The Strange and Violent History of the Ordinary Grogger

Some objects look like they have stories to tell, but the grogger never seemed as though it was one of them. A single photograph convinced me I was wrong, though. You’ll be forgiven if you think it is a photo of two men dressed up in hazmat suits for Purim —how were you supposed to know that those aren’t groggers, but World War II gas alarms issued by the Royal Air Force, and that the hazmat suits and gas masks are all too real?

Now that you know, your eyes (like mine) might still play tricks on you. The photo has the feel of an optical illusion: You can know what it is, yet it looks like it must be something else.

Today you can go a lifetime without ever seeing a grogger outside of the Purim context, but this wasn’t always the case. Three hundred years ago, you’d be more likely to associate groggers with the fire department than with Haman. Three hundred years before that, you’d associate the grogger with church.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been piecing together the story of the grogger in popular culture, trying to understand where it came from, how it was used and how Jews came to be its most prominent users.

First, terminology. Grogger is just Yiddish for rattle. Its basic operation is simple: a wooden cog is attached to a handle, with a freely rotating wood slat fitted into the teeth. When the rattle is swung around, the slat is forced to move around the cog, vibrating every time it passes a tooth. Voilà: noise.

The rattle got its first big break as a stand-in for a more quotidian noisemaker: the bell. Bells and churches have gone together for so long that it’s hard to imagine one without the other, but since at least the ninth century there’s been a custom not to ring bells during the Triduum — the three days preceding Easter — out of solemn respect for the mournful times between Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Though the Triduum are sometimes called “the silent days,” there was nothing silent about them — a medieval German archbishop explained that a simple wooden clacker stood in for the bells. Today this clacker is called a crotalus, after the Greek word for (wait for it) rattle.

The first crotali were almost certainly not grogger -like; one early design,still in use today, was made to swing back and forth, as one might swing a bell. Handheld designs like this could replace only the small altar bells, not their larger relatives in the bell towers; the cog mechanism was probably introduced to solve this problem. The bell tower rattle was several feet wide, stationary, and operated by a crank; some are still functional today.

With the rattle in use, miniaturization soon followed, and by the 14th century, churches were already commissioning crotali with intricate woodwork.It was inevitable, though, that users would find other purposes for this device. The church gave no special importance to the rattle’s distinctive sound; its whole purpose was to be loud and not sound like a bell. It excelled at the latter, but the rattle is ill-suited for the acoustics of a church. Under a vaulted ceiling or in the open air of a tower, a bell’s reverberation sustains, while a rattle simply percusses, atonal and staccato. Still, the inferior sound and the device from which it emanated were both unique, and over time, others began to take notice. Beginning in the early modern period, the rattle began to look for other jobs. It found two.

Before cities had police departments, they had night watchmen. In 1658, Peter Stuyvesant, then the director-general of New Netherland, organized nine men to patrol what would become New York City between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., “to pursue, attack, and capture…pirates and vagabonds” and to arrest “robbers or others who would wish to inflict injury and damage.” This was the city’s first police force, and it’s the direct ancestor of the New York Police Department. Stuyvesant called the group the Rattle Watch, after the devices they carried to sound the alarm. Twenty years earlier, Boston

had organized a similar force, also called a rattle watch. For the next 200 years, both cities supplied their officers with rattles. From the specimens that survive, we know that they were employing the same design as the crotalus and grogger.

As an officer’s alarm, the rattle has three things going for it: It is cheap, it is portable and it is very loud. In Stuyvesant’s day, this was a rare combination. To understand why, we need to consider the alternatives.

In an age of loudspeakers, megaphones, sirens and foghorns, our concern is usually noise reduction, not noise creation; these days, anybody can wake up half the neighborhood just by testing a smoke alarm in the middle of the street. But this personal, instantaneous access to ungodly amounts of noise is very new; almost all of the loudest handheld devices were invented in the last century, and most require electricity.

Of course, humans can make a ruckus with nothing but their vocal cords, but shouting at the top of your lungs is hard work: It takes energy to sustain, it strains the voice and it saps energy that might be needed for other things (like pursuing a New York City hooligan). The same rule holds for clapping, snapping, stomping, whistling and striking hard surfaces; sound is just vibrations, and making large vibrations with one’s own body is either going to be tiring or painful.

