Apparently I collect dreidles. I never meant to. One year before Hanukkah I received a little porcelain dreidle as a thank you gift. Things took off from there. Through the years, I have been given dreidles from all over the world. Today I own a large and varied collection. Though dreidles aren’t something I sought to collect, as I think about Hanukkah I appreciate their symbolism.
The dreidle originally had nothing to do with Hanukkah. It evolved from a popular spinning top with which children played in late medieval Europe. We inherit the version of the game we play from our Eastern European ancestors. They translated the word for top, “trundle,” into Yiddish calling it a dreidle.
While Hanukkah celebrates an ancient victory over cultural assimilation, the dreidle is an innocent, fun example of taking something from another culture and making it our own.
The Jewish challenge of our days is written on every dreidle: Nun – Nothing, Gimmel – All, Hei – Half, Shin – Put In. As the world spins us all around, how much do we take for ourselves from the larger society in which we live? How much of ourselves do we give back to society and to others? As we turn and turn through the routines and opportunities of our busy days, do we understand practicing Judaism as an all or nothing proposition?
Hanukkah’s meaning lies in how we talk about and answer these questions. Like a spinning dreidle before falling over, Hanukkah encourages each of us to find our balance.
The challenge for the Jews of antiquity was to establish a working relationship with Hellenistic culture, to preserve Jewish religious identity while simultaneously partaking of the riches of the larger world. Substituting Western culture for Hellenistic, we seek the same thing. On Hanukkah we celebrate our Jewish identities and religious values at a time when different religious images and themes are so important to many of our neighbors and friends.
My collection includes dreidles from all over the world. Their shapes, colors, and designs remind me. Hanukkah is a holiday during which we display our pride in being Jewish to the world as we reflect on the religious choices and cultural values we hold dear. Happy Hanukkah!