Thursday 28 November 2013

Dreidel-dee dreidel-dum

Hanukkah started at midnight just gone and I'm sure that little Jewish children are waking up today all excited.  Not least because Hanukkah has acquired some of the giftie attributes of Christmas, perhaps because the two festivals often fall in the same month.  But the youngsters can also have intoxicating fun spinning dreidels instead of whacking people playing Grand Theft Auto.  Dreidels are little spinning tops with four different Hebrew letters one to each side. 
shin - nun - gimel - hei
The letters are the initials of a phrase נס גדול היה שם  (Hebrew reads right to left like Arabic) Nes Gadol Hayah Poh which being interpreted is "a great miracle happened here". Each player in dreidel spinning games puts some token into the pot and then each takes turns to spin the top and obey the time-honoured conventions attached to each side.
  • nun - do nothing
  • gimel - take everything in the pot
  • hei - take half (rounded up) of the pot
  • shin - put one (or three) tokens in the pot
Simple enough, hours of fun, scope for bitter recriminations and tears - just the sort of game every family wishes to play during the Winter Solstice Festivities. In Western Europe we also used to play Dreidels except that they were called teetotums and often had the letters A D N T instead of Hebrew.  And instead of as in Hebrew an inspirational mnemonic, the letters stood for straight-forward instructions Aufer - take (one); Depone - put (one); Nihil - take none; Totum - take all. Dreidels culture was all explained to me by Larry Reich at about this time 34 years ago. Larry was a) Jewish b) a deft dreidelist c) the only person I've seen leap full-length on frozen ground to retrieve some data (an escaping field vole Microtus pennsylvanicus) d) a man with a prodigious appetite for ice-cream e) about to give up being a field biologist and fulfill his maternal-driven destiny to become a real doctor and not just a PhD.  I was in graduate school and had a desk in the Bob Tamarin Vole Lab.  Part of the rent (kidding!) was that I'd go out and help when they needed to collect data by bleeding their voles.  It was on the way home from one of these expeditions in late 1979 that I first saw Asteroids being played - quite possibly by Larry - in a pizza-shop near Plymouth, MA.  That was yet another (Scrabble, Monopoly, Diplomacy) nail in the coffin of simple gaming pleasures like spinning tops.  With a little help from William Rowan Hamilton, computer graphics have developed from the simple, efficient vector graphics of Asteroids drug-store consoles to displaying rippling muscles and exaggerated body-contours of Lara Croft Tombraider.

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