Dreidel mine, spin, spin, spin!
By Marvin Rabinovitch
It was Purim eve, and Meyer-Zalman Glayzel was so drunk that, as the proverb had it, he couldn’t tell Mordechai from Haman. Somehow or other, he found himself outside the shtibl where the other male inhabitants of Verbovsk were making merry over a reading of the megilla, the scroll of Esther. What was he doing here on the porch of the rickety beit midrash? Oh yes, he had felt faint and stepped out for a breath of air.
He shivered in the winter cold and clouds of vapor jetted from his mouth and nostrils. Above his head, icicles hung from the eaves of the porch. Luckily, he was well equipped to combat the frost, at least internally. An almost empty bottle of moonshine shnappes was clutched in one hand, a noisemaker in the other. He upended the fat-bellied, thin-necked bottle by the handle that ran from its nape to its shoulder, kissed its mouth and received the last of its bounty, sighing with sorrow at the ungenerous vessel’s depletion. He gave the noisemaker a tentative whirl and was pleased to discover that it was still quite full. It emitted a mechanical growling as pawl rotated against ratchet, menacing enough to throw fear into the hearts of any Hamanides (may their names be expunged from the earth) who may have been lurking in the vicinity.
As usual, he was racked with indecision. Should he go home or stay? If he went home, he would miss the festivities. Perhaps he could lay his hands on another bottle. On the other hand, his head was spinning in a vortex of alcohol and his stomach was very sour. Having fasted throughout the previous twenty-four hours during Ta’anit Esther – Queen Esther’s lament for her doomed people – he had switched without pause to an exclusively liquid diet of 140-proof spirits. He knew, though very vaguely, of the torment that awaited him on the morning that followed such celebration.
Go or stay? Stay or go? He fumbled clumsily in a vest pocket and withdrew his decider. Squeezed between thumb and forefinger was the stem of a Chanukah dreidel, the four-faced top of cast lead children spun to gamble for holiday goodies during the Festival of Lights. Each face bore a letter of the Hebrew alphabet: nune, gimmel, hay, shin. These were the initials of the phrase “ness gadol haya sham” – a great miracle happened there – referring to the minuscule amount of sanctified oil that lasted a full eight days in the purification rites for the temple reclaimed from paganism by the Macabees.
Meyer-Zalman torqued the dreidel, and, in a stochastic blur, it pirouetted on tippy toe across the weathered boards of the porch. Under his breath, he sang:
“Dreidel mine, spin, spin, spin,
Chanukah the Hasmoneans win.
Chanukah, the heroes win,
“So dreidel mine, spin, spin, spin.”
At length, the dreidel wobbled and, all gyroscopic energy exhausted, toppled and fell, one face uppermost. By the light from the keyhole, Meyer-Zalman could make out the letter shin. Ah, a false throw. To prompt a decision, he needed either a nune or gimmel, the former for “nisht” or no-go, the latter for “goot” or go. Once again, he twirled the thing, this time singing:
“Dreidel mine, spin, spin, spin,
Purim Mordechai and Esther win.
That’s when Persian Jews can win,
“So dreidel mine, spin, spin, spin.”
Ach, a hay! You farkakteh dreidel. What good was a hay? He needed a nune or a gimmel. Hamanist dreidel! He sent it a cacophonic bolt from the noisemaker, enough to intimidate a dozen Hamans (may his name be expunged from the earth!).
The two Hamanides who stood beyond the porch railing in the pearly radiance of a gibbous moon, however, showed no signs of fright. Meyer-Zalman noticed them etched against the snow when he looked up.
“Sholem Aleichem, honored sirs,” he slurred. “How fares a Jew?” For the individuals before him were not truly Hamanides. He knew this even in his bemused state. They were simply dressed up to celebrate Purim.
“Aleichem sholem,” they replied correctly, in unison.
He blinked at them owlishly. What wonderful costumes! Squinting in the gloom, he thought they looked familiar. Why, of course: the Shvimmer twins, Fishl and Shifl. How cleverly they were masked for the holiday, attired to resemble the aquatic fauna their names suggested.
But wait, weren’t the Shvimmers inside the shtibl, reveling with the other adolescents? It seemed to him that the apple-cheeked brothers had been prancing around the open scroll on the bama at the time of his own exit from the smoky interior. Perhaps they had followed, to play a Purim trick on him? Oh, those irrepressible yingles! Well well, no matter. He forced himself into the spirit of the occasion.
“I love that effect of buoyancy,” he said with a giggle. Not exactly in those words, of course, but their approximate Yiddish equivalent. How did they do it? With mirrors, no doubt. They did, for a fact, seem to be levitating in mid-air, undulant as goldfish in a bowl. Their iridescent scales shimmered in the moonlight. Old man Shvimmer, the sexton of the shul, must have paid a pretty kopek for those costumes. Of course, he supplemented his income with bribes from the well-to-do for the privilege of carrying the Torah during Sabbath services. It was an open secret.
