Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Chag Urim Sameach! *חג חנוכה שמח

* Happy Holiday of Lights to all my friends who are lighting their first candle tonight!  And I can think of no better way to make that wish than with something by my beloved Emanuele Luzzati.  If anyone could capture the joy of the holiday it would be Lele.

The traditions of Hankkah are many - some centuries old, others more recent as the diaspora adapted to new homes and circumstances.  Where ever it has been celebrated the Festival of Lights has always included prayers, rituals, food, music and entertainments of a homely sort.

In past years I've written about the Hanukkah menorah - both beautiful antiques and equally beautiful if unusual modern designs - that is so central to the ritual of the eight days of the holiday.  Of the food, well tonight many households I know will be redolent with the smell of cooking oil as a subtle - sometimes not so subtle - reminder of the miracle of the oil in those far away days.  And according to the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus when Judas decreed the celebration of the Festival of Lights he commanded that there be music.  I believe this simple little song by Levin Kipnis, the author of many children's books, poems and songs, fills the bill.

I have a candle, I have a small thin candle
On Hanukkah, my candle I will light.
On Hanukkah my candle will glow
On Hanukkah I will sing songs.
 As for the entertainment the spinning of a dreidel, as simple as it is, has brought delight - and disappointment - to young and old alike for almost a thousand years.   Though there are some legends that trace the history of the dreidel back to the Seleucidian occupation it first appeared as a game in the Middle Ages.  It was adapted from the teetotum or spinning top used in a popular German game of chance.  The best known dreidel song for Hanukkah is I Have a Little Dreidel or in Yiddish Ikh Bin A Kleyner Dreydl, which actually translates as "I am a little Dreidel".  Another difference is that in English the spinning top is made of clay while in Yiddish it is made of lead.  Certainly in the early days many were made of lead but a dreidel can be something as simple as a homemade cube of clay on a wooden axis or the work of a master craftsman in silver, wood, gilt, ceramic or precious stones. 

No matter the material the game is always played the same way.  Each side of the dreidel bears a letter of the Hebrew alphabet:נ (Nun), ג(Gimel), ה (Hei), ש (Shin), which together form the acronym for "נס גדול היה שם" (Nes Gadol Hayah Sham – "a great miracle happened there"). These letters also form a mnemonic in Yiddish for the rules of the game: nisht (nothing),  halb (half), gants (all), and shtel ayn (put in).
In Israel, the fourth side of most dreidels is inscribed with the letter פ (Pei), rendering the acronym, נס גדול היה פה, (Nes Gadol Hayah Poh—"A great miracle happened here")  referring to the miracle occurring in the land of Israel.

Each player puts game pieces (most often chocolate gelt) in the pot and then spins the dreidel in turn.  What ever side is facing up determines if the player gets "nothing", "half" the pot, "all" the pot or has to "put in" to the pot.  If a player loses all their stakes then they are out of the game but it's always possible - particularly for the younger children - that another player (or obliging parent) will provide a loan to keep the game going.

This lovely paper dreidel - Dancing Children - is by Melanie Dankowicz
who creates beautiful designs with lazar cut paper and metal.

Dreidel or dreydl is the Yiddish word but in Hebrew it is known as  סביבון‎ a sevivon, a word invented by Itamar Ben-Avi, one of the champions of modern Hebrew.   It is the title of this little song, again the lyrics are by the prolific Levin Kipnis.  There are quite a few versions available on YouTube but I found this one sung by the Sanderson High School Sandpipers from Raleigh, North Carolina particularly lively.

Spinning top, spin spin spin,
Chanukah is a great holiday.
Chanukah is a great holiday.
Spinning top, spin spin spin,

Spin here and there,
A great miracle happened here/there,
A great miracle happened here/there
Spinning top, spin spin spin.

In reading the prayers that are said each night as the light from the menorah becomes brighter I was struck by the words of praise that are spoken only on the first night of the eight.  How fitting they are as people gather around to celebrate any feast or festival regardless of their religion or beliefs:
Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha'olam
shehecheyanu v'kiyimanu v'higi'anu laz'man hazeh. (Amein)

Blessed are you, Lord, our God, sovereign of the universe
who has kept us alive, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this season (Amen)

December 16 - 1707: Last recorded eruption of Mount Fuji in Japan.

1 comment:

Debra She Who Seeks said...

Thanks for the info about the game played with the dreidel! Didn't know that before, just that Hanukah is associated with kids spinning the top.