Timbrels & Tribulations

Some holiday memories really stay with us...

When my older sister graduated high school and moved to college, she left big shoes to fill at our synagogue. Her clear soprano voice was notably absent from the bima of our small north Georgia congregation, and so it fell to me at age 9 to find my voice and place within our Jewish community.

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The author and her sister, singing beneath the tallit

I took my role as de facto cantorial soloist very seriously, rehearsing for my captive audience of friends on the school bus, who had no idea what I was saying. Our lay leader ran through songs with me before services, giving me the freedom and confidence to harmonize. Although I had no formal Hebrew education, I learned to match the transliteration in the siddur to the mix of Yiddish and southern inflections from the voices in the pews.

I decided to dedicate my new tambourine– a “real” one, not plastic– to my cantorial tasks. I sat on the floor of our den with a blue marker, planning to write the names of all of the Jewish holidays on the skin as a tribute to the Very Important Role I now had to play in my congregation.

Not only did I not realize just how many Jewish holidays there are, but I also had no idea how to spell them. Beginning with Rosh Hashanah, I got as far as “R-a” before thinking to ask my mom how to spell it. Once she realized what I was doing to my nice tambourine, she put an immediate stop to the destruction.

I was conflicted: I felt guilty that I had defaced my instrument, annoyed that I hadn’t been permitted to finish, and embarrassed that my mistake was now fully visible. I stashed the tambourine away behind a stack of Lemony Snicket books and tried to forget the incident altogether.

However, with the potency of Jewish guilt, and with our tradition of bringing the same stories to the surface annually, at Pesach every year my mind digs through the shelves in my old room and dusts off that tambourine. I think of the Israelites preparing to flee their bondage in Egypt, with space only to carry what was necessary– and somehow a timbrel was deemed necessary, because Miriam and the women sang and danced with one after their dramatic salvation at the Sea of Reeds.

The story of Miriam and the women dancing at the shores of the sea is my favorite part of the Maggid. They didn’t have time to let the matzo rise, but they were confident they would need to raise their voices in song. This story has been a vital part of my Jewish identity; even the tallis my parents gave me to mark the occasion of becoming a bat mitzvah depicts a beautifully embroidered scene of the women with their hands, voices, and timbrels raised in exaltation.

When I wrote on my tambourine, it was about pride in my Jewish heritage and the contribution I could make to my community by lifting our collective prayers through music. Regardless of what it looks like, it still makes a joyful noise.

The next time I’m home, I’ll be sure to pack my timbrel. After all, you never know when you might need to celebrate a miracle.

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