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The Curious History and Messages of the “Draydel” or Sevivon
The “draidell” as it has been called for centuries in Yiddish is the spinning top with the letters standing for Nes Gadol Haya Sham (a great miracle happened there—נגהש It’s origin is somewhat clouded in mystery. The story goes that in the decade of Antiochus Epiphanes as he began to persecute the Judaens and try to stifle their spiritual legacy he decreed that Jews may not study their Torah nor observe the Sabbath. Certainly there have been archaeological finds in the Middle East and Egypt of spinning toys that were used–no doubt in gambling games. The Greeks and Romans also had such spinning tops for games of chance. Spinning tops were used to cover up such oral learning (Torah She be al Peh) in the impromptu schools that were assembled to pass on Torah learning. The dreidel was whipped out on such occasions and it allowed the generation to remain connected to Torah learning, which was covered up whenever the Roman Soldiers would appear. By no means, however, were these particular letters carved into these spinning tops, as there had yet to be a Chanukah miracle.
It is possible that in the course of time, Roman soldiers introduced this game into Europe and by the 1600s, the game was played widely by children all over Europe. The British had a game called TTotum which utilized four sided tops with latin letters standing for take, give, take one and nothing. Germany had its version, also with letters that stood for gib give, nimmt, take, halb half and nicht nothing. This game was played at holiday time and Jews in Germany adapted it to be played at Chanukah, substituting the words that described the Chanukah miracle with “a great miracle happened here.” This game, of course, followed us to America and to Israel as well.
The word “sevivon” didn’t come immediately in Hebrew. Its first mention was by a zionist author named Yeshiahu Silberbush in the early part of the 20th century, who took credit for it. Before that, Chayim Nachman Bialik called it a KarKar and Mendel Mocher Sefarim claimed it was a Hazarzar. However, the son of Eliezer ben Yehuda, Itamar, who was one of the first to speak modern Hebrew as his ‘mother tongue,’ claimed he invented the word in 1897 at the age of five. Yet another innovation came with the incipient state of Israel. Nes Gadol Haya Po (A great miracle happed “here” (shin was replace with at peh), was introduced in the 1920s and took hold over time, especially after the declaration of the modern Jewish State of Israel. Sevivon, as the term for the dreidel, was cemented in the vernacular of modern Hebrew with the introduction of Sevivon sov sov sov in 1923.
The spiritual understanding of the dreidel was developed over time in the Chasidic movement. The great sage Tzvi Elimelech Shapira (1783-1841) contended that mystically, nun stood for nefesh (soul), gimmel for guf (body), shin for sechel (intellect) and heh for hakol (all aspects of life together), and that the letters also remind us of empires that we withstood: nun for Nebuchadnezzer (‘Babylon), heh for Haman (Persia), gimmel for Gog (Greece), and shin for Seir or Rome. Each of these empires threatened us by our loss of the Holy Temple (soul), eradication (body), assimilation of thought and philosophy (intellect). By the time of Roman Empire “all of these aspects” were under assault. It would take not only miracles from above to help us, but our own work on the ground to fight for and resist these influences. But Chanukah was about our collective will to remain rooted in our history and identity. Each of us, goes the Chanukah song Banu choshech, is a little light, but together we are a brilliant raging fire of light.
The letters nun, gimmel, heh ve Shin, equal, in numerical value, 358. That is the value of the word “Messiah” and that is the value of the word “Nachash” or snake. We, interlocked with one another, standing as one can, unleash the forces of Messiah, or we can, God forfend, allow the forces of Nachash. May we remember the that centripetal momentum of the dreidel is determined by the forces below the wide body on the ground, not the little handle above. Chanukah’s miracle, we sometimes offer, is that a little cruz of oil lasted beyond expectation. The biggest miracle is that Jewish people last beyond expectation. May we always stir and animate miracle from above. We are the Maccabees; we are the light. May the little dreidel’s deeper message always stir us.
Chag Urim Sameah!
