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A Jewish Janeite’s take on Chanukah

Nun —Gimel—Hey— Shin! Watch the dreidel spin, spin spin! I am certain many of you are familiar with those catchy lyrics and have sung along as you’ve tossed your Chanukah gelt into the pot. Some call the dreidel game child’s play, while others deem it a teachable moment. The letters printed on the four sides of the dreidel represent the phrase: Nes Gadol Haya Sham or A Great Miracle Happened There. In Israel, the phrase would be: Nes Gadol Haya Po or A Great Miracle Happened Here.

There are several theories on the origins of the game. Some say that the game was used to trick the Greeks who had outlawed the study of Torah. If a troop of soldiers came upon a groups of students, the Jews would simply say that they had gathered to play a game.

Another theory points out that the numerical value of each letter on the dreidel equals 358; which according the Gemara, is the equivalent to the word Mashiach (Messiah). Yet another tradition says that the letters on the side of the dreidel represent the four kingdoms that tried to destroy us:

*N = Nebuchadnezzar/Babylon

*G= Gog or Greece

*H= Haman/Persia

*S = Seir/ Rome.

There are also theories regarding the Chanukah gelt, the coins used to play the game. After the Maccabean revolt, the Hasmonean dynasty claimed their independence. A true sign of an independent nation is the ability to mint their own coins. In my view, the menorah and the coins are as meaningful and symbolic as the Liberty Bell and the Betsy Ross flag. However, some naysayers dismiss the holiday tradition of playing dreidel as gambling. Their commentaries go hand in hand with anti-Semitic remarks about Jews and money.

We’ve seen the headlines in recent days. These old and ignorant accusations continue to persist and are dangerous. We must address slander against our community. We do not need to apologize for success, but it is incumbent upon us to share our unvarnished stories and explain where we came from, what befell us. What limitations were put on our community and how did we rise up?

Marcus Loew, of MGM fame, was born into a poor, immigrant family who had fled the ghettos and persecution of Austria and Germany. He began working at an early age and had little to no education. From the money he saved at his menial jobs, Loew was able to buy a penny arcade business.  Louis B. Mayer (Lazar Meir) was born in Imperial Russia. He too was from a poor family. Mayer quit school at the age of twelve to help support his family. With struggle and sacrifice, he was able to purchase a small vaudeville theater that catered to other poor immigrants. Szmuel Gelbfisz, otherwise known as Samuel Goldwyn, was born in Warsaw. He left Poland penniless after his father’s death. In Germany, he trained to be a glove maker as career choices and educational opportunities were limited for Jews. Goldwyn later managed to immigrate to England and later to the United States. He became a successful salesman in New York City. The three men who created Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios came from impoverished and persecuted communities. They overcame injustices and prejudice, but they refused to see themselves as victims. Our history must be discussed and not just tossed away as old news that doesn’t pertain to our modern society.

I know this sounds like a stretch, but I hold firm in my belief that playing dreidel is the perfect opportunity to retell the story of the Maccabees. They refused to surrender. They had a vision for their community and fought to reach their goals. There are important lessons to reap from that tale, but none more so than having bitachon—trust. The battle-worn warriors had managed to conquer the invading armies of Antiochus, but not before the enemy defiled the sanctuary. As the Maccabees rededicated their holy space and lit the seven-branch menorah, they knew they only had enough oil to last one night. But they didn’t simply take a gamble and throw reason to the wind. They placed their trust in God. And as we all know, they were rewarded for their faith. That vial of oil did not last for just one night. It lasted for eight. I don’t want to make light of these events (no pun intended), but I am able to weave the importance of this theme of trust into my work.

My characters shall have, after a little trouble, all that they desire.”

Jane Austen

The Meyersons of Meryton delves a bit into the Chanukah story—I’ll share a snippet with you shortly—but the concept of trust and faith is also interwoven in Becoming Malka, Destiny by Design~ Leah’s Journey and most recently in Celestial Persuasion. As in any book, there needs to be an arc to the storyline. There needs to be growth. The heroine must face her fear and rise above the obstacles placed in her path. In keeping with Miss Austen’s playbook, my characters—Molly, Leah, Abigail and even Elizabeth Bennet—all do have a little trouble, but it is ultimately their trust and faith, that gets them to their HEA (Happily-Ever-After).

