Female hand drummers from the Iron Age II (eighth to seventh century BCE), found at the site of what was Achzib, on the Mediterranean coast of northern Israel. From the Israel Museum collection. (photo by Deborah Rubin Fields)
In February, an Israeli ultra-Orthodox bride got lots of media attention for playing drums before a mixed (male and female) crowd of wedding guests. Putting aside issues of religious modesty and political clout, does Jewish law restrict females from playing drums?
Significantly, there is a biblical precedent for female drum playing. It dates back to Miriam the Prophetess. Having just crossed a miraculously dry channel in the Red Sea, Miriam felt compelled to celebrate. She and the other Israelite women who had just experienced the Exodus play drums, referred to in Hebrew as tof miryam. (See Exodus 15:20.)
In a 2009 article in Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia, Prof. Carol Meyers notes, “The Bible mentions … only one percussion instrument … the tof, or hand drum, even though other kinds of drums were known elsewhere in the biblical world. Whenever this word is found, it is quite likely that the presence of female instrumentalists is implied.”
Meyers explains that this hand drum consisted of an animal skin stretched over a hollow body of any shape or size. Moreover, although tof miryam is sometimes rendered in English as a tambourine, it is not, given that it has no rattle or bells. Meyers further reports that the tambourine was not authenticated before the 13th century CE.
Additionally, Meyers points out that female figures predominate in unearthed Iron Age terracotta statutes, holding what appear to be hand drums. These women are plainly dressed, hence they appear to be ordinary people, rather than gods or members of the elite.
Few terracotta statues have been discovered in Palestine or Israel. Yet, from the biblical references of Exodus, Judges 11:34, I Samuel 18:6 and Jeremiah 31:4, we are left to understand that there was a tradition of female hand drum players.
Moreover, citing I Samuel 18:6-7, S.D. Goitein states in a 1988 article in Prooftexts, that a woman’s duty was to welcome the returning fighters and to praise them.
Of what importance were these female drums? Meyers elaborates that female public performance would (1) assume a level of competence based upon practice, (2) indicate that, in ancient Israel, there were groups of women performers and (3) imply that leaders and other members of the community acknowledged and appreciated the expertise of these women performers.
Not only that, but, in the book Miriam’s Tambourine: Jewish Folktales from Around the World (1988), edited by Prof. Howard Schwartz, Miriam’s drum had magical abilities. Relying on a 19th-century Eastern European folktale, Schwartz writes that the music from Miriam’s drum drove off serpents and kept Miriam herself in eternal life.
According to Rabbi Allen Maller’s interpretation of the Mechilta and Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, while in Egypt, Miriam taught all the Israelite women how to play the drum. Moreover, he writes on blogs.timesofisrael.com, once the plagues started, Miriam repeatedly reminded the women of all that she had taught them and that, as a sign of their faith in G-d, they should all take at least one drum per family with them when it was time to leave.
Still it is not clear from whom Miriam learned to play. Did Miriam’s mother, Yocheved, teach her to play the hand drum? Or did Miriam learn from Egyptian women?
Broadcaster and writer Eva Dadrian states in her 2010 article “Let there be music!” that ancient Egyptian musicians realized percussion was basic to their orchestras. Thus, they played drums of different sizes. Drums were particularly associated with sacred ceremonial events, but they were also used during battles to rally the troops or to spread panic among the enemy forces.
Dadrian adds that, in spite of the richness of the documentation, our knowledge of pharaonic music remains limited: without theoretical treaty or musical score, it is particularly difficult to do an archeology of music. The two main membranophones used by ancient Egyptians were the single membrane drum mounted on a frame and the barrel-shaped drum with two membranes.
In the University of California, Los Angeles Encyclopedia of Egyptology, Music and Musicians (2013), Egyptologist Sibylle Emerit claims the single membrane drum is documented in Egypt’s Old Kingdom (2575 BCE to 2150 BCE) in a scene carved in the solar temple of Niuserra in Abu Ghurab. She relates that the non-epigraphic material from the East Cemetery of Deir el-Medina, dating to the 18th dynasty, indicates that the owners of the musical instruments buried in this tomb belonged to a modest social class attached to the service of local noblemen. Thus, Emerit confirms Meyers’ assertion about the plain appearance of female Iron Age II drummer statues.
Music researcher, lecturer and performer Veronica Doubleday notes in a 1999 Ethnomusicology article that plentiful evidence shows women played the frame drum in the Egyptian New Kingdom (1570-947 BCE) dynasties. There were musical troupes in temple rituals, as well as solo drum players.
Over the centuries, Islam, Christianity and Judaism marginalized woman’s public drum playing. In a PhD dissertation (2006), Mauricio Molina writes that early leaders of the Christian religion, for example, condemned the frame drums because of their connection with the fertility cults, which the Church was struggling to banish.
Aside from Miriam, Jewish (and non-Jewish) females might have been told that it is not lady-like to play drums, as drummers need to sit with their legs spread apart and drummers sometimes “let loose” to play.
Nonetheless, today, the number of female drummers – including Jewish female drummers – is growing. As the recent bride story reveals, the numbers are increasing even within the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox community. In Jerusalem, for example, the school Mayever LaMusica (Beyond Music) offers separate drum lessons for girls and women.
Among those who grew up Orthodox are Temim Fruchter, former drummer in the Shondes, and Dalia Shusterman, who drummed in an all-female Chassidic alternative rock group. Elaine Hoffman-Watts, who died two-and-a-half years ago at the age of 85, was a klezmer drummer – many klezmer bands refused her talents because she was a woman; it wasn’t until her father (also a klezmer musician) intervened that she got work as a drummer.
Other notable Jewish female drummers with Israeli backgrounds are Meytal Cohen, Mindy Abovitz (who is also founder and editor-in-chief of the drum magazine Tom Tom), Iris Portugali and Yael Cohen.
So, the beat goes on and, after a long respite, women are again helping to produce it.
Deborah Rubin Fields is an Israel-based features writer. She is also the author of Take a Peek Inside: A Child’s Guide to Radiology Exams, published in English, Hebrew and Arabic.