Debbye Brandell has been collecting dreidels for three decades and has more than 100 of the four-sided spinning tops that are a beloved part of Hanukkah tradition.
The Wheatley Heights resident has a ballerina dreidel, a dreidel that walks after being wound up, and another that lights up and sings while spinning.
For Brandell and many other Jews, the dreidel is a treasured highlight of Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish holiday that starts Tuesday at sunset and commemorates what the faithful consider a miracle that occurred more than 2,000 years ago.
“For me, there are miracles in your life all around us, and we just have to be open to them,” said Brandell, who is director of education at Temple Chaverim of Plainview. “It doesn’t have to be enormous or fancy. Sometimes it is the simplest thing, like a dreidel made out of clay.”
Hanukkah, also known as the “Festival of Lights,” carries with it themes of hope, miracles, religious freedom and thanksgiving for Jews across Long Island and around the world.
The holiday recognizes the rededication of the sacred Temple of Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the second century Before the Common Era.
Jewish warriors retook control of the temple from Syrian and Greek soldiers, and found oil for the eternal light in the synagogue. The oil appeared to be enough for a day, but the light miraculously burned for eight days.
In commemoration, Jews light a candle on a menorah on the first night of Hanukkah and another candle each successive night until the entire menorah is lit. Families share special Hanukkah treats, such as jelly doughnuts and fried potato pancakes called latkes.
Traditionally, after each evening’s lighting of the menorah candle, children and more than a few adults enjoy playing a game of dreidels.
Each side of the top has a letter, and the four letters represent the Hebrew words “A Miracle Happened There.” If the dreidel was made in Israel — and Brandell has some that were — the last word is different, so the message is “A Miracle Happened Here.”
Players put something in “the pot” — candy or chocolate, for instance — and take turns spinning the dreidel. Depending upon which letter is facing up after the dreidel stops, a player either takes something out of the pot or puts something into it.
“In an era of hyper-technology, here you have this little simple dreidel that packs so much history and so much of a message to it,” said Rabbi Charles Klein of the Merrick Jewish Centre.
“It is somewhat refreshing that for a few days a year, children find some meaning in a simple game with an eternal message, an important message that connects them to history, and that connects them to a great miracle,” he said.
When exactly Jews started using dreidels during Hanukkah is a matter of debate, but the tradition goes back at least centuries, said Rabbi Howard Buechler of the Dix Hills Jewish Center.
Buechler has his own collection of about 75 dreidels he has acquired over the years, made of wood, silver, ceramic or clay.
One is a century-old silver antique he’d bought in Israel. He’d also bought a collection of nine wooden dreidels that also form a menorah.
The dreidel and Hanukkah “teach us that when the world is filled with darkness, we can see lights of hope,” said Buechler, whose synagogue hosted an event one year with 400 people simultaneously playing dreidels.
Brandell is so enamored of dreidels that she has a half-dozen 18-inch-long cardboard representations hanging from the ceiling of her front hall.
This Hanukkah tradition makes “being Jewish a very happy and family-filled time,” she said. “When I look at the dreidel, that’s what I think about.”