On our dining-room windowsill in Teaneck, we had a large clear vase filled with colorful Chanukah dreidels. When we made aliyah in August 2007, they somehow disappeared into the abyss of the countless items we gave away or sold at yard sales.
Two years ago we hosted an extended family Chanukah party, and we bought a few dreidels for the occasion. Last week, our oldest grandchild, a first- grader, was doing practice spins with these new dreidels. He noticed that the Hebrew letters on the four sides are nun, gimel, hey, and pey, which stand for “nes gadol haya po,” “a great miracle happened here.”
“Why don’t you have one with a shin?” he asked, knowing we come from far-away America, where everyone speaks English and dreidels have a shin instead of a pey. In the diaspora (“galut” in Hebrew) dreidels feature the letters nun, gimel, hay, and shin, which stand for “nes gadol haya sham,” “a great miracle happened there.”
Little Yehuda wanted to see what an American dreidel looks like. So I posted a message on our local Facebook group, Ma’ale Adumim Anglo Community: “Anybody have a ‘galut’ dreidel I can borrow or buy? Our grandchildren are curious to see a letter shin on a dreidel.”
Within a short time three neighbors responded, and by that night I had the goods.
This trivial episode got me thinking about other diaspora things my grandchildren have never seen at this time of year: Santa and his elves at the mall. Reindeer and sleighs on roofs. Crèches and Christmas trees on the municipal green.
As a public school pupil, I participated in the school’s Christmas concert every year, from first through 12th grade. There always was a Chanukah song or two on the program, but these concerts were all about carols, from “Silent Night” and “Little Drummer Boy” to “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Good King Wenceslas.” One year the choir director assigned me to a caroling group that went around the neighborhood of Yonkers High School with mittened hands and rosy cheeks, singing “The Christmas Song” (aka “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”).
I frankly enjoyed singing these beautiful songs and seeing the beautiful Christmas lights. Coming from a religious but very open home, I was taught to appreciate and respect this beauty without feeling threatened by it. I understood that we were a small Jewish minority in an overwhelmingly Christian country, and that even while holding fast and proud to our different beliefs, holidays, and dietary laws, we were somehow both apart from and also a part of this American mainstream.
We sent our own children to Jewish day schools, where they never sang carols or decorated construction-paper Christmas trees. They didn’t need notes from home for the teacher to explain absences on Jewish holidays. They didn’t have to bring their own kosher food to parties or feel self-conscious wearing kippot on their heads. They were steeped in their own beautiful heritage in school and at home.
They were taught to appreciate and respect their Christian neighbors and the beauty of their Christmas customs. They understood they were on a Jewish island in a gentile sea, apart from the mainstream.
In stark contrast, my three grandchildren are fully part of the mainstream. They live in a Jewish state that runs on a Jewish calendar, where Saturday is Shabbat no matter how you choose to observe or not observe it, where Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year, and where the average Jewish citizen has at least some semblance of a Passover seder, a Purim costume, a sukkah, and a Lag B’Omer bonfire. Even the buses flash the traditional New Year greeting at Rosh Hashanah, and even the most secular kibbutz kids decorate harvest baskets on Shavuot.
My grandchildren are aware of Israeli citizens of other faiths. They are familiar with the muezzin’s five-times-a-day call to prayer. They know there is a holiday called Christmas, when the Jerusalem municipality gives out free trees to Christian residents. But it is Judaism that defines and permeates the unique land in which they live, the land so central and intrinsic to our way of life.
And all of this is simply and completely symbolized by the letters on a Chanukah toy.
A great miracle happened here, when a small band of Jews prevailed, at great cost of life, over the Syrian-Greeks in 164 B.C.E. A great miracle happened here in 1948, when after another terrible war we finally could come home to a sovereign Jewish state. Great miracles continue to happen here daily, as we thrive, innovate, and make the desert bloom despite constant existential threats.
It is a great miracle that Jewish children in Israel are spinning dreidels imprinted with the letter pey, because it is here that the miracle happened and it is here that the miracle continues.
Happy Chanukah from three generations of the Leichman family in Israel!