Shortly after we send this week’s Jewish Standard to the printers, but before you read this, we will have lit the Chanukah candles for the last time this year. But while we have put away our chanukiyot, the spirit of winter, marker of Northern Hemisphere Chanukah, lingers on.
It is not quite too late, in other words, for some parting thoughts about Chanukah past and Chanukah future.
By the standards of the Jewish calendar, Chanukah is a middle-aged holiday. Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot, and Yom Kippur are ancient – they are recorded in the Torah. Yom Ha’atzmaut and Yom Hashoah, commemorations of 20th-century events, are newborns. Between lie Chanukah and Purim – younger than the Bible but, with origins centuries before the Common Era, considerably older than springtime.
Old, even ancient, does not have to mean moribund, and Chanukah has proved to be a poster child for change. In the late 19th century, as historian Jonathan Sarna has shown, a circle of young American Jews – notably including Hadassah founder Henrietta Szold – reinvented Chanukah as an American-themed holiday of religious freedom.
The Zionist movement shifted the focus of the holiday from the talmudic emphasis on the miracle of the light to the (possibly original) celebration of the Maccabees’ victory. In 1936, Menashe Ravina – a Zionist and a Communist – composed “Mi Yimalel,” which praised Jewish action rather than God’s miracles: “In our day all the people of Israel will unite, rise up, and be redeemed.”
Of course, holidays change not only in the broader sense but also through small changes in implementation. In the Middle Ages, the original oil lamps cited in the Talmud were replaced with wax candles. In recent years, olive oil has made a comeback, with a variety of oils to choose from.
All this is a long wind-up to reflect on a small tweak to Chanukah customs that we count as a great improvement. We are referring to the new rules for “Speed Dreidel” published last week by Slate.com.
It says something about the role of Judaism and Chanukah in American Jewish life that Slate could unapologetically devote an article to the topic with the headline: “The classic Hannukah game is painfully slow. It’s time to speed it up.”
Note that rather than reporting on the dreidel game as a quaint Jewish practice, Slate takes it seriously as something its readers play.
Ben Blatt’s article makes clear that as much as he loves being Jewish, dreidel is not his favorite game. (That would probably be baseball, the subject of his recent book, “I Don’t Care if We Never Get Back: 30 Games in 30 Days on the Best Worst Baseball Road Trip Ever.”) Mr. Blatt is a “sports analytics wizard,” and he isn’t afraid to bring numbers to bear in his dreidel critique. Dreidel takes too long, he complains, but he didn’t rely on his gut instinct to make the case.
Instead, he writes, “I ran 50,000 simulations of 171 different starting conditions, for a grand total of 8.5 million simulated dreidel games. Here’s what I mean by starting conditions: one starting condition was a game of six players with 10 tokens each. Another was a game of three people with 15 pieces each. All assumed eight seconds per spin, and, again out of generosity to dreidel, I assumed there was no delay between player turns.”
(Showing further generosity, the article included an interactive “Dreidel Duration Estimator,” where you can try out different scenarios for yourself. For example, if a minyan of people play dreidel, each starting with 20 pieces and spending 10 seconds on each spin, you can expect the game to last more than two and a half days. Oy!)
Rather than simply call for the game to no longer be played, Mr. Blatt, “in keeping with the resourceful spirit of the Maccabees,” revised the rules rather than scrap them. And thus we have Speed Dreidel.
The basic idea is this: Instead of taking turns with the spin, everyone spins their own dreidel at the same time. Depending on the spin, players take out a token from the pot, put one in, or share in dividing the tokens. Simultaneous play makes for less boredom. It also results in the final conquest of the pot happening much sooner.
This is, as he points out, good news for dreidel manufacturers. But it is good news for all of us who play the game, and wish to keep traditions alive in an increasingly fast-paced age and one where, frankly, we have more compelling entertainments.
So count that as among this year’s Chanukah miracles: that a game our ancestors converted to Judaism (it had started off as the European game of teetotum) can be renewed – and improved – so we can pass it on to our children.