Origin of DREIDEL
Yiddish dreydl, from dreyen to turn, from Middle High German drǣjen, from Old High German drāen — more at throw
First Known Use: 1916
: a 4-sided toy marked with Hebrew letters and spun like a top in a game of chance
: a children's game of chance played especially at Hanukkah with a dreidel
It's time for the annual posting and sharing of my Chanukah short story first written some years back. Tweaked and edited over the years, reading it always makes me smile - and brings back memories of Zelig. Hopefully, it will do the same for anyone reading this. Even small miracles come in different and unexpected ways. This year, the holiday of Chanukah begins on December 16 and lasts for eight days.
There was the usual sense of excitement among students attending the Chavarim Afternoon Hebrew School a couple weeks before the onset of Chanukah. Throughout the school spinning dreidels whirled around the floor surface in anticipation of the annual competition held on the first night of Chanukah. Even then practice was no guarantee of a successful outcome of deposing "the dreidel king" who was defending his title for the fourth year in a row.
If there was anyone who personified the ideal qualities in a student it was Zelig Bornstein. At ten years of age he could do no wrong. A brilliant student academically, he was also blessed with the voice of an angel and it was a given that he would sing the part of lead candle in the annual Chanukah concert. As if that wasn't enough to cause jealousy and rivalry among classmates, he always won the much anticipated annual dreidel competition.
Among the students of Mr. Meldrum's class, there was the general belief that his cobalt blue dreidel with gold lettering on the sides possessed magical properties. There could be no other explanation to account for his perpetual dominance other than a mysterious and powerful outside source was at work, unavailable to his classmates. A few brave participants had come close to deposing him but somehow Zelig always managed to win out in the end. To further undermine his competitors confidence "The Dreidel King" did nothing to dispel the air of mystery surrounding his acumen.
"It's all right here," he would boast when asked the secret of his success, pointing to his wrist and flicking his fingers one-by-one to demonstrate his unbeatable technique, "and my magical dreidel of course.”
He never divulged any background information on how it was acquired and neither would he allow anyone to touch it much less give it a spin, further adding to the mystique.
"He" doesn't like leaving my hands," he would proffer in the way of an excuse, speaking of his
top as if it was a living thing or a pet.
Externally, I professed animosity towards him as did the others, but internally I adored him from afar. However, this did not diminish my desire to win and I practiced fervently in the hope of improving my spin. I longed to emerge victorious if for no other reason than to make Zelig aware that I was alive or at least be aware of my presence. At our age, it wasn't considered socially unacceptable to acknowledge the existence of the opposite sex, and even if he did harbor some stirrings of romantic feelings, he hid them well from me.
It would be fair to say that nearly every student in Mr. Meldrum's class dreamed of wresting the title away from him. We discussed the situation amongst ourselves, plotting a course of action that could de-throne him. Dreidel tossing techniques were assessed including "spit-shots" in which the "toss-ee" would spit or lick fingers to acquire more control of the toss, disallowed by Mr. Meldrum for hygienic reasons. Finger exercises were evaluated in addition to the benefits of knuckle cracking workouts before the competition, all of which were eventually discarded as ineffectual. Deep down inside we knew that the end result was out of our hands in the true sense of the word and in those of the fates. There was always the glimmer of hope that perhaps the fates would smile on one of us. Any one of us - except Zelig.
On the day of the competition, like a conquering hero, "King" Zelig took center-stage tossing his dreidel from hand-to-hand as he walked, attempting to psyche out the participants. It was a piece of pure theatre as he produced a blue satin drawstring bag and reaching in, retrieved the cobalt blue dreidel smiling all the while. We took our places around the table, our hands clasped around the dreidels, waiting for our turn. As the reigning champion he spun first, achieving the "gimel" and winning the first round. It was the expected results. Dreidel competitors fell like dominos.
One by one Zelig knocked them out of the game until finally it was my turn. All eyes were upon me as I opened up my hand, gently allowing a cobalt blue object with gold lettering on the sides to drop on the surface of the table. There was an audible gasp from fellow students accompanied shortly thereafter by excited whipers.
"D'ya see her dreidel?" the word went out. "It's the same one as Zelig?s!"
At tournament time a large table was set up in the middle of the classroom and dreidels distributed to students. King Zelig tossed his dreidel from hand-to-hand, smiling smugly and acting self-assured. As the reigning champion Zelig spun first, achieving the letter "g" or "gimel", which meant that he won the first round. One by one we took turns and I landed on "hay", acquiring half of the pot composed of chocolate coins and other goodies, which pleased me no end. For the next few turns the dreaded "shin" turned up denoting a loss, accompanied by groans of disappointment from fellow students. Like many of the stories we were told focusing on unsurpassable victories over adversity, things turned in my favor. The king was dethroned and long live the new champion. Me.
Jubilant cheers broke out among fellow students as they savored the moment for which they had all waited. My adversary, meanwhile, appeared stunned and in shock. Consumed with laughter and staring triumphantly into his eyes, I couldn't help but notice his were brimming with tears. It was bad enough being dethroned but having it done by a girl, was more than his young ego could handle in one day.
I could have chosen to ignore him and savor the moment of victory, since it was a long time coming and it probably wouldn't happen again. Instead, upon realizing that he had been humiliated in front of his male friends, a showdown was suggested to determine the final victor. Needless to say, he amazingly emerged victorious.
He never did acknowledge my presence or reach out to thank me for my selfless gesture, in all the years of our attending Hebrew school together. He did allow me to spin first in a subsequent re-match the following year, presumably as a good will gesture on his part. In my mind I would always be queen to his king, be it only for one occasion and that was better than nothing. C'est la vie. Sometimes you win and sometimes you gotta lose.