Streams

The Art of the Dreidel

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Hanukkah began on Wednesday at sundown, and for most kids that means just one thing: lots and lots of dreidels. The game is pretty simple: spin a four-sided top, and depending on which side it lands on, collect or lose the inevitable bounty of chocolate coins. Parents depend on dreidels to distract small children, and to some, they're works of art.

"It's a ritual object," says Michael Berkowicz, who was trained as a physicist before becoming an artist and designer of synagogue interiors with his wife, Bonnie Srolovitz. He says that dreidels are considered part of Judaica, or objects invested with spiritual meaning such as seder plates, menorahs, and Kiddush cups. In the case of the dreidel, that meaning comes from the four Hebrew letters inscribed on it: noon, gimel, hey and shin. In addition to giving game instructions, the letters make an anagram of a Hebrew phrase that means "A Great Miracle Happened There," referring to the miracle of light celebrated at Hanukkah.

Berkowicz and his wife design high-concept dreidels, including their "Space Age Dreidel" that currently sits in the permanent collection of the Jewish Museum (see slideshow below). He adds that the artist has an important role to play in Jewish ritual. "The concept of creating a Judaica object goes to the core of a much deeper commandment," says Berkowicz. "It's called Hiddur Mitzvah, which is the commandment of beautifying a ritual. So, the nicer, the more elegant, the more engaging, the more beautiful we make the object, the more it provides depth to the understanding and the meaning of the ritual it serves."

Berkowicz's dreidels are sold at the Jewish Museum's gift shop, alongside others made by at least 25 artists. "I would say that dreidels are one of the more popular items to collect in Judaica," says Stacy Zaleski, the museum gift shop's chief merchandiser. "They come in various sizes and materials, so when you collect them, you have a really interesting assortment." The dreidels up for sale range from futuristic stainless steel constructions to pewter dreidels shaped like ballerinas to dreidels that double as ritual spice-boxes. There's even a cloisonné dreidel designed by the New Jersey-based enamel artist Marian Slepian. It sells for $1,600.

Despite having so much competition in the museum shop, Berkowicz is careful to note that form does not always trump function: "I am told that my dreidel spins longer than most."

Check out WNYC's slideshow below of what's up for sale at the Jewish Museum's shop.

The
Courtesy of the Jewish Museum
The "Space Age Dreidel," designed by Michael Berkowicz and Bonnie Srolovitz-Berkowicz. It's part of the permanent collection at the Jewish Museum
A dreidel designed by enamelist Marian Slepian. It sells for $1,600 at the Jewish Museum store.
Courtesy of the Jewish Museum
A dreidel designed by enamelist Marian Slepian. It sells for $1,600 at the Jewish Museum store.
A ballerina dreidel made from cast pewter and handpainted in enamel.
Courtesy of the Jewish Museum
A ballerina dreidel made from cast pewter and handpainted in enamel.
An Israeli-made dreidel that doubles as a spice box, which is used for the Havdalah service that ends the Sabbath.
Courtesy of the Jewish Museum
An Israeli-made dreidel that doubles as a spice box, which is used for the Havdalah service that ends the Sabbath.
The
Courtesy of the Jewish Museum
The "Saturn Dreidel" is a modernist dreidel made from stainless steel by Laura Cowan.
This copper dreidel is made by Steve Bronstein.
Courtesy of the Jewish Museum
This copper dreidel is made by Steve Bronstein.
A handpainted dreidel in the form of a carousel.
Courtesy of the Jewish Museum
A handpainted dreidel in the form of a carousel.
A Brooklyn-made dreidel by Israeli artists Nachson Peleg and Stavit Allweis.
Courtesy of the Jewish Museum
A Brooklyn-made dreidel by Israeli artists Nachson Peleg and Stavit Allweis.

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Comments [3]

Sybil Ling from Jerusalem

This colorful dreidel in your photo is from the workshop of Stavit Allweis and Nachshon Peleg not the designer you mention below, who may have designed the other space age dreidel shown below.

Dec. 01 2010 11:41 AM
Herb E

I hope that your promo:

Art of the Dreidel
Hanukkah... means just one thing: lots and lots of dreidels....

is not true. it would be a sad commentary on the Jewish community, it would mean that the Hellenist won. I don't think that's what you meant. Is it?

Dec. 01 2010 09:05 AM
Irene Alhanati Cardillo from Rio de Janeiro

Thanks for posting this inspiring article!
Hannukah Sameach!

Dec. 01 2010 05:57 AM

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