CAMP RAMAH IN THE POCONOS, Lakewood, Pennsylvania — Performing Broadway classics in Hebrew has been a Camp Ramah tradition for decades.
The network of North American camps have put on a number of Hebrew version of classics over the years, from “Aladdin” to “West-Side Story.”
But those projects, which helped create a number of future Broadway stars, were likely less daunting than transforming a hip hop musical about an American founding father — “Hamilton” — into an Israeli history lesson, complete with rapping in Hebrew.
This particular play effort was spearheaded las month by Daniel Livingston, a division head at Camp Ramah in the Poconos, but it quickly became a campwide project.
There was Livingston and his staff, Israeli staff members who helped, theater expert Ariel Warmflash, and Joel Seltzer, the camp director, who added his own thoughts and notes to the play.
After all the work transforming the Lin-Manuel Miranda play, “Hamilton, An Israeli Story,” was performed earlier this month by Machon, Livingstone’s division of 14-year-olds.
“I felt like I got a buy-in from camp and the kids,” Livingstone said. “My hope is that some of these kids will have an Israel experience as a result of this.”
Many Ramah alumnus have found their way into the world of Broadway, like Tony winner and Ramah California alumnus Ben Platt, or Ramah Canada’s Caissie Levy, who will be starring as Elsa in the upcoming Broadway version of “Frozen.”
But Livingstone says he is not really part of that world.
“I’m not a drama person at all,” he said, 10 days after the play was first performed in the camp’s spacious but simple Beit Am stage. “I was the drummer in my Shoafim ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ production and Cogsworth 2 in ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ that’s how little background I have.”
It was during this past winter that Livingston, 22, a University of Rochester senior, came up with the idea as part of his work for the Nachshon Project, a fellowship for second-semester juniors interested in careers in the Jewish non-profit world.
On Nachshon, each fellow is challenged to take on a project about Israel, to be worked on while at camp the following summer. Most of the fellows veered toward specific planned activities or conversations at camp, but Livingston had a different idea.
Having been the 2016 counselor for Gesher, Ramah Poconos’ oldest division, in which the counselors and campers generally write their own play, often a “Saturday Night Live”-styled series of tongue-in-cheek skits, Livingston had loved the process of working on that production.
“I loved it, loved working with all the kids, and shaping something,” he said. “Within the context of camp, plays are perfect. They’re a tremendous educational tool if leveraged properly.”
He has never actually seen “Hamilton,” but was familiar with some of the music, which perhaps made it easier to launch into the complicated project.
Livingston spent time on his flight back to the US writing one of the songs, and was still working on the script and music when camp began in early June, something that made him – and some of the camp’s senior staff – more than a little nervous.
Still, Livingston wasn’t all that worried.
“I figured that once I had six skits, I’d have a play,” he said.
Teaching Israeli history
Camp Ramah in the Poconos’ plays have become shorter in recent years, to accommodate the campers and staff who have found that it’s nearly impossible to learn lines and block scenes from works like “The Sound of Music” or “Fiddler” in just one week of camp rehearsals.
It’s also a lot easier to keep audiences of 9- and 10-year-olds — and their older peers — engrossed in an amateur production if it’s not too long.
There have been other accommodations made in camp plays, like dividing major roles among two or three actors — there were at three Marias, two Baron Von Trapps and two Rolfs in this summer’s performance of “The Sound of Music,” and two Shimon Peres’ in Livingston’s version of “Hamilton.”
The camp plays also offer a stage for kids bitten with the drama bug, even if they may mangle the Hebrew, or require large prompts written on posterboard.
“We’re trying to use theater as a tool of creative consciousness,” said Warmflash, a Ramah Poconos alumnus with a Masters in Applied Theater who was in Ramah Poconos in July to run a week-long drama workshop and later in August to run the theater program.
Livingston’s goal was to teach his campers about historic Israeli leaders, who replaced Alexander Hamilton and his colleagues in this particular version of the play.
He used the play as an educational program over the course of the summer, rather than fitting it all into one week of rehearsals.
“In doing this, I get to explain history,” he said. “If they walk away understanding who these people are, I’ll have achieved something. It’s not the Broadway version of ‘Hamilton’ for a reason.”
“Yorktown — Peace will come”
When I came from Poland
I never thought that the nation would be established
Or that we’d build a factory in Dimona
I helped to buy weapons
From Czechoslovakia for the war,
but throughout the years my opinions changed and I made… peace
And even after the murder of Yitzhak Rabin
I continued to push and to work
Believing in a good future
Despite all of the challenges
And even after my death
My goal continued to live
And one day peace will come
that we dreamed of forever
Peace will come
Peace will come
Peace will come
Peace will come
I am Shimon Peres, the Prime Minister
I am Shimon Peres, the President of the State
Peace will come
There were other changes as well, besides the decision not to perform “Grease,” a more typical play choice for this particular age group.
Most campers don’t speak Hebrew fluently, but learn their lines in order to be in the plays. Livingston decided to add a screen on stage with English translations to the lyrics, in order for the camp audience to grasp more than just a passing knowledge of the words being sung.
He ultimately wrote six songs for the play, getting help from Israeli camp staff members who were more than a little helpful in finding the right words and creating rhymes for the “Hamilton”-styled raps.
“I can speak Hebrew, but I’m not a Hebrew rapper,” he said.
His campers may have learned more Hebrew than usual in this version of a camp play. Learning to emphasize certain words in the raps, and understanding why certain terms were chosen helped the actors gain a deeper meaning of the words and lyrics.
“It grew on them,” he said. “They got that they were doing something really groundbreaking here, and they ran with it.”
There were, of course, plenty of campers who are “fluent in ‘Hamilton,’ said Livingston. “Because it’s a popular show, kids felt invested in it.”
But greater even than the Hamilton cachet was having the campers learn deeper meanings about Israeli history. There was the camper who asked why Golda Meir was blamed for her actions in the Yom Kippur War, and the opportunity for Livingston to throw in some of his own political ideas, like Henrietta’s Szold’s wish for peace between Arabs and Jews, or the changes wrought by Shimon Peres over the course of his long political career.
Warmflash, who saw “Hamilton” in its Off-Broadway debut at the Public Theater as well as later on Broadway, pointed out that this translation was a fairly risky endeavor.
“It was ambitious,” she said. “There’s a lot of information in the songs, and I wasn’t sure how we’d carry that off.”
But she also loved how Livingston combined the Israeli history concepts with the “Hamilton” music.
“Plays wash over our kids, and they don’t have time to chew on it,” she said.
There was, of course, some skepticism from kids as to why they weren’t just doing a straight translation of “Hamilton.”
But having been thinking about this idea since “Hamilton” first came out, Livingston is more than a little pleased to have pulled it off.
“Ramah drama is having its moment,” he said.