Friday, December 7, 2012

Dreidels and Lights: Jewish Pride and Cultural Sharing

Hanukkah is here!  It begins at the conclusion of Shabbat tomorrow evening.  See below from some helpful links for blessings, how-tos and whys.

Did you know that the dreidel game originally had nothing to do with Hanukkah; it has been played by various people in various languages for many centuries.

According to an article on the MyJewishLearning site  by Rabbi David Golinkin,  in England and Ireland there is a game called totum or teetotum that is especially popular at Christmastime. In English, this game is first mentioned as "totum" ca. 1500-1520. The name comes from the Latin "totum," which means "all." By 1720, the game was called T- totum or teetotum, and by 1801 the four letters already represented four words in English: T = Take all; H = Half; P = Put down; and N = Nothing.

Our Eastern European game of dreidel (including the letters nun, gimmel, hey, shin) is directly based on the German equivalent of the totum game: N = Nichts = nothing; G = Ganz = all; H = Halb = half; and S = Stell ein = put in. In German, the spinning top was called a "torrel" or "trundl," and in Yiddish it was called a "dreidel," a "fargl," a "varfl" [= something thrown], "shtel ein" [= put in], and "gor, gorin" [= all].
When Hebrew was revived as a spoken language, the dreidel was called, among other names, a sevivon, which is the one that caught on.

So the dreidel game represents an irony of Jewish history.  We celebrate the holiday of Hanukkah, our victory over cultural assimilation, by playing a game that is an excellent example of cultural assimilation!

We can delve more deeply into Hanukkah and find other examples of cultural borrowing.  What is this season about, after all, for so many cultures, but the spiritual power of fire and night.

In a technological society, one of the great purposes of religion is to enable human beings to return to the bare essentials of life.  In our age, religion serves as a sort of paint stripper, removing layer upon layer upon layer of artificiality, reminding us who we are and where we come from, begging us to embrace simplicity and rediscover the basics.
Hanukkah is the holiday of fire and night, two of creations most necessary, and most feared, phenomena.  The festival comes at a time when the days are shortest and even the night sky is at its darkest - since it is the end of the Jewish month.  With no sun or moon to light up the sky, and December’s winds blowing briskly, it is up to us to create the fire that will sustain us physically and spiritually while the days begin to grow longer and the moon larger.

On Hanukkah we light that fire, demonstrating that human beings have the capacity to create light and harness the power of fire. That’s why it’s possible for so joyous a celebration to occur at so dark a time of year.  The fact that Hanukkah begins on the 25th of the Jewish month of Kislev and Christmas occurs on the 25th of December is not entirely coincidental.   Both holidays are responding to the universal and and ancient need to light up the night of winter - it’s a need that gave rise to all the winter festivals celebrated throughout the world.  It is the bond that links the flickering Hanukkah menorah to the Christmas tree, and it is a need that predates both.

You can read here how Christmas originally was moved to the winter months in order to compete with Zoroastrian and then European pagan celebrations.  Also, at thnis time of year, Hindus in India, and all over the world, celebrate Diwali (or Deepawali), a festival of lights that is as big as Christmas is for Christians. And the Chinese New Year, celebrated in several weeks, is also a festival of light  featuring lanterns and flames (and if you’ve dodged the fireworks in Chinatown on that day, you know exactly what I mean).

So cultures share.  That is a fact - one that we should celebrate.  We are all human beings, after all, with the same fears and hopes.  But we Jews also celebrate the uniqueness of the Jewish experience, with our great heroes of the battlefield and of the spirit.  And the fact that our ancestors had the faith to light the lights, even when all seemed so hopelessly dark.

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