Dreidels have a special place in the iconography of Hanukkah. The little spinning top with the four Hebrew characters celebrates the miracle that took place in Israel, and stands (or wobbles) as an unmistakably Jewish symbol of the Festival of Lights.
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Or perhaps not.
“All the Jewish people think that it is ours,” ceramicist Eran Grebler says about dreidels, chuckling. “But no one seems to know the real history.”
Grebler, who has been making bespoke dreidels for more than 30 years, has produced hand-crafted spinning creations for collections around the world. His studio-cum-gallery, the Draydel House (Grebler prefers the phonetically accurate spelling) is a popular feature on the tourist track in the ancient port of Caesarea.
Dreidels as the dice of early time?
Dreidels have been popular through the ages, Grebler says, with the earliest examples found on the Italian island of Sardinia and dating back to the early Roman period. These were no childrens' playthings, however. From their earliest incarnation, the spinning top was used for gambling, in games of chance. Each side was inscribed with a letter, and success depended upon the uppermost face revealed when it came to rest: P to place one’s bet, N for nil or nothing, M for half and T for tutte, meaning “all,” in the Latin of the era.
Jewish mythology suggests that the modest toy was used as camouflage by Torah scholars during the Maccabean revolt in the 2nd century BCE, the idea being that the young men gathered together were gambling rather than studying Torah. Provable or not – and, in truth, it's probably not – Grebler suggests that the true connection with the Hanukkah season is more prosaic and contemporary.
It is known that dreidels were particularly popular in the Germany of the Middle Ages, Grebler says, and the original Latin translated into the German initials N-G-H-S. It was at this point, he says, that the toy first inveigled its way into Jewish communal life, as Nicht, Gans, Halb, Shtel – via the similar Yiddish equivalents – became Nes Gadol Haya Sham. And thus the tradition of the Hanukkah dreidel was born.
So how come no one seems to know about this version of history? Grebler shrugs. “It is all there if you know where to look.”
A nursery filled with art
Grebler feels there was plenty of luck paving the path to his life with the dreidel.
His father, an amateur sculptor, was friends with Israeli artists, meaning that the young Grebler was surrounded by creativity from an early age. After completing his compulsory army service, Grebler started a career as a ceramicist, first specializing in the breadth of Judaica but finding himself increasingly drawn to that one sweet spinning toy.
“The dreidels were very popular in America, where I sold most of my line of Judaica items at the time, so I drifted along this line,” he explains.
The sheer variety of dreidels in Grebler's portfolio – 300 individual designs in his studio alone – sets him apart. Grebler says he takes design inspiration from the world around him, with the crucial factor being something that suggests fluidity and motion.
The most striking of his creations are the ones cast in the spirit of the dreidel’s original purpose, incorporating elements of chance into everyday life. There’s a blessing dreidel, a dreidel for sorting out household chores, a dreidel instructing men on the compliments to pay to their better halves, even a dreidel outlining...um...excuses for married women. They’re cute and fun, but somewhat removed from the conventional positioning of the dreidel in Jewish life. So aren’t traditionalists put out by Grebler’s rather irreverent take? “Never,” Grebler replies. “The ultra-Orthodox say that this is not the idea ... but they are not the majority. The Jews with yarmulkes on their head? They love them and buy them.”
The attraction might lie in the playfulness with which Grebler presents his work. He points out that he doesn't exactly classify his work as Judaica. “When I make a menorah, I need to know the rules that govern it because it has to be kosher,” he says. “With dreidels, there are no rules. I can do whatever I like.”
One of Grebler's more unusual commissions came from a marriage counselor based in Germany. The counselor asked that each dreidel be made with a number of opening verbal gambits, used by his clients as a communication aid by facilitating conversation. “It was a great idea, shaping contact, building dialogue between couples that don’t talk,” Grebler says.
There’s an undeniably irresistible appeal to the dreidels, the instinct being to reach out and twirl. We see them and are all thrust into a playful state. “Many important people have come here and played with the dreidels, and when they come here they are like anyone else,” Grebler says. When asked whom, specifically, he gropes for the name. “Ah...the minister ... You know, the minister of Foreign Affairs.”
“Yes, Lieberman. You know that that he is very tough. People can be tough, but when they come here you know that they will end up laughing.”
Oddly, the notion of the minister of Foreign Affairs spinning a dreidel on his desk as he makes the nation's heady decisions has a strange appeal. It’s sometimes hard not to surmise that politics is governed by randomness and chance: At the least, it’ll be nice to know that these choices were made with a smile.