‘In the Heights’ Explores the Universal Longing for a Homeland

By | Oct 26, 2021
Arts & Culture, Latest
'In The Heights' still

This piece contains spoilers for the film In the Heights.

In the Heights is a love letter to Washington Heights, an upper Manhattan neighborhood that is home to a large Dominican and Puerto Rican population. With the George Washington Bridge looming in the background, the film, based on the 2008 Broadway production of the same name, both of which were written by Jewish playwright and screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes, follows various members of the community—young and old, Dominican and Puerto Rican, native-born and immigrant—as they seek to make their sueñitos (“little dreams”) come true. 

Jews have also had a strong and vibrant presence in the neighborhood since the 1920s. (Until very recently, I was one of them.) By the 1930s, the population of the neighborhood was nearly half Jewish, with many of its Jewish residents having fled Nazi Germany. In fact, the German-Jewish presence was so strong that the neighborhood earned the nickname “Frankfurt on the Hudson.” And while the Jewish population of the neighborhood has declined since its peak years in the mid-1900s, legacy institutions such as Yeshiva University and synagogues such as K’hal Adath Jeshurun and the Beis help the neighborhood maintain its Jewish flavor. 

Nevertheless, In the Heights made the correct decision to leave out the Jews. While there is strong engagement on local political levels, the Hispanic and Jewish communities don’t have much to do with each other on a day-to-day basis. Furthermore, the two groups have always been separated geographically — the Hispanics make their homes on the East and South sides of the Heights, while the Jews are located in the West and North. (The film reflects this, never really crossing 180th Street aside from a musical number in the 191st Street 1 Train tunnel.) Add in Jewish day schools, kosher restrictions and language barriers, and you can see how interactions between the two groups remain limited. 

On the surface, then, In the Heights is not a Jewish story. And yet, hidden behind these struggles for sueñitos is a tale of homecoming and belonging that American Jews across the country can find meaning in, even if they themselves are not present on screen. 

The main focus of the film is Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), raised by Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz) after the death of his parents. He dreams of returning to his homeland of the Dominican Republic and reopening his father’s store. In the opening number, he sings: 

Cuz I emigrated from the single greatest little place in the Caribbean
Dominican Republic
I love it
Jesus, I’m jealous of it
And beyond that
Ever since my folks passed on, I haven’t gone back
Goddamn, I gotta get on that

At the same time, Usnavi has built a life and found success in America. He has a good job, good friends and a potential future with a young woman named Vanessa (Melissa Barrera). He also supports his cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), an undocumented immigrant at risk of deportation. 

Until now, Usnavi has been unable to return home for reasons beyond his control. But when the opportunity arises to reclaim his father’s shop, he is left with a choice: travel to the Dominican Republic to live out his dream and continue his family’s legacy, or stay in America to continue building the life he lives now. 

Like Usnavi, Jews have been dreaming of returning home to Israel, albeit for a little while longer. And like Usnavi, after 2,000 years of waiting, Jews now have the opportunity to do so, leaving them with the same choice as our Dominican protagonist: Do they return to their homeland and continue their people’s legacy, or stay in America? 

For many Jews, the choice is easy. Having never lived in Israel, they see no need to pick up their lives and move to a distant land. Others take the opposite approach, traveling to the Land of Milk and Honey with fervent passion and excitement. 

But there is also a group in the middle: those who feel a connection to both Israel and America. For those of us in this group, the tension between homeland and diaspora is part of our daily lives. I feel it three times a day when I pray for the rebuilding of Jerusalem in the Amidah. Or when I hear the song Im Eshkachech Yerushalayim (“If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem”) play at the end of traditional Jewish wedding ceremonies. Or when, as I am sitting with my family for the Passover seder, we sing “Next Year in Jerusalem,” knowing full well that, if I so desired, I could indeed celebrate next year in Jerusalem. 

In the end, Usnavi decides to remain in America and marry Vanessa. But he does not abandon his homeland—quite the contrary. He honors the legacy of his father by bringing the Dominican Republic to the Heights, renovating his store to give it a more Dominican flair and working with his community to set up a mural honoring Abuela Claudia. More importantly, he maintains the values of his people. Just as Abuela Claudia stayed in America to take care of Usnavi, Usnavi’s decision to remain in the States means that he can continue to take care of Sonny, serving as a good example to his cousin and neighbors and creating a new legacy in the process. As he sings in “Finale”:

And if not me, who keeps our legacy?
Who’s gonna keep the coffee sweet with secret recipes
Abuela, rest in peace
You live in my memories
But Sonny’s gotta eat
This corner is my destiny (we’re home)
Brings out the best in me

Like Usnavi, in the end many of us choose to stay in America, a decision that could feel like a betrayal of the legacy of the Jewish people. But a legacy is more than just a piece of land. It is the hundreds of Hanukkah candles that light up Amsterdam Avenue for eight nights during the cold and dark New York winter. It is the Simchat Torah dancing and singing that takes place up and down the hilly streets of the neighborhood as onlookers look on with confusion and delight. And it is the many forms of charity and volunteering—from Yeshiva University’s START Science! to the local Hatzalah chapter to the YM&YWHA of Washington Heights & Inwood—that allow Jews to give back to their greater Washington Heights community. 

The longing for our homeland never leaves us, and it is that longing—the awareness that we live in a home away from home—that inspires us to build up our diaspora home in the image of the homeland. In this way, we can bring the Jewish people’s sueñito (or chalom, in Hebrew) into reality by bringing Jerusalem, and all that comes with it, to wherever we are. 

Sam Gelman is a news editor at CBR, where he covers comics, movies and TV. He is also the communications and program officer at the Yeshiva University Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought. You can follow him on Twitter @SamMgelman.

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