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Museum Musings
March 2023

Purim Groggers, 20th Century, Brass
In Memory of Morris Markel
Donated by the Salmanson Family


The Sound of Silence?  
The Sound and the Fury?

I used to wonder, when I was a child, why adults, in the middle of a conversation, would suddenly lower their voices, and sometimes, barely mouth certain words. When I was older, I realized that these words had to do with bad, sad or horrific things. Death, illness, shameful acts ….these are things about which our parents and grandparents could not easily speak. Were they afraid of the evil eye? Was it la-shon harah (gossip) to speak thusly? Finally, I began make sense of this enigmatic behavior. It actually came to me when I was in synagogue, one Purim, as we were reading from Megillat Esther, The Scroll of Esther. From the time I was very young, when I went to synagogue with my parents and  grandparents, I was given a little multi-colored painted metal groggar, from the Polish word meaning, rattle; or ra’ashan, from the Hebrew word meaning noise…. to whirl around every time Haman’s name was read. This tradition of using noisemakers seemed to originate from Christian folk traditions in the in the Middle Ages when similar noisemakers (including small rocks and stones) were said to have the power to exorcize evil demons. The traditional wooden groggars, metal pots and pans to beat on, and metal containers filled with dried beans have been supplanted by small metal noisemakers, akin to those used on New Year’s Eve. Many of the wooden groggars were often decorated with illustrations and verses from Megillat Esther, or adorned with icons from the Purim story. 

Purim, for me as a child, was a raucous and fun-filled holiday! But why was I allowed to make noise, stamp my feet and do things in synagogue that were forbidden to me all other times that I entered that special space? And again, as I grew older, I learned the answer. The tradition was:  to drown out, to erase the name of the arch-villain of the Purim story, Haman.

מח שמו'Yimakh shemo.  
May his name be erased.

Just as we are commanded in the Biblical injunction to blot out the name of Amalek, the sworn enemy of Judaism (and reputed ancestor of Haman,) whose treachery is denounced  in the previous week’s Torah portion, Zachor, (Remember) so do we drown out, with ear-splitting noise, the villain of Purim in order not to hear that evil person’s name….or  is it also not to be reminded of his perfidious acts?

So, what does this have to do with the elders of my youth, barely voicing certain words? On Purim, when we boisterously drown out the name of Haman, do we erase it from our consciousness?  When I recall these elders, who silently mouthed certain words, I believe, that for them, the sounds of their  silence had the same effect that the raucous drowning out of a name has for us. It was as if “sad,” “bad,” or evil” would cease to exist if it were not heard or uttered. But can…or should …. sad, bad, evil ever be removed from our, or from our ancestors’ consciousness? Can the cacophony of the groggers and foot stamping, rendering Haman’s duplicitous name inaudible, and with it  the memory of his wickedness….could it, should it be erased from our memory?

Our tradition teaches us to remember. Zachor, the parasha preceeding Purim means “Remember.” Soon we will we read of the exodus from Egypt. The Haggadah is our annual retelling of our flight from slavery to freedom. We retell this story in every generation. As we recount the horror of the plagues, and the years of the Israelites’ slavery, we also remember that “now we are free.” We bemoan Haman’s treachery. But we also recall Queen Esther’s heroism. In our lifetime, Hitler is the abominable embodiment of Amalek and Haman. As we recall the six million, we also remember the partisans and so many others brave souls who sacrificed their lives to help eradicate the horror for which there are no words. We, as a vibrant and vocal community  commemorate them, by saying their names aloud on Yom Ha-Shoah. WE will not/can not be silenced.

We are enjoined to: Never Forget. And how do we Never Forget? We Never Forget by making sounds: sometimes loud frenetic noise; sometimes long mournful sobs. And we act.  

We act together as a community to commemorate and to celebrate. We celebrate with song and music. We commemorate by marching for a cause. We write letters. We lobby. We vote. We raise our voices and stamp our feet to announce that we will not be silent or silenced.

My forebears lived in a time where many of them thought silence could ease trauma. The duality of  “sound and silence” is profound. We may blot out these names, as our tradition enjoins us to do, but we must also remember the story.…and that often means we must make noise doing it….so that Never Again becomes a reality. In the still small voice of a  generation past, who could not utter sad or bad words or thoughts, for them, sounds of silence may have been protective and defensive. But in the clamor of the groggers we gyrate and rattle on Purim, the frenzied sounds are cathartic. For us, the magnitude of the horrors foisted upon the Jewish people through-out the millennia demand another response: One of Sound and Fury, a  “primal scream”, thunderous sounds — of groggers, and stamping feet — that allow us, in the same moment to forget and to remember. Erase the evil Haman from our consciousness; and at the same time remember the heroism of Queen Esther who saved us, as did so many others like her though-out the ages.  Dor l’dor.

-Ruth Page
Museum Director


The Abraham and Natalie Percelay Museum of Temple Emanu-El has a wonderful display of contemporary and folk-art graggers. Come to see the collection. Many of these are in the round glass case in the meeting House foyer.

Contributions to the museum are a special way to remember those you wish to honor on memorialize send your donations to the synagogue.   Attention: Museum

Thu, July 25 2024 19 Tammuz 5784