Tools are the clear solution, since they can translate the body’s movements into sound and reduce the effort needed to make noise. Until quite recently, though, noisemakers could get louder only by getting bigger or more cumbersome; most instruments small enough for a patrol weren’t loud enough to be useful. (Explosives might have been an exception, but they weren’t very practical since they were not only dangerous, but they also wouldn’t have made continuous noise.)

The rattle was perfect, though. At less than a foot long, flat and L-shaped (in some police models the handle even folded down), it was easy to carry. Because the noise came with a flick of the wrist, it could be operated with one hand. It was cheap, too. Unlike their elaborate church counterparts, patrol rattles are simple affairs. It was the ideal tool for the job. For more than 200 years, rattles were used regularly in both American and Britain, by both police and fire departments.

The rattle’s reign was finally ended by the pea whistle, whose trilling mechanism made it significantly louder than previous whistles. The changeover was swift: In 1884, only a year after its invention Scotland Yard adopted the pea whistle after a convincing demonstration of superiority. Other police departments soon followed suit. Within a decade, rattles had disappeared from civilian use.

The military, however, soon found rattles important for an entirely new reason: the rise of chemical warfare. When British and American forces realized that German forces were employing poison gas, they issued their soldiers masks, but these made blowing a whistle — crucial for alerting fellow soldiers to an impending attack — impossible. Rattles were the solution. During both World War I and World War II, British and American forces produced rattles marked “gas alarm only” to soldiers on the front line. There is actually video footage of these rattles in use during World War I.

Police and military appropriation of the crotalus was probably the most important, but Stuyvesant didn’t borrow the rattle directly from the church. That honor almost certainly goes to children, who know a good toy when they see one.

Children have been playing with rattles for a long time. Even after police started using the rattle, European adults could agree that it was primarily a plaything. Although the rattle does show up as a normal percussion instrument in a couple of musical compositions — you can hear a large one in the opening measures of Respighi’s “Pines of Rome” and sporadically throughout Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” — it usually appears in classical music because of its status of a toy; it was a way of communicating levity to the audience. This is its purpose in the finale of Walton’s first “Facade Suites,” and when Strauss uses the rattle in “Till Eulenspeigel,” it’s supposed to be slapstick — in fact, the original “slap stick” looks a lot like the early crotalus. The piece in which the rattle gets the most airtime is Leopold Mozart’s lighthearted “Toy Symphony,” which combines traditional instruments with musical toys.

Kids liked the rattle not just because it was loud, but also because it sounded vaguely violent. To many people, the rattle was a ringer for the din of gunfire. Beethoven apparently thought so; his “Wellington’s Victory” orchestral piece uses the rattle as a substitute for a cannon. To others, it mimicked the sound of explosions: In early 20th-century America, colorful rattles were sold as toys under the name “safety crackers,” with the word “safety” implying that they were safer than actual firecrackers.

But the place where children first encountered the rattle was the church itself, during those three days before Easter when the bells fell silent, as part of a ceremony called the Burning of Judas. This is the moment when our story takes an unsettling turn. It is also the key to understanding why Jews eventually adopted the grogger for use on Purim.

The Burning of Judas was never officially sanctioned by the Roman Catholic or Orthodox Church, but it was common practice in Europe until the 20th century and is still frequently performed in Latin America. While details vary by location, the basics are the same: An effigy of Judas is first hanged, then burned. It was in the context of this ceremony that the crotalus first morphed from church object to child object, as children responded to the flaming effigy by twirling their rattles in celebration. It still happens today; you can find images of a Czech anti-Judas rattle procession.

Early on, the rattle’s distinctive sound became part of the ritual. As elsewhere, people understood it to be a violent sound; some compared it to the sound of nails being driven into Jesus’ hands. More commonly, though, it was heard as a grinding noise — specifically, the grinding of Judas’ bones. In some communities, from medieval Germany to 19th-century Malta, Grinding Judas’ Bones represents a distinct ritual involving the mass twirling of rattles. (The grinding ritual didn’t always use rattles; in some places, kids just smashed things on the ground.) It is likely through these semi-sanctioned ceremonies that the rattles came to be a general purpose toy.

