Authors: Joel ben Izzy
Dial Books for Young Readers
Penguin Young Readers Group
An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC
375 Hudson Street
New York, NY 10014
Copyright Â© 2016 by Joel ben Izzy
Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.
eBook ISBN: 9780698141667
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Name: ben Izzy, Joel, author.
Title: Dreidels on the brain / Joel ben Izzy.
Description: New York, NY: Dial Books for Young Readers, 
ISBN 9780803740976 (hardback)
Summary, Subjects, and Classification available from the Library of Congress
Cover design and photo-illustration by Danielle Calotta
Jacket photos courtesy of Gettyimages.com and Shutterstock.com
This is a work of fictionÂ .Â .Â . and of frictionâthe kind that filled the author's childhood. Although much is based upon actual people, places, and events from his life, he has taken great liberties in all these realmsâas well as spellingâto recount a story set over the course of the eight days of Hanukkah, 1971. While some characters represent real people, they have been fictionalized, and other characters, incidents, and places are entirely the product of the author's imagination.
For my parents, Robert and Gladys,
who lit candles in the darkness.
For my children, Elijah and Izzy,
who carry light into the future.
And, always, for Taly.
I could have stopped at three and called it a miracle.
After all, three in a row is good. Not just goodâgreat. You know the odds of that happening by itself? Miniscule. A dreidel has four sides, so the chance of getting a single
âwhich is the letter you wantâis one in four. The chances of getting two in a row is one in sixteen. And three in a rowâwhich I had just spunâis one in
And the number three makes a lot of sense. There are all kinds of things that come in threes: tic, tac, toe, three in a row; Snap, Crackle, Pop; third time's a charm; three strikes, you're out. And storiesâwhich I loveâare filled with threes. It's always the third son who sets off to seek his fortune and actually
itâwhich works for me, because I'm the third son. There's Goldilocks and the Three Bears. The Three Little Pigs.
But those things aren't Jewish. Especially the pigs. They
are, as my dad would say,
, which is the Jewish word for non-Jewish things. For Christians, three is a magic number, like the Holy Trinity. And maybe if I wasn't Jewish, spinning three Gimels in a row would have been enough. Then again, if I wasn't Jewish, I wouldn't have been spinning a dreidel in the first place, trying to figure out whether I should believe in magic, or God, or miracles, or anything at all.
For Jews, things come in fours, like the four sides of a dreidel. Just look at Passover: You drink
cups of wine, ask
questions, tell about the
types of children. Besides, four was the deal I'd made with God before the first spin.
“Hey, God,” I'd said, “happy Hanukkah.”
I never know how to talk to God, and always end up feeling foolish. “I'm looking for a sign. Nothing big. Nothing fancy. No lightning or thunder bolts. Just a little sign. Between you and me.” I held up the dreidel. “So I'm going to spin this dreidel four times. And if you're there, I'd like you to give me four Gimels in a row.”
That didn't seem like too much to askâjust one lousy miracle.
And why, you might ask, did I think this Hanukkah should be different when everything else in the first twelve years of my life has been so amazingly, astoundingly, unbelievably
Well, for one thing, I could feel it in the air. Outside, it was really cold, even misty, that kind of feeling you get just before it snows, when the world gets all quiet and the light becomes soft. At least that's how I think it feels. I've never actually seen snow, on the ground or falling from the sky, though I've read a lot about it in books.
But it had been raining all day, a cold rain, and I had just checked the barometer on the front porch for the tenth time, and I could see it was between 29 and 30, pushing toward
. The windows were so foggy, I couldn't see outside, so I could pretend I was somewhere else, anywhere else but here in Temple City, California.
It was also the perfect time for a miracle. The house was quiet and I was alone. I had looked through the garage and found the cardboard box of Hanukkah decorations. Sifting through the dreidels, which were mostly crooked or broken, I found a perfect one, made of wood, painted orange, with gold letters. I don't know where we got it, but it was nicely balanced. Just to be sure, I spun it a half-dozen times. Just a regular old normal dreidelâexcellent.
Then I cleared all the junk off the tableâa bunch of papers, my dad's electronics stuff, and some glow-in-the- dark phone dialsâand piled it on the washing machine. I wasn't going to let anything interfere with these four spins, so I took the sponge from the sink and cleaned off the
tabletop so thoroughly that I could see the little gold sparkles among the black and gray swirls of the Formica.
“All right, God,” I whispered, “this is your chance. Four Gimels in a row. One little Hanukkah miracle. Right here, right now.”
I spun. A good, solid spin. And when the first Gimel came up, I was impressed.
“All right,” I said. “That's one.”
But when the second Gimel came up, everything changed.
“Excellent,” I said, trying to play it cool. “That's two.”
I tried to act casual, like miracles happen to me all the time, as opposed to
. I wound up the dreidel and spun again, hard as I could.
Gimel!!! This time, I went wild.
“Yes!” I shouted. “YES! That's it! Woo-hoo!” I completely lost it, jumping around screaming “Man-O-Manischewitz!”
“Be quiet!” said Howard, who had come out of his room. “You're making too much noise. I'm trying to concentrate.”
When I said I was alone, I wasn't counting Howard. He's my oldest brother, and he spends all his time in his room with the door closed, studying math. That's all he ever does. He's fifteen and he's in high school, and is supposed to be some super-brilliant genius. At least that's what he tells us. The only time he stops studying is to come out and eat or when Kenny and I are making noise. Kenny's my other brother, who is two
years older than me, and actually
to have fun. His real name is Kenneth, but everyone calls him Kenny. But no one calls Howard “Howie”âhe won't let them. When Kenny and I make noise, Howard stomps out and yells at us, then goes back into his room and shuts the door. That's one reason Kenny and I hardly ever have friends over.
