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Dreidel storage cabinet

Most people are familiar with an inexpensive wooden or plastic toy dreidel that is given to kids at Jewish schools at Channukah time for spinning and game playing. This not insignificant small-scale object was the inspiration for a focused collection of Judaica by Rabbis Patti and David Kopstein, the spiritual leaders of Beit Shalom Synagogue They have collected dreidels over the past 20 years.

Traditionally a small-scale object, the dreidel is loaded with aesthetic, historic and cultural significance, and endless possibilities for religious teaching.

The dreidel (Yiddish) or spinning top is a portable object that can be purchased from almost anywhere in the world. The dreidels in this collection come from as far a field as New Zealand, Samoa, Venice, California and Jerusalem.

The objects are notably dreidels, and not simply spinning tops. The dreidel is a spinning top with four sides, each bearing a different Hebrew letter – Nun, gimmel, hey and shin.

Twice in Jewish history this small object saved the Jewish people. During Greco-Roman times when it was prohibited for Jews to teach and study Torah, it was noted in historical documents that a Torah teacher would sit on the ground with children and play with the spinning top, as if they were simply playing a game. However, the game was a facade for Torah lessons that were actually taking place. During the Nazi occupation of Europe, the spinning dreidel was also used for teaching Jewish children and keeping Torah study continuous and alive in this way.

The frivolity of game playing, the silliness of being on the ground, the lessons learned, the fun of winning, remembering the bravery of the Maccabees – the dreidel represents overcoming mighty oppressors who have forbidden us to continue with Judaism. The dreidel in history contains a larger spiritual message besides merely playing a game.

Rabbi Patti can recall the meaning and the stories associated with each and every object that they have collected. The dreidels are infused with the romance of the story, the memories and the mental picture of where and how it was attainted, the whole 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 left me with an instruction 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, enjoy their workmanship.

Southern Hemisphere

This whimsical dreidel was hand-painted for the Kopsteins in New Zealand. They were having a hard time adjusting to the southern seasons, as it was their first time in the southern hemisphere. The community made a joke of their confusion by having the letters painted upside down onto the wooden dreidel.

Samoan glass

An unusual dreidel came from a Samoan congregation member in the United States who was studying for conversion. He went home to Samoa and when he returned brought back a hand-blown glass dreidel. It is filled with blue liquid so when you spin it the liquid fills up and spins around inside. It is delicate and fragile, and looks like something from a science laboratory.

Cartoon dreidel

The “All American” dream dreidel – straight from Walt Disney Productions, featuring transfer images of the cartoon characters of Goofy, Donald Duck, Mickey and Minnie Mouse. Although its very commerciality would normally exclude itself from serious collections, it delights children because of the familiarity of the images on it. Commercially available, it speaks volumes about being a Jewish-American.

Azoulay ceramic dreidel

This is one of the collectors’ favourites. Well-known Israeli artist Dani Azoulay painted it. It is dated 1990 and signed in Hebrew at the bottom.

City of Jerusalem

This gold and silver dreidel bought in Israel commemorates Jerusalem’s 3000-year anniversary.

Yiddish tune dreidel

Plastic dreidel, made in China. Perforated holes project the sound of an old Yiddish tune. Rabbi Patti calls this a “gag” gift (silly gift) and regards it as a bit tacky because the sound quality is not good.

Olive wood peh

The dreidels that carry the letter peh instead of the letter shin are made for use in Israel. The letters around the dreidel stand for the first letter of each word for Nes Gadol Haya Sham (a great miracle happened there), but in Israel they change it to Nes Gadol Haya Po (a Great miracle happened here). The dreidels that are created for use in Israel 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.

Dreidel (unassembled in box)

Thornton traveling dreidel

All the dreidels are portable, given their size, but this one was specifically made as a portable dreidel. A friend, Reese Thornton, a well-known sculptor in California, made it for them. It folds flat into a custom built wooden box for traveling, and is easily assembled.

Reese Thornton cardboard dreidel

Reese Thornton also made this cardboard dreidel. It was made during his so-called assemblage period.

Pewter dreidel

Pewter is a heavy metal, and although this is a beautiful object, its weight makes spinning awkward.

Sterling silver dreidels

Yemenite dreidels (centre images)

These silver dreidels are particularly pretty and are made of fine filigree work. An interesting history explains the reason for the fine Yemenite filigree work. Yemenite Jews were not allowed to hold large quantities of fine metals and were restricted to gold and silver wires. From this you have a unique artistic expression coming forth, where the fine filigree was compiled from bits of silver wire that they managed to collect. The dreidel reflects the social history and the way that Jews have adapted to the stylistic aesthetics of their country of adoption. The restrictions and heavy repression that Yemenite Jews faced were reflected in the artifacts they made, yet the fine, light and delicate craftsmanship is almost the antithesis of what their life was like.

Persian silver (image on far right)

This oval egg shaped dreidel with Hebrew letters comes from Iran and is similar in style to the Yemenite dreidels. It has likely come from people that have more financial resources than the poorer Yemenite Jews, but it displays that same delicate filigree work that identifies the Yemenite objects. For its small size, it spins surprisingly well.

Venetian Glass dreidels

Hand-blown glass objects from Venice, Italy.

Pressed wood

Made in the USA by The Toycrafter, this object is commercially available.

Waterford Crystal

This cut crystal dreidel comes from Ireland. It is comparatively heavy and due to its fragility, one should avoid spinning it to avoid damage to it.

Aviva dreidel

Hand-painted floral pattern on olive wood, signed by Aviva, made in Jerusalem. The one that got away When Rabbi Patti worked in northern California, the synagogue had a large group of children attending the community Channukah celebrations. They would buy huge bags of plastic dreidels for a competition – every child received their own plastic dreidel and a small bag of chocolate gelt (money). Once, as they were passing them out, one child who was going over the rules noticed that he had got one with two gimmels on it. Gimmel is the winning side, therefore increasing the chances of winning. This was the first factory-manufactured mistake that the Rabbi had seen, and there was a mad scramble to get this dreidel. The child traded it after many bribes, but unfortunately not to the Rabbi. They went through all the remaining dreidels but there wasn’t another one like it.