Author’s note: This story is written from the perspective of an orthodox Jew, so very few concepts are explained within the story. To better understand the story, please refer to the glossary I have included below.
"Happy Chanukah," Bubbie told me as she handed me the small gift box.
It looked like it could hold jewelry, like a ring or necklace.
"Thank you!" The box opened on a hinge. Nestled inside the velvet was a small dreidel. Its four faces were each no bigger than a squared off nickel, and the tapered part beneath seemed worn down. The stick for spinning the dreidel was glossy from all the fingers that had gripped it over the years, and there was a chocolate stain on the light wood. On closer inspection, the letters on the sides had been painted over at some point, but even the newest layer was faded.
'It's not about the presents. It's not about the presents. It's not about the presents.' I repeated in my head. And really, at fifteen, I should have known Chanukah is not about the gifts we give each other, but the miracle(s) that took place for my ancestors. But... Who doesn't like a nice gift from time to time?
I looked up at my grandmother's face. She looked back at me with pure joy, like I should be excited about a tiny dreidel.
I tried to smile. "Thank you, Bubbie. It's..." old. That was all I could think of.
My grandmother laughed. "I bet you think I'm crazy. You're at that age where you consider playing dreidel childish. In the days of the Beit Hamikdash you would have been married by now. You're wondering why I could possibly think you would want an old dreidel."
I smiled in relief. It was a joke, then. My Bubbie knew better than to give me this.
"This dreidel has a story," she continued. Of course it did. "A Chanukah miracle of its own." She took a deep breath, as if to begin the story, but then stopped and looked around.
I looked around too. We were sitting on the overstuffed couch facing the table where the menorahs belonging to my father, my Zaidie, and my three brothers stood. Each menorah proudly bearing the flames for the first night of Chanukah and the shammash. The windows beyond the table showed the dark streets beyond, and one of the houses across the street also had a menorah up.
I sniffed the air. The smell of fried oil let me know that my mother and older sister were both in the kitchen making latkes for the Chanukah party we were going to have as soon as the cousins close enough to drive over got here.
The men and boys had been watching their candles for a while, but they left that to me and Bubbie and went to help set up the dining room and kitchen for the party.
"We should go help your mother," Bubbie said finally.
"Chedva is helping her. We would just be in the way," I pointed out.
Bubbie nodded. "Okay then. Do you want to hear the story?"
So I leaned back on the couch, turned to face my grandmother, and waited for her to begin.
"Many years ago, there was a little girl named Yehudit. My grandmother. She wished to be an ordinary girl, go to school and jump rope, but she was not. She and her mother, Bubbie Shaina, had come from Russia to escape the communists, but her father had been sent to Siberia by the time the boat left with my grandmother and great-grandmother on board.
"You know that when Jews in this situation came to America, they chose one of three options. Either, they threw away tradition and threw themselves into a new life, or they lived in the same pattern all Jews who held on to their faith lived. On Sunday morning they would find a job, and then they would work from Monday to Friday. Then, they would hurry home from work and light the Shabbat candles. At this point, there was another split. Some people went to work on Saturday, despite it being against the laws of Jewish tradition, and some just didn't. Perhaps they claimed they were sick, but sooner or later, they lost their jobs for not coming in to work on Shabbat.
"This was the way that Yehudit and her mother lived. Every Shabbat, they lost their jobs. Every Sunday they found a new one for that week. So they were very poor, and Rosh Hashanah was coming. Bubbie Shaina wanted very much to get a few of the simanim, or at least a bit of meat for the meals, but she doubted she would be able to. Although Yehudit and her mother worked very hard, they barely made enough money to get fish for Shabbat, and even that didn't happen every week.
"So Bubbie Shaina decided to take in some sewing as well. If she worked in the supermarket during the day and then sewed by candlelight, she could perhaps afford a small piece of meat."
Bubbie paused, then thought about what she said. "At least, I think the two of them were working in a shop of some sort then. They probably didn't have big supermarkets yet."
"Anyway," she continued "The plan worked, and Bubbie Shaina was able to buy a bit of meat. More than that, she was so successful with the sewing, and had enough people asking her to sew for them, that she was able to quit her job and make her own hours. She wanted to teach Yehudit to sew as well, but she had no spare scraps to practice on. All the fabric she had was given to her for the clothing her customers wanted.
"Yehudit was fifteen at the time, like you, so she was old enough to continue the cycle of losing and finding jobs on her own. The difference was that while before they had been working on shops or sewing factories, Yehudit found a small shop that sold wood carvings, and walked in without hesitation. The man behind the counter told her that they would teach her to carve for free, if she agreed to work for them for free for the same amount of time it took to train her. The man even agreed to give her Shabbat off, saying that he was Jewish too, but felt that he was unable to make a living without working on Shabbat. But that didn't mean he didn't feel guilty about it, so he was happy to let her skip Saturdays.
