This Hanukkah, Embrace Yiddishism

By Madison Jackson

I am sitting at my work computer planning a Hanukkah program for kindergarten to sixth-graders. Opening a search engine, I type the words “rules for a dreidel spinoff.” As I click the very first link that appears on Google I am taken aback when I read “the Yiddish word dreydl comes from the word dreyen, to turn.” Hang on, I think to myself. Dreidel is a Yiddish word? Further down the line the article says “the Hebrew word sevivon comes from the Semitic root and was invented by Itamar Ben-Avi…” I click the next article. And then the next. Maybe one article was off. But each and every web page I read over says the same thing, translates the word dreidel in the same way.

Sevivon. I know that word. I knew that was Hebrew. I, like many people, have spent Hanukkah after Hanukkah singing the classic song “Sevivon Sov Sov Sov.” Growing up, the choir at my public school, made up of both Jewish and non-Jewish singers, always performed dreidel songs around the holidays. For as long as I remember, I have had the words of “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel” ringing in my ears for weeks around winter time. Where did I think the word dreidel came from? Why did I never wonder what language that word was in? Did I just assume that dreidel was a Hebrew synonym for sevivon?

In Hebrew school, at home around the dinner table and in places of informal Jewish education, children are taught that during the time of Greek King Antiochus IV, when Jewish religious worship was outlawed, Jews studied Torah in secret and pulled out dreidels to play with whenever the Greeks walked by. But this in fact is not the origin of the dreidel at all.

Although many people think the dreidel is of Greek roots it really comes from eastern European roots, like many things in the Ashkenazic realm of Judaism. The dreidel derives from a 16th century game played in England and Ireland called teetotum, which made its way to Germany. The spinning top had four letters on it, representing four words in English and the rules of the game: T for take all, H for half, P for put down and N for nothing. When eastern European Jews adopted the game, calling it Dreidel, the Yiddish letters Nun, Gimel, Hay, Shin were a mnemonic for the same words, in Yiddish: nisht, nothing, gantz, entire, halb, half, shtell ein, put in. When modern day Hebrew became a spoken language, Nun, Gimel, Hay, Shin came to stand for “Nes gadol haya po,” “A great miracle happened here,” simply to make a connection between the spinning top and the Hanukkah story.

So why is it that for 22 years I have known the word dreidel, but it took me 22 years, and on my own, to learn that dreidel is a Yiddish word? I grew up regularly practicing Judaism. I went to Jewish day school for eight years, Hebrew school for over 12 years, overnight Jewish summer camp for eight years and was an active participant in a Jewish youth group, amongst other Jewish activities that filled my every year. In none of these places did any educator ever stop and say “dreidel is actually a Yiddish word.”

Since taking a Yiddish language class during my senior year of college, where we learned how to sing the Yiddish version of “Mah Nishtana” for the Passover Seder, I have been passionate about finding Yiddish connections to Jewish holidays. I have been excited by the prospect of discovering a way to associate a Jewish holiday with a way my ancestors might have celebrated Judaism years ago. Last Hanukkah I found the Yiddish version of “Hanukkah O’ Hanukkah” hidden in an old piano book in my house – and then I proceeded to spend a week playing the same song over and over again. Little did I know that Yiddish and Hanukkah were not meshing together in my life for the first time. In reality, Yiddish has always been a part of at least one of my holiday celebrations.

We cannot hide our past. We cannot cover the word dreidel with children’s songs and Hebrew words. Instead, we must embrace our history and teach it to the present generation. We are taught that Yiddish is a language only of years ago, but while we may not speak it conversationally on a daily basis, Yiddish will permanently remain in our Jewish heritage. After all, each year as the weather turns colder and snow cascades down outside your window, as you begin those joyous Hanukkah preparations, the word dreidel surely floats around your house regularly. You are speaking a Yiddish word.

We should not be ashamed of a language which allows us to be who we are. I for one, am proud of my Jewish identity. And, if it wasn’t for my eastern European ancestors, none of my Jewish traditions or practices would be here today. So, inherently, being Jewish today involves incorporating the past into our lives. Yiddish deserves so much more recognition than it receives.

Madison Jackson is a graduate of Binghamton University where she received a double BA in Judaic Studies and English. She currently works full time as the Jewish Life and Culture Program Associate at the Mandel Jewish Community Center of Cleveland, and writes monthly blog posts for KAHAL Your Jewish Home Abroad.