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The Chanukah Drummers


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.


“Back up. Did you say something about food?”

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.




“I can sit still, Mommy. I can do it.”

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?



About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

76 responses »

  1. I love the detail about the drums already vibrating as they were passed along..something living and literally vibrant in that, Happy new year!

  2. Hello Rachel. Did you happen to read my latest piece, which is partly a Chanukah story? Like some of my stories, it’s wacky. I’m not sure if it’s your taste. But maybe it is.

    A very happy new year to you and yours.

    Neil Scheinin

    • I’ve always thought Santa should visit the nice Jewish girls and boys too. A friend told me that if you put out reindeer treats they’ll force Santa to stop at your house. I’ll have to try that next year.

  3. The vibration of the drums….the flapping of birds’ wings…the beating of the hearts of all creatures on earth. Yes, you are right, the rhythm connects us all.

  4. Happy New Year to you and your mom, and the dogs of course!
    I don’t do much to celebrate this time of year, but I would quite liked to have heard those drummers.
    Best wishes for a happy 2020.

  5. Trust me, there’s lots of warm & fuzzy in hallmark movies but no Christ. Sad but true. Happy Hanukkah and happy new year to you.

  6. Sorry…oops. I wanted to say I adore your pup pics and look forward to your posts!

  7. It’s a noisy time of the year. Drums and soon those darn firecrackers.

  8. I admire your writing and have unsuccessfully tried to sign up for your emails several times. Are you able to put me on your email list? I’ve also read and reviewed your book in the past.
    Don’t know why the system doesn’t like my email address.


    Thank you. I don’t want to miss your posts!

  9. I’ve always appreciated a good drumbeat/drummer, but Hubby found some clips on Youtube of just drums of varying designs and I was sold. I can imagine what you felt Rachel.

  10. One of the most moving performances I have been to was a drum-only performance. As you said, so much can be conveyed in both rhythm and “melody” with different drums. Decades later, it still brings goose bumps.

    To me, Santa, trees, reindeer, gifts…are part of secular Christmas. There is nothing religious about them. Everyone should feel free to celebrate secular Christmas without betraying their heritage. (Just my opinion.)

    • When I was little I used to help my best friend decorate her Christmas tree and it was mesmerizing! There are so many lovely traditions around memory and music. I’m pretty much addicted to the hallmark movies.

  11. What an engaging experience with the same kids that you struggle to teach. At our church there is a women’s drumming circle. While I don’t take part, they do perform once a year at our Mass to celebrate our pairing with a church in Haiti. Quite the sound!

  12. We gentiles thank-you, your continued devotion to these traditions are beautifully apparent; the reflection that you are to us, the light of God, the history, alive and continue to burn in you, the needed revelation spoken to a world that is consumed by its darkness.

  13. Happy New Year, Rachel. Cricket and Ellie are so adorable….I do love the captions you provide. Always so spot on!

  14. You don’t need to dwell on the “layer of fat” stuff. We are all familiar with that topic, thank you very much.😁

  15. Happy New Year to you! And thank you for once again educating me about Jewish traditions. (Also, Hallmark movies are basically crap and no one really lives like that, Christmas is more about keeping the peace while families drink too much, eat too much, and bicker about who got the best present)

  16. Pingback: The Chanukah Drummers — rachelmankowitz | O LADO ESCURO DA LUA

  17. Lovely post. Something new I am learning. I always learn something new from many of your posts. Half of my family are away over Christmas and New Year- working some three hundred miles away. However, I expect a telephone call. I wish you, Mom (Grandma) and the dogs a very Happy and Peaceful New Year.

  18. As always, it’s a delight to see the pictures… I just wanted to tell you that there are a lot of people who light candles each night of the holiday, and eat a lot of latkas. Here in Israel we eat a good many sufganiot as well. I suppose that in English they would be called Jelly Rolls. The celebration at the synagogue sounds like great fun.

  19. Happy Chanukah to you and yours!

  20. As always, interesting, entertaining and well written. Thank you.

  21. Hey there … Just wanted to check in, after reading another beautiful and interesting post. Are you okay? The latest attacks on Jews in NY are just horrible! I guess I wanted to acknowledge that, and wish you peace of mind and a blessed new year.

    • Thank you! It’s disorienting to see so much violent anti-semitism, after a lifetime of being told that that was buried in the past. There was a story earlier last week about someone walking into a Jewish girls’ dorm, picking up the matches next to the Chanukah candles, and trying to set the building on fire. I don’t understand it.

      • I will never understand hatred that isn’t personal. I get hating someone who has severely wronged you or hurt someone you care about. I understand not trusting or liking to be around people who are different from you and that you don’t understand. I don’t feel that way but I can understand it. But how is it even possible to hate a whole group of people you don’t know?

  22. Each family has their traditions that start in curious ways, and I love the idea of drums to express emotion.

    My children’s father was Jewish. My son celebrates Chanukah each year.

    When I saw the violence, the anti-semitism worldwide — not just NYC — I was heartbroken that the world has allowed us to be on the brink of experiencing Hitler’s curse again.

    I wish you many more Chanukah celebrations and an end to the insanity that seems to be setting fire to the world.

  23. Happy New Year to you Rachel Thank you 🥳❄🎈🎈.

  24. I wish I had been there. You tell it so eloquently, I can feel the vibrations in my skin.
    My husband is Jewish, and we always light the candles for Hanukkah. My sons are well versed in those prayers, if no others, and we always make sure to keep that tradition separate from our celebration of Christmas.

  25. I love potato latkes and jelly doughnuts and chocolate! I’m glad that teaching has brought you this closer sense of community. Teaching future generations feels like giving back something to contribute the future, and it doesn’t have enough value in our society, I think. Every child should have a chance at good, engaging, eye-opening education.

  26. Sound of drums beats is very good…. Happy New Year!

  27. Shalom, it’s been 9 years since I left Israel. I missing those beautiful 5 years of staying there. Purim is my favorite event where most are in costumes.

  28. I enjoy the story and your joy in writing it. Thank you Rachel.
    Happy New Year.

  29. I love drums of all sorts so I would have enjoyed having a go. Most cultures, perhaps all, have a tradition of drums, we all have an instinct for rhythms, we all have a heartbeat.

  30. “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”.

    I love this! Thanks so much for visiting my blog so that I could find you. My grandparents were Jewish along with a couple of aunties and uncles. I’m definitely going to check out your book.


  31. Rachel: I always enjoy your work. Thanks for the continuing interest in, Elm Drive Images.


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