“You approve our means of locomotion?” One or both of the twins asked, without moving his/their lips. Perhaps it was a trick of the shadowy nacreous light. “We have means of nullifying the pull of….”
The sentence ended in gibberish, but Meyer-Zalman disregarded the semantic nonsense because he himself was suddenly also the object of such nullification. That was the trouble with overindulgence in 140-proof spirits. They made the soles of his feet go numb. It was a familiar sensation. The feeling of weightlessness, however, was not.
They turned and squirmed away toward the forest beyond the shtetl. Meyer-Zalman drifted helplessly in their wake.
“Wait, where are you taking me?” he cried as, in a twinkling, he was abreast of the two, speeding alongside and between them.
“Have no fear, Meyer-Zalman,” said Fishl or Shifl or both (it was hard to tell). “We invite you to our game. You will have a pleasant time.”
“Ah, a Purim game,” Meyer-Zalman said sagely. Perhaps another few swallows of hooch were to be had as well. Ever the optimist, Meyer-Zalman decided to believe so, at least as long as there was no evidence to the contrary.
“Eppes azoynce,” agreed the voice or voices in his head. “Something like that. A game of wagers. We are known as the Great Wagerers in the Great Cloud of Megilla.” At least, it sounded like Megilla. Der groisser volken foon Megilla. He hated it when mystics spoke in metaphoric riddles, but who would have suspected these unfledged youths of being Cabalists?
They passed the last house of Verbovsk and Meyer-Zalman felt a pang of regret, for it was his own house and smoke curled invitingly from the chimney. Inside, a warm bed awaited him, with goose down covers beneath which lay his companionable, soft-contoured wife, Faigaleh. He uttered a sigh of resignation. What could not be cured had to be endured. The twins had somehow taken him captive, and he was too drunk to slip their leash. At least, he consoled himself, the cold no longer bothered him. His escorts seemed to generate an intense body heat that shielded him from the brutal blast of the Ukrainian winter.
Ahead of them, at the forest’s edge, loomed a towering structure. Meyer-Zalman rubbed his eyes in disbelief. Stretching at least a hundred feet into the air stood what seemed, for all the world, to be a giant dreidel, poised with perfect verticality on its stem. In its awesome height, the thing dwarfed the ancient growth of spruce in whose midst it stood. The quadrilateral shadow of its head extended across rolling hillocks of snow and mottled the frozen surface of the River Brazeniplotch. Where it lay, the ice looked like dark glass.
As they drew near, it became apparent that an enormous dreidel had indeed reared its head in the snowy wastes where no dreidel, or any other work of man, had ever shown its face. Of one thing he was sure, no outsize dreidel or any other artifact had existed here eight hours earlier, only snow and virgin forest. This was a good lesson to him: never drink on an empty stomach, mitzvah though it might be to celebrate Purim thus. Not only was he unable to tell Mordechai apart from Haman, he couldn’t distinguish between top and tree and imagined a top that overtopped the treetops.
They paused at the foot of the mountainous dreidel. Meyer-Zalman lifted his eyes to the far distance of its apex. Yes, a dreidel in every respect, though in the moonlight it lacked the matte grayness of cast lead but gleamed like dark glass. The slim pedestal on which it balanced flared abruptly into a concentric superstructure some fifty feet aloft, a perfect cube surmounted by a cone that tapered to a pointed tip targeted at the stars. Meyer-Zalman could easily imagine a titanic thumb and forefinger setting it in motion on a gaming ground the size of a steppe. The only difference was, it lacked the requisite runes on each face, so what would be the point?
“We welcome you to partake of our hospitality,” the twins declaimed formally as, without ceremony, they ushered their guest into the doorless pedestal. One second they were hovering outside in (or at least above) the snow, the next a cylindrical space enfolded them.
“You live inside a dreidel?” Meyer-Zalman gasped.
“How else did we come here, reb yid?”
“And from whence comes a Jew?”
“We already told you, der groisser volken foon megilla.” The Great Cloud of the Megilla.
Meyer-Zalman shook his head in confusion as the threesome rose slowly up the hollow shaft of the interior. The curved wall, the color of strong tea and dully reflective, like dark glass, pulsed with veins of soft phosphorescence. The reluctant guest felt no pressure from below carrying them aloft.
“Is the floor rising under us?” he asked. Talk had reached the shtetl about carriages in Kiev that ran on vertical tracks to travel between the cellars and attics of tall buildings. Could this be one of them?
“We have already explained to you, reb Glayzel, that our abilities include neutralizing der shlep koyach foon dr’erd. The voices in his head seemed to be wearing thin with impatience.
