Sunday, December 13, 2009

Oh Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel...

I don't get the dreidel. It doesn't really have much to do with the holiday of Chanukah. Sure, the four sides have four letters - נס גדול היה שם- "A great miracle happened there" - but what does the spinning of the top have anything to do with the holiday? At least on Purim I know what the grogger is for: to make noise. But dreidel? I just don't get it.
More to the point: I don't like playing dreidel. I really never understood the rules very well. If you get the full pot on a gimmel, and half the pot on a hay, then the math doesn't really add up. Or at least that's how it seems to me. (If you really want to know the "official" rules, you can check them out at
I do have a fond memory of dreidel playing: I remember that my father (who died when I was very young) was great at making the dreidel spin on its head; I thought that was really cool. Still do.
I also find playing dreidel kind of boring. It's probably for the same reason that I don't like playing war - there's no skill involved. After you draw your cards in war, you're just playing out the luck of the draw. You could give them to a computer and have it figure out who won more quickly than if you played the game out yourself.
Funny dreidel story: this year I was going through a pile of old stuff, and found the tape from when I was a member of the Hebrew Academy of Greater Washington choir, and we sang with the United States Navy Band in Constitution Hall. Yes, we really did that. It's an amazing memory. (I'm in the process of converting the audio to mp3, and hope to post it for your listening pleasure soon.) Anyway, late in the program we come to the dreidel medley. At which point, a small group of poor choir members who were consigned to the back row were instructed to sneak off the stage. They then proceeded to the back of the hall where they were fitted with giant dreidel costumes. When we got to the part of "Sivivon, sov sov sov", they started twirling down the aisles of the hall. Just thinking about it now makes me smile.
There is one part of the dreidel that I really do like. For years, our dreidels had the four letters - nun, gimmel, hay and shin, which stand for נס גדול היה שם - "a great miracle happened there." Indeed, these represented the four sides of the dreidel for as long as there's been a dreidel. (I actually heard today that the Chatam Sofer played dreidel with his grandchildren, so it has been around for a while.) But now those aren't the right letters for us anymore. Now that we live in the Holy Land, our old dreidels are all wrong. The letters now should be: nun, gimmel, hay and pay - נס גדול היה פה - "a great miracle happened here." And as much as I don't get the game, and see the connection between the dreidel and the rules, I love the fact that I need new dreidels, because now we're no longer talking about the miracle that happened שם - there, but פה - here. And I give thanks to God that I have merited the blessing of raising children with a different dreidel song than the one I grew up with. They don't need to sing the song about "there", because they're living "here."
That's reason enough to play dreidel this Chanukah.

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