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The Unbearable Dumbness of Dreidel

How does this game possibly make any sense?

Marc Tracy
December 01, 2010
The Spinagogue. Two dreidels enter; one dreidel leaves. Or something.(Modern Tribe)
The Spinagogue. Two dreidels enter; one dreidel leaves. Or something.(Modern Tribe)

Hanukkah starts tonight, and Major League Dreidel is offering something called a Spinagogue, which is sort of a stadium for dreidel-spinning. The Spinagogue encourages you to aim to make your dreidel move impressively or in specific directions, or simply to make it spin for a really long time. Setting aside the obviously-made-by-and-for-people-who-are-high video (after the jump), there is actually something ingenious about it, in that it divorces the dreidel itself—the ceremonial Hanukkah spinning top—from the game that is basically synonymous with it. (Yeshiva U. also did this, yesterday setting a new Guinness World Record by simultaneously spinning 618 dreidels.)

Because—and here’s my point—has anyone actually ever successfully played the game? You know the rules. You put your gelt in the center and take turns spinning. Get a gimel, you get the pot. Get a nun, nothing happens. get a hei, you get half the pot. Get a shin, you put back in the pot (depending on various rules I’ve played) one of your gelts, half your gelt, or all your gelt.

See the problem? The game is over basically right after it’s begun! At best, it turns into some weird and boring stalemate-cum-lesson on fractions, in which you learn that if you keep halving a pile you will never get to zero. Moreover, the game requires none of those characteristics—wit, ingenuity, or even brute strength—that the Maccabes used to vanquish those evil Syrian bastards two thousand-plus years ago.

Oh, and raise your hand if you’ve ever actually made your dreidel out of clay? I thought so.

I’m going to let Howard Jacobson, writing in today’s Times, have the last word:

How many years did I feign excitement when this nothing of a toy was produced? The dreidel would appear and the whole family would fall into some horrible imitation of shtetl simplicity, spinning the dreidel and pretending to care which character was uppermost when it landed. Who did we think we were—the Polish equivalent of the Flintstones?

BUT STILL: Happy almost-Hanukkah!

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.