This year, for Chanukah, the principal of the synagogue school planned a special event to celebrate with the kids. She invited a drumming group, a Jewish drumming group, to tell the story of Chanukah in an interactive performance. They brought dozens of small djembe drums so that all of the kids could participate (and the adults too, it turned out!). This was a chance to celebrate Chanukah at shul, instead of just at home, because Chanukah is yet another family holiday, rather than a holiday celebrated at the synagogue (think Passover rather than Yom Kippur). If you don’t have family to celebrate with, for eight days in a row, it can all be a bit demoralizing. This was also a chance to educate the kids about the basic story of Chanukah, especially the drum beat of the military battle, in a new way.
Every culture seems to have a holiday at this time of year, possibly in order to find light in the darkness and try to overcome the seasonal depression we’re all vulnerable to. There’s also an emphasis on eating fattening foods (potato latkes and jelly doughnuts and chocolate Gelt for Chanukah), which conveniently packs on a layer of warming fat for the winter. There were a few Hallmark movies that tried to find more of a connection between Chanukah and Christmas than the lights and the food, but it was a stretch. They imagined a family that got together every single night of Chanukah to play dreidel games and fry latkes. I don’t know families like that. This made me wonder if all of the Christmas movies over play the happy jolly family celebrations of Christmas. Hmm. There was also a very strange moment in one of the movies when a caroling group, in period dress, suddenly managed to sing O Hanukkah, word for word. But, hey, what do I know? Maybe these people exist.
The drumming performance at the synagogue started with an introduction from the two drummers, to show us all of the different possible rhythms and sounds they could make (one of the drummers had jingle bells on his shoe!). And then an introduction to the Chanukah story (a small group Jews fights the conquering power and wins, then rededicates the temple with one night of oil lasting eight whole days, etc.). And then they handed out the little djembe drums and we could already feel the skins vibrating, because they had caught the vibrations in the air and were ready to resonate before we ever hit our own drums.
The head drummer taught us how to make two different sounds: bass, in the middle of the drum, and tone, closer to the rim. And we learned a few different ways to hold our drums too, including sitting on the drum, like on the back of a horse, or holding the drum against one side of your lap or the other, or holding the drum between your knees. We were sitting on the floor, so the between-the-knees idea wasn’t workable for me. The only no-no was to place the drum flat on the floor, because then the sound would be trapped and muted.
As we all started to play I could feel the resonating of the drum in my hands, in my face, in my feet, in my chest. Children who rarely said a word in class volunteered to play their own drum solos for the room, and every variation was encouraged and celebrated, and the room kept up a steady hum the whole time.
There’s such relief in finding other ways to communicate; ways that don’t have to be as precise and detailed as words. I wish I could have brought my dogs to the performance. Cricket would have been barking along with the crowd, or in a contrasting rhythm, more likely, and Ellie would have been crazy excited, zooming around the room. My girls are Jewish too, after all, and they want to be part of the community. And the drumming, because it doesn’t require words, is the kind of language that could be shared more easily across species.
Watching the light of the candles, and listening to the rhythm of the drums, and singing, and drawing, have all become more prominent parts of my life since I started to teach Synagogue school, and I am grateful. I love language. I love finding the words to capture my experience and communicate it directly to other people. But there’s something magical about being able to tap into a larger energy that connects all of us down to the cellular level. I love the sense that we share something deep and wide, something like a rhythm that resonates in the air between us.
Happy New Year!
If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.
Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?