A new spin on dreidel: a cross-cultural lesson

A few years ago I was asked to give a brief talk regarding the celebration of Hanukkah to a group of 8- and 9-year-olds in an East Contra Costa County public school. I began by asking them if they thought everyone in the world celebrated Christmas and promptly received a chorus of yeses. Countering their initial beliefs, the students were shown menorahs, Hanukkah cards and samples of Hebrew writing as they heard the tale of Hanukkah and how it is celebrated. This presentation led to the grand finale, the game of dreidel.

The students were divided into groups, provided dreidels and each player was given candy, along with a cheat sheet (allowing them to match the Hebrew letters on the dreidel to the outcomes of each dreidel spin). They enthusiastically began to play.

As the games progressed I observed something unusual in one group. When a student in this group ran out of candy, a few other players gave the classmate candy from their own winnings, so that they could continue to play the game. Thus, in this group no one was eliminated from play. At first I wondered if these kids misunderstood the purpose of the game, which involved maximizing winnings and eliminating other players as part of the fun. As I continued to watch this group of players, I also noticed that the students who provided candy to keep other players in the game were either born in Mexico or had parents who were from Mexico. In addition, their non-Hispanic peers did not emulate the generosity of these children.

The phenomenon of this culturally rooted generosity brought to mind an article that I read many years ago as a graduate student at U.C. Berkeley. In one of a series of studies Millard Madsen, a UCLA psychologist, observed cross-cultural differences in a game that he designed. More specifically, he created an experimental game in which winning could only be achieved through cooperation by a dyad of players. Findings from his study demonstrated that school-age children from Mexico were much more likely to respond in a successful manner, in contrast to same-age children of European ancestry. The latter children often resorted to competitive strategies that were maladaptive to success in the game.

OK, so what does cooperation and competition have to do with Hanukkah? Well, the Hanukkah story, as I learned it, focused on how the Maccabees banded together and triumphed over a larger force of Syrians to secure their religious freedom. And how does this beloved Hanukkah game of elimination directly relate to the holiday? It doesn’t. Historically, the game dreidel is derived from the game totum, or teetotum, played in England and Ireland at Christmastime.

With the game devoid of a true connection to the Hanukkah story, I now wonder if the game can be modified to retain the fun of winning, while offering a closer connection to the holiday. Also, is there a need to eliminate players in the game? (Ask a 5- or 6-year-old and they will most likely vote against eliminating players.) As a possible revision to the game, what if all players (called Maccabees) banded together and played against “the house,” which could be called the Syrians. Each Maccabee player could wager, spin and win for their team. Possibly over time the Maccabee team could triumph over the Syrians. We will tinker with the rules and give this game a spin at our Hanukkah party.


Lee Ross is an educational psychologist living in Lafayette.