Last night I sat with my seven year old, consoling her and wiping away her tears. Not an uncommon sight for a child who has a lot of “feelings.” And believe me, 2020 has given us all plenty of opportunity for tears. Between a global pandemic and its related economic downturn, it’s been a tough year. With continued racial injustice exploding into our consciousness again and refusing to be dimmed into the background noise of the chaos of life, we must confront pain. And pain again, as our political system was rocked by an impeachment and a fractious election that still echoes in the minds of many who refuse to accept its results. We have become socially distanced to help slow the spread of COVID-19, but as our alternate realities and facts show, we have become separated from each other by much more than six feet… There were the inevitable celebrity deaths, as well as those closer to our community, whether by the pandemic, or some other cruel twist. There was isolation, depression, and for weeks our synagogue building was completely closed. Yes, 2020 was not the best year—and that’s not even counting the Murder Hornets.
And yet…that’s not why my child was crying. As I rubbed her back, she explained: “But I LOVED 2020!” I almost paused my soothing efforts, so gobsmacked was I. How in the world could one possibly love what was so obviously a dumpster-fire of a year!? Had I sheltered her too much from the reality of what was going on–the pain and sorrow? Was she simply incapable of recognizing the magnitude of suffering which was 2020? Well, sure. That’s partially true. But underneath it, was a great truth, and that is, even within the curses of 2020, even within the depths of darkness, there exists some light. Now this is, in no way an attempt to minimize the pain many of us experienced last year and continue to experience. There is no simple comfort to ameliorate all the hurt. But we do ourselves a disservice to ignore the good that came into our lives in 2020. Homeschooling an energetic first and second grader was by no means a simple task. Often it was (and still is) a very frustrating endeavor, as I try to understand why every generation of teaching philosophers seem to think it’s good idea to teach math differently again. And beyond the number-bonds and units and tens, the diminishment of contemporary social interactions has obviously taken its toll on my little girl. But, she bounces on through it. She has accepted this new reality, and she has thrived. I am blessed. We have daily FaceTime and Zoom interactions with our far-flung family, and one of the benefits of being home together is many more hugs. This pandemic has given me a chance to interact with our congregation differently, and though I’ve seen very few of you in person, I’ve still gotten to connect to many of you in small 3”-by-5” rectangles on my screens, and have remained in touch with many of our non-local congregants, who in a normal year, I might not see until they return from Florida, like so many migratory birds.
But my blessings may not be your blessings, and your pain is definitely different than my pain. I can’t presume to tell you what will happen in 2021, but I can urge you to identify what WERE the blessings of 2020; and where can you find the blessings in 2021. I urge you to reach out to us here at East Northport Jewish Center. Outside of services, both live and virtual, or classes offered in both formats, we are here to help be the center of your Jewish community. Let us know what we can do to help you in these trying times. Find your Jewish family here, live or live-streamed. We are here for you, and may 2021 bring more blessing into your lives.
I may be hated for saying this. But I’d rather be hated for telling the truth than loved for tolerating a lie. And the truth is that it is our responsibility to eradicate the cancerous extremist behavior within our own communities. African-American leaders should be at the forefront of shutting down anti-Jewish attacks by black youth in Brooklyn. Muslims should be the loudest to condemn Islamic radicalized terrorism. And I, a rabbi, must condemn racism within the verbal, mental and cultural shtetls of my people.
Therefore, I want to publicly condemn the use of the derogatory Yiddish word “schvartze” (“black”), those who make Jews of Color feel alienated from our brethren, and any who tolerate, defend and promulgate the racist Hamitic Hypothesis. I want to remind members of my tribe that it is not petty tribalism which defines us, rather the teachings of Torah herself which unite us. And, in the Torah, the very first Rebbetzin was black (Ibn Ezra; Radak, Jeremiah 13:23, Mo’ed Katan 16b, Shaloh, Shavuot 242 and 247), the entire Jewish tribe of Dan is Ethiopian (Eldad ha-Dani, Radbaz, Horav Maran Horav Ovadia Yosef, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate) and all of us are created in the “image of G-d” (Genesis 1:27).
In the second century, Rabbi Meir taught, “Look not at the vessel but at what it contains” (Pirkei Avot 4:20) and in 1983 Rabbi Moshe Feinstein [uncharacteristically] signed a public letter demanding the [Jewish] world aid black Jews from Ethiopia. He told his son-in-law he “suffered great anguish” hearing they were treated differently because “their skin is black.” (Igrot Moshe Vol. 9) The message I see weaved through the glorious canopy of Torah teachings is one salient truth: Our value is determined not by external labels but by our intrinsic individuality. In other words, our soul.