"So the man's daughter taught Yehudit to carve simple things, like a spoon, and then more intricate detailing. Eventually, she could carve extremely well, and, as a happy side effect, she had a friend. So Yehudit was very happy, which made her mama very happy, except for one thing.
"At that point in time, Bubbie Shaina's sewing business had expanded. She had a small shop where she took customers, and she had hired another Jewish woman to help with the sewing. She had saved enough money to send some to her husband in Siberia, but she didn't know if it would reach him. She decided to take a risk, so she sent a small package just before Pesach, so it might be good enough weather to not get lost. She had no way of knowing if he got it, though.
"The next year, Yehudit started selling her own carved wares in her mother's shop, but she kept in touch with her friend. In fact, she carved a very intricate dreidel for her friend as a Chanukah gift, saying that life in America was full of excitement, and you never know quite where you'll land when you stop spinning. Yehudit's friend responded by carving a simple dreidel for Yehudit, saying that sometimes plain and simple is better, but even then, there is an element of uncertainty. The part they found the funniest, was the fact that when spinning, you couldn't tell whose dreidel was whose.
"Then Yehudit's friend got married and moved to her husband's town which was not close enough to visit regularly, and the dreidels were all they had of each other. The day after the newly married couple left, Yehudit sat playing with the dreidel. She spun it many times to remember how life could give you a gimel or a shin. You can gain or you can lose, but either way, you have to keep going. You have to try again.
“Yehudit spun the dreidel, and I imagine she sighed and decided this would be the last time before she put the dreidel away and went to help her mother.
"She watched the dreidel spin. Its carefully painted letters a blur barely visible on the wood. And then it fell. She looked at it, and even though she was not playing against anyone, even though she was not playing to win anything, she cheered because the letter on the top was a gimel, so if she had been playing against someone, she would have won the pile.
"And then she heard a knock on the door of the small apartment. She figured it was for her mother, but she had been avoiding helping for long enough. So she went to answer the door, and she was sure glad she did, for it was her papa who stood there. Exhausted, but alive and within reach.
"From that day forward, she considered the dreidel a messenger of G-d. It was a memento of both the friend who taught her to carve, and the day her father came home."
As Bubbie stopped speaking, I suddenly remembered that I was not with my great-great-grandmother as her father arrived in America for the first time, but sitting on the couch, safely wealthy, and able to be an orthodox Jew without too much trouble. I didn't have to worry about getting married yet, or even about getting a job. All I had to deal with was school and disappointing presents.
"Wait," I realized, "This is the dreidel that her friend made?”
Bubbie nodded. "I know you're a bit old for a dreidel, or a bit young since I believe Chedva likes playing dreidel again, so if you would like, I will take that back and get you that necklace you've had your eye on."
I smiled. "I think I'll keep the dreidel. I may not appreciate the dreidel itself, but I really appreciate the story behind it. Besides, Chanukah is not about the presents, it's about how the past gave us the present. Right?" I grinned, satisfied with my pun.
Bubbie laughed. "Right. Now let's go see if there's anything we can help with. Your cousins should be here any minute."
Chanukah: An eight day long minor Jewish festival which celebrates the rededication of the Beit Hamikdash, celebrated mainly by lighting a menorah although many Jews also make latkes and doughnuts, play dreidel, and give each other gifts and/or gelt (either in chocolate form or actual money)
Bubbie: Yiddish for Grandma
dreidel: 1 a small four sided spinning toy with a Hebrew letter on each side, the letters: Nun, Gimel, Hey, and Shin stand for the sentence Nes Gadol Hayah Sham, which means A great miracle happened there (there being Israel during the time of Chanukah. In Israel, the last letter is pey, which stands for po, meaning here.)
2 a game played with a dreidel and coins (real or chocolate) or nuts.
How to play: Each player has a few coins, preferably an equal amount to each of the other players. Players sit in a circle, and start by contributing one coin to the middle pile. Players take turns spinning the dreidel and complete their turn based on the result. Nun – nothing; Gimel – gold, take the whole pile; Hey – half, take half the pile; Shin (or Pey) – shove/put one coin in the middle from your pile. When the pile in the middle is emptied, all players put one coin in the middle and play continues.
Beit Hamikdash: The central Temple for Jews which was built and destroyed twice; the second destruction took place in the year 66 CE at the hands of the Romans. Still considered the holiest site, located in Jerusalem, Israel, the only remainder being the Western Wall.
Zaidie: Yiddish for Grandpa
menorah: Hebrew for lamp, but in this case, a nine branched candelabra or oil cup holder with eight of its branches in a straight line, and one branch or cup offset from the others. On the first night, the offset candle and the one on the far right are lit, on the second night, the offset candle and the two on the far right, and so on.
shammash: literally, helper; the offset flame on the menorah, often used to light the other candles
latkes: potato pancakes fried in oil
Shabbat: from Friday at nightfall to Saturday at full dark, a festival on which a Jew may not do many forms of work
Rosh Hashanah: the Jewish new year, also restricted, though less so than Shabbat
simanim: symbolic foods over which certain prayers for a good year are said