Nostalgia Sunday – The sevivon spin
Hanukkah’s traditional motifs are the menorah, sufganiyot jelly doughnuts, potato latkes and the dreidel spinning top. Here in Israel, the latter two have lost in popularity in recent years. Face it, in terms of speed, color and excitement, playing dreidel pales in comparison to even the lowest freebie computer game. (And for some reason, deep-fried balls of dough dusted in sugar or coated in gooey frosting have gained on the hearty potato pancake. This probably due to effective marketing. It’s certainly not because one’s caloric content and health benefits outweighs the other’s).
Some years ago, to salvage the industry, dreidel-makers began producing more upscale and eclectic versions for collectors of contemporary Judaica. Styles encompassed everything from modern contemporary to silver and gold filigree and, of course, chocolate. The sevivon, as it’s known in Hebrew, has become less of a children’s game, more of a conversation piece.
In secular Israel, toy stores very often sell round tops at Hanukkah time, which is, of course, a mistake. A true sevivon has four sides, each emblazoned with a letter: nun, gimel, heh and peh — ness gadol hayah poh, a great miracle happened here. This, as opposed to the Diaspora, where the fourth side of the dreidel is marked with a shin for the word sham — a great miracle happened there. Clearly a Hanukkah holiday symbol throughout the generations.
But all that is just spin, if you’ll pardon the pun. The true origins of the dreidel have less to do with Hanukkah and more to do with keeping the children occupied, as is often the case with a week-long holiday. According to an essay (in Hebrew) by Israeli collector Rachel Bar Lev, “We all played sevivon in our childhood… but collectors know that the picture is far more complex: playing with tops is universal and prevalent in all continents of the globe. The top is not Jewish in origin and its connection to Hanukkah is late. In addition, tops appear in a range of shapes, sometimes with accessories to assist.” Bar Lev notes that archeologists have found tops dating back to as early as 2000 BCE.
“The tops most widely known in Israel are those with four sides, but in the world there are also tops with six and eights sides… Tops are also used in gambling. On such tops you can find letters instructing the player to pay the others, take the winnings, etc… So, for example, in Italy, the letters P,O,M,N are on the sides, meaning Pone ‘put’ (pay into the pot); Omne, ‘all’ (you won it all); ‘Medium’ (half, take half the pot); and ‘Nihil’, zero, nothing (you lost).”
“The Hanukkah sevivon, whose identifying characteristics are four sides, spindle and point, came to us from Germany. On Christmas in December, German children would play with tops to win nuts.” The tradition spread to the neighboring Jewish communities; Bar Lev says that it was the Jews of Poland who brought the dreidel game to the pre-State Land of Israel. “We find the German influence on our sevivon in the letters engraved on it – N,G,H,S – which encapsulate the instructions in German for playing the game.”
“As part of the ‘conversion’ process, the sevivon’s acronym was Hebracized to nun, gimel, heh, shin and received a new meaning: ness gadol hayah sham… intended to mask the game’s non-Jewish origins… As the years have gone by, it turns out that this creation of a link between Hannuka and the spinning top has been so successful that many tend to believe that the sevivon has always been a Jewish game.”
A note about the word “sevivon”. The root word is “svv” (“to turn”) and, according to Wikipedia and other sources, it was invented by a 5-year old Itamar Ben-Avi, the son of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the man who was the driving spirit behind modern Hebrew. However, the first usage of the word in print was on December 24, 1897, by journalist David Isaiah Silberbusch, who credited himself with the new term.
The poet Hayyim Nahman Bialik created a different word, “kirkar” (from the root “krkr” – “to spin”) and author Mendele Mocher Sforim created the word “hazarzar” (from the root “hzr” – “to return”) but neither of these were adopted.
Dreidel, by the way, comes from the Yiddish word “dreyen” (“to turn”). This is similar to German word “drehen”, which means same thing.
Dreidels have become so identified with Hanukkah, they appear in all things Hanukkah-related, including the American-Israeli Hanukkah stamp, the first stamp ever issued jointly by Israel and the United States.
Referring to the joint Israeli-US stamps, Bar Lev writes, “We can see the dilemma of which acronym to use in the First Day Issue envelopes. We find sevivons with the letters N,G,H. But the side that is supposed to have the letter P (for stamps issued in Israel) or S (for stamps issued in the US) — is hidden. Thus is created a philatelic item familiar to children in Israel and the Diaspora as one.”
Proving that kids today do still play the game: just today, 15 children from New York, accompanied by their parents on the UJA-Federation of New York’s Winter Family Mission to Israel, met with 20 Ethiopian children at the Mevasseret Zion Absorption Center near Jerusalem to eat sufganiot and make glitter glue dreidels together.
Photo: Ilan Halperin, courtesy of UJA-Federation of New York.