In my childhood home, family game night wasn’t part of our culture. I played games with my friends—Old Maid, Risk, Monopoly, and endless rounds of jacks, which I inevitably lost due to my miserable clumsiness—but game-playing with my parents? That was for Leave It to Beaver Americans, not us.
My parents were too foreign. Both had moved to New York as adults after surviving WWII in Europe—my father in a Hungarian labor camp and my mother in Auschwitz. Rebuilding their lives was an all-encompassing task leaving no time for games. There was one exception, though: On one of the nights of Hanukkah, we gathered round the brown Formica dinette table to play dreidel.
It would have been nice to say that we used an ancient top spun by generations of ancestors, but we didn’t; Holocaust survivors rarely owned heirlooms. Instead, we used a plastic dreidel fished out of a box from Barton’s Bonbonniere. (Back in the 1950s and ’60s, the kosher chocolatier added Jewish paraphernalia to its packaging as an attempt to bolster flagging Jewish pride.) The only other equipment we had was a large glass jar filled with coins. Others may have played for chocolate gelt or raisins, but in my family we played for real money.
On this night my quiet and unassuming father was king. Curling his agile jeweler’s fingers round the dreidel’s skinny stem, he transformed the stubby top into a glorious cloud of color that pirouetted around our table. It was a breathtaking sight and not one I could ever replicate. When my turn came, the top stumbled then fell ingloriously like a drunk on New Year’s Eve—but that didn’t matter. Dreidel is a game of chance. Skill doesn’t count at all. What really mattered was the togetherness. We did spend time together on other nights, but never like this. During our Shabbos dinners, language divided us, the adults lapsing into Hungarian—a language my brother and I barely understood. Sometimes we watched TV as a family, Ed Sullivan or the Olympics, but we were silent spectators each in his or her own world. Our dreidel games pierced that barrier, fusing us into a single unit, our eyes collectively fixated on the spinning top.
To me—a nerdy bookworm of a kid—the spinning top was exciting, and I loved the chance to win real money. My parents didn’t give us regular allowances, but dreidel winnings were mine to blow on bubble gum, jaw breakers, and Drake’s Cakes. No wonder I loved those games.
When I became a mother, I tried to recreate this excitement and bonding with my own children, but my kids didn’t enjoy dreidel. They didn’t need the money, for one thing; in reaction to my parents, I was far too generous with them throughout the year. Plus, their senses had been dulled by Super Mario; for them, the old-fashioned top proved to be agonizingly slow. In 2014, journalist Ben Blatt analyzed the dreidel in a piece for Slate. Blatt concluded that a round of dreidel played with four players and 10 pieces of gelt could drag on for a whopping hour and 54 minutes. “Perhaps if you were waiting out a siege by the Seleucid Empire this would be ideal, but two hours is excessive if you’re just trying to kill 30 minutes before the latkes are ready,” he quipped. For my kids this was a nonstarter. I was disappointed. I wanted my kids to share this experience, but it didn’t work. Why?
Did my parents just have more patience?
When he already was well into his 80s my uncle Zoli, my father’s youngest and only surviving brother, explained the secret behind the dreidel’s hold on my parents. Back in the old country—in our case Romania—dreidels were made at home, not with clay (I don’t know where that song lyric came from) but with lead. “We had great fun melting the lead and pouring it into wooden molds. It was the highlight of the holiday,” my uncle recalled, his hazel eyes still twinkling. This practice of children playing with a toxic metal is immortalized in a lyric from the Hebrew song “Lichvod Hahanukkah,” which describes a child receiving a “svivon me’oferet yetzuka,” a cast lead dreidel, from his teacher. In winter 2009, the IDF borrowed this lyric as the name for the three-week long Gaza war.
Lead dreidels are thing of the past, but in the prewar world, lead was everywhere. I’ve been doing research for the past year on Yizkor books—the memorial volumes penned by survivors to recreate life in their prewar hometowns, later translated and republished by JewishGen—and it turns out they’re full of quirky recollections about Hanukkah. The unnamed author of the Yizkor book from Tarnograd, Poland, for instance, describes small boys removing lead from sugar sacks to melt down into dreidels. A similar scene appears in Norman Salsitz’s memoir A Jewish Boyhood in Poland, in which he describes how he extracted the lead chips from his friends’ jackets: Back then lead was routinely sewn into the linings of outerwear to make garments hang more gracefully. His friends cooperated happily until their horrified parents put an end to the destruction of the clothing. After that, Salsitz tried his luck with toothpaste tubes, also made of lead, but these were scarce; not many of the residents of his small Polish town used toothpaste. (This doesn’t imply an absence of dental hygiene; one can clean one’s teeth effectively with a baking powder paste.) Finally, he turned to leaden seltzer-bottle siphons, which he melted on the stove to fashion hundreds of dreidels that he sold to teachers until his mother, disturbed by the stink, forced him out of business.
Smell and toxicity weren’t the only problems. “Bashed fingers and burnt hands were a willing sacrifice, if only a masterful toy,” recalls the author of the Yizkor book from Ciehanowiec, Poland. “A dreidel came out with beautiful, relief—like letters of the initials of nes gadol hayah sham (“A great miracle happened there”).”
There were voices calling out for safety—at least in some places. The Yizkor book from Kaluszyn, Poland, describes wooden dreidels fashioned from cotton bobbins, undoubtedly safer but also less exciting than lead, with its air of danger.
In recent years there have been attempts to restore the thrill to the dreidel game by recasting it as a competition over the length of the spin. Latter-day dreidel revivalists have invented a Mogen David-shaped contraption called a spinagogue, where the tops can spin without falling off the edge of the table.
My father would have done well in these games but I can’t imagine that he would have connected to a dreidel game that deemphasizes the letters, because the letters are the point. They not only reveal the rules of the game (gimel for ganz, which means take all; hey for halb, half the pot; nun is nisht, or nothing; and shin shtell ein—a capital call requiring a relinquishment of a coin). They give the game of dreidel its ultimate meaning.
The 18th-century Hasidic scholar Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech Shapiro, known as the Bnai Yissaschar, read the four letters on the dreidel as abbreviations for the four empires that fought the Jewish people: nun for Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian destroyer of the First Temple; gimel for Gog or Greece, the villains of the Hanukkah story; hey for Haman of the Purim story; and shin for Seir, or ancient Rome, the source of the exile that traditional Jews believe continues into the present. Together they form the phrase nes hadol hayah sham, a proclamation of the wonder of Jewish survival.
I don’t think that my parents were familiar with the Bnai Yissaschar’s interpretation, but I’m certain that they intuited its meaning. By gathering us together on those long-ago Hanukkah nights, they weren’t just playing a childhood game. They were celebrating the miracle of their own lives.
Carol Ungar is the author of Jewish Soul Food: Traditional Fare and What It Means, and a prize-winning writer who blogs about traditional Jewish food at Kosher Home Cooking.