“Saben, watch my curveball!” Aaron says, throwing his dreidel out with extra oomph so that he can relish the crisp way it cuts across the table in an arc. “It's all about flicking the wrist.”
Soon Max Rubin, age 8, butts in, claiming to be the greater authority on technique, as his dreidel spun for 27 seconds during their practice trial, while Aaron's only lasted 26.
“My real secret is I like the green one,” Max explains, indicating the neon dreidel he's chosen to practice with. “The brighter colors reflect the light, so when it spins it'll reflect off light and make it spin better.”
It's the first Sunday in December, and the top floor of the parking garage at Sinai Temple in Westwood is packed with Jews of all ages, schmoozing with their neighbors, noshing on pizza and jelly donuts, and practicing for Dreidelmania's main event: an official attempt to break the Guinness World Record for most dreidels being spun simultaneously, as previously set by Temple Emanuel in Cherry Hill, N.J., where 541 people successfully spun together in 2005.
The scene is what you might expect at a temple-sponsored Hanukkah party: Parents and their miniature duplicates glue dry pasta and beans to black construction paper in the shape of a menorah. A pregnant woman sports a pearl yarmulke, and Madame Jellybean — the mother of Religious School Director Danielle Salem-Kassin — dressed in purple Crocs and flowy, multicolored fabrics, spoons out Jelly Bellies and mystical predictions. Her husband sits on the other side of the table, blowing up balloon animals and swords.
Across the room, event co-chair Lisa Pompan greets fellow longtime congregant and Sinai Board member Ira Friedman with a hug.
“Look at you, all decked out!” she says. Friedman twirls to show off pristine white sneakers, dark jeans, four pens in his front pocket, a Bakersfield Dodgers cap, an argyle sweater tied around his shoulders and thick, round, black glasses.
In the early 16th century, Ashkenazi Jews appropriated the teetotum, a popular German gambling game with origins in ancient Greece and medieval Europe, as a symbol of the Hannukah story, renaming the game dreidel after the Yiddish word for the spinning top that the game uses. The modern game combines commemoration of the 165 B.C. miracle that caused the Maccabees' one-day supply of oil to burn for eight days with the fervent candy-hoarding typically reserved for Halloween.
Four-year-old Rachel Shalom explained the real reason she and the rest of the practicing children claim to enjoy dreideling: “[Be]cause if you spin it more, you get to have gelt. That's chocolate.”
Maddie Horowitz, 12, agreed. When considering the best parts of the holiday season, Maddie said she thought the free candy put dreideling “pretty much at the top, tied with presents.”
And yet the small, gold-wrapped chocolate coins were nowhere to be found during the practice hour, leaving some less than thrilled.
“There is no point in being here today,” Ethan Faliv, 14, told me. “I was forced here by my mom.” Ethan said he would rather be at home finishing his homework, and he and his friends asserted that dreideling on its own, without chocolate, had never been fun and would never be fun.
Even for those participants not mired in an angsty fog, the game of dreidel apparently has little recreational appeal without a tangible reward like pennies or gelt at stake.
“We prefer Scrabble, because it has more than four letters,” explains Tal Wolf, referring to the four Hebrew letters that grace the sides of the dreidel. He and his wife, Nina, have been married for two years, and both wear Star of David necklaces. “[Scrabble has] 26 letters, in fact, so it's 6.3 times the fun!”
Nevertheless, the novelty of breaking a world record attracted 694 registered participants, all of whom gathered in the lower part of the garage around 12:30p.m. to hover around card tables and prepare for the big spin.
Grubby hands reached into wicker baskets to snatch the cheap, plastic colored dreidels Pompan and other synagogue leaders had determined weeks earlier would be the easiest to spin. Kalmin Weisberg, 8, told me he'd brought his own light-blue dreidel from home for luck, as he's been winning with it consistently for the past six years.
Some last-minute practice spins ricochet against each other, careen off the table or fall flat, discouraging young and old alike. “I'm in off-season form,” admits high school senior Adam Stern, and one by one the congregants of Sinai Temple begin to realize how very difficult it is to get a dreidel to stay spinning for ten whole seconds.
A disembodied voice announces the start of a formal practice round over the PA speakers at the front, but soon a low rumble of cheers, drum rolls, whoops and shushing is reverberating around the garage, making it impossible to hear instructions. Finally Rabbi David Wolpe, considered one of the most influential rabbis in the country, takes the microphone and brings the rattle down to a soft hum.
On your mark, get set, spin!
A young boy in a brown leather jacket releases his dreidel, only to watch it fall immediately to the floor. He scrambles to pick it up and set it spinning again, although nearly two seconds of the ten have now gone by. This time his orange dreidel remains on the table but topples within three seconds. Before he can decide what to do next, the official ten seconds have come and gone, and temple volunteers are walking the aisles, asking those who accomplished successful spins to raise their hands.
He raises his hand.
Although free gelt was on hand afterwards for anyone who participated, a few kids seemed disillusioned by their failure to break the record. Some even theorized that spinning a dreidel for ten seconds straight was so difficult that not all of the 266 “successful spins” had truly happened.
“I think the boys cheated,” Audrey Labib, 10, told me. “They would.”
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