A Spin on Dreydls–if I do say so myself

Antique Trader

December 3, 2008 |  |

Dreydles are not just for child’s play. Collectors rejoice in their whimsy, beauty and variety all year.

What child hasn’t spun around like a top, arms extended, then fallen to the ground in delightful dizziness? Who hasn’t watched, mesmerized, as a pebble spins down a riverbank, or an acorn tumbles to the ground, spinning on its axis before rolling to a stop? For millenniums, spinning toys, discovered at archeological sites and illustrated on artifacts, have fascinated people from the Far East to the Near East.

Ancient Jews, too, enjoyed playing with spinning toys. But during the Greek occupation of Jerusalem some two thousand years ago, their clay tops served a higher purpose as well. Although the Greeks executed Jewish scholars caught studying sacred writings, the Jews continued undeterred. When Greek soldiers approached, however, they swiftly exchanged their texts for innocuous spinning tops.

After the Greek occupation, the Jews, set to rededicate Jerusalem’s Holy Temple, found only enough purified oil for a single day. Yet miraculously, it burned for eight days, time enough to prepare more. During Chanukah, Jews celebrate this miracle by illuminating eight-branched candelabras. They light one light on the first night, two on the second, and so forth until, by the end of the holiday, eight lights glow in a row. People also indulge in oil-rich foods and, as of old, toy with tops called dreydls.

Every dreydl is a top, but not every top is a dreydl. A dreydl (which rhymes with fatal and is derived from the Yiddish word “turn”) is a four-sided top featuring a specific Hebrew letter on each side. World round, whirled round, these letters signify “A Great Miracle Happened There.” In Israel, however, where it all took place, they signify “A Great Miracle Happened Here.” Each letter also signifies a certain game play.

So how do you play dreydl? It’s essentially a game of chance. In one version, each player receives a certain number of coins, nuts, raisins, or candy and puts an agreed-upon amount into the kitty. Then the spinning, by turn, begins. As the dreydl lands on this letter or that, its player either does nothing, takes half, takes all, or adds to the kitty. Anyone who runs out of goodies is gone from the game.

As Chanukah approaches, inexpensive, plastic dreydls flood synagogue gift shops, online commercial sites, and Jewish neighborhood stores. While some are simple spinners, others, crooning holiday ditties, flashing lights, boinging, bouncing, or whistling as they whirl, are especially child-friendly. Refillable jumbo plastic dreydls, overflowing with Chanuka “gelt,” gold-foil wrapped chocolate disks, are another hands down favorite. So are chocolate dreydls, ones that after taking a spin, you eat.

Dreydls are not all child’s play, however. Many adults, rejoicing in their whimsy, beauty, and dizzying variety, collect them year round. Since dreydls, by nature, are so small, most are easily affordable.

Antique silver dreydls, like those spirited out of Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Austria, or Germany, command the highest prices. So do authentic Yemenite dreydls fashioned into flowers in bloom, elegant crowns, or functional Sabbath spice boxes a-twirl. Since Yemenite Jewish silversmiths were allowed to work only tiny amounts of metals, these exquisite works of art are spun from nothing more than thin strands of silver and air.

Other artisans incorporate air into their designs as well. Dreydls echoing Persian architecture, for example, may feature airy filigree arabesques. Dreydls made of dense or expensive metals, like copper or vermeil, a combination of silver and gold produced by electrolysis, often feature pierced Hebrew lettering. So do New Age anodized aluminum square and spiraling creations. Since tops, if not spinning, always fall a-tilt, many of these collector dreydls come with matching stands for display purposes.

Today’s artisans often find inspiration in Jewish tradition. Modern dreydls sometimes echo Hebrew script found on antique cloth binders used to tie Torah scrolls. Some feature gold cloisonné flowers and vines, reminiscent of 18th century Italian Chanukah lamps. Others borrow silver architectural and decorative motifs from Viennese popular designs. Popular Biblical images like Stars of David, pomegranates, figs, wine jugs, even three-dimensional scenes of Jerusalem, abound. Hand painted wooden dreydls, like those by Jerusalem-based Emanuel Judaica, fuse colorful traditional motifs with modern and Oriental art.

Clear dreydls, whether acrylic, glass, Lucite, or lead crystal, are clear standouts. So are stained glass ones, whether realized in shimmering, solid tones or intricately wrought mosaics. Blown glass dreydls filled with colored liquid are especially fetching. Fused glass, a layering technique dating back to Biblical times, makes especially lovely dreydls. When set a-swirl, they burst into gay kaleidoscopes. Ceramic and porcelain dreydls portray anything from classic leaves and vines to musical instruments to (pardon the pun) kitty cats.

Some dreydls are pure whimsy. Square, round, oblong, triangular, three-dimensional, or freeform, anything goes as long as they spin on their axis and balance on a single point. During Chanukah, Teddy bears dreydls tumble, ballerinas whirl, ladybugs twirl, and soccer balls swirl.

Other dreydls are hybrids, rich fantasies of traditional filigree married with modern enamel, gilded pewter adorned with rubies and other semi-precious stones, or resin spinners filled with silver nuggets. The Seeka Judaica Company, for example, combining industrial design with fine art, offers hand painted cut-steel dreydls meticulously inlayed with light-hearted assortments of baubles and beads. The Jewish History Dreydl, which features an inspiring image of Masada flanked by the Twelve Tribes of Israel, and is cast in fine pewter embellished with Swarovski crystals and 24 carat gilt, packs a lot into a little. Like most dreydls, it’s about two inches high.

Those who prefer simple pleasures can celebrate Chanukah’s miracle with classic lead, pewter, or clay dreydls edged with tiny rows of raised dots or other subtle detail. Or they may choose modern sandblasted wooden spinners, with requisite Hebrew letters ringed by cheery hand painted elephants, florals, or geometrics. But my favorite dreydl is the simplest one of all. My grandfather, presented me with a tiny dreydl he had lovingly coaxed from a rough square of wood. I treasure it to this day.