Plastic Takes Its Turn

A visit to the Vilplast factory, where they make dreidels the old-fashioned way

During the Hebrew month of Tishri, when most Israelis were busy eating apples and honey, fasting and building a sukkah, the Vilplast plastics factory began to prepare for Hanukkah. To meet its quota of 150,000 dreidels, the factory had to get into the Festival of Lights mode by Rosh Hashanah.

Dreidels Moshe Shai
Moshe Shai

Vilplast, which is owned by the Vilhelm family, who immigrated here from Poland, has been manufacturing plastic dreidels for the past 65 years. This week five models were placed on the desk of Yeshayahu Goffin, the young plant manager, who married into the family: a large top, which has room for candies and surprises inside; a small, fast-spinning variety; and others of different sizes and colors.

"Before the country started importing products from China," says Goffin, "we were one of the best-known factories in Israel in the field of plastic toys. Dreidels were among the first things we manufactured." Today, however, it's impossible for Vilplast to survive on tops alone, and therefore the factory usually concentrates on making charity boxes, a product in particular demand in the Haredi sector. In addition, they also make hanukkiyot (Hanukkah menorahs ) from plastic, intended for use as children's toys, and noisemakers for Purim.

In spite of the ultra-Orthodox nature of the factory and its location in Jerusalem's Romema neighborhood, its dreidels also find their way into secular homes in Israel and the world over. "It's not a holy thing," stresses Goffin, "it's a toy with a tradition that's thousands of years old. I assume that anyone who thinks it's important hands this tradition down to his children, in exactly the same way that people eat jelly doughnuts on the holiday," adds Goffin.

In recent days the market has been flooded with a new metal spinning top, Beyblade, based on an animated Japanese TV children's series, whose heroes wage battles with spinning tops. But the steep price - about NIS 100 each - is not making many parents of young children happy, especially since they assume the trendy top will quickly become outdated. In comparison, a tour in the Vilplast factory, on the other hand, arouses longing for the old-fashioned variety.

The factory takes pride in the fact that it was among the first in the world to manufacture simple dreidels from plastic, 60 years ago. Today, China is unquestionably the dominant force in this market.

Goffin: "Hundreds of types of tops with all kinds of special effects come from there. They spin nicely and have lights and sounds - but it's not the real, original thing."

A real dreidel, he emphasizes, has to fall on one side, and when it does so, will reveal the letter that comes up by chance: nun, gimmel, heh, and peh or shin, which stand for the Hebrew words meaning, "A great miracle took place here/there" - depending on where the dreidel is being spun, in Israel or the Diaspora.

Not many people know this, but even in the Holy Land there is a demand for the dreidels usually used abroad, bearing the letter shin, signifying sham - there.

"Some people claim that according to the kabbala, it's better to use a shin," Goffin explains, adding, "Actually most Jews were not in Israel until 60 years ago. Maybe some are still used to playing with shin."

Whatever the case, he says, there is a demand for both, and sometimes, when there aren't enough dreidels with shin, they export the ones with peh (meant for local use ), "because the objective, in the final analysis, is to create the atmosphere of the Land of Israel everywhere."