Though he managed to catch it this time, the phrase still didn’t make sense to him. The “pull-power of the earth”? Spare me this hacking of a chaynik, this drumming of a teakettle! The earth had dirt-power and covering power and sprouting power but, as far as he knew, only donkeys and horses, maybe oxen too, had pull-power.
They emerged into the vast rectilinear space of the superstructure. Instead of an unencumbered volume, however, it was compartmentalized by a three-dimensional grid of internal divisions into block-like chambers. True to their name, the Shvimmers swam adroitly from block to block, through blocks, past blocks, zigging and zagging and loop-de-looping along a veritable maze of blocks. Willy-nilly, Meyer-Zalman swam with them, dazzled by some of the views he caught from peripheral walls. One showed him a desert scene where three suns, one bilious green and the others magenta, hung above an ochre horizon. Another showed him a field of stars as numerous as circlets of fat in a bowl of chicken soup. Still a third opened up on the winterscape outside the dreidel, but magnified to the point where the palpable hexagonality of the snow flakes covering the ground transformed the white wilderness into a crystal garden.
He lost all track of time in their arbitrary peregrinations, and it was with a start that he realized the twins had finally reached their destination. The enclosure they entered was not perfectly prismatic but round-cornered. The walls were flat enough, but the ceiling and floor curved away into hollow ellipsoid domes. Here, at least, he could feel his weight and he settled, with a sigh of relief, on the rim of the shallow bowl that served as a floor.
The walls around him formed a band of the familiar dark glass which seemed to be the dreidel’s predominant building material. The panel in front of him flickered into life. To his amazement, it showed the inside of the shtibl he’d just left. His friends stood rocking with laughter as one of their number read from the scroll of Esther. Whenever Haman’s name was mentioned, a vigorous whirl of noisemakers produced a grating tumult to drown it out. Why, there was he himself with his big-bellied bottle.
“What is this, a Purim shpiel?” he asked.
“In a manner of speaking, reb Glayzel. That is, if you think of ‘shpiel’ as a game of wagers as much as a play with actors.”
“Like cards or dominoes or dreidel?” he offered tentatively, and brightened when they agreed.
“An excellent conceit, chaver. And in this case, you have the honor of serving as dreidel. We will wager on the sequence of faces you reveal as we spin you through the….”
Again gibberish. It sounded like “tzeitreisser”, but that, of course, was nonsense from Chelm. Time-tearer? Such glossolalia was getting on his nerves.
“I don’t think I want to be a dreidel,” he demurred, whining a little with fear.
“Oh, come now honored sir. It is the sport of demigods in der volken foon megilla, and the instruments of their wagers are exalted beings.
“It will hurt,” he quailed. “Ess vet mir tee’en vay.”
“Not if you drink this, reb yid.”
The swag-bellied bottle still clutched in his hand suddenly felt heavy. He peered down at it myopically and found the thing full of clear liquid up to the point where the base of the neck joined the shoulders. Nu shoyn, this was indeed hospitality. Thy vodka and thy schnapps, they comfort me. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of the dreidel, I shall fear no evil. He took a deep swig. Very mellow stuff. Euphoria filled him to the brim.
They did things to him, and he made no resistance. Very dimly, as if the body being handled were someone else’s, he perceived a pair of ankles being bound by gossamer cables to nearby knobs projecting beneath the feet that dangled over the rim of the concave floor. A forehead band was wound tightly and the free end locked in an unseen recess. For the first time, he was privy to exchanges between the twins.
“Four branches at least,” one said in an argumentative tone. “The ramifiability of this specimen is potentially unlimited, but four is the minimum I give his untrained lives-cycle thrust. These creatures have a naturally powerful thrust.”
“You miscalculated his progen index, yolk-mate,” the other countered. “The extempolator will show barely three, if that.”
“No, you will lose your wager. Ten sleep periods in the Mother’s Nest, if I recall.”
“I am willing to double that.”
The panel of dark glass went blank for an instant, then flashed back into sharp, vivid animation. Meyer-Zalman found himself both observer from afar and participant in the shpiel.
Shlomo “Frumeh’s” Ben-Ephraim of Verbovsk, his great grandfather, stood sullenly before the makeshift wooden desk of the census official from St. Petersburg. Behind him wound a line of similarly glum-faced, unenthusiastic Jews. Shlomo/Meyer-Zalman stared with fascination at the uniformed clerk’s enormous carroty mustache, the hairs beneath the nostrils darkened with snuff.
“You know why I am here?” the bureaucrat grated, favoring Shlomo/Meyer-Zalman with a look of intense disapproval.
“Yes, excellency.” All adult Jews in the Pale of Settlement knew of the ukase issued by Czar Alexander I (may his name be expunged from the earth).
