Dreidel

The other day in the office, a colleague and I were discussing chopped liver. Chopped liver sounds somewhat appealing to me… fried with onions at least. This wasn’t the chopped liver she was talking about, though. She was talking about Jewish chopped liver and I was insisting what she really was talking about was pâté.

Back when we used to host big holiday parties in our old Court Street house in Keene, pâté was often served with crackers or little slices of toasted baguette. Cooked chicken livers, along with onion, a spritz of cognac and a few other things are tossed in a food processor to create a tasty, savory spread.

It reminds me of the plastic tubes of liverwurst my Dad used to enjoy for lunch. Not for everyone, but I say, “tasty!” Anyway, minus the cognac, this is what my friend Lori insists is chopped liver, prompting a lively debate I could tell I wasn’t going to win.

She wound up making an example of her chopped liver and sharing a little tub of it with me just before Thanksgiving. Yup, it sure tasted just like pâté and I loved it. I shared it at Thanksgiving dinner with my Dad. We were the only two who ventured forth to enjoy it.

I get it. Liver is not for everyone. I shy away from the goose liver variety (called foie gras, of French origin) because of the historically horrific treatment of the geese just before slaughter.

The office banter between me and my friend is frequent and just as frequent is my breaking out into song with the merest instigation. With the holidays upon us, I broke out with The Dreidel Song. Since I only know the first few words, “Oh, dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, I made it out of clay,” I tend to sing that portion over and over again until grumbles start surfacing from co-workers. It doesn’t stop me, though.

Once that earworm is in my head, I must follow it ‘til its denouement ― or until threatened bodily harm from the suffering ears around me. Since Hanukkah begins in just a couple days and the song was still fresh in my mind (along with the Jewish chopped liver discussion), I thought I’d find out what the story was behind that little Jewish spinning toy top called a dreidel.

Well, talk about a rabbit hole to fall into! I typed in “history of the dreidel” in a Google search and a sea of articles came up. I perused a few and decided to reference one I found detailed, yet the author had kind of drilled down the centuries-long history of the dreidel and I’ll further condense it. It’s the holiday season after all and we’ve got things to do!

The article, “Gyration Nation: The Weird Ancient History of the Dreidel” by Anat Rosenberg, can be found at haaretz.com. I had always believed the dreidel was unique to Jewish culture and distinctively associated with Hanukkah.

I remember thinking as a child that Jewish kids got kind of ripped off. Hanukkah lasted a lot longer than Christmas, but the toys seemed so boring and basic compared to a new bike or the early electronic toys I expected to receive. A spinning top? Yawn.

Well, it turns out the dreidel, certainly centuries old, is however not of Jewish origins. It appears that even Babylonians played with a wooden block with painted symbols that represented winning or losing and was connected to gambling. Some form of gambling has seemingly been around since intelligent life first dawned.

The spinning top variety of gambling device is probably of English language origin. The English version was called a teetotum, which dated back to ancient Greek and Roman times. This is where the tenuous connection to Hanukkah begins.

When Greeks outlawed the study of the Torah, Jews would outsmart them by playing with a spinning top, a popular gambling device ― seemingly just gambling, but actually orally learning the Torah. This story has many doubters and the Jewish connection to the dreidel is probably hundreds of years in the future from ancient Greece.

The more agreed-upon history is that from ancient Greece, the teetotum was introduced to England by soldiers or settlers, which would explain why some of the letters on early English tops were Latin. “A for aufer (take from the pot); D for depone (put into the pot); N for nihil (nothing); and T for totum (take all). By the 16th century, the game of teetotum had become increasingly popular in England and Ireland, and by 1801, the letters adorning the sides of the top were altered to serve as a mnemonic for rules of the game: T stood for “take all,” H stood for “half,” P stood for “put down” and N stood for “nothing.”

The game was particularly popular around Christmastime and whirled its way to other parts of Europe. Then on to Germany where it is thought that Jewish children first caught wind of the game and the rest is history. The symbols adorning the dreidel have changed a number of times, mostly still representing turns in a game of chance, but in Jewish culture, various Hanukkah-related themes emerged.

From “a great miracle” to the celebration of the Maccabees’ victory over the Seleucid (Syrian-Greek army) in 165 BCE, to a numerical calculation of the symbols represented that equal 358, the same numerical equivalent of the Messiah. There are many, many other symbols with seemingly civilization-shaping significance that have adorned the simple dreidel and recently there’s been a popular resurrection of the competitive nature of the dreidel.

There’s “major league dreidel” in trendier bars in New York City where the actual length of time the top spins on different surfaces is the attraction. There are competitions to create a dreidel game where the dreidel is the primary selection device, like dice or cards.

Wow! Who knew the dreidel had such a storied past? That’s no chopped liver!