But at the moment, I couldn't have cared less about Howard. This was between me and God.
“All right,” I whispered, suddenly feeling nervous about the next spin. “Three in a row is pretty good,” I said. “Really good. But it's not a miracle. Not yet. It might just be luckâafter all, it's just a one in sixty-four chance.” I stopped myself, because weird as it feels to talk to God, it's even weirder to lecture God about math. I brushed off any microscopic dust that might have settled on the table. “Just one more Gimel,” I said, so quietly, only God could hear me. “That's all I'm asking.”
I wound the dreidel between my thumb and middle fingerâand spun.
I realize none of this will make any sense to you if you're not Jewish and don't know what a dreidel is. Even if you
Jewish and know all about dreidels, it still won't make much sense, because the whole game of dreidel doesn't make sense. Nobody can agree on the rules, which is how you know it's a Jewish game.
A dreidel is a spinning top with four sides. Maybe you've heard that stupid, inane, insipid song, the one that always gets stuck in my head this time of year: “I have a little dreidel, I made it out of clay! And when it's dry and ready, oh dreidel I shall play!”
Shoot. Now it's stuck in my head. I'm sorry if it's stuck in yours too. From now on, I'll just refer to it as “The Horrible Song.” Anyway, “The Horrible Song” by itself wouldn't be so bad, but when the choir sings it at school along with the Christmas carols, and everybody acts as if they've done us Jews a big favor, it makes me want to barf.
Back to dreidels, which, by the way, can be made of wood, plastic, metal, even Styrofoamâanything
clay. They date back to the time of Antiochus, this mean Seleucid ruler who wouldn't let the Jews study Torah, which is the one thing Jews love to do most, like Howard studies math. So the Jews came up with this trick of keeping dreidels handy while they studied. That way, when the soldiers came by, they'd hide their books and whip out their dreidels, and the soldiersâwho weren't too brightâfigured they were just gambling, not studying. As soon as the soldiers left, out came the Torah. That's another totally Jewish thing. Other people might have toys they play with in secret to
studying. But Jews have toys we
to play with, so we can study in secret. Go figure.
Anyhow, there are four Hebrew letters on a dreidelâ
Gimel, Hey, Nun,
Gimel is the bestâeveryone agrees on thatâand when it's your turn to spin and it lands on Gimel, you win whatever is in the pot, which is usually pennies or stale chocolate coins. That's easy to remember because
sounds like “gimme-all!” When you get Hey, you get half of what's in the pot. After that it gets confusing.
means “nothing,” but some people play that when you get Nun you
nothing, while others say it means you're supposed to
nothing, so you lose everything you've got. The last letter is Shin, which is always bad, because you lose something, or maybe everything. The only good thing about Shin is that when you get it, you can shout, “Oh Shin!” It's pretty vague between Nun and Shin, and that's where the whole thing falls apart. I have never played a game of dreidel that hasn't either fizzled out or ended in an argument.
If you still don't understand the rules, don't worry, because no one does, but here's my point: If you spin a dreidel again and again, sooner or later it has to land on Gimel. You don't need some kind of giant computer brain to figure that out. I'm not saying it should happen every time, or even very often, just once in a while.
If, however, you keep spinning and it only ever lands on Shin or Nun, then something is seriously wrong. Maybe the dreidel is loaded, like the dice they have at Berg's Studio
of Magicâmy favorite place in the world, by the way. It's on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, and Mr. Berg knew all the great magicians and tells stories about them. There's a display shelf of illusions and, right in the center, there's a straitjacket that Harry Houdini actually escaped from! There's even a picture of him wearing it, hanging upside down from a crane over a street in Chicago, and the rope is on fire!
I asked Mr. Berg if I could touch the straitjacket, but he just laughed, then gave me a pair of dice to play with. Every time I rolled them, they landed on five and two. Sometimes one would land on another number, then flip over, like Mexican jumping beans. He said the dice were loaded, and would always win in a game called “craps,” which I've never played, but is a fun word to say.
Back to dreidel. If it's not a loaded dreidel, and all you ever get is Shin, you have to wonder
It's like the farmer who wakes up on a beautiful spring day, walks out of his front door, and steps on a rake. It flips up and hits him in the faceâwham! Dazed and confused, he staggers and reaches his hand out to lean on a wall. Only it's not a wall, it's his bullâwho doesn't like it one bit! The bull chases the farmer all over until he dives onto his tractor for protection, but his hand accidentally hits the lever and the thing starts up. Only he's not in the driver's seat, he's hanging off the side,
from one suspender of his overalls, getting dragged through the mud all over his fields, until the tractor finally runs out of gas. And as he's lying there in the mud, all beat up, the bull comes back, sniffs him, then poops right in his face. And the farmer looks up and says, “Why, God? Why are you doing this to me?”
Then the sky parts and this booming voice says, “There's just something about you that really bugs me.”
I heard that joke from Brian, my best friend, and it's pretty good. But I would like to believe it's
a joke. I would like to believe that God is not up there snuffing out lives like cigarette butts. In particular I would like to believe, all evidence to the contrary, that my fatherâwho never gets a break, no matter how hard he triesâis not one of those being snuffed out, and our home is
the ashtray. That even though we've lost again and again until now, we're not actually
. We just haven't won
. Because it seems to me that if life is a game of dreidel and you keep spinning enough timesâand there's a God who doesn't hate youâit will eventually land on Gimel.