‘Oh Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel’

A Favorite Holiday Pastime Takes Center Table

By Gary Shapiro

Published November 17, 2010, issue of November 26, 2010.
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Mickey Langsfeld has a collection that will make your head spin. The retired dentist from Merion, Pa., has been collecting those lovable, four-sided Hanukkah toys that delight children and adults alike: dreidels.

Menorahs tend to get the lion’s share of attention during the Festival of Lights, which this year begins at sunset on December 1. So, it is heartening to see dreidels take center stage or, more aptly, center table.

“I have played dreidel forever,” said Langsfeld, whose 144-piece collection fills three display cases in his home den. Langsfeld, who began collecting in 1984, said that for the first 90 he collected, his criterion was merely that they had to spin.

His favorite dreidel has a split identity: It doubles as a spice box, as one of the lids contains a hinge that opens, allowing spices to fit inside for the Havdalah service.

One of his most enjoyable experiences with dreidels occurred while he was visiting a certain restaurant called Grumpy’s, in Union Dale, Pa., near the ski slopes on Elk Mountain. “The restaurant had great food, but slow service,” Langsfeld said. So his family would bring out a Planters Peanuts jar to play dreidel for peanuts as they waited for the food.

In fact, a common thread among collectors such as Langsfeld is that their childhood enjoyment of dreidels spurred their interest in collecting these Hanukkah tops in adulthood.

Langsfeld’s collection comes from diverse sources. Patients have given him some; others come from friends, such as Bradley Bleefeld, formerly a senior rabbi of Keneseth Israel, a Reform synagogue in Pennsylvania. The latter brought him a dreidel from Israel with a movable slot to show either the Hebrew letter shin or peh. (One letter is used in dreidels from the Diaspora to form an acronym standing for “A Great Miracle Happened There.” The alternate letter is used in Israeli dreidels to help form the acronym meaning “A Great Miracle Happened Here.”)

While some have wagered that the origin of dreidels lay in antiquity, these tops more likely arose much later in Europe as one of many “put and take” games called teetotums.

Another dreidel collector is Carol Breman Nemo, who divides her time between Atlanta and New York. “Every time I go to Israel, I try to collect at least one,” she said, adding that on her last trip she got one in Neve Tzedek, the artsy section of Tel Aviv. She has about 350 dreidels in her collection.

One of her favorite pieces is a large dreidel made of brass that depicts children. Another resembles Congregation Mickve Israel, in Savannah, Ga. “The dreidel looks like the building,” she said.

She has bequeathed her collection to the William Breman Jewish Heritage & Holocaust Museum, in Atlanta, named for her father, the major benefactor.

Toy inventor Daniel Singer is also an avid collector. But he does not collect dreidels per se: He collects images of dreidels. “It’s quite inexpensive,” Singer said, calling himself a “virtual collector.” Of the roughly 200 pictures he has amassed, his favorites include a dreidel that is essentially a golf ball with a handle.

About five years ago he teamed up with Bruce Kothmann, who happens to be an aeronautical engineer, to create a dreidel-inspired game called Staccabees. Singer said that he and Kothmann designed the game’s dreidel in such a way that it would spin well, but not too well, so that the game would move along.

Herman Berliner, Hofstra University’s provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, clocks in at 375 dreidels or more. What are his favorites? “I’m fickle,” he said, noting that his favorite changes whenever he does the once-a-year cleaning and polishing of his dreidels. “I’m still looking for the perfect dreidel,” he explained. He said that only twice has he bought a duplicate.

Because his parents fled Germany in 1938, he has been interested in pre-World War II German dreidels, of which he has six. Based on his experience of frequently looking for dreidels on eBay, he said he knows there are “serious collectors” of dreidels out there, a number of whom are expert at bidding online.

One time, he and his wife were admiring jade carvings in a shop in Hong Kong. Unbeknownst to Berliner, his wife asked the shop to create a jade dreidel, with which she later surprised him.

Individual collectors are not the only ones who cherish dreidels — Jewish Institutions do, too. Those at the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies include a cast-metal dreidel from Bohemia; New York’s Yeshiva University Museum has dreidels from such contemporary artists as Ori Reshef. The Herbert & Eileen Bernard Museum of Judaica, at New York’s Temple Emanu-El, has two dreidels on display. Its collection includes one cast in brass, with very highly decorated Stars of David around each of the four letters.

Judith Schulz, who describes herself as both “director and janitor” of the Spinning Top & Yo-Yo Museum, in Burlington, Wis., has a number of dreidels within her collection, one of which stands at 4.25 inches high and is made of sterling silver.

The former owner of the company The Toycrafter, Don Olney of Rochester, N.Y., also has dreidels within his collection of 6,000 to 7,000 tops. He learned about dreidels when his Jewish customers started asking for them. “I was a good Baptist boy. I knew nothing from dreidels,” he said.

Olney has some dreidels made of crayon. He has some loaded tops, but the only loaded dreidels, he laughed, are ones with the same letter on all sides.

Gary Shapiro is a freelance writer living in New York.

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