D.C. DanceWatcher

They’ve Got Rhythm: Jewish Drum Circles Help Build Community

Posted in Uncategorized by lisatraiger on February 24, 2005

by Lisa Traiger

Special to the Washington Jewish Week
February 24, 2005
“Praise God with drum and dance, with flute and strings. Praise God with clashing cymbals; With resounding cymbals sing praises.”

From a living room in Aspen Hill, a coffeehouse in Silver Spring, a community center classroom in Northwest Washington, the peals of drums, the rattle of maracas, the clang of zils — finger cymbals — are forming a syncopated chorus of praise and spirituality that’s brought together Jews and Jewish seekers of all types.

Under the rubric of Jewish drum circles, Jews are beating out God-worthy tributes reminiscent of biblical psalms like Psalm 150, chanted in traditional daily prayer, that detail the glorious noise of ancient ritual Temple worship.

Jewish drum circles are coming of age in Washington. In recent months, at small, home-based gatherings and at large-scale community events, Jews have brought themselves and their percussive instruments — dumbeks, congas, djembes, Indian hand drums, buffalo drums, cowbells, tambourines, shakers of every type, rainsticks, and more — to make beautiful music together.

“Drumming allows us to tap into an ancient energy and our roots in a potent way. Drumming and chanting are primary practices for me,” explains Holly Taya Shere, 28, a Jewish renewal educator from Silver Spring, who picked up a drum years before she reconnected with Judaism.

Cradling her hand-painted dumbek, a Middle Eastern hand drum, she says, “For me drumming feels like a very powerful Jewish practice. My favorite line in the Torah is when Miriam takes up her timbrels.”

“With drumming, you just need to feel a rhythm,” Josh Milner, 31, points out as he straightens the knitted kippah clipped to his hair. He continues, “There’s something unique about that. The rhythm just flows right through you. It gets your body attuned to the people around you. What’s unique about a drum circle is you need to be aware of the other people around you and you’re working together to let those rhythms move around.”
Milner, a pediatric allergist and immunologist at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, like many Jewish drum-circle participants, is self-taught, though his sister has performed as a professional percussionist.

Drum circles have been around since the 1960s, but in recent years, more people have taken the call of the drum seriously. Jaqui MacMillan, a drummer and drum teacher for over 10 years, has been facilitating drum circles and bringing rhythm into educational, corporate and geriatric settings, where she has watched participants experience profound changes physically and emotionally simply through participating in the act of beating out a rhythmic pulse on a drum.

MacMillan, credits San Diegan Arthur Hull, frequently called the father of drum circles, with showing her the efficacy of drawing people into a circle to share rhythms.
“Drum circles are used for so many different purposes that are not just for fun,” says the District resident. “They’re therapeutic. I’ve been in hospitals and juvenile detention centers. I also lead corporate team building with the metaphor being we can work together to build something using drumming.”

While MacMillan is not Jewish, she has instructed many Jewish students over the years, who have incorporated drumming techniques either into their worship and cantorial practices or as a means of relaxation and personal growth.

One chilly February weeknight, 60 people crowded into a side room at Mayorga, the Silver Spring coffeehouse, to drum and chant. The 90-minute drum circle, facilitated by Milner, a member of Ohev Sholom Talmud Torah Congregation in the District’s Shepherd Park neighborhood, was planned as open-ended program to celebrate Rosh Chodesh, the coming of the new Hebrew month.

Additional drums and shakers, rattles and tambourines were available for drumless participants who ranged in age from Milner’s toddler, Moed Sperling-Milner, banging fiercely on his FisherPrice drum set, to senior citizens joyfully shaking hand-held rattles in their first drum circle experience.

Bethesda’s Mark Suresh Schlanger has become the Pied Piper of Jewish drum circles in the D.C. area, leading a group at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center and supporting other burgeoning circles. A yoga and drum teacher, he gently encourages all to find joy and healing in the pulsating rhythms.

“Let’s begin with a conversation in rhythm,” he says to the group. Each person taps, bangs or pounds out a syncopated phrase — a rhythmic name of sorts — and soon the crowd of novices and experienced drummers, friends and strangers, becomes one mass of percussive music.

Milner, who uses a Native American drum with a pair of mallets, leads the group in a chant in honor of the new month.

