I was four years old, and I struggled to spin my dreidel just so.
I was eight years old, and my newest dreidel cast blue and green lights across the room.
I was ten years old, and my sister and I spun dreidels as fast as we could. Who would get more of them to spin before the first one fell? Who would win?
At one point, 20 dreidels were spinning between us. Some of them played Hannukah songs, and the tunes screeched over each other, never perfectly aligned.
My firstborn was four years old. My fingers closed on his, and we spun the dreidel together. The dreidel fell, and my son looked at the letter it revealed “Nun,” he read, glowing with pride.
In all these memories, the dreidels carried four Hebrew letters.
“Nun” is for ness, miracle: The oil lasted for many days of light, the Maccabees’ courage lasted through many years of warfare, the Jewish people’s faith (or stubbornness, or sheer grit) was enough to keep them connected through millennia of persecutions and goodbyes. Something — the oil, the courage, the grit — fueled more, endured more, achieved more than expected.
“Gimel” is for gadol, big: It captures our awe at our people’s endurance. It captures my wonder when I turn my gaze back.
“Hei” is for haya, was. And what a weighty word this “was” is: Through this shared heritage, we are connected today. Varied though we are, conflicted though we are, we share a past, and this matters. But is there a touch of wistfulness there, in our “was”? Do we crave more for our “is,” our “will be”?
And then comes the “Pei,” for po, here. And it’s this “here” that ties it all together. Our glorious “was” — that miraculous “was” that awakens our awe — is at one with our “is.” We walk where the Maccabees did, we live in their cities. Like them, we’re carving a place of Jewish independence for ourselves; like them, we’re struggling with the challenges of sovereignty. And we, too, hope that our efforts will endure, will be enough. We, too, are striving for a miracle.
Except that this year, there will be no “Pei”s on my dreidels. This year, my family and I will spin a dreidel with a “shin” on it.
“Shin” is for sham, there.
For two years, we are living in Boston. For two years, our bodies will be in the west, and our hearts, as Rabbi Yehudah Halevi wrote centuries ago, will be in the east.
For two years, we have to learn how to be Jews, how to be ourselves, with Israel is a “there.”
We’re already learning. We learned where to buy kosher food and how to connect with fellow Jews. We discovered the local scene of intellectual Jewish events (it is Boston, after all) and met many wonderful people of various backgrounds, practices and beliefs. We found out that Trader Joe’s sells kosher Bamba and the library has Hannukah-themed books. Keeping our Jewish identity alive has never been easier.
But something is missing. Something is different without that weighty “Pei.”
In Israel, every little action, every little effort, contributes to our national story. If you do your job as a lawyer, you’re contributing to Israel’s Rule of Law. When you pay taxes, you’re contributing to Israel’s economy. If you’re nice to your neighbors, you’re forming Israeli society. If you fight for social justice, you’re shaping Israel’s ideals.
When you spin dreidels with your children, you’re raising Israel’s next generation. And as you do so, you’re also giving them a connection to their past.
None of these actions, aside from the last, is particularly religious or Jewish. Yet all of them contribute to our people’s story, all of them add to our collective “is” and “will be.”
Here in Boston, our Jewish-themed actions form our Jewish identity, but I don’t feel that my personal pursuit of happiness — my professional achievements, my hobbies, my travels — serves a story greater than my own.
I have much to learn from my fellow Jews here in Boston. I’m eager to rediscover my identity, our identity, through their eyes. Who knows what colors will enrich my Jewish experience here, what notes will join the Jewish music of my soul?
But when I’ll spin my dreidel with its “Shin” this Hanukkah, I will miss the “here” of my memories.
I will miss my home, a home that was never just my own.