Newsletter of the Adelaide Jewish Museum – June 2003
Most people would be familiar with an inexpensive wooden or plastic toy dreidel given to children at Channukah time for the customary spinning and game playing. It never occurred to me until now that this small-scale object could become the inspiration for a focused accumulation of Judaica, and that is why I was enthusiastic to meet with Rabbis Patti and David Kopstein when I heard about their dreidel collection. Over the past 20 years they have put together a substantial ensemble of dreidels in a variety of materials ranging from modern metal sculpture to hand-blown glass, wood, ceramic and silver objects, to name but a few in their ongoing collection.
Although the dreidel is traditionally a small-scale object, it is one that is loaded with immense aesthetic and historic value, cultural significance and endless possibilities for religious teaching.
For Rabbis Patti and David Kopstein, the spiritual leaders of Beit Shalom Synagogue, the collection began as an anniversary present. Searching for a gift that was small, memorable and also something that was Jewish, the concept of the dreidel emerged to fulfill these criteria. Since Channukah is a time of dedication and rededication and romantically linked to a wedding anniversary, the dreidels? significance became increasingly relevant. Now it is not only an anniversary present, as acquisitions also come from friends and community members bearing gifts. It is a portable object that can be purchased from almost anywhere in the world, and the range of dreidels, coming from as far a field as New Zealand, Samoa, Venice, California and Jerusalem, to name but a few sites of collection, reflects the couple’s joy of travel and gathering of memorabilia along the way.
Earlier this year I met with Rabbi Patti to view the collection, and she passionately described the variations in style, decoration and medium, showed me their favourite dreidels, the most exotic and unusual ones, and told me about the circumstances of acquiring the objects.
All their dreidels are notably dreidels and not simply spinning tops. Uniquely, the dreidel is a spinning top with four sides, each bearing a different Hebrew letter, nun, gimmel, hey and shin. The letters around the dreidel stand for the first letter of each word for Nes Gadol Haya Sham. Many of their Israel dreidels have the letter peh in place of the letter shin. The common shin stands for the word sham meaning “there” – a great miracle happened there. “There” referring to Israel, by someone who is outside of Israel. Peh stands for po, which means “here” – a great miracle happened here. Such dreidels are made for use in Israel and are quite collectible as they are not for export. Dreidels with the shin letter are manufactured for world Jewry rather than a limited number that would be produced for Israel.
I also learned more about the historical significance of this religious play object. In Jewish history the dreidel is credited with having saved the Jewish people. For instance, during Greco-Roman times when it was prohibited for Jews to teach and study Torah, it was noted in historical documents that a Torah teacher would sit on the ground with children and play with the spinning top as if they were simply playing a game – a facade for Torah lessons taking place.
The frivolity of game playing, the silliness of playing on the ground, the lessons learned, the fun of winning, remembering the bravery of the Maccabees – the dreidel in history contains a larger spiritual message beyond mere game playing. It symbolizes over-coming mighty oppressors who have forbidden us to continue with Judaism.
Rabbi Patti reminisces about the stories and the meanings associated with each dreidel that has been collected. The objects are infused with the romance of the story, the memories and the mental picture of where and how they were attained, the process of acquisition, the stories about bargaining in pawn-shops and markets in Jerusalem or who gave it to them and when.
Normally with museum-type objects, touching and handling would be discouraged. However, these collectors encourage hands-on enjoyment as that is recognized as the objects? reason for being. Rabbi Patti gave me instructions for the dreidels: Play with them, give them a spin, and come up with your own feelings. Hold them in your hands, feel their weight, see how differently they feel, see how differently they spin, and enjoy their workmanship.
The objects will shortly be exhibited in the Museums display cabinet at the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation. Unfortunately I can’t promote the same generous spirit and encourage you to give them a spin. You are, however, encouraged to put your nose up close to the display cabinet and view them through the glass. At a later stage, the objects will also be displayed at Beit Shalom.
Roslyn Sugarman, Curator Adelaide Jewish Museum