As we approach the eight days of Chanukah, we think about the symbols and customs.
There is always a good reason for our Jewish customs. At the same time, however, there is almost always a real reason for the customs we have as well. And when it comes to the dreidel and the latke, two particular objects of Chanukah we all know so well, the good reasons are not real and the real reasons are not necessarily good!
The dreidel is perhaps the best known Jewish object next to the menorah, the shofar, and the Torah. Here is what we do know about the dreidel. It is a four-sided top with the Hebrew letters. When you put the letters together, they form an acronym that stands for the phrase translated to English as "A great miracle happened there." On Chanukah, it is customary to teach the children to play a little gambling game using this top to celebrate this joyous, but very minor, holiday.
The good reason for the dreidel is the one we always hear. The dreidel was created a long time ago out of a need to be able to teach and pass on our faith when it had to be passed on in secret. During Roman times, when the study of Torah was outlawed, Jews had to find ways to fool the authorities and teach our faith when it was dangerous to do so.
Jews created dreidel and other types of innocent games that could be played without arousing suspicion from the authorities. Dreidel conveyed the meaning and message of the holiday and allowed the story of Chanukah to be told without fear of discovery. Good reason.
Unfortunately, it is not the real reason. In fact, the dreidel originally had nothing to do with Chanukah and actually had more to do with the winter season.
In the winter, a popular game called totum or teetotum was created in fifteenth-century England and Ireland. Totum was a game created to pass the time during the long winter season. It was was a four-sided top used for gambling with four letters T (take all), H (take half), P (put down) and N (get nothing).
In Eastern Europe, a similar game grew out of this totum and German letters were added to this pastime and in Germany, the game was called trundle and when Jews started playing it, they put Hebrew letters on it and called it a dreidel (to spin) and that is the real reason Jewish children play dreidel. So dreidel has its origins in England and later in Germany.
We also have a tradition of eating fried foods at Chanukah, especially a potato pancake, called latke. While the good reason is that the latke, fried in oil, was created by Jews to celebrate the miracle of the oil when the desecrated Temple was cleansed, it actually didn't start with us.
The latke was actually a popular winter dish common throughout much of Poland centuries before Jews even got there. We took it and grafted it into our culture as well. Like the dreidel, the latke is not Biblical, Talmudic or even Jewish. It is no more Jewish than a hamburger.
Now, why am I doing this to our Chanukah traditions? Because I think this teaches us something very important about Judaism and our survival.
Chanukah celebrates the story of the Jewish people rising up against those who wanted to purge us of our heritage. It is the story of the Syrian-Greeks, in the year 165 B.C.E., defiling our Temple, trampling our religious way of life and demanding that we assimilate and become Hellenists. They wanted us to give up our identity and our religion.
You might think it ironic, therefore, that on this very holiday which celebrates victory over assimilation, that we play the dreidel game and eat latkes which are examples of assimilation. After all, are we not using a game that was popularized by others and eating a delicacy from a culture that was not our own?
The point is that Jews have survived because our people have been adept at making a distinction between assimilation and acculturation. Assimilation is the cultural absorption of a community into the main cultural body. Acculturation is adapting to new and different cultures and surroundings, being influenced but not swallowed up by those cultures. Acculturation is the only way to survive as a minority.
Jewish people have always had to battle to survive as a people. The tiny worldwide Jewish minority of fewer than 14 million have always been embattled. When we weren't being persecuted, we had to find ways to keep ourselves distinct and avoid disappearance. When we weren't fleeing for our lives, we had to answer: how can we survive as a people without assimilating?
And for the last two thousand years, the Jewish religion has been able to survive precisely because Jews have successfully acculturated to society, adapting our heritage and faith to our surroundings.
We like to think of Jews surviving because we were stubborn and refused to adapt to the surrounding cultures. Just the opposite! The truth of the matter is we successfully found ways to take aspects of every society in which we lived and incorporate them into our own practices.
That is the meaning of dreidel, latke and a whole host of customs and tradition we do to this day. They were never part of the Torah, the Talmud or even the Codes of Jewish Law. They were traditions of the societies we lived in; we adopted them and adapted them into our world to be used to keep our faith and our people alive.
For example, Jews took the German language, added Hebrew letters and created Yiddish; we also took Spanish, added Hebrew and created Ladino. Jews in Middle Eastern cultures created a more Eastern form of Jewish expression and Jews in Europe created a more Western-influenced faith, from the foods we ate to the language we spoke to the prayers we recited. The religious "core" always stayed the same but the trappings changed to conform to the societies in which they lived.
The very key to our survival is found in the dreidel and the latke. The Jew didn't assimilate, nor did he drop his heritage, but acculturated to the society he was in and found new ways to practice the faith of his ancestors.
Acculturation is what Jews have done for centuries, from eating a Polish Potato Pancake and making it a Chanukah tradition, to taking a popular Christmastime toy called totum and making a game that tells the story of Chanukah.
That's the way we survive as a people.
Stuart Spindel is a member of Temple Adath Israel and often leads services, in English and Hebrew. Torah study sessions are at 6:30 p.m. every Friday at Adath Israel, 429 Daviess St.