“No you don’t, zhid! I was sent here because my superior at the ministry discovered me writing love letters when I should have been forging his signature on orders of expulsion. So here I am in Zhidland to carry out the Little Father’s orders to furnish all zhids with regular family names. Do you have a preference, zhid?”
“Pah! That is a patronymic. Efremovitch. What do you say to Zhidlovsky?”
“It does not suit me, excellence.”
“That is the very reason I would give it to you, zhid. Unfortunately, I have overrun my quota of Zhidlovskys for this week. Suggest an alternative.”
“What is this I smell on your breath, zhid? Have you been hitting the bottle?”
“Only a little slivovitz, sir. To give myself courage.”
“Ah, a lover of the shot glass. And what is ‘shot glass’ in your barbaric zhiddish?”
“You inspire me. Henceforward be known as Shlomo Efremovitch Glayzel.” And with a sweep of his quill, the name entered the population registry.
“One,” said Fishl or Shifl.
The panel went dark, then lit up again. Eighteen-year-old Baruch Glayzel, Meyer-Zalman’s great grandson, stood before the immigration inspector barring the way to the exit from the island where a steerage ticket had brought him. Through a window in the opposite wall, he glimpsed a spikey-headed, green-garbed goddess raising an ice-cream cone to the sun. What a blessed land, where even statues ate ice-cream cones.
“Name?” the officer demanded.
“Baruch Glayzel, sire.”
“I ain’t your sire, sonny. You can call me sir. And I’ll write you down as ‘Barry’. Easier on the Anglo-Saxon ear, though if me sainted grandmother could hear me say them words, she’d spin in her County Cork grave. And what was that other you said?”
“’Glassel’ will do,” the man said. However, penmanship was not his strong point, and when the time came for Baruch to take out first papers he discovered that the government knew him as Glassol. His friends never ceased to remind him what that rhymed with.
“Two,” said Shifl or Fishl.”
Dolores Glossy, Barry’s twenty-two-year old granddaughter, felt more aggrieved than apprehensive when the strip joint was raided and she was bundled into the paddy-wagon with the other performers and some of the johns.
“Can’t you bozos appreciate a real artiste when you see one?” she demanded.
“Three,” said Fishl or Shifl.
The sign behind the tall gray-haired politician at the podium read “Ned Gloucester for US Senate”. The aquiline features on the poster’s photo were reminiscent of Meyer-Zalman’s own.
“What’s your position on Israel’s determination to pre-empt the threat from Iran, Congressman?” someone in the crowd before him asked. Barry Glassol’s great-grandson had much to say but was cut off in mid-speech when the scene shifted back to the shtibl.
“Four,” crowed Fishl or Shifl, “Four ramifications, and I win.”
“Call it double or nothing,” Shifl or Fishl replied. “Remember our wager on whether the Belgian bomber will destabilize the continent.”
“I believe the adjective is ‘Belkan’ or ‘Balkan’,” the other said. “But by all means. By all means. You’re on, yolk-mate.”
The panel went dead. So did Meyer-Zalman’s mind. Dead as dark glass.
“Balkan,” he murmured. “The word is ‘Balkan’.” His teeth were chattering.
“I believe he is regaining his senses,” someone said.
Meyer-Zalman opened one eye. He was lying curled in a fetal ball before the pot-bellied wood stove in one corner of the shul. A semicircle of anxious faces peered down at him. Among them were the Shvimmer twins, arrayed not in iridescent scales but in Cossack boots and the homespun of peasant blouses. So much for the Wagerers.
“It’s a mitzvah to get drunk on Purim, Meyer-Zalman,” the rabbi scolded him kindly, wagging an admonitory forefinger, “But not so drunk that you fall asleep in the open air on a March evening in a Ukrainian winter. You were almost frozen to death when we found you on the porch.”
“And what is this?” the white-bearded old sage continued, with true severity this time. The object one palsied hand thrust under his nose was Meyer-Zalman’s decider. “What is a Jew doing with a Chanukah dreidel during the Purim festival? Don’t you know it’s an avera, a sin to mix holidays, as much a sin as to mix milk and meat, wool and linen, or sacred and profane?”
“Dreidel mine, spin, spin, spin,
Mixing holidays is a sin….”
He sang the ditty silently, so as not to offend the rabbi.
“Feh, Meyer-Zalman!” the old man went on indignantly, as if he had heard the impudent lines. “I am confiscating this dreidel. And next time wear a costume to the Purim celebration.”
But he had been in costume all evening he thought, dream though it may have been. He had dressed up as Shlomo Glayzel, as Barry Glassol, as Dolores Glossy, and Ned Whatsisname, whoever they were. He had even played the part of a living dreidel. And it seemed to him undeniable that a spinning top would help celebrate life’s profusion and possibilities, regardless of the holiday.