The dreidel was the first thing about my Jewish heritage that ever made me feel "cool." Sometime in between the slap bracelet and the fidget spinner, I brought 50 of them to my middle school for show and tell and they caught on like wildfire. It was a perfect storm. The dreidels were pocket-size and brightly colored. Smartphones weren't a thing yet, so my friends still needed help killing time between classes. Although the trend faded as quickly as it came, for one incredible week I had 150 tween gentiles transfixed by the little Jewish tops. Ever since dreezy season commenced, I've been trying to figure out how to recapture those glory days.
While the dreidel is often thought of as a children's game, millennials are getting in touch with their inner "kidults" more than ever these days. Which means this might be the perfect moment for me to bring the dreidel back... with an adult twist. Lots of booze. My new goal: create the most entertaining (and intoxicating) form of dreidel imaginable.
According to Jeffery Shandler, a Yiddish studies PhD who chairs the Jewish Studies Department at Rutgers University, the dreidel has gone through a good deal of cross-cultural evolution. It entered Jewish tradition as a gambling device the English called a teetotum. The top has four sides that indicate what players should do with a center pot of money: put in, take half, take all, or do nothing. Shandler told me that the game has roots in Greek and Roman tradition. But it was the Ashkenazi Jews in Germany who adopted it into their Hanukkah celebrations because it was one of the few times in the Jewish calendar year that rabbis permitted games of chance.
Learning that history from Shandler helped me realize my "adultlescent" desire to blend dreidels and drinking could join a centuries-long tradition of adapting the game to what Shandler called the “contemporary moment.” The top hadn’t been tied into a drinking game in any folk traditions known to the professor, but he admitted he liked the idea. “Holiday celebrations are socializing, and so is drinking! The idea that you would integrate the two and take this toy—which is very much thought of as a kids game, and you're playing as adults—it's a way of saying, here's this thing we've got, so let's integrate it into the way we practice the holiday.”
I found a few dreidel drinking games scattered across the internet, but none of them really made sense for long-term playability. To fulfill my destiny of really evolving the dreidel game, I enlisted my fellow child of Abraham, Emerson Rosenthal, to help come up with rules. We schlepped over to Beverly's, a bar on the Lower East Side of New York City, to figure it out through trial and error. For all intents and purposes, here’s how to play "Hay" Fever, the Dreidel Drinking, and Ashkenazi Yahtzee—three new games that are sure to sweep the nation during Hanukkah 2017 and captivate the minds and livers of young Jews and gentiles.
Step one: Find a flat surface. The Beverly’s bar has all these nice tiles, so our vast collection of dreidels were useless. We moved to a table.
Step 2: Make sure you have a lot of different dreidels. Each one has its own unique spin, and like a good pool cue, you’ll want to find yours.
Depending on the surface you’re using, creating barriers for your dreidel game could be essential: You’ll very likely lose a few to a beer-soaked bar floor (another reason why it’s good to bring many dreidels).
Next: Drinks. Otherwise, dreidel is just dreidel.
Know your symbols. For example, Gimel is in the photo above. It means you “get” everything. The other symbols are Hay (ה), which means take half; Shin (ש), which means add to the pot; and Nun (נ), which generally means nothing happens. We amped it up a little.
The first, rather intense version of the dreidel game involves making your opponent drink as much as possible. Gimel: Your opponent drinks his whole beer. Hay: Your opponent drinks half his beer. Shin: You drink half your beer. Nun: You drink your whole beer.
This version of the game goes through beers very quickly.
So get more beer.
For reference, this is what it looks like when you chug four beers each within ten minutes of gameplay.
Blowing on your dreidel can be lucky, if you believe in such things, so I instituted a “no Jewish magic” rule...
And drank until we came up with a better version of the game.
(This included Google.)
OK, here it is:
The Dreidel Drinking Game
The Dreidel Drinking Game, as we dubbed it, is much more manageable. Each player pours a generous portion of a drink into the “pot.” We used a rocks glass, but you can use any kind of glass. Hell, even a bowl would work. G: Drink the pot. H: Drink half the pot. S: Pour into the pot. N: Nothing happens.
This version worked much better.
I found this metal dreidel was the best, by far, for me. It looked like the top from Inception and spins long enough to order another drink.
I recommend that everyone drink the same beverage for this version of the game, but you do you.
Tables work for this version of the game...
And so does throwing your dreidels like dice.
If you actually want to play dreidel like dice, each player rolls and then splits the difference between the scores to determine who drinks and how much. G: 4; H: 3; S: 2; N: 1. Subtract the loser’s number from the victor’s to determine how many glugs—or shots—the loser has to drink.
This is me endorsing my own game, because I am drunk.
We even got the DJ, who is a Catholic, to play. He thought the game was “cool.”
Because I was drunk, I tried to play dreidel like Beyblades: Two tops enter, and the top that keeps spinning wins. It was cool in theory, but dreidels stop when they hit anything, so it’s pretty hard to win.
Did we make dreidel, and by extension, Jewish culture, better, by inventing this drinking game? Yes.
I drank the most, which means I win the prize: A pastrami sandwich at Katz’s famous delicatessen, which happens to be just a few blocks away from the bar.
Now, that’s what I call the Holy Spirit.
Special thanks to Emerson Rosenthal for developing the rules and playing the game.
Follow Beckett Mufson on Twitter.