Out of this bawdy and frequently anti-Semitic rattle ritual, the grogger emerged.

In a brilliant piece of ritualistic judo, Jews appropriated all the violence and anti-Semitism contained in the rattle and flipped it around: Where the crotalus castigated Judas for eternity (and Jews by extension), the grogger vilified Haman, antagonist of the Purim story, incarnation of Jewish persecution and perpetual outlet for Jewish revenge fantasies.

And it was definitely revenge. Like so many rattles before it, the grogger expressed violence; some 19th-century groggers are constructed to allow users to hang Haman over and over again. Purim itself has long been a repository for such intense feeling. In his book “Reckless Rites,” Elliott Horowitz argues that from the medieval period onward, Jews used Purim as a valve for vengeance — or at least vitriol in the form of anti-Christian polemic.

But the grogger wasn’t the first time Jews turned the Judas ritual on its head — in fact, its appearance in the 18th century makes it late to the party. The uncanny similarity between the carnivalesque vilification of Judas and Haman is incredibly old. Haman is hanged (Esther 7:10) and Judas hangs himself (Matthew 27:5), and both deaths are reenacted. Christians have been burning Judas in effigy for a long time, but Jews have been burning Haman in effigy for longer — in fact, the Roman government was already trying to ban the practice in the fifth century, wary that Haman was just a stand-in for Christians and the Christianized Roman Empire (which it was).

And Jewish children in Christian Europe didn’t need groggers to attack Haman with sound. For centuries, the noisemaker of choice was a pair of rocks. Each rock was inscribed with the name of Amalek, Haman’s tribal ancestor and perpetual Israelite bogeyman. By repeatedly smashing the rocks together, children could solve two problems with two stones (so to speak): They could make a ruckus while fulfilling the Biblical injunction to “erase the memory of Amalek.”

In general, Purim is celebrated between late February and late March; Easter is celebrated between late March and late April. In the small towns of Christian Europe, it’s not so hard to imagine how the Judas and Haman rituals might have come into alignment. But alignment also masks the tangle of perceived and real antagonisms that fueled these rituals and spurred each religion to mirror the other. Individuals can be passive-aggressive toward each other, but communities can’t be passive-aggressive toward other communities. It’s too easy for one community to see how another is really feeling and reacting — think of Christian anger over Hebrew anti-Jesus polemics, which in turn were inspired by Christian behaviors. Jews, who were powerless to shut down the Judas burnings, had a special incentive to appropriate: If the rattle was going to grind up Judas’ bones, at least it could be neutralized by making it drown out Haman as well.

Today, the rattle is an obsolete technology: It’s a weak siren and a crummy toy. Obsolescence, though, doesn’t necessarily entail instant death — technologies can take a long time to die, and some don’t die at all. Witness the fax machine, alive and kicking in the 21st-century, or the bayonet, still in service at Marine boot camp despite the fact that it was already obsolete by the time World War I rolled around.

Religions have a particular habit of collecting yesterday’s technologies and holding on to them long after they’ve faded from use and collective memory. There’s a simple logic to this behavior: Obsolescence confers a post-facto distinctiveness on religious objects, which is just what the doctor ordered if you’re trying to telegraph tradition, continuity or sanctity to practitioners. Shabbat candles used to be special because of how and when they were lit; in the electric age, they’re also distinct because they’re not lightbulbs.

Still, candles today aren’t inherently religious; that won’t happen until restaurants and romantics stop using them. When a technology does die out in all places but one, something very special happens: The technology moves into an afterlife. The obsolete label finally comes off, and the last user standing gets to associate the technology with itself. Take the humble parchment scroll, for example: 2,500 years ago, the scroll was everywhere; 1,700 years ago, the scroll was obsolete; now, the scroll is Jewish.

Christian rattle use is fast dwindling and not very visible; it’s not too early to say that the rattle is effectively Jewish, too. But in becoming Jewish, the rattle/grogger has also been divorced from its aggressive history through a long, internal Jewish campaign to forget the vengeful feelings of Purim’s past. What remains is just a portable wooden noisemaker. It is still full of sound and fury — but today, for better or for worse, it signifies very little.

David Zvi Kalman is the director of Jewish Public Media and the founder of Print-O-Craft. He is a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania. Twitter @dzkalman

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