorates because the fight for sanity and cashiering the military democtatorship needs them. Lucky for them, we got together after Hamilton had explained their point of view to me.

Hamilton had appeared to me two days before, at a dinner with friends. Two of the people there (henceforth Charming Couple 2) were from “the Arab sector” to use the parlance among Israeli Jews. They were once a regular target of my nudging to get them to return to the homeland. They’ll pay off the mortgage on their tiny Manhattan apartment in 30 years.

On a smartphone they proudly showed me videos of their young son singing entire sections from the popular prize-winning musical “Hamilton,” whose cast is entirely African-American and Hispanic. It “celebrates the important impact immigrants have had on the history of our city and country,” as the Municipal Art Society puts it. Tickets are all but impossible to come by.

74th Street in the neighborhood of Jackson Heights, Queens, New York, April 24, 2005.
Wikimedia Commons / Jleon

The parental pride was justified. The 10-year-old sang and performed with total self-confidence, without missing a word or a note, with just the right gestures. He beamed with the special joy of children discovering the world.

Yes, I said to Charming Couple 2. It’s hard to see that kind of joy on the faces of Palestinian children living in the Middle East’s only democtatorship.

From the Astoria section of Queens I took the bus to the Jackson Heights neighborhood, one of the most ethnically diverse places on the planet – where 167 different languages are spoken. The name “Little India” popped to mind. It was evening. I started wandering around among all the different people and aromas and merchandise stalls. From the corner of my eye I spotted a few men sitting on a white sheet in the middle of the road, on a narrow side street that was blocked off to cars.

One of them wore a large skullcap, the kind you see people wearing as they leave a mosque. Maybe they’re getting ready for prayer, I thought. But then I noticed a large rectangle of light on the wall of the building the “worshippers” were facing, and a young man who was operating a movie projector.

The first lines of text flickered on the wall, in Cyrillic. It was a silent movie. Black and white. From 1929. Soviet director Dziga Vertov’s “Man with a Movie Camera.” A treat for film lovers.

With his distinct cinematic language, Vertov is a founding father of this art. The main street kept buzzing along as usual, as if nothing could be more natural than a sheet spread out on the asphalt and a bunch of men sitting there (a couple, a man and woman, joined a little later). They all watched as the bygone Soviet world flashed upon the wall: homeless people, hardscrabble laborers and well-dressed folks taking leisurely strolls.

No sign of Stalin or the Party. Much affection for people. The avant-garde film has no protagonist – unless it’s the man carrying a movie camera who’s shown recording the life of a Soviet city. Nor is there any real plot – or maybe there is: the emergence of a movie.

About 70 minutes later, when the film is over and the projector light is turned off, the small crowd on the sheet begins to disperse. The guy with the big skullcap joins the young guy with the projector, who looks Jewish to me, though I haven’t yet inquired (turns out I’m right). They tell me that this is their joint project – they both live in the neighborhood and once a week they screen a silent film in this side street.

“In this neighborhood there are so many people from so many different places who don’t know English, so a silent movie is a way to share, a way to connect,” explains the young man with the projector.

Now the two have some questions for me. And when I tell them I write about “the occupation,” the big-skullcap guy angrily says something like: “You mean the occupation by the Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorist organizations.”

The guy who ran the projector wants to hear me out. I say something else, and the other guy, who after all is Jewish, retorts with a line that could have come from an Israeli Foreign Ministry or Jewish Agency manual: “If Hamas didn’t fire rockets, there would be peace.”

“Is that true?” asks the projector guy, hushing his friend.

“It’s propaganda,” I tell him, and proceed to give him an abridged version of the truth. As I say goodbye, I tell them, “The important thing is that you stay in Queens and keep up your wonderful work.”