Cover Story: Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel

Anyone looking for a no-spin zone won’t find it at the home of Debra Bogaards. At last count, her dreidel collection topped 110, with plenty more sure to come her way.

Beyond the common plastic and wooden dreidels always in heavy rotation at Chanukah time — which this year begins at sundown Sunday, Dec. 25 — Bogaards’ collection includes crystal, ceramic and sterling-silver dreidels from Tiffany, Waterford, Lennox and the like.

The Mill Valley attorney also owns a 14-karat-gold dreidel from Israel, and has specialty dreidels from retailers such as Papyrus, Crate & Barrel, Starbucks and Godiva Chocolates. “It’s nice to see Judaica in regular stores,” she says.

As it happens, Bogaards is not alone. The Bay Area is home to many dreidel-holics who happily indulge their passion any chance they get.

Linda Yelnick, a Burlingame artist manager, has been collecting them since she was a child in San Francisco (she still owns the dreidel she was given in Hebrew school decades ago). Today, she has tallied up more than 80 dreidels in her collection, including some real oddballs.

“I have one that’s all sequins and beads,” says Yelnick. “I have one made of clay in the shape of Noah’s ark, a dreidel necklace, a hand-painted dreidel T-shirt, and I have two that my children made in a studio 10 years ago.”

Why dreidels? Yelnick probably speaks for most collectors when she explains, “To me they represent miracles. They go with the story I learned as a child.”

That sentiment has likely been around ever since the first big gimmel-haul of pennies or, better yet, chocolate gelt.

The dreidel game is indeed ancient, though historians differ about its origins. One appealing story — that the Israelites would whip out the game during clandestine Torah study to fake out their mean Syrian occupiers — is almost certainly not true.

More likely the dreidel (the word is a Yiddish twist on the German “drehen,” or “to spin”) was based on a popular German gambling game of the late Middle Ages, right down to the four-sided top and four letters.

Collectors today may enjoy such arcane history lessons, but most say sharing Chanukah with their own kids is what caused them to come down with dreidelitis in the first place.

“I’ve always loved Chanukah,” says Barbara Farber of Tiburon. “It just became more festive when we had kids.”

Farber and her husband, Jeffrey, executive director of the Koret Foundation, have been collecting for more than 25 years. Today they have several dozen dreidels, some of which are a real kick in the shin.

“I have soccer ball-, golf ball- and basketball-dreidels,” she says. “I have a sterling-silver dreidel with kids on it, a salt-and-pepper-shaker dreidel and a marble dreidel from Italy.”

The Farbers have not hidden their eccentricity. As a result, friends and associates keep them in mind when coming across unusual dreidels, and send them on to the couple.

“The year we chaired an AIPAC luncheon, we got one as a thank-you,” says Farber. Also, “the federation once gave them as a thank-you for a campaign one year.”

Like their fellow enthusiasts, the Farbers keep many of their dreidels on display throughout the year, especially those made of glass, ceramic, precious metal or brass. Such dreidels are decorative pieces, not really meant for a high-stakes full-contact dreidel game.

When the chocolate gelt is flying and gambling fever is in the air, only the toughest, most durable street dreidels will do.

“Just last night the kids got on the floor and started playing,” says Sherrie Freidman of San Mateo. Friedman still has children at home (three in all, ages 11 to 16). She, too, has gotten on a dreidel-collecting kick. “We collect because it’s a link to their childhood,” she adds. “It keeps us aware of our youth and tradition.”

Friedman’s collection obsession began when she came to her son’s kindergarten class at San Mateo’s Highlands Elementary School to teach a Chanukah lesson. She brought along dreidels for every child — including, apparently, the child within.

Now her collection of 60 includes sculptured metal- and Raku clay dreidels. She has noisy musical dreidels and even some made of paper. And, proving the ubiquitous nature of Chanukah, Friedman even has a Mickey Mouse dreidel (who knew?).

Most dreidels feature the Hebrew letters nun, gimmel, hey and shin, an acronym for “Nes gadol haya sham,” meaning “a great miracle happened there.” But collectors also love Israeli dreidels that instead substitute a po for a shin and creates an acronym for “a great miracle happened here.”

Sally Gradinger of San Mateo has been at it for eight years, but in that relatively short span she and her husband, Gil, have placed more than 40 elegant tops on display at home. Some of her prized possessions: a Baccarat crystal dreidel, one made of Jerusalem stone, and one made of crushed, colored glass that she and her husband received on their 50th wedding anniversary.

When their four children were young, recalls Gradinger, Chanukah was “tons of fun. Lots of decorations, lots of friends, coming home thinking they were the luckiest kids in the world.”

Gradinger’s husband has caught the fever, too. “He’s always looking for dreidels, and that’s really cute.”

Beyond haunting sisterhood shops at local synagogues or searching on eBay, some people go to great lengths to obtain new dreidels. Bogaards is one of them.

“When my husband and I were in Chicago,” she recalls, “we had a three-hour delay. I tried to go to the Spertus Institute’s Jewish Museum there. We took a cab into town so I could spend a half hour in the gift shop buying dreidels.”

The bug has also bitten Rabbi Harry Manhoff of Temple Beth Sholom in San Leandro. He and his wife, Barbara, have been gathering dreidels for more than 30 years, and have amassed at least 80.

Some of their personal favorites include the nesting Russian doll-like dreidels and a silver one from the Meisel Gallery in Yaffo, Israel. But without a doubt the crown jewel in the Manhoff collection is what the rabbi calls the “Larry King dreidel.”

About 10 years ago, the Manhoffs found themselves in a gallery in Cambria, not far from Hearst Castle. There in the display window was a beautiful handcrafted silver, gold and onyx dreidel. Manhoff thought it would make a fine anniversary present for his wife.

Turned out the piece had been commissioned by CNN talk show host Larry King. But when the artist heard the rabbi wanted it, he promised to create another one for King.

Not long after, Manhoff called King on his radio show (King was on TV and radio at the time). Recalls the rabbi, “I said ‘Larry, I want you to know you don’t have the original Larry King dreidel. You have the knockoff.’ He laughed, said this was the first time a rabbi owed him one.”

Though his kids are now grown, Manhoff says his family never lets the holiday go by without playing a mean game of dreidel, though instead of using pennies or gelt, their lucre of choice is M&Ms. “By the end,” he says, “there aren’t many left.”

At the Bogaards home, they prefer to play with acorns. It’s just one more personalized touch in a tradition that spans Jewish time and Jewish space.

“It’s a part of our history,” says Bogaards. “The dreidel has so many meanings we still honor. I’m fascinated by its viability through time.”

That combination of childlike fun and epic history seems to work its magic every year at this time, but for the diehard collectors, it’s the Hebrew month Kislev all year round.

Says Yelnick: “When I look at the dreidels, they remind me of good things: happiness, pride in being Jewish and celebrating not just at Chanukah but being alive and well.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.