In December of 1927, Claude Willoughby has been left behind in Maryland as his father, sister, and step-mother return to Kentucky for Christmas. The cruel abandonment is Claude’s punishment for disobeying his father’s directive. Sam Feldman comes to Claude’s rescue by inviting him and their friend, John Welles, over for an after-the-fact Hanukkah celebration. After a meal of brisket and latkes, the boys play dreidel with Sam’s mother, Gladys.
Although the game is meant for children, I know quite a few adults, myself included, who get caught up in playing dreidel every Hanukkah. In fact, we have a tradition that last year’s winner must return to defend his or her title the following year.
The Hebrew word sevivon or s’vivon means to turn around. Dreidel is the Yiddish word for a spinning top. All dreidels have four Hebrew letters on them which stand for the saying Nes gadol haya sham, meaning a great miracle occurred there. In Israel, instead of the fourth letter shin, there is a peh which changes the saying to Nes gadol haya po, a great miracle occurred here.
Playing with the dreidel is a traditional Hanukkah game played in Jewish homes all over the world, and rules may vary. Here’s how to play the basic dreidel game:
- Any number of people can take part.
- Each player begins the game with an equal number of game pieces (about 10-15) such as pennies, nuts, chocolate chips, raisins, matchsticks, etc. (Our family uses Hershey’s Nuggets which makes winning or losing fun as many of the playing pieces are enjoyed during the game.)
- At the beginning of each round, every participant puts one game piece into the center pot. In addition, every time the pot is empty or has only one game piece left, every player should put one in the pot.
- Every time it’s your turn, spin the dreidel once. Depending on the outcome, you give or get game pieces from the pot:
- Nun means nisht or nothing. The player does nothing.
- Gimmel means gantz or everything. The player gets everything in the pot.
- Hey means halb or half. The player gets half of the pot. (If there is an odd number of pieces in the pot, the player takes half of the total plus one.)
- Shin (outside of Israel) means shtel or put in. Peh (in Israel) also means put in. The player adds a game piece to the pot. (Our family puts two pieces in.)
- If you find that you have no game pieces left, you are either out or may ask a fellow player for a loan. (We’re pretty ruthless for the Dreidel Champion title; once you’re out, you’re out!)
- When one person has won everything, that round of the game is over!
For non-Jewish players, we came up with a way to remember what do to for each Hebrew letter:
Nun you get none – don’t do anything
Gimme gimmel – you get the entire pot
Hey means half – you get half the pot plus one if there’s an odd number of pieces
Shin two in – put two game pieces in the pot