Most people don’t really consider the part the UK and Ireland has played in what today is the sum of Jewish existence and culture around the world. To often, when a person is researching their Jewish heritage, they will start in the pale of the eastern block and lose their way when there appears to be a massive gap between leaving Europe and arriving in the US. Those boats from the Pogroms and violence and fear often stopped in the UK and Ireland and often, when that happened, the non-English speaking Jews might leave.. and make a life, for a month or a year or a life time, in those places. The result was an influx of thousands of Jews into Ireland in the 1800’s. But that’s quite recent history.. compared to the Dreidel.
As the winter nights draw in and the dark evenings get ever sooner it’s easy to look forward to Hannukah and it’s beautiful lights. One tradition of this holiday is the Dreidel, a spinning top that has been a part of this seasons festivities for hundreds of years. The sight of a dreidel is as Jewish as a bagel or menorah but how Jewish is it.. really.
The usually wooden top is called in german ‘trendel’ and is actually the core part of a gambling game, each side is marked with a letter that has a meaning. A = Take, D = put down, N = nothing and T = all.
From here we can travel backwards or forwards in time.. let’s go forwards first.
The german word ‘trendel’ became the Yiddish word ‘dreydl‘ from ‘dreyin’ to turn. The letters ADNL became hebrew letters, ‘shin’ – put in, ‘nun’ – nothing, ‘gimel’ – all and ‘he’ – half. These still make up the markings of the many thousands of different spinning tops and spinning top themed items that pour into the Hanukkah market every year.
But where did the game come from?
Well, almost the world over you will find a form of this type of divination stick, china has a 6 sided one and indeed some early versions of the 4 sides sticks were dice with a stick driven through them. However the 4 sided version hails from Ireland (some argue England) and originally were painted with latin words rather than letters. The ‘T’ side containing the word ‘totum’ meaning ‘all’, and giving the game and top its original name ‘Teetotum’ or ‘T-Totum’. The game dates back to pre-roman times and while Ireland itself was never beaten or invaded by roman (yay for Ireland!) it did remain a strong trade market for the Roman empire and Britain. Rome was no stranger to the Island of Ireland or ‘Hibernia’ as it was known to the Romans and with the help of the Romans and growing European trade the game spread throughout Europe and eventually it found a new home with a new name.. a name and game that now are synonymous with Jewish culture.
So, next time you are hoping to win some gelt spare a thought for the emerald isle and its little wooden block that conquered the world.