Wednesday, December 21, 2005

A shande far di goyim?

Today was Beernut's "Holiday" party. The parents were asked to contribute candy or small toys that would be used to fill the children's Christmas stockings. In a flash of brilliance, I decided that this might be a great opportunity to expose the other students to a little cultural diversity and chose to send in dreidels as our family's contribution. I even included directions so that the kids could actually play with the compelling tops.

I thought about sending in gelt. After all, most of us use those delicious foil-enclosed chocolate coins in our dreidel game. Though come to think of it, I seem to recall hazel nuts and pennies being involved...and vodka too at some point. But I digress...

Anyhow, on the way to my favourite local Judaica store, I had a sobering thought: "What would the goyim think?" Hundreds of years of the Jew as a moneyloving, cheap banker. Would I be perpetuating this stereotype with the innocent act of including a mesh bag of gelt in the Christmas stockings of my son's classmates?

Let's take a look at the history of the dreidel:

The party-line that most of us learned in Sunday school is that the origins of the dreidel date back to the Chanukah story itself. Antiochus IV, the self-proclaimed divine ruler of the Greek-Syrians, prohibited the Jews from studying Torah. According to legend, the Jews needed a way to hide their Torah learning and so they used the dreidel as a decoy. When they saw the Greek-Syrians coming, the Jews would hide their books, take out their dreidels, and trick the Syrians into thinking they were just playing a game.

A perfect way to link the holiday's history to its modern celebration, but probably not the actual genesis of this tradition. Like so many of our rituals, the dreidel game is more likely a reappropriation of a non-Jewish (or non-Israelite) practice.

A gambling game with a spinning top has been played for centuries by various people in various languages. In England and Ireland, the game of totum or teetotum, first mentioned in approximately 1500, was especially popular at Christmastime. The Germans also liked to play a gambling game with a spinning top.

It is believed that the Jewish game of dreidel is a Judaicized version of the German gambling game. The Yiddish word dreidel derived from the German word drehen, which means "to spin." (Bet you didn't know that!!!) The Hebrew word for dreidel is s'vivon. S'vivon comes from the word sovev which means "to turn."

The letters on the faces of the gambling toy, which were mnemonic for the rules of the game, varied in each nation. The letters on the English spinning top were: T for Take, H for Half, P for Put, N for None. In the German game, the letters were: N for Nichts (nothing), G for Ganz (all), H for Halb (half), S for Stell (put). The German words would have been the same in Yiddish and so the Hebrew letters on the dreidel correspond to the Yiddish: Nun for Nichts (nothing), Gimel for Ganz (all), Hay for Halb (half), Shin for Stell (put).

In an effort to link the game to the celebration of Hanukkah, the Hebrew letters nun, gimel, hay and shin were said to stand for the phrase Nes Gadol Haya Sham, which means "a great miracle happened there."
In Israel, the letter shin on the dreidel is replaced with the letter pay. Thus, the letters nun, gimel, hay and pay would stand for the phrase Nes Gadol Haya Po, which means "a great miracle happened here."

In other words, this game is about money! Or at the very least, it is about gambling. And we didn't even invent it. And some people are going to think that we are money-grubbing, cheap bankers whether or not I include the chocolate coins in the stocking.

End result: I opted not to include the chocolate. Figured the parents might be worried about the amount of junk their kids are going to be eating this week.

Oy, it's a crazy world!


PepGiraffe said...

You have ruined the dreidel game for me. At least non-sensible part that says the letters stand for A Great Miracle Happened There" and simultaneously stands for how much to put in or take.

You are correct about the hazelnuts which, as far as I know, where only ever used for decoration so it could have actually been the exact same nuts year after year.

I always think What would the goyim think? It's the corrolary of Is it good for the Jews? Still, I resent it.

Rivster said...

It is true what they say -- ignorance really is bliss!!