“My take on the drumming,” Schlanger explains, “is that when you have to sing and chant at the same time, you can really go more deeply into the music because that much more of your psyche, body, flesh is involved. I used the word holographic when you embrace it — it gets you closer to the spirit.”

Ohev Sholom’s Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, 30, had never picked up a drum before he joined the Mayorga circle. “I think it’s a great way for people to connect spiritually,” Herzfeld says. “I recognize that not everyone connects through liturgy and this is an opportunity for those who have difficulty connecting through the liturgy to also connect to God through the tunes and through the power of music.”

While Herzfeld won’t use drums during formal worship services because of Jewish legal prohibitions, a drum circle celebrating Rosh Chodesh poses no halachic problems in his mind. In fact, he sees a great similarity in drumming and chassidic nigunim, wordless melodies.

“The singing kumsitz [campfire] style and the drumming — just allowing the melody to transport us in the way that sometimes words can’t — it was very inspiring.”
For many years drumming has been incorporated into Jewish renewal movement activities, explains Debra Kolodny, executive director of Aleph, the Alliance for Jewish Renewal, pointing out that drums and music were part of ancient Jewish worship in the Temples.

“Now it’s a part of services, it’s a part celebrations, it’s a part of holidays,” she says. “People have drum, will travel.” Eric Marks, a member of Aleph-affiliated Am Kolel for the past two years, has been drumming for the better part of his adult life. An associate dean at Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, Marks, 56, created a way to integrate drumming into his Jewish practice by hosting Kol Tupim, an Am Kolel drum circle that incorporates Hebrew chanting, drumming and even a little text study.

“I needed a different spiritual approach. I needed something that was less ritualistic,” he says of the informal living-room gatherings he and his wife, Janeane, host every month or two in their Aspen Hill home.

While Marks and a core group of about six to eight Am Kolel drummers sometimes accompany Am Kolel’s worship services, the drum circle he sponsors, “provides people with an opportunity to engage themselves religiously in a spiritual way.”

“There are many Jews who drum,” he allows, “but not many who seek a Jewish connection. The idea is not to teach you how to drum, but to recognize the innate ability to drum that is within all of us.”

At the DCJCC, where Schlanger, 50, leads a Thursday evening drum circle class, Joani Schnitzer of Bethesda Jewish Congregation seeks the healing power of the drums.
“Drumming and chanting,” she points out, “are both channels that can be utilized for healing. They hold the possibilities of reaching into yourself and connecting into your soul so that healing can take place.”

For Schnitzer, who once taught hypnosis, the repetitive nature of the drumming and chanting serves as a doorway into the subconscious.

Rabbi Tamara Miller, spiritual leader of Capital Kehillah, recently showed up at a drum circle with a brand-new instrument. She terms drumming the “up and coming new Jewish tradition.”

Miller, who leads monthly services at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in the District, was attracted to both the musical feeling and the tribal connection she gets when she’s part of a rhythmic chorus drumming and chanting Hebrew psalms of glory.

“In Psalm 150,” she explains, “God says for us to sing with our bodies and with our voices. Almost anybody can do it. You don’t have to practice, it’s accessible, it builds community and you can learn Hebrew words and chants while you’re at it.”

Drumming will be included as part of Capital Kehillah’s Seeking the Light: A Jewish Spiritual Practice Retreat, to be held this Sunday at Sixth & I.

Fran Kritz, a health-care reporter, brought her son, Matthew, and his friend Eli Bookstaber, both 10, to the recent Mayorga drum circle. “It’s a real expansion in how to observe your Judaism,” said Kritz, who lives in Silver Spring’s Kemp Mill. Her neighbor, Allan Topolosky, a member of the Kemp Mill Synagogue, couldn’t resist the vigorous rhythms: “My wife, Nancy, and I both walked in exhausted from the day and now we’re energized.”

Topolosky looks around the room at the children and their parents getting ready to leave, the young men still wearing ties, loosened after a day at the office, the teens in tie-dye and torn denim, and the older Orthodox women in modest skirts and blouses, and sees community.

“We need to have more of these programs that are open to all and that are able to open up Judaism to everyone.”

This article originally appeared in the Washington Jewish Week.