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The Hamilton Haggadah: Philly rabbinical students' Passover prayer book goes viral

The seder manual includes a cast of characters (even God lays down some rhymes), complicated musical numbers, and suggested blocking for the 10 plagues (for example, "Lice: Start scratching your head").

For fans of the wildly popular musical Hamilton, attending the show is practically a religious experience.

Now, a couple of local rabbinical students have engineered a different kind of Hamiltonian religious experience: The Hamilton Haggadah, a complete Passover seder manual and prayer book, updated with a cast of characters (even God lays down some rhymes), complicated musical numbers, and suggested blocking for the 10 plagues (for example, "Lice: Start scratching your head").

Emily Cohen, 29, and Jake Adler, 33, students at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, began brainstorming about the Haggadah last spring while carpooling to school from Mount Airy. (Cohen is currently studying abroad in Tel Aviv.) Cohen had been a Hamilton fanatic and she converted Adler. When they came across a rabbi's Hamilton Passover song, the ideas started flowing.

The two wrote some lyrics and made a few DIY recordings, posted them in a Google Doc, and shared it on Facebook. To their surprise, it went viral. This year, they used an independent study to assemble a full, 95-page Haggadah and record 19 songs based on numbers by Lin-Manuel Miranda. They spoke with the Inquirer about their unlikely crossover hit.

Other than snappy alliteration, what is the logic of a Hamilton Haggadah? 

Cohen: We realized there are a lot of themes within the Passover story that really lined up with a lot of the themes within the musical. There's a lot of talk about leadership within a revolutionary context, about resistance, about loss.

Adler: Hamilton is an immigrant. He's viewed with suspicion and never fully accepted because of his upbringing. And Moses also has this identity of being part of both groups -- he's born an Israelite but he grows up in the Egyptian context. He has to struggle to find his place. Also, we didn't really touch on it in the Haggadah, but I thought afterward there was something poignant about how the Passover story involves two stories of firstborn sons being killed -- the Israelites' children killed by pharaoh, and then the Egyptians' sons killed by the 10 plagues. Hamilton's firstborn son, Philip, was also killed. We didn't put this in because we thought it would be too much of a downer.

When did you realize this was catching on?

Cohen: Initially, we had shared it with our friends, thinking no one was ever going to look at it. And then we were on the Google Doc, and it said at the top there were 30 people on it. It just kept growing. It was completely unexpected, and it spiraled out.

How many people are using the new version?

Cohen: Today alone, it's been viewed about 7,300 times, and yesterday we got almost 10,000 hits. The SoundCloud files in the last week have been played 12,700 times. This is all very surreal, because we're not this kind of people. I was just excited about the ability to get kids and young adults to be more excited about seder. The thought that the songs we wrote might make the experience of families getting together and celebrating that story of liberation more meaningful or more enjoyable is really humbling. Last year, a family in Oakland recorded themselves with instruments doing one of the numbers, and it was pretty exciting.

These musical numbers are pretty challenging. Should we be scheduling rehearsals for our seders?

Cohen: Some songs are more accessible than others. I don't imagine anyone will be doing the most intricate of the numbers at their seder -- but if they want to and they put it online, we would be pretty excited. If somebody who's actually able to rap could do it, instead of me, that would be great. I cannot rap.

Adler: A lot of the songs we chose to rewrite are the more traditional-sung songs. We were definitely wary about making a Haggadah that was meant to be rapped, particularly as white Ashkenazi Jews who don't have experience rapping.

You're asking people who download the Haggadah to donate to HIAS, which works with refugees. It seems fitting for a Passover story about fleeing persecution.

Cohen: This nation is a nation of immigrants. For Jews during Passover to not be thinking about modern-day immigrants and refugees, and our connection to them, is to ignore the very essence of what we're celebrating. We were ourselves slaves and now we're free.

You're obviously big fans. Have you actually made it to see Hamilton yourselves? 

Cohen: Last year, I entered the lottery almost every day, because I knew if I won I could get on a train and be there in time for curtain. But I never won. I'm really excited, though, because I am going to see it in June in San Francisco. 

Adler: I just have faith that one day it's going to happen.