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  • Waiting for the Messiah, A Tambourine in Her Hand
  • Vanessa L. Ochs (bio)

Between March and July of 1994, the period just before and after the death of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, I was doing fieldwork among Lubavitch women in Crown Heights, New York, and in Morristown, New Jersey, home of the Lubavitch Rabbinical College. Most of the women I encountered said they believed—or at least hoped—that their Rebbe would not die, but would rather emerge—"rise up" was the expression they used—as the Messiah. While attending their study sessions and prayer gatherings and visiting them in their homes, I inadvertently discovered that a new ritual object was emerging in the women's community: a "Miriam's tambourine." Because a tambourine is a prosaic object, evoking folk concerts and children's rhythm training, it was not initially clear to me that this object, in the context of the Lubavitch women, possessed spiritual agency.

In this essay, I attempt to narrate, in the form of a chronicle, various forms of spiritual work that the tambourine performed for Lubavitch women. Speaking broadly, I observed that the tambourine enabled the creation of women's bonds; it channeled anxiety and creative energy, and it released the women from boundaries of time and place as they identified with the biblical Miriam and the confident ancient Israelite women who had gracefully saved the day when their husbands quarreled, complained, despaired, and withdrew from procreation. The tambourine eased women across a threatening transition, guiding and assuring them, and creating a locus for divine–human intersection.

I saw the Lubavitch women, in the context of their leader's impending death, as ritual and spiritual experts, taking roles that their sect's laws of modesty might otherwise forbid them proclaiming of themselves. Theirs is a community in which men are to be more visible to the public and women are to be more private. I believe that the tambourine gave the women a means of expanding [End Page 144] their roles without risk: Behind sweetly decorated tambourines, they found an avenue for taking on spiritual leadership at a traumatic time, and for holding their families and community together. I saw them engaged—through their tambourines—in virtuoso, lived religious performances, as they maintained faith and community during a crisis. Would Lubavitch women describe themselves and their actions as I do? I don't believe they would—not because such a description would be inaccurate, but because such rhetoric would be considered immodest.

Passover 1994

Ignoring their exhaustion, stepping beyond their anxiety about all the cleaning and the tasks that remained to be done, Lubavitch women prepared for Passover in the spring of 1994 with particular exhilaration. Many were certain: Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, the charismatic spiritual leader whom they had revered as their Rebbe since 1950, was the Moshiach—the Messiah. At any moment now, he would rise from his hospital bed and announce his reign, and the messianic era would commence.

Many recent acts of violence and violent retaliation had given Lubavitch women I knew the sense that they were living in nightmarish times, a period of overwhelming tragedy and suffering, just the kind of times that were supposed to precede the coming of the Messiah. On February 25th, Baruch Goldstein had massacred Palestinians worshipping in Hebron. Days later, in a seeming act of revenge on the other side of the world, Rashad Baz opened fire on a convoy of Lubavitch students, killing Ari Halberstam and severely injuring his friend Nachum Sasonkin as they drove back over the Brooklyn Bridge after praying for the Rebbe at Beth Israel Hospital. There was Ari's funeral, with hundreds coming to mourn. This was all on top of an earlier wound the community still felt, the killing of one of their yeshiva students, Yankel Rosenbaum, during riots in Crown Heights in 1991. Lubavitch leaders declared that at such moments of intense darkness, when everything seemed to be falling apart, a coming light could be glimpsed. This classic Jewish narrative felt especially descriptive of the present moment.

To outsiders, a messianic advent seemed unlikely. The 91-year-old Rebbe had had a second stroke and was lying in...


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