Jewish Journal


November 17, 2011

Old game, new spins


When it comes to Chanukah, playing the dreidel game is as ubiquitous as lighting the candles on a chanukiyah and eating latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly-filled doughnuts).

The dreidel, a four-sided spinning top, can be made of almost any material, including wood, plastic, paper, clay, silver or porcelain. And Judaica artists work in a variety of media — sterling silver, ceramic, glass, enamel — to create collectible dreidels that are meant to be displayed, rather than played.

"The hottest trends now are in the ultra-modern segment of dreidels," said David Cooperman, owner of Shalom House in Woodland Hills, referring to dreidels made from materials like laser-cut aluminum.

The word dreidel is Yiddish, and comes from the German word drehen (turn). Every dreidel has a Hebrew letter on each side: nun, gimmel, hay and shin. These letters represent the phrase nes gadol hayah sham, which means "a great miracle happened there." In Israel, dreidels (called sevivon in Hebrew) have a pey in place of the shin. The pey stands for po, or "here," as in: "a great miracle happened here." Both phrases refer to the miracle of Chanukah — when a small quantity of oil found by the Maccabees lasted for eight days, long enough to rededicate the ransacked temple.

There are many stories that attempt to explain the origins of the dreidel and its connection to Chanukah. The most accepted story dates back more than 2,300 years ago, from the time of the Maccabees, when King Antiochus had forbidden Jewish customs and religious practices. According to legend, Jews would gather in small, clandestine groups to study Torah, but they would also bring along wooden spinning tops — a popular form of gambling at the time. When the Jews saw soldiers approaching, they would hide their texts and pretend to gamble with their dreidels.

If you are like most Jewish adults, you have dreidels lying about the house, but you often forget the rules of the game when Chanukah rolls around.

The dreidel game, in its most basic form, is a simple betting game. Each player gets an equal amount of "money," which can be anything from buttons to nuts to pennies to chocolate gelt, and contributes to the pot at the beginning of a round. The players each get a turn to spin the dreidel once during the round.

Based on how the dreidel lands, the player whose turn it is will:
nun: do nothing; gimmel: get the entire pot; hey: take half the pot; shin: put in one piece.

If the pot is emptied during a round, each player should contribute one piece. Once a player runs out of money, he is out of the game. The game ends when one player has all the money.

In recent years, people have come up with new spins on the dreidel game.

Two strategy games by Long Beach-based game designer Dan Siskin are "Maccabees" and "Operation: Maccabees" (flasterventure.com). Instead of dice, the games use dreidels.

In "Maccabees," players use action cards and colored dreidels to acquire enough oil — while avoiding remnants of the Seleucid army — to light the chanukiyah. In "Operation: Maccabee," players spin the dreidel to lead an elite squad of commandos from four Allied countries — the United States, United Kingdom, Russia and France — to defeat the Nazis and liberate the Jews in 1944.

"No Limit Texas Dreidel" takes the best of dreidel and combines the game with Texas Hold'em poker. Jennie Rivlin Roberts of ModernTribe.com created the game with her husband because they were bored playing the traditional dreidel game at their annual Chanukah party.

"We were coming back from visiting my husband's grandfather, and we were in the car for a long ride. We just started talking about it and we came up with this game," Roberts said.

The objective of the game is for each player to create the best dreidel "hand" by combining spins. You combine dreidel "spins" in your shaker, which only you can see, with other Community Spins, which can be seen by all players. Players bet in rounds using poker rules.

"Staccabees" (staccabees.com), by Dan Singer and Bruce Kothmann, is a game of strategy and chance. Instead of money, two to six players get colored cubes. Players take turns spinning the dreidel and, based on the results, place colored cubes on a "stac." If a player knocks over a "stac" with the dreidel, they must take the cubes that fell. The first player to either complete a "stac" or end up with no cubes wins.

In "Major League Dreidel" (majorleaguedreidel.com), a game by Eric Pavony of Brooklyn, N.Y., players compete for the longest spin in a stadium called a "Spinagogue." And each year, around Chanukah, Pavony holds "Major League Dreidel" tournaments in clubs around New York City with the tag line, "No Gelt, No Glory."

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