Perhaps we - as a human collective - still struggle to see beyond the color of superficial skin to the content of character because we - as a spiritual collective - still struggle to see beyond the skin of the world to the character of our Maker contained within. Perhaps truly seeing and celebrating our G-d given diversity helps us transform a Darwinian jungle, where only the fittest survive, into a Garden of Eden where everyone can harmoniously thrive. And perhaps the Creator made the world not in black and white but with a rainbow of colors to teach us that one becomes G-dly when the personal plight of the “Me” becomes the moral mandate of the “We.”
Therefore, I - labeled as an “Ultra-Orthodox Jew” - will be “Ultra-Orthodox” in my fight against racism. I will push for reparations for African Americans (Exodus 11:12, Deuteronomy 15:13, Talmud Bavli Gittin 55a, Sanhedrin 91a). I will expose the ugly face of discrimination which hides in plain sight under the guise of benevolent stereotyping (The Insidious Effects of Positive Stereotypes, scholar.harvard.edu, 2012). And I will stand against all bias which perpetuate the enslavement of individuality using the shackles of oversimplified expectations (Psychology Today, “Where Bias Begins, The Truth About Stereotypes, 2016). As Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, famed political activist and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, once said, “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides.”
There are those who argue that coexistence is impossible. That the tough reality is that rampant economic rivalry, family breakdown, and centuries of prejudicial societal constructs divide us from one another. But no one ever said that unity is easy to achieve. As the champion of the civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., once said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."
Almost six decades since he was murdered for speaking out, there are still political puppet masters planning for a race war. They’re not satisfied with slogans on T-shirts or messages on baseball caps. They want us to be at each other’s necks. But we mustn’t be afraid of their evil. For we only see evil in the world because the G-d within us knows that it is the force of good to stop it. As New York State Attorney General Letitia James said after an uptick in New York anti-Semitic attacks, ”We can’t shy away from obstacles and we can’t shy away from the facts. We have to face this challenge.” Or, as Akedah Fulcher- a black Jew from the Chassidic enclave of Crown Heights - taught me, “Silence is violence.”
There are those who try to silence me. “The arena of politics is unbefitting for a rabbi”, they say. “You’re a fool to believe in insidious racism,” they say. “You just don’t understand,” they say. Well, here’s what I say. I say that my religion makes it my responsibility to be the voice of the voiceless and the champion of the oppressed. I say that I'd rather be a fool fighting against injustice than an intellectual tolerating it. And I say that I may not understand a lot but I do understand that to stop “othering” the other, I must realize he’s my brother from another mother.
My father taught me that as long as ignorance, intolerance, and injustice exist, we can never rest lest we rest in peace. His ancestor died at the Battle of Gettysburg fighting for that truth, often not so self-evident, that all people are created equal. He used a sword and a bayonet. I pick up the proverbial pen to continue his legacy. For it is only through the heroes of our past
, upon whose mighty shoulders we now stand, that the evolution of democracy and liberty can continue to march forward. As Rabbi Tarfon taught in the Talmud, “It is not your obligation to finish the work nor are you free from engaging in it, etc” (Pirkei Avot 2:16).
In these recent years of proliferated polarization, the victims of bigotry have eclipsed our nation’s attention. And it is what we do next, what we tell our youth
in the coming days, what ideas we normalize in our homes that will determine the future of our United States.
I believe what Dr. King wrote in 1967 that “Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” I believe what Elie Wiesel said in 1986, “Peace is our gift to each other.” And I believe what the Lubavitcher Rebbe told Mayor David Dinkins
after the 1991 riots, “We are not two sides; we are one side. We are one people living in one city under one administration and under one G-d.”
These leaders have all passed on but their light will never pass away. As the Talmud teaches, “When his children are alive, he is alive.” (Talmud, Taanit 5b). Dr. Bernice King, daughter of the late Martin Luther King Jr., quotes Isaiah 1:17, “Learn to do good; seek justice; correct oppression.” Elisha Wiesel, son of the late Elie Wiesel, channels his father as he asks
"How can so many among us deny that white privilege is real when our African-American brothers and sisters still suffer from the effects of a century of Jim Crow laws and voter suppression?" And I follow in the footsteps of my Rebbe who taught me that we treat G-d as our Father in Heaven in order that we might treat one another as G-d’s children here on Earth.”
In this way, we walk the dream. (Micah 4:2)