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Third Thursday Thoughts: Reflections from the Executive Director


December 15, 2022 | Third Thursday Thoughts
Dawn LaRochelle, Executive Director

Teamwork, dream work – you know the spiel. This past Tuesday, I had a bout of writer’s block and was in my office fretting aloud (and loudly!) about what to post on our MJM social media pages. Curator of Photography Nanci Kahn to the rescue! Overhearing me in my angst, she suggested I post about the origins of the dreidel – something to which I had never given much thought. A quick Google search later, I was amazed to learn that the quintessential Chanukah game originally had nothing to do with Chanukah! In fact, it has been played by various non-Jewish people in various non-Hebraic languages for centuries!

You can read the full and fascinating story here, but in short, the dreidel developed from an Irish or English top introduced into Germany and known as a teetotum. The teetotum was popular around Christmas time (take note: the conflation of Chanukah with the mythical “Jewish Christmas” is not a 21st-century thing) and dates back to ancient Greece and Rome. The teetotum was inscribed with letters denoting the words for “nothing,” “everything,” “half,” and “put in.” In German, the top came to be called a trendel, with German letters for the same concept. Adapted to the Hebrew alphabet when Jews made the game their own, these letters were replaced with the familiar nun which stands for the Yiddish word נישט (nisht, “not”, meaning “nothing”), gimel for גאַנץ (gants, “entire, whole”), hei for האַלב (halb, “half”), and shin for שטעלן אַרײַן (shteln arayn, “put in”).

Rabbi David Golonkin laments the irony that “in order to celebrate the holiday of Chanukah, which celebrates our victory over cultural assimilation, we play the dreidel game, which is an excellent example of cultural assimilation.” I have a related but more positive take. To me, the history of the dreidel represents the connectivity of the Jewish community with the world at large, which in turn brings me back to the MJM mission of building bridges of appreciation and understanding among people of all backgrounds. There is so much more that unites us than divides us, if only we take the time to look around us!

In this spirit, art is a great unifier, transcending race, gender, and ethnicity, and you have until January 5 to check out our current art exhibits, including Jack Montgomery’s Lucid Dreams (straddling the boundary between wake and sleep through black and white film), Gretchen Halpert’s Looking Closely (intricately detailed botanical drawings), and Hank Paper’s The Blue Door: Israel’s Diversity and Dilemma (the title says it all). We also have two whimsical pop-up exhibits, Ted Arnold’s The Backorder Paintings and Maxwell Bauman’s Lego Judaica.

Food breaks down barriers between diverse individuals and groups, as well, and I hope to see you at the JCA on Christmas Day for a Chinese(ish!) buffet and a movie. The buffet will be open from noon to 1:30 PM, and there will be two separate films for adults and kids beginning at 2:00 PM. Not for nothing, but I’m doing the cooking, and I did own a restaurant and two catering businesses back in the day (just sayin’…)! And you can enjoy art and food at the first of our NEW biannual program, Collage Across Cultures: Photo Collage Workshop and Potluck Lunch on February 26, 1 – 3 PM. An outgrowth of our groundbreaking Can We Talk? Building Bridges Instead of Walls series, the workshop will be led by local artist and award-winning community builder Paula Gerstenblatt, who will help you turn your treasured photos and mementos into collage art while you enjoy a potluck vegetarian lunch, authentic storytelling, and cross-cultural dialogue.

If, on the other hand, crazy factoids about dreidels are your jam, you’re ready for Chug Sameach: Trivia Night at the Maine Jewish Museum. Show off your mad trivia skills while enjoying pizza and craft beer. There will be some cool prizes at stake for the top three winners, along with a 50/50 raffle. Best of all, proceeds from the event will go toward our Annual Appeal, which makes all of our mission-driven exhibits and programming possible. Nothing trivia(l) about that!

Chag Chanukah Sameach!


Dawn LaRochelle
Executive Director