Fifth Night of Hanukkah

A Different Spin on a Hanukkah Classic
by Anna Rubin, Interfaith Worker Justice National Field Organizer 

For several centuries the game of dreidel has been played in Jewish households the world over as part of the Hanukkah festivities. The rules of the game (which probably began as a Roman gambling game and entered its current form of dreidel in Germany many years later) are simple: each of the four letters on the dreidel, a four-sided top, corresponds to a different action. Everyone sits around a table with their own little pile of gelt (Yiddish for money), often in the form of chocolate coins. One at a time you spin your top. When the top stops spinning, you will either get nothing from the pot in the middle (corresponding to the letter nun), you’ll get half (the letter hey), you’ll get it all (the letter gimmel), or you’ll have to put some of your own money into the pot (the letter shin).

As you probably could guess, the goal of dreidel is to get all of the gelt on the table. The game is over when someone has taken everyone else’s money. Simple.

Now, I know, dreidel isn’t “The Landlord’s Game.” (That is the original version of Monopoly that was actually designed to show people that capitalism is bad. Monopoly has a great history. Totally look it up.) It was never intended to teach a lesson. It’s a gambling game. At some point people made a tenuous connection that perhaps Jews would play dreidel to cover up their study of Torah during the period of Syrian rule. At its best, it’s a dissimulative tactic. It’s not meant as a teaching moment.

Yet here it is, a game that we play year after year, with children and adults of all ages. It’s one of the focal points and most beloved elements of the holiday. So bear with me.

As I said, dreidel ends when one person has all of the money. But the game ticks along smoothly as long as everyone is able to contribute to the pot in the middle, as well as receive some payout from the pot in the middle. Typically, landing on shin elicits groans from the spinner as she reluctantly puts an extra piece of gelt in the pot at the end of her turn.  But in reality, it is just these small additional payouts, as well as the regular antes everyone puts in before each spin, that keeps the dreidel economy going. And as soon as all of the wealth is concentrated in the hands of one person, the game is over. There is nothing left for anyone else to take or give.

Perhaps this year I will celebrate landing on shin. I will celebrate that I am able to land on shin and contribute something to the pot that may end up in someone else’s stash ultimately, but I will know that my contribution allowed the game to continue a little longer.

Yes, the metaphor is tenuous. I admit it. These thoughts began to form while reading Rev. Troy Jackson’s piece from earlier this week about the beauty and difficulty of practicing generosity during the holiday season. There is, of course, also the uglier side of the modern landscape of this practice: a side where often, while buying items for those we love, we end up supporting institutions large (ex: capitalism) and slightly smaller (ex: Walmart) that perhaps do not uphold the faith- or family-based values that we hold right alongside these values of generosity and love. I am not saying that dreidel is a bastion of capitalism that must be stopped. But perhaps we can use dreidel as a way to speak about the way we give and take money and resources from one another. I have a friend whose family uses the gelt from their games of dreidel to vote on where a collective pot of money will be donated at the end of the night.  The game ends before one person has all of the gelt, but whoever has the most gelt at that point has the most influence over where the money will be given - a clever and beautiful inversion of your average gambling game.

However or whatever you celebrate this time of year, take a moment to think about giving a little gelt where you can. And as always, be thoughtful about the ways, large and small, you can support those institutions that uphold your values and the ways that you may inadvertently be supporting those that don’t. Happy Hanukkah!