I realize that we’re still in the fall season here in the northern hemisphere, and there are other holidays to commemorate before we head into the darkest part of the year. However, in light of recent events (again—no pun intended) I felt that this post was well-timed. Chanukah is called the Festival of Lights for a reason. The candles of the chanukkiah are meant to rekindle our memories of what our ancestors accomplished and how they stood up against their aggressors. They are also meant to spark our bitachon and emunah.

Next month, we will begin preparing our latkes and sufgenyiot for our holiday meals. The dreidels and coins will decorate our tables too. Why not take a moment to contemplate their significance; after all, A Great Miracle Happened There and they will continue to happen if we keep the faith!


An Excerpt from The Meyersons of Meryton

When the happy couples at length were seen off and the last of the party had departed Longbourn, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet were found in the dining room quite alone, sharing the last bit of port between them.

“What shall we do now, Mrs. Bennet, with three daughters married?”

Surprised at being asked her opinion, Mrs. Bennet gave the question some thought before replying. “I suppose we have earned a respite, husband. Let us see what Life has in store for us.”

“No rest for the weary, my dear, for soon Mary will leave us and then Kitty. We shall have to make arrangements for the inevitable. Perhaps you shall live with one of the girls when I am gone and Mr. Collins inherits the place.”

“Mr. Bennet,” she giggled, “you should have more bitachon.”

“I beg your pardon?”

Perhaps it was the port, or perhaps it was pure exhaustion, but Mrs. Bennet found she had no scruple in sharing the entire tale of Chanukah with her most astonished husband. “Pray Mr. Bennet,” she finally concluded, “what was the true miracle of this holiday?”

“The logical answer,” he replied dryly, “would point to the miracle of such a small group of men overcoming a fierce and mighty army.”

“No, that is not it.” She giggled, as a hiccup escaped her lips.

“Well then,” he sighed, “the esoteric answer would point to the miracle of the oil lasting eight nights.”

“No, Mr. Bennet. Again, you are incorrect.”

“Pray tell me, wife, what then was the miracle, for I can see that you may burst with anticipation for the sharing of it!”

“The miracle, sir, was that they had bitachon. I do hope I am pronouncing correctly. At any rate, it means trust. They knew they only had one vial of sacred oil and had no means to create more. They lit the candle and left the rest up to the Almighty. And that is exactly what we should do in our current circumstance.”

“My dear, it is a lovely tale and I am certain that it has inspired many generations before us and will inspire many generations after we are long gone, but it does not change the fact that Mr. Collins is to inherit Longbourn…”

“Longbourn is entailed to Mr. Collins if we do not produce a son.”

“Yes, and well you know that we have produced five daughters, although you are as handsome as any of them, Mrs. Bennet. A stranger might believe I am the father of six!” he said with sincere admiration.

“You flatter me, Mr. Bennet. I certainly have had my share of beauty, but I wish to say…”

“You were but a child when we wed,” he waved her silent, “not much more than Lydia’s age, if I recall. But, my dear, that is neither here or there, for in all this time a son has not been produced and there’s nary a thing to do for it!”

“Mr. Bennet, there is something I have been meaning to tell you. That is, if you could spare a moment of your time—or does your library call you away?”

His wife’s anxious smile made him feel quite the blackguard. Had he not made a promise in Brighton? Did he not vow he would change his ways? Mr. Bennet decided it was high time he put the good rabbi’s advice into practice. Bowing low, he replied, “Madam, I am your humble servant.”

Happier words had never been spoken.


If you’re looking for a great gift idea for your Jewish Janeite, please consider my latest novel, Celestial Persuasion —or any other of my Jewish historical fiction novels. Chag Sameach! Happy Holiday!

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