Living in dreidel land

Giant dreidels light up Ramat Gan town square - photo by Nili Bresler
Giant dreidels in Ramat Gan town square - photo by Nili Bresler

I stepped outside last night for my evening walk and saw my town square festooned with giant glowing dreidels – a festival of whimsy, color and kitsch. The dreidels glowed in alternating colors, lighting up the square.  Just the thing to lift my spirits after a hard day’s work on Zoom. I love living in a city that does not take itself too seriously. In Ramat Gan, it seems it’s always carnival time. We have garlands of light bulbs in the trees lighting up our main streets all year round. In June, the entrance to the city hall was painted in rainbow stripes in honor of pride month. The homepage of our municipality is adorned with cartoons.

So I wasn’t shocked to see the giant dreidels splayed out across the town square. I was truly delighted. I grew up in Christmas-land, Connecticut to be exact.  I loved the Christmas carols and candy canes. I loved seeing my neighbors’ Christmas lights. I knew that inside those houses there were beautiful Christmas trees surrounded by presents. A strange mix of joy and envy engulfed me each December. Our parents took us into the city to see the Christmas windows. Eating hot chestnuts on the sidewalks of New York and marveling at the ornate scenes inside the windows on Fifth Avenue – what a treat. Yes, like any Jewish kid growing up where and when I did, I was jealous. Nothing makes you feel more of an outsider than being Jewish in December in New England. So I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with Christmas. Love the songs, love the sweets, love the decorations; hate the fact that it’s somebody else’s holiday.

Our mom did her best to counteract the outsider-ness. We celebrated Hanukkah with a vengeance at our house: Lighting the menorah every night. Blue and white decorations everywhere. We ate latkes. We played dreidel, gambling with chocolate Hanukkah gelt.  Mom even made a diorama of the Maccabean war. She carefully painted my brother’s toy soldiers to look like tiny ancient Maccabees and Assyrians. I recall her painting Jewish stars on the teeny tiny shields. Every detail painstakingly recreated.  It was a marvel.

Thank you, Mom, for the effort. It didn’t exactly wash away all the Christmas envy, but it was a very good start.

Fast forward 50 years later to last night when I stepped outside my front door straight into Dreidel Land. My whole town was lit up and holiday-ready. Lights, huge menorahs, bakeries filled with doughnuts… Carnival. I am not orthodox. Far from it. So maybe that’s why I don’t care that Hanukkah hardly even counts as a religious holiday. I know Hanukkah actually commemorates a civil war. Jew against Jew.  Hasmoneans against the Hellenists as far as I understand it. (I’d have to ask my cousin TJ, the Hellenistic period scholar, to be sure.)  But for me, it’s a holiday of light. Light and latkes. My kind of holiday. For a kid from Connecticut, living in a town that’s all lit up for Hanukkah is perfect. Instead of harried Christmas shoppers, my street is filled with people stocking up on flour, potatoes and cooking oil to make latkes and doughnuts.

For years I couldn’t stand listening to Christmas carols. They were just reminders of how much of an outsider I was. Then I moved to Israel and suddenly, I found I liked Christmas carols. I got to miss the Christmas lights, and began taking my friends to see the Christmas tree in Jaffa’s clocktower square. Once the Russian immigrants arrived in Ramat Gan our shop windows also featured Christmas decorations and chocolate Santas. I bought Santa hats and Santa chocolates for my friends.  Now that I’m an insider and not an outsider, I can appreciate the beauty of other people’s holidays. I even tune to the Christmas channel on Spotify, doing my morning dancercise to the tune of Jingle Bell Rock.

This morning, my niece’s entire 2nd grade class got dressed up all in white and marched out of school to the nearby synagogue, singing all the way. Once inside, they sang even more, and then each child was presented with their first bible: the Chumash, the five books of Moses – from which they will study in their very secular school. A celebration of tradition, learning and pride in our roots. My eyes teared up when I saw the photos of the kids proudly holding their new bibles. This was a scene I could hardly have imagined growing up in Connecticut. I’ve come a long way, and here I am, at home in Dreidel-Land. Happy Hanukkah!

Giant dreidels in Ramat Gan town square – photo by Nili Bresler
About the Author
Nili Bresler is a member of Israel's pro-democracy movement. She is a business communications coach with experience in management at multinational technology companies. Prior to her career in high-tech, Nili was a news correspondent for the AP. Nili holds a degree in International Relations from NYU. Nili volunteers with the nonprofit, NATAN Worldwide Disaster Relief. Nili made aliya in 1970 and lives in Ramat Gan.
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