You’ve heard of baseball’s World Series, the World Series of Poker, maybe even the World Series of Blackjack. But the World Series of … Dreidel? Tuesday night marked the first night of Chanukah. But on Saturday, a reform synagogue in the Sacramento suburbs got a jump-start on the Festival of Lights by hosting a tournament in one of the world’s oldest gambling games.
“Ladies and gentlemen, let the dreidels spin!”
It’s Saturday night at Congregation Beth Shalom in Carmichael, and about 30 mostly middle-aged people are gathered around circular tables, gambling.
“Put in another one!” (sound of chips getting tossed in)
But there aren’t any cards or dice – just the chips, and a small, spinning top with four sides and a tiny handle. This is the first ever World Series of Dreidel, and it’s the brainchild of congregation member Doug Bergman.
Doug: “A lot of synagogues have poker tournaments and bingo nights. And we’ve had our own gambling game for a thousand years – why not use that?”
All right, it’s not actually a thousand years, more like a few hundred. And it didn’t become a Jewish tradition until much more recently. But, hey, the rabbi says it’s okay!
Rabbi: “You know, actually, the torah doesn’t say anything about gambling. There is no prohibition.”
David Wechsler-Azen is one of the rabbis at Congregation Beth Shalom.
Rabbi: “The rabbis, however, obviously knew the nature of human beings. And so they did some very important things.”
Like make an exemption for gambling on Chanukah. And in this case, gambling for tzedakah, or charity. $20 at the door got you a cup of chips and a dreidel.
Doug: “On each side is a Hebrew letter. Whatever letter is face up, you either win or you lose.”
Again, Doug Bergman.
Doug: “The four Hebrew letters are nun, gimel, hei and shin.”
Which stands for “Nes gadol haya sham” – a great miracle happened there. That’s a reference to the story of Chanukah, when a tiny amount of oil kept the temple menorah lit for eight days.
“We need a gimel, need a gimel … GIMEL!!!!” (whoop)
If it lands on Gimel, you win the whole pot. Hei is half the pot; nun is nothing; and shin means you pay up.
“Shin! Shin! Shin! Shin! / Wow, you cuss a lot! … And it’s – shin! / That’s okay, there’s plenty more where that came from.”
Everyone antes up each time the pot empties, and each shin means that person has to add an extra ante. When you run out of chips … you’re gone.
“Gimellll – whoaaaaa!”
The winner of the hour-long tournament was Marilyn Klein.
Marilyn: “It’s fun, it’s like being a kid again. Remembering how you did it when you were a child. But this is more fun cause there’s a prize at the end, not just candy.” (laughs)
This premiere World Series of Dreidel was sparsely attended. The tournament raised just $450 for the congregation. But organizers have big hopes for future years.
“It’s a shin. / Oh, shin!”
So look for more bad jokes involving the